Andrew Cuomo Was Not the Master Builder

Matched up against the successful tyrants of yore, Cuomo looks puny

When Robert Moses died, he appeared—like Andrew Cuomo will one day— on the front page of the New York Times. This was a familiar place for the Master Builder, one of the most famous government officials of his time. He would have probably delighted in the first sentence, even as the obituary made plenty of room for the biography that he despised, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker.

“Robert Moses, who played a larger role in shaping the physical environment of New York State than any other figure in the 20th century, died early yesterday at West Islip, L.I. Mr. Moses, whose long list of public offices only begins to hint at his impact on both the city and state of New York, was 92 years old,” the Times wrote on July 30, 1981.

Moses was the tyrant who radically reshaped the physical contours of New York City and New York State, overwhelming opposition for 40-odd years before the billionaire governor, Nelson Rockefeller, deposed him. Here is one list of the projects Moses rammed through: the Verrazzano Bridge, the Triborough Bridge, the Whitestone Bridge, the Throgs Neck Bridge, the Belt Parkway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Long Island Expressway, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Northern State Parkway, the Southern State Parkway, and Jones Beach. He built 658 playgrounds in New York City, 416 miles of parkways, and 13 bridges. He oversaw the demolition of impoverished neighborhoods and the erection of massive public housing blocks that stand to this day.

Moses never held elected office and didn’t need to: at any one time, he could control a dozen different city and state agencies and authorities, holding mayors and governors hostage to his whims. Moses’ great sin was his love of the automobile. Despite never learning to drive, he steered New York away from the mass transit future it deserved, largely freezing the subway map in time. New York City has added almost no subway capacity in 100 years. Most of the train rides we take today were made possible in the 1900s and 1910s, before Moses ascended.

This is the tragic subtext of Caro’s classic; so much of what Moses did was at the expense of something else. Jones Beach could have easily had a train link, but Moses did not want working-class Blacks going there. The BQE and Cross-Bronx Expressways obliterated thriving, multiracial neighborhoods. Transit experts called for a commuter rail line down the center of the Long Island Expressway and for rail links across the Whitestone and Throgs Neck Bridges. They said a tunnel would do fine between Brooklyn and Staten Island, in part to save money for other projects and to spare a section of Bay Ridge from the bulldozer. Moses ignored them all.

In retrospect, there were remarkable triumphs. Caro’s book appeared in 1974, as New York City appeared on the brink of fiscal ruin and middle-class whites had fled for the suburbs, taking Moses’ parkways to their single-family homes. It is clear Caro blames Moses for seeding the city’s collapse. We know now there were better days ahead and that, if measured by the parks and pools and public housing built, Moses did tangible good. Jane Jacobs would win the next quarter century arguing for close-knit, walkable neighborhoods and a slower pace of development, but the Jacobs vision had little to offer on the subject of housing scarcity. New York, these days, needs to build more. Moses’ NYCHA developments are not aesthetically-pleasing, were too often placed in the remote reaches of the city, and suffer from a lack of capital investment. Yet they are inarguably necessary. They’ve kept hundreds of thousands of working-class and poor people in this city, going to work and raising families.

All of this is a bit of throat-clearing: I am really writing about Andrew Mark Cuomo. The former New York governor—still strange to write these words—is already attempting, through his various apologists in academia and government and elsewhere, to argue for the greatness of his legacy. I have a piece in Jacobin coming out soon that will lay out just why Cuomo’s transportation and infrastructure projects were both deeply flawed and not particularly impressive. I hope you read it. Here, I want to offer a few more words about Cuomo the builder, and how he failed New Yorkers over the course of 11 years.

No one will ever again alter the topography of a metropolis like Moses. That era of upheaval is gone. There is less to build on, for one, and the mechanics of government and the rise of organized activists and interest groups will stop one man or woman from ever consolidating so much power. This is ultimately a good thing, though it’s worth dwelling on what’s lost. There is a small part of me—just as, I am sure, there may be a small part of you—that would accept a degree of authoritarianism in local government if material good came of it. Imagine, for a moment, a tyrannical Moses who was hell-bent on building a hyper-modernized subway and commuter-rail network. Imagine, instead of the automobile, he obsessed about extending subway access to eastern Queens and Staten Island and even New Jersey. Imagine rapid trains speeding among the outer boroughs, married to a 21st century trolley network that built upon the great and efficient trams that crisscrossed Brooklyn and Queens for much of the time before 1960. There would be no place for the automobile and we’d all be better off for it.

If you build and change lives for the better, the people will forgive a whole lot. One of the most successful politicians of the 20th century was Huey Long, now dismissed by many academy types as a Trump-like demagogue. That’s an insult to the Kingfish, of course. In one term as governor of Louisiana, he crushed the oligarchic politician machine of the state and erected a more populist one in his own image. He dragged Louisiana into the 20th century, building roads, bridges, and a world-class public university system. He invested heavily in public schools and raising literacy rates. For a white Southern politician, he held relatively progressive views on race, and enjoyed the support of Louisiana’s Black voters. The “Share Our Wealth” program operated to Franklin Roosevelt’s left, and there was always the fear the ambitious Long, who would go onto the Senate but still command the governor’s office through loyalists, was going to launch a primary against FDR. That never came to pass, as the Kingfish’s long-running paranoia became tragically justified: he was assassinated in 1935, reportedly moaning on his deathbed, “God, don’t let me die. I have so much to do.” He was 42.

Long, like Moses, was not a believer in good or ethical government, and he grew quite wealthy in power. Robert Penn Warren, famous for fictionalizing Long in All the King’s Men, may have put it best: “Dictators, always give something for what they get.” Not always, but the good ones manage. The Long and Moses legacies shaped the states they dominated for the century to come.

Against these men, Cuomo is a paper tyrant. His great bridge, the new Tappan Zee, was not entirely necessary and faces significant structural challenges already. The AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport almost seems like a prank pulled on the public. The Second Avenue Subway is three extraordinarily expensive stops on the Q line. The Moynihan Train Hall cost $1.6 billion and has no functional attributes, amounting to an airy waiting room. LaGuardia Airport might, maybe, look better one day.

Moses, if he could look down (or up) at all of this, would probably laugh. He did more in a summer than Cuomo could do in a lifetime. The Moses men, like the Cuomo men and women, were imperious and petty, but they could credibly claim they were remaking the very landscape beneath your feet. The Cuomo legacy is construction for construction’s sake and a whole lot of neglect. The subway system further deteriorated because he didn’t want to invest in overhauling a signaling network that is almost a century old. When a transit expert, Andy Byford, tried to save it, Cuomo chased him away because Byford was too chummy with the media. The subway never interested Cuomo much. There were less opportunities to cut ribbons and no chance to drive a 1932 Packard through a subway tunnel. Cuomo had 11 years to do so much more. He was arrogance without muscle, wrath without vision.