When Robert Moses died in 1981, I was stunned reading the New York Times obituary that detailed the parks, highways, bridges and tunnels and other structures for which the man long known as The Master Builder was responsible.
I was aware of Mr. Moses's career bestriding both city and state governments without ever being elected to public office primarily from what I knew of Robert Caro's 1974 biography, "The Power Broker," which detailed all the terrible consequences of some of his major projects, his disregard for the residents who lived in the path of some of them, and his racism toward black people and contempt for those from other groups that stood in his way.
But looking through the obituary, written by the paper's esteemed architecture critic, Paul Goldberger, about the man responsible for so many vital highways in the city and Long Island, bridges from the Triborough to the Verrazano, numerous parks, swimming pools and beaches, and Lincoln Center and Shea Stadium, I realized that Mr. Moses was a giant, just as he was a bit of a monster.
Which is much the way I feel about Thomas Jefferson.
Few physical projects are named for Mr. Moses—a state park on Fire Island, a causeway in Long Island. An upstate highway named for him was ordered demolished last year, not because of his dubious personal views but because a decision was made that getting rid of the road would allow for more public-minded projects in its place.
About That Statue
Mr. Jefferson, on the other hand, has a memorial named for him in the heart of Washington, D.C., and a statue of him built in 1833 by the French sculptor Pierre-Jean David that sits in the Capitol Rotunda of Congress depicting him with a pen in one hand and the Declaration of Independence in the other.
A plaster model of the statue was donated to New York City in 1834, and since 1915 has sat near the front of the City Council Chambers. It became a subject of controversy during the 2001 run for City Council of Charles Barron, a fiery activist from Brooklyn who argued that it was inappropriate to be honoring in "the People's Chamber" a man who, despite his authorship of the document declaring that "all people are created equal," owned 600 slaves during his lifetime and had six children with one of them, Sally Hemings, who was a half-sister to his late wife.
When he became a Council Member in 2002, Mr. Barron was assigned a seat in the Chamber that was particularly close to the Jefferson statue, raising the suspicion that then-Council Speaker Gifford Miller was slyly attempting to irritate a colleague whose ability to irritate those around him was already apparent.
Last year, during the height of the city's protests following George Floyd's murder by a Minneapolis Police Officer, Council Members caught up in the fever of the Defund the Police movement also pressed for removal of the Jefferson statue from the Council Chambers.
During an Oct. 18 hearing of the Public Design Commission to determine the fate of the statue, Adrienne Adams, co-chair of the Council's Black, Latino and Asian caucus, stated, "Jefferson embodies some of the most-shameful parts of our country's history."
Mr. Barron, who left his Council seat in the 42nd District due to term limits after 2013 to become a State Assemblyman the following year, when his wife Inez succeeded him, is working the political version of the give-and-go this year now that she must relinquish the seat after two terms. He has the Democratic nomination for his old seat, which is tantamount to victory in next month's election. Showing he has lost nothing off his rhetorical fastball as he's aged, he told the hearing, conducted via Zoom, that President Jefferson was "a slave-holding pedophile who should not be honored with a statue."
On the other hand, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed, a Harvard University Professor who's considered an expert on Jefferson, told the New York Times that the drive for removal of the statue created a false moral equivalence between him and other famous Americans whose actions on slavery were far more repugnant.
"This represents a lumping together of the Confederates and a member of the founding generation in a way which I think minimizes the crimes and the problems with the Confederacy," she said.
In other words, Mr. Jefferson's keeping slaves and his pro-slavery views don't cancel out his considerable achievements in building the nation and setting out the principles embodied in the First Amendment of the Constitution, the way that Robert E. Lee's leading the South in the Civil War did because of his desire to preserve slavery even if it meant committing an act of treason against the U.S. Government.
One of the more-interesting facets of the Jefferson statue coming to the possession of city government nearly two centuries ago was that it was donated by Uriah Philips Levy, the U.S. Navy's first Jewish Commodore, to celebrate Mr. Jefferson's stance on religious freedom in the armed forces.
And this is the complicating factor in assessing the lives of those who achieved greatness while doing or espousing terrible things—and deciding that the bad outweighs the good to such a degree that any physical monuments to their achievements represent a public blight.
"The Power Broker" cites Mr. Moses's racism as the reason that overpasses on the Southern State Parkway were built with particularly low clearances to make it impossible to transport buses carrying blacks and Latinos from the city to Jones Beach. What has historically achieved less attention is that the man whose many hats included that of city Parks Commissioner consciously ignored the erosion of Coney Island Beach, at a time when it and the surrounding amusement area were known as America's Playground, while he promoted the more-modern, stylish beach in Nassau County.
Ruthless More Than Racist
And racism doesn't explain why the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway features a trench running through what used to be known as Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood that largely limited access to one part of the area, forcing the closing of many businesses that relocated to what later became known as Carroll Gardens, yet there was no similar bisecting of Brooklyn Heights.
