Fordham Discusses Robert Moses’ Legacy


Fordham students and professors gathered to discuss whether Robert Moses was master builder or great destroyer. (PHOT BY LAUREN LEVINE/ THE OBSERVER)


In order to address a man who made “Donald Trump look like Mother Theresa,” in the words of Roger Panetta, visiting professor of history, the Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) Urban Studies program held the event “Robert Moses: Master Builder or Great Destroyer” on April 6.

Planned in response to the controversy sparked by the statue memorializing Moses on the FCLC outdoor plaza, the event consisted of a lecture and panel discussion on the work and legacy of the controversial figure.

The panel featured Panetta,  Rosemary Wakeman, director of the urban studies program, and Chris Rhomberg, an associate professor of sociology. The discussion was moderated by Steven Stoll, professor of history.

Regarding the debate surrounding the plinth on the plaza, Panetta said that “I think the question we’re asking is part of a larger trend,” pointing to similar events at Princeton University regarding the history of Woodrow Wilson and his “racist side.”

Saying that the “argument ought to be” around the “sanitizing” of history, Panetta continued that “I don’t know what happens by taking [Woodrow Wilson’s] portrait out of the eating commons [at Princeton University].”

“I think it’s a cheap fix for the deeper problem of racism in our culture which should include much more hard labor from all of us,” he said.  “And as a historian, I don’t like the sanitizing. I think the Moses statue, whatever we do with it, really should represent all of the complexities of the issues we’re talking about.”

One student, referring to Moses’s ties to Fordham as “the elephant in the room,” said that “we should acknowledge his shortcomings, but also we should not judge this character who contributed a lot through this critical, extremely negative lens because he navigated through much.”

“Without him, this campus would not exist at all,” the student continued. “He may be ignorant by today’s standards, but to judge someone who lived in a completely different world over half a century ago by today’s standards for me is unfair.”

The event began with a lecture from Panetta who provided a history and context to Moses’ work, remaining purposefully unbiased in his covering of Moses’ beginnings as an urban planner and his later development of New York City as a builder and bureaucratic figure. Much of the information he presented was derived from Robert A. Caro’s book, “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.”

To further understand Moses, Panetta presented a history focusing on what drove and informed Moses’ work, including the progressive movement, Haussmann, and the British Social Service.

“Moses, he loves the aerial view, and the reason he does is because he conceptualizes the city as a kind of ‘city,’ as a totality; he is not down at the ground level,” Pennetta said. This commitment to the bigger picture, and perhaps blindness to New York on a micro level as well as Moses’ racism has largely fueled the controversy surrounding Moses today.  

While Panetta strove to deliver an unbiased account, he couldn’t help but let certain comments slip through the cracks regarding the difficulty individuals experienced when working with Moses and Moses’ sense of superiority.

“I begin to feel after a while that Robert Moses may be the first person to make Donald Trump look like Mother Teresa,” Panetta said.

As the discussion progressed, the references and parallels to Trump continued. “He was a bitter person to engage with, a remarkably skilled person at political jujitsu,” Panetta said. “He used the press, he manipulated the press, and that is why I say when you think Trump is something, you have no idea.”

According to the lecture, Moses prided himself upon being separate of politics. “He was of course political in the sense that he had to deal with all sorts of people, but he wasn’t political in the sense that he was ever elected,” Stoll said, elaborating on Panetta’s lecture. “At one point he held something ten to twelve distinct bureaucratic titles at the same time. He was the king of bureaucracy.”

As the “king,” he used his power to enable his building projects throughout the city, displacing what is an estimated two hundred fifty to three hundred thousand people without providing adequate compensation, according to Stoll.

In a time where political corruption in New York city was evident, Moses saw his bureaucratic position not only as noble and fighting against corruption, but as one student said, “…above the populous, and he didn’t want to use democracy as a means to determine what [the working class and working poor] actually wanted.”

FCLC and the Lincoln Center arts complex were built by Moses, clearing out neighborhoods to make room for their construction. Moses, who saw speed as success, was known to dump the responsibility of the relocation process on the sponsor of the construction, according to Panetta

“Fordham was responsible for the relocation process, and we should be pleased, because Fordham was exemplary in that self-relocation process,” Panetta said. “They and Lincoln Center hired a company, and they paid people five hundred dollars. ” This was an improvement on the relocation payments being made by the government, which averaged closer to one hundred dollars.

Wakeman drew attention to the lingering legacy of Moses and Mayor Bill De Blasio’s recent decision to halt construction on a water tunnel serving Queens and Brooklyn.

“We have to call back the ghost of Moses and his authorities now and see what role they are going to play,” Wakeman said. “What are Queens and Brooklyn going to do when their water system fails? Community based planning isn’t’ necessarily going to help with that. So these are very complicated issues and I think ghost of Moses is still with us.”

Jalen Glenn, FCLC ’16 and Observer staff writer, said that he thought “it was a really good discussion.”

“I think that this was a great environment,” he continued. “We had really informed voices and we had people from the community come in–not people from the Fordham Community, but from Lincoln Square and up and down the Upper West Side and I think that was really good.”

Glenn, however, said that “I think the debate still has to go on.”

“We didn’t come to a conclusion so I think we just got to keep having the debate and I think we need to bring in as many people as possible into it,” he said. “I feel like a lot of people said they didn’t know about it, so maybe a better marketing job. And yeah just get as many voices in her [as possible] and get a vote. I think that’s the best way to go about it.”

Approximately 40 students, faculty, administrators and other members of the community attended.