In the Footsteps of
Robert Moses

Roadtripping across the bridges, highways, and parks of America’s most controversial urban planner

Marcin Wichary
Jun 1, 2014 · 33 min read
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1.

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To me, it wasn’t just a bridge. In the months before, I’d read about its beginnings, its history, its construction, and the people — the person — behind it.

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3.

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A map of my road trip

Eighty years earlier, this park’s opening was Moses’ spectacular achievement and, at the onset of his career, it provided him with enough of the public’s goodwill to last until almost the end of his life.

4.

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Sunken Meadow State Park
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Heckscher State Park
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Robert Moses State Park

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That story repeated itself over and over again while building this and further parkways; Moses would never alter his plans for working men, although there are many examples of him doing so under pressure from wealthier landowners.

6.

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Robert Moses with Brooklyn–Battery Bridge model (1939)
C. M. Stieglitz, Library of Congress

It was a testament to Moses’ power that what it took was, literally, the decision of the U.S. president himself to veto the project.

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Cross Manhattan Arterials and Related Improvements brochure (1959)

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In perhaps the ultimate of ironies, the man who built the first elevated “high ways,” perfected parkways, and invented expressways, didn’t even have a driver’s license.

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A postcard commemorating the West Side Express Highway (1930)

9.

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It is an appalling vision, standing there today and watching the outlines of the supports for the Embarcadero Freeway drawn on the sidewalk, to imagine it still being there, a concrete shawl suffocating the city. It is infinitely more petrifying to realize that the Embarcadero was just one part of a bigger plan of criss-crossing the city with ten freeways, looming over houses and people, separating neighborhoods, creating noise and pollution.

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San Francisco freeway plans, 1945–1961 (pictures 1–5) and the built/remaining San Francisco freeways (picture 6)
Scans courtesy Eric Fischer
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Double-deck Golden Gate Bridge plans (1968)
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Double-deck and twin Golden Gate Bridges plans (1967)
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Widened and parallel Bay Bridge plans (1947–1949)
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San Francisco–Marin crossing alternatives considered (1967)
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Additional Bay Area bridges considered (1967)
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Yerba Buena Island rotary plan (1950)
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San Francisco trafficway plans (1948–1949)
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Crosstown Tunnel Freeway plans (1964)
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Panhandle and Mission Freeway Plans (1948–1966)
All the scans in this section courtesy Eric Fischer

10.

But other Moses initiatives of that era were unmitigated disasters.

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12.

What I envied was the permanence of Moses’ creations. My work is, ultimately, rearranging little dots on computer screens — dots that technically don’t even exist. Moses’ structures, made of concrete, counted in thousands of tons and hundreds of miles, outlived him. And most of them will outlive all of us.

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Only a fraction of Moses’ vision for New York and cities in general materialized. Perhaps a fraction was all that we needed.

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San Francisco in 1968 and in 2012; notice the 1968 highways

15.

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