[Skip to Content]

Robert Moses

1888 - 1981

Inducted October 2001

 "As long as you're fighting for parks, you can be sure of having public opinion on your side. And as long as you have public opinion on your side, you're safe."
~Robert Moses

Robert Moses did more to re-shape New York City and infl uence the course of American urban development than any other fi gure of the mid-twentieth century. Neither a planner, architect, nor engineer; Moses attained unprecedented power without ever being elected to public offi ce. In more than 30 years of public service to the city of New York and New York State, Moses achieved a reputation for building highways, parks, bridges, and recreation areas.

The son of a successful department store owner and real estate investor in New Haven, CT, Moses spent the fi rst nine years of his life living two blocks from Yale University. Upon his father’s retirement, the Moses family moved to New York City in 1897. Moses attended several preparatory schools before enrolling at Yale University. He graduated cum laude from Yale in 1909 where he was a runner, varsity swimmer, and star water polo athlete. In 1911 Moses earned his Master’s degree in political science from Oxford University, England. While at Oxford he made a brilliant record as a student of government and was elected to the presidency of the Oxford Union, the only American to achieve this recognition. Moses went on to obtain his doctorate degree in political science at Columbia University in New York in 1914 with a dissertation on the British civil service system.

When Alfred Smith was elected Governor of New York in 1922, he hired Moses as a speechwriter and lobbyist. Part of the reformist agenda included public parks and after convincing Governor Smith of the value and opportunities parks presented, Smith legislated to create the Long Island State Parks Commission. Moses was appointed their first president and in 1923 he mapped out a system of state parks on Long Island that would be linked together by broad parkways. The plan included appropriation of land from the estates of wealthy, influential families, who opposed his plans. Nevertheless, the plan prevailed and by 1930 Moses had built 9,700 acres of parks on Long Island. Included in this plan was the extraordinarily popular Jones Beach Park which established Moses’ national reputation when it opened in 1929. Over a quarter of a million people crowded into the park during its first month of operation to enjoy the vast beaches, enormous parking lots, campanile water tower, and its scrupulously clean boardwalk.

Robert Moses with a model of his proposed Battery Bridge in 1939.

Moses’ vision for public parks, extended far beyond the development of Long Island. As chairman of the New York Park Association’s Metropolitan Conference on Parks, Moses was already planning for addition development in New York City in the late 1920s. The Metropolitan Conference issued a report in 1930 recommending immediate acquisition of thousands of acres of the last natural areas in the city. In order to solve the city’s traffic problems, a system of parkways was also recommended, including the Belt, Grand Central, Cross Island, and Henry Hudson Parkways. Much of the park and parkway construction was supervised by the Parks Department which was guided by this planning report authored and sponsored by Moses.

The Great Depression motivated President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to inaugurate his New Deal for the American People program in 1933. Through these federal funds Moses was able to implement his plans for the expansion of New York City’s public parks through the federal Works Progress Administration. Hundreds of new facilities and venues were developed consisting of playgrounds, zoos, golf courses, and recreational buildings. Perhaps most impressive were the 11 outdoor swimming pools, with an average capacity of 5,000 people, that opened in neighborhoods throughout the city during the sweltering summer of 1936. The citizens, press, and public officials of New York City praised Moses for the development and expansion of the city’s park system, gaining him appointment as New York City’s parks commissioner in 1934.

By the end of World War II Moses had accumulated posts which gave him the most important single voice in park, bridge, and road construction in the New York area. Appointed New York City construction coordinator in 1946, Moses also presided over public housing and urban renewal policies, which increasingly emphasized austere high rise housing for the poor and expanded use of renewal land for private development. He had a controlling hand in many other public works projects during the 1945-1965 period, including the building of the United Nations Headquarters, Lincoln Center, the New York Coliseum, and the 1964-1965 World’s Fair facilities. Moses encountered increasing opposition beginning in the late 1950s, when massive “cut and burn” urban renewal tactics began to lose favor nationally. Community opposition to his Cross Bronx Expressway (which displaced 1,500 families in a single one-mile stretch) was followed by revelations of scandals involving the misuse of urban renewal land, in which some of Moses’ associates were implicated. Moses’ press support had diminished by the early 1960s as, for the first time, his vision of the urban future seemed badly out of step with contemporary values.

Know as “the man who gets things done,” Moses was the most influential non-federal public official in the nation of his time. He was an outspoken, fiery, controversial visionary whose strong character, energy, zeal, and singleness of purpose transformed the landscapes of New York State, New York City, and Long Island. He is memorialized by the Robert Moses State Park in Long Island, the Robert Moses State Park at Massena, the Robert Moses Causeway on Long Island, the Robert Moses Parkway at Niagara, and the dams at Niagara and at Massena. In 1960 Robert Moses retired as park commissioner at the age of 72. The total acreage of state parks in all 50 states at that time was 5.8 million acres. New York State had 2.6 million acres of that total, which was 45 percent of all the state park acreage in the country. Know as the “Master Builder,” Moses changed shorelines, built roadways in the sky, and transformed vibrant neighborhoods forever.

Adapted from: Hartsoe, C, Sanders, D & Bridges, M (eds) (2009), Profiles in Leadership: Robert W. Crawford Recreation and Park Hall of Fame. National Recreation and Park Association and American Academy of Park and Recreation Administration.

  • Caro, R.A. (1970). The power broker: Robert Moses and the fall of New York. New York: Alfred A. Knofp.
  • Crompton, J.L. (2007). Twentieth century champions of parks and conservation: The Pugsley award recipients 1928-1964. Volume I. Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing.

Return to list of inductees