Sunday, May 06, 2007

Go Down Moses

In today's City Section of the NY Times, the paper's excellent reporter Michael Powell takes a look at the revisionist critique of Robert Caro's behemoth bio of Robert Moses. It seems that a number of historian's now feel the Caro's view of the master planner was too harsh. The debate raises a few interesting questions about the tension between planning and democracy.

The crucial criticism of Moses is that, on innumerable occasions, he ran roughshod over the wishes of neighborhood residents in the path of one of his development schemes. His destruction of the working class Jewish Bronx neighborhood in order to build the CBX is usually one of the most frequent examples cited concerning Moses' arrogant edifice complex.

The revisionists, however, argue that Moses, in spite of all the warts that they acknowledge he had, "...built with quality and remarkable honesty, and we need to return to some of that today." As Powell points out, the revisionists see the need to resurrect Moses' "grand vision and iron will."

Of course there will always be planners who will look nostalgically at an archetype like Moses. Planners are, by nature, transfixed by grand architectural schemes and less concerned about those whose neighborhoods are in the path of the bulldozers. Now it appears that there are some historians who stand similarly transfixed, and the fact that one of the leading revisionists comes out of Columbia, a university looking to impose its own ubber-vision on a West Harlem community, only adds to the provocative nature of the debate over the legacy of Robert Moses.

What seems clear to us, is that the Moses debate is healthy. A creative tension is needed between the planning impulse and the need to maintain democratic controls over that impulse. It all goes back to the debate between Plato and Aristotle about the desirability of a philosopher king. In Plato's analogy, it is the shoemaker alone who knows how to skillfully make shoes. We need, however, to always keep in mind the Aristotelian rejoinder-It is only the wearer who can tell if the shoes pinch.