A sacrifice for Moses

The most powerful development czar in the history of New York City was Robert Moses. In the 1940s and ’50s, he had power that the Donald could only dream about. Anyone who has read Robert Caro’s magnificent biography Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, knows that Moses could move mountains in the name of colossal development projects, new freeways and slum clearance. In the end, though, it was really about political empire-building.

Almost as interesting as his rise was Moses’ fall from grace with New Yorkers for his tearing at the fabric of the city and mowing down buildings, and thus neighborhoods, in the name of progress. I know because Moses adversely affected my family when he cleared out blocks of buildings on the city’s West Side to put up the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

My grandfather saved for years to buy his first building, a four-story walkup in the west 50s. With the help of recent immigrants he sponsored, he converted other buildings into small apartments rented mostly by lower-income people.

But two of his buildings just happened to be in the wrong place. Not blighted or slums, the properties were targeted for clearing by Moses and his political friends. Instead of fighting in court against the wrongful taking of his property for “the greater good,” my grandfather took the price offered and fled back to Ireland. The property owners on the outside edge of the Lincoln Center made fortunes, and the ones inside the designated clear zone made “fair market value.” Of course, Lincoln Center is a cultural jewel, but those who had to suffer because of it weren’t fairly compensated.

The use of eminent domain is sometimes wielded like a scythe by those in power. The politicians who continue to use it to close businesses (see “This property condemned”) need to prove that there indeed is blight and that there’s no other way to solve the problem other than the taking of property. They also need to look out for the little guy and have a conscience.