The answer was simple, if messy: Italian-Americans who made up most of Red Hook's population during the BQE's construction in the early 1950s lacked the political clout of the wealthier Brooklyn Heights residents, who were able to get the highway to become elevated beyond Atlantic Ave. and run above the Promenade rather than splitting apart their neighborhood. Mr. Moses did what he could get away with politically, and he became such a dominant figure in so many aspects of city life because Mayors and Governors were reluctant to take him on until Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, late in his first term in 1962, decided not to reappoint The Master Builder to several state positions that were keys to his base of power.
And that reluctance was not rooted solely in Mr. Moses's imperious nature (he was known to call one of his ostensible bosses, Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Little Bob); he was written of approvingly by newspaper editorial boards—which had a lot more influence on public opinion during his era than they do today—as a man who got big things done.
Mr. Moses was even more uncaring about disrupting people's lives in building the Cross-Bronx Expressway, having 1,500 apartments demolished in just a one-mile stretch of the borough to clear the way for construction. A smaller job of what was known in those days as "slum clearance" made way for the building of Lincoln Center.
But there are no cries for that high point of the city's cultural life to be torn down, or the Grand Central Parkway or Southern State to be abandoned as major highways because of the excesses of the man who got them built.
That may be true for the same reason that, even in the woke state that exists in sectors of cities like New York and Chicago, no one could imagine a drive for the removal of the statue of Michael Jordan outside the Bulls' arena because he prized sneaker profits over justice in his home state of North Carolina when he declined to campaign for the black Democratic opponent of U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, an unreconstructed racist, a quarter-century ago, explaining that Republicans bought sneakers, too. Mr. Helms narrowly won re-election.
What's Politically Possible
Fire Capt. Paul Washington, a groundbreaker in better integrating the city firefighting force who's a former president of the FDNY Vulcan Society, acknowledged the political practicalities that limit the changes that will gain momentum even as he applauded the decision to remove the Jefferson statue from the Council.
"He said all men are created equal while he enslaved black people," he said in an Oct. 19 phone interview. "That is such a huge lie that what else can't you say after that?"
He continued, "People say Jefferson was complicated. He was rich and he had access to black women. He had Sally Hemings's brother at the Constitutional Convention attending to his every need."
Captain Washington said the Declaration of Independence did not include a clause stating that those who were created equal did not include black people because Jefferson and other Founding Fathers "knew they were on the wrong side of history—that was why they didn't want to say it."
And given that 400 of Mr. Jefferson's 600 slaves lived and worked on his plantation, he said, "He was constantly surrounded by black people, so he couldn't say he didn't know them" well enough to determine whether they deserved equal treatment.
When asked whether he could imagine a similar push regarding our first President—who also owned hundreds of slaves—to take hold, though, the man who bears the same surname replied, "I doubt that statues of George Washington will be taken down. They should all be looked at. I'm not saying that he should be looked at any differently, but he's even bigger."
Where Will Statue Go?
It is not clear where the Jefferson statue will go. Its original destination was to be the New-York Historical Society, but the head of the Public Design Commission was among those who questioned whether it was appropriate to move it, after 187 years during which it could be viewed at no charge by those who visited City Hall, to a private entity that charges a $22 admission fee.
Council Speaker Corey Johnson had contended the Historical Society had the capacity to "responsibly present the story of Thomas Jefferson and this statue with appropriate historical context."
But prior to the hearing, a group of 17 historians sent a letter to the commission urging that the statue remain in City Hall at another location just down the hall from the second-floor Council Chamber: the Governor's Room, which is now used just occasionally for ceremonial events.
"Locating the statue for viewing in the Governor's Room, where it was originally placed and apparently stood for much of its history, would be the most-reasonable compromise," the letter stated.
Joshua Freeman, a Professor of History at both Queens College and the City University of New York Graduate Center with an expertise in labor matters, said in a phone interview, "I think it's a complicated issue because our Founding Fathers and founding documents were interlaced with slavery. If the statue makes people feel uncomfortable, Jefferson's connection to the City Council is not that great."
'A Complicated Legacy'
But, he added, "I think it's important to think about the complicated legacy we get from Jefferson."
When Teamsters Local 237 President Greg Floyd was asked for his reaction to the removal of the statue from the Council Chamber, his reply seemed infused with another complicated legacy: the fact that many of the Council Members leading that push, as part of their accompanying drive to cut Police Department funding in the wake of the Floyd protests and alleged misconduct by cops during those rallies had approved, in concert with Mayor de Blasio, a budget measure transferring School Safety Agents from NYPD jurisdiction to that of the Department of Education.
Even as the Defund the Police movement was repudiated in June's Democratic mayoral primary when Eric Adams—the ex-cop who was the most-vociferous opponent of cutting NYPD funding rather than changing training of officers and their employment—was the clear first choice of voters and the runner-up was Kathryn Garcia, who more quietly expressed her opposition to defunding, the Council at the end of that month managed to knock out a provision to hire an additional 475 School Safety Agents, leaving the force understaffed when school began last month.
Mr. Floyd, who represents the School Agents, said that what they and the Mayor seemed oblivious to was that "what's really important is crime in the city, and where it's going. Not some statue that no one sees, because most people who go in the building don't even notice the statue is there."
He concluded, "Does it make people feel good to take it away? Removing the statue doesn't take away the racist elements of our nation."
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