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  • The (Hydro)Power BrokerRobert Moses, PASNY, and the Niagara and St. Lawrence Megaprojects
  • Daniel Macfarlane (bio)

From 1954 to 1962 famed urban planner Robert Moses was chairman of the Power Authority of the State of New York (PASNY), now known as the New York Power Authority (NYPA). Moses was headhunted for the PASNY position chiefly to see through the trans-border St. Lawrence and Niagara hydropower projects undertaken in tandem with Canada. On both of these rivers, in the late 1950s and early 1960s New York State built major powerhouses that bore Moses's name. Moses had relatively little interest or background in hydropower—but he had extensive experience in planning the parkland and parkways that were part of these power developments.1 And, of course, Moses had extensive experience when it came to moving people out of the way for large infrastructure projects.

Moses's PASNY tenure is arguably the most neglected phase of his storied career, particularly since he held the power authority position while still holding many of his other state and New York City posts. Granted, very little academic historical scholarship has been produced on PASNY/NYPA in general.2 Robert Caro's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Power Broker, the voluminous 1974 biography of Moses, accords but a handful of pages to Moses's years as head of PASNY.3 The Moses historiography is still largely defined by Caro's work, [End Page 297] which paints a decidedly negative portrait of the man.4 However, a revisionist perspective has been obvious since the 1980s. This approach offers more sympathetic assessments of Moses, contending that the good outweighed the bad.5 For example, Phillip Lopate and Kenneth T. Jackson have argued that, though Moses had many faults, Caro exaggerates the extent to which Moses was an "evil genius."6 Jackson suggests that it was Moses's efficiency that was unparalleled, rather than his vision or ideas. Lopate argues that the master builder was, in fact, "one of the greatest heroes of the twentieth century, and one of our greatest Americans." Both invoke a "man of his times" defense for Moses, arguing that his accomplishments have served New York City, especially the middle class, better than Caro allows; though Moses sought power and influence, he was not corrupt; though Moses was prejudiced against other races and the poor, these views were not defining aspects of his character or undertakings.

Drawing from my research on the environmental, technological, and transnational history of remaking Niagara Falls and the St. Lawrence River, this article provides a selective history of PASNY's first two megaprojects, with the emphasis on Moses's approach to acquiring property and reconfiguring iconic environments. I contend that assessments of Moses should take into account what he built outside of New York City; at the same time, assessments of NYPA's history need to recognize the influence of Moses during the power authority's formative years. As others have pointed out, Moses's reputation seems to be tied to the fortunes of the Big Apple.7 Caro's biography of Moses was published when the metropolis was at its reputational nadir. But, just as New York City's post-1970s rebound led scholars to cast Moses's accomplishments in a better light, contemporary twenty-first-century concerns about ecological impacts, climate change, and environmental justice frame Moses's legacy in a different way.

My view of Moses—based on his time heading PASNY—falls between the two poles represented by Caro and the revisionists. Moses subscribed to a high modernist logic that relied on large-scale technological and engineering solutions that have bequeathed a mixed, and often unsustainable, legacy of concrete, auto dependency, ravaged ecosystems, and other negative path dependencies. High modernist plans, according to James C. Scott, [End Page 298] rely on a synoptic view informed by bureaucratic and technocratic expertise, and involve large-scale attempts to make "legible" social and natural environments through simplification, standardization, and ordering so as to control them and prescribe utilitarian plans for their betterment.8 The huge generating stations and allied infrastructure Moses constructed along the New York-Ontario border were built efficiently but with autocratic and high modernist methods...


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