Robert Moses built Long Island parks that few African-Americans ever enjoyed. He poured parkways for New Yorkers to get to his parks – but few African-Americans ever drove on them. He carved out new beaches – but few African-Americans ever swam there. Moses accomplished this without passing one law barring them from his parks or posting one sign prohibiting them from entering. How then did he do it?
Moses started out in 1914 as a passionate reformer of New York’s corrupt Tammany Hall. “In those pre-World War I years of optimism, of reform, of idealism, Robert Moses was the optimist of optimists, the reformer of reformer, the idealist of idealists,” biographer Robert A. Cato writes.1 Moses believed that great ideas would form new values and that Tammany Hall would be moved to act on them. They were. Moses was fired in 1918.
Within a few years, this Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Yale, the honors man at Oxford, the husband of one and father of two small daughters, was standing in a line in Cleveland applying for a minor municipal job. He didn’t get it. Ten years later, however, he was back in New York a different man. “When the curtain rose on the next act of Moses’ life, idealism was gone from the stage. In its place was an understanding that ideas – dreams – were useless without power to transform them into reality.”
Over the next four decades, Moses would become the “master builder” of New York City. He never held an elected office, but at the height of his power, “between 1946 and 1953, no public improvement of any kind – no school or sewer, library or pier, hospital or catch basin – was built by any city agency unless Robert Moses approved its design and location.”2 Moses’ “master plan” started in the 1930s with new parks. He wanted to give New Yorkers a break from Manhattan’s crowded confines. The answer was Long Island’s beaches. The result was new parks and parkways – but not for everyone.
Moses considered African-Americans inherently “dirty.” He secretly ensured his parks would be largely inaccessible to them. Since the lower classes rode buses, including African-Americans, Moses ingeniously engineered the Long Island bridges to insure that buses “would never ruin the beauty of his bridges or carry poor people along them to his state parks.”3 Moses could make it happen, since he was Park Commissioner, Construction Coordinator, and member of the City Planning Commission. He had the Henry Hudson Parkway bridges built with maximum headroom of thirteen feet in the middle yet only eleven feet at the curb. The buses of that day were taller than eleven feet and had to drive on the curb lane. Commuting could only be done by car. For a bus to make it to a state park, it had to navigate long and arduous back roads.
Moses recognized what sociologist Peter L. Berger argues: “ideas don’t succeed in history because of their inherent truthfulness, but rather because of their connection to very powerful institutions and interests.” Concrete ideas change culture. Once Moses’ bridges were erected, they endured and would prove to be prohibitively costly to replace.
There are at least two lessons here for faith communities. First, too many take too little interest and spare too little expense in “making culture.” The “human job description” as Dallas Willard calls it, “indicates that God assigned to us collectively the rule over all living things on earth.”4 Rule, or subdue, is translated in German as “kultur” – where we get our word “culture.” We are to “make culture.” After Adam and Eve fell, this mandate is restated: “subdue the ground” (Gen. 3:23) and after the flood (Gen. 9). “This means that God’s intention and desire for redemption is cosmic in scope. Not only are people to be redeemed, but the cosmos (or culture) is on God’s heart,” Al Wolters writes.5
The second lesson is that cultures are not created by great ideas alone. Chuck Colson once said, “History is little more than the recording of the rise and fall of the great ideas – the worldviews that form our values and move us to act.” Robert Moses’ legacy reminds us this is an incomplete equation. Another cultural analyst says it better: “Under specific conditions and circumstances ideas can have consequences.” When these conditions are in place, ideas can inspire greatness, creativity, and human flourishing. But keep in mind, under the very same conditions, other ideas can lead to extraordinary folly or unspeakable destruction. The complete equation is ideas plus overlapping institutions.
This was the early church’s equation. The church father Tertullian, for example, could brag to the Romans of the 3rd century that the church had filled and formed “every place among you – cities, islands, fortresses, town, marketplaces, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum – we have left you nothing but your temples.”6
Most modern churches take a Colson approach to changing culture. They assume an aggregate of passionate individuals with great ideas changes society –a “tipping point” approach. But this ignores how institutions – like bridge elevations – and the gatekeepers who run them – like Robert Moses – have the power to prevent or permit individual actions. As a result, faith communities often sound like the optimist of optimists, the reformer of reformers, the idealist of idealists. This however doesn’t work. No matter how “passionate” African-Americans might have been in Moses’ day, no matter how hard they prayed, no matter how vigorous their faith, it was still a long and arduous trip to the park.
In reality, it is not individual hearts and minds that move cultures but cultures that ultimately shape and direct the lives of individuals. During Robert Moses’ reign, the total acreage of US state parks grew to 5,799,957 acres. But New York State alone had 2,567,256 of those acres – or 45 percent of all state parks in the country. Moses literally made culture concrete. Faith communities ought to remember the lesson and legacy of Robert Moses as they seek to transform workplaces, neighborhoods, and cities.
1 Robert A. Cato, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York, NY: Random House, 1974), p. 5.
2 Cato, Power Broker, p. 7.
3 Cato, Power Broker, p. 546.
4 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 22.
5 Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985)
6 Tertullian, an early church writer (2nd or 3rd century) who lived in Carthage, as quoted by Lewis Mumford, The City in History (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1961) pp. 243-44.