Robert Moses

From the Dank Recesses—the Department of Parks General Files

“Swim” original art for subway, 1937. Tempura water color on tissue paper; artist unknown. Department of Parks General Files, NYC Municipal Archives.

A life-long swimmer, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses vastly expanded access to aquatic facilities for New Yorkers. In 1936, he opened ten new swimming pools and during his long tenure he built and improved public beaches throughout the city.

Recently, the Municipal Archives received an inquiry from a potential patron asking if it was true “…that their [Department of Parks] internal records from 1934-45 are offsite and inaccessible, perhaps rotting away in a barn somewhere in New Jersey, piled up in banker’s boxes...” The answer is . . . not true! Although the Parks records did make a brief trip to New Jersey, they are very much accessible in the Municipal Archives and constitute one of the most important collections documenting the built environment of New York City and the decades-long era of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses.

It is possible that this patron’s remarks concerning the Parks records originated from Robert Caro’s epic Moses biography, The Power Broker [Knopf, 1974]. In notes about his sources Caro described gaining access to the “internal memoranda” of the Parks Department, then located “… in the dank recesses below the Seventy-ninth Street boat basin near the West Side Highway.”

In 1984, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) awarded the Archives a grant to identify and appraise historical records still held in municipal offices. During the course of the project, City archivists visited the Parks storage facility at the Boat Basin and discovered nearly 800 cubic feet of administrative records. Despite their location only a few hundred yards from the Hudson River, directly below a busy traffic interchange, the archivists found the records to be in remarkably good order.

Aerial view of the 79th Street Boat Basin and Henry Hudson Parkway interchange, ca. 1936. NYC Municipal Archives Collection. Moses leveraged federal highway funding to complete an earlier “West Side Improvement” plan and added a marina, known as the 79th Boat Basin in Riverside Park.

Recognizing the importance of this material, City archivists transferred the records to the Municipal Archives, after a detour to a laboratory in New Jersey for mold remediation.

The significance and value of this collection cannot be overestimated. It provides a complete chronicle of the achievements of Robert Moses, New York’s legendary “Master Builder.” Moses planned and constructed public works on a scale that was the envy of the world in its day and all but inconceivable now. The list of his accomplishments in the New York City metropolitan area—well documented in the collection—includes fifteen parkways and twelve expressways; eight bridges and two tunnels; over one thousand housing projects; more than six hundred playgrounds; and thirty new parks and beaches. He was responsible for the Lincoln Center complex, the United Nations’ building, the New York Coliseum, Shea Stadium and both the 1939 and 1964 New York World’s Fairs. In the words of Columbia University Professor of History, Kenneth T. Jackson, “More than any other person or institution, Robert Moses was the single-minded genius who molded New York City into a twentieth century metropolis.”

Astoria Pool, Queens, August 20, 1936. Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives. Opened July 2, 1936, Astoria Pool is the largest of the eleven pools Moses built with funding from the federal Works Progress Administration program.

And fortunately for generations of historians, Commissioner Moses and his staff were prolific correspondents and meticulous record-keepers. The records extracted from the Boat Basin consisted of two series—740 cubic feet of the Department of Parks General Files, 1934-1966, and 44 cubic feet of the Office of the Parks Commissioner/City Planning Commissioner files, 1940-1956. The material includes carbons or originals of incoming and outgoing correspondence, memoranda, transcripts, reports, contracts, news clippings, maps, blueprints, plans, printed materials, press releases, invitations, and photographs. The records document virtually every component of the Department’s administrative actions from 1934 through 1966. The General Files series is further divided into three subseries: Administrative Files, Borough Files and Index Cards.

Sara Delano Roosevelt Park, March 6, 1934. Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives. Several blocks of tenements in Manhattan’s lower East Side, from Houston to Rivington Streets, were razed for construction of the Sara Delano Roosevelt Park.

The Parks/City Planning Commissioner series comprises the files created by Moses in his capacity as Commissioner of the Department of Parks, Commissioner of the City Planning Department, and after 1946, City Construction Coordinator. (Moses simultaneously held up to twelve official positions.) The material in this series is 100% Robert Moses. With the exception of a few folders labeled “Hazel Tappan,” his personal secretary, it does not contain the correspondence of any of his deputies or assistants.

Both series provide abundant examples of Moses’ direct and vivid writing style. “I say its spinach!” he wrote to Mayor LaGuardia, in a letter dated August 25, 1943, reporting on a meeting about the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The letter also contains a typical Moses comment on social workers: “These people never get anywhere, and it is a waste of time to get excited about their plans.” Moses believed parks and playgrounds would solve all social ills and so concluded to the Mayor: “If I had the sense God gave geese, I would have insisted that the only thing worth accomplishing was to get rid of Raymond Street and substitute a playground.”

Pelham Bay Park: Concessions Building and comfort station, October 22, 1941. Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives. No detail was too small or building too insignificant for Moses and his talented team of architects as illustrated by the handsome design of this comfort station.

Moses was a fearless correspondent. He even took on the United States military at the height of World War II. On May 24, 1943, he replied to Brigadier General P. B. Gage, Commanding Officer of the U.S Army, stating: “I cannot possibly give you permission to overrun Jacob Riis Park. This is one of the most important summer recreation areas in the Metropolitan district, and there is no reason on God’s green earth why it should be turned over for maneuvering of troops.”

Invitation to the Menagerie in Central Park, 1934. Color half-tone on paper; artist unknown. Mayor LaGuardia Parks Department correspondence, NYC Municipal Archives.

Good design was a hallmark of Commissioner Moses’ public works as evidenced by this 1934 invitation and during the Great Depression he could draw on a large pool of readily available talented architects and designers.

As he did with parks and arterial highways, Moses played a major role in the development of public housing projects throughout his career. In a letter dated July 7, 1958, Moses took the opportunity to express his views on the European model: “As to Sweden, I have just come back from that highly socialized country. I did inspect some of the housing, and while I found it good, it was no means as marvelous as it is described by Mr. Straus [owner of the WMCA radio station and life-long advocate for improved housing], and I found few things which could be successfully imitated in this country. I am no chauvinist, but I get rather weary of Americans who can only find achievements abroad.”

In 1998 the NEH awarded $64,000 to the Municipal Archives to microfilm the entire Commissioner series, and selected documents from the General Files series.

Robert Moses’ career and the physical changes he wrought on New York City, for better or worse, have long been the subject of analysis and debate. Beginning even before his death in 1981, there has been a steady stream of works pertaining to Moses ranging from the Caro biography to innumerable articles, dissertations, papers, conferences, documentary films and at least one opera. Access to the voluminous Parks collection—and its rich content of Moses-related material—will continue to facilitate the ongoing debate about one of the most influential figures of 20th century New York City history.