Concrete Ideas

Michael Metzger

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.


The Morning Mike Check

Don't miss out on the latest podcast episode! Be sure to subscribe in your favorite podcast platform to stay up to date on the latest from Clapham Institute.


  1. Excellent post, Mike. Always enjoy reading. Having lived 15 minutes from Robert Moses S.P. for 16 years, I never considered the story of how infrastructure ramifications shaped the culture of Long Island. The town I grew up in (at the time) was about 75% Jewish, 20% Catholic, 5% “other.” You didn’t see many African Americans east of Hempsted. The wheels are certainly turning inside my head regarding how we are shaping the culture of our faith community.

  2. The translation part of your argument is not quite accurate – although I do see where you’re going with it. Initially, rule or subdue is not translated into German as kultur.

    One of the possible translations of subdue is kultivieren – which is generally translated as cultivate in English. Yes, they can be seen as root words, but the connection is more tenuous than what you have stated.

    Current German translations of the Hebrew word in question “abad” do not use the word kultivieren. They use a word – bebauen – which comes from a root (bauen) meaning “to build”. Yes, bebauen is generally used in relation to agriculture – to tilling and growing things – and bebauen is translated from German to English by “crop” or “cultivate”, but like I said, that makes for a much more convoluted argument. . . .

    It is an argument that should be precisely charted, however, if you wish it to carry the weight you’re putting on it. Maybe the twists and turns can be written out elsewhere, and then just referred to as a footnote. . . . Alle die Deutsch sprechen wuerden aber sagen das “rule” und “subdue” nicht mit “kultur” uebersetzt sind.

  3. “In reality, it is not individual hearts and minds that move cultures but cultures that ultimately shape and direct the lives of individuals.”

    So, how do we move culture? Especially as an individual, what can I do?

    It seems that if, as an individual, Robert Moses possessed a different morality, than the institution (i.e. culture) would have been different. Even then, it would be an individual that moves cultures.

    What’s farthest upstream?


  4. I’m not sure I get this, but are the parks Robert Moses built supposed to represent heaven? And then the roads he built are the cultural constraints that kept some people out of heaven?

    So that is similar to how culture today is preventing the Christian faith from advancing, just like Moses’ bridges prevented Blacks from getting to the park?

    Your concluding paragraph surprised me, I thought you were going to say that we should work to change the culture, but you seem to be saying that the influence only works from culture –> individual and not the other way around, so there is really nothing we can do.

    If you feel that “culture is not created by ideas alone,” in contrast to what Colson has posited, then what is it that you think is creating culture. Your example of Moses seems to be an example of an idea shaping a culture. In this case it is a bad idea making a negative change in the culture. You don’t have to look far to find an example of that.


  5. I think you have a good point that institutions shape individuals and cultures. However, to the extent that you suggest a mono-directional and linear influence I find it inadequately reductionist and relativistic.

  6. I’m with marble on this. The argument seems to hinge on this concept:
    [quote]Rule, or subdue, is translated in German as “kultur” – where we get our word “culture.” We are to “make culture.”

    As mentioned by marble ‘rule’ is not translated into German as ‘kultur.’ Further, the on line etymology site says that the word culture comes from the latin word “cultura.” (“1440, “the tilling of land,” from L. cultura, from pp. stem of colere “tend, guard, cultivate, till” (see cult).”

    I’d like more detail on how the job description of rule or subdue comes to mean ‘make culture.’

  7. Thanks to my good friend Marble, let me clarify. The term “culture” stems from the Latin term colere, meaning “to cultivate, till, tend,” thus the feminine cultura meaning “tilling, culture, cultivation.” From this the term “culture” has come to refer generally to what is civilized or refined, perhaps even educated. This meaning is implied in the German kultur.

    To Merrill’s question: it sounds like your over-spiritualizing my point. Moses’ parks were not heaven. Rather, his bridges represented the power of culture to make possible or darned near impossible. Second, I’d urge you to read my column again – the point is the ideas alone do not change culture. Moses correctly understood it is ideas instituted by overlapping networks of powerful institutions. Third, As Churchill put it, we make our buildings and then they make us. We make culture and then culture makes us. It’s not one way. But culture-making is mediated through institutions. Some institutions are closer to the center of society and have more influence. Others are more peripheral and enjoy less influence.

    Brody: your question is an excellent one and deserves fuller treatment. Stay tuned. Over the next few weeks, I show my true colors.

  8. “The term “culture” stems from the Latin term colere, meaning “to cultivate, till, tend,” thus the feminine cultura meaning “tilling, culture, cultivation.” From this the term “culture” has come to refer generally to what is civilized or refined, perhaps even educated. This meaning is implied in the German kultur.”

    OK. That I follow. What does that have to do with ruling and subduing? (I apologize for being dense)

  9. You’re not dense at all. I’m probably unclear. From what I read and remember, “rule” is translated as “have dominion,” which was then carried forward as “cultivation.”

  10. So to “rule” we dictate our ideas, morals, beliefs and behaviors, we “have dominion.” We cultivate our dominion, as it were, through our work and play, the way we relate to people, the things we use in our daily life; though our culture.

    Culture is effectively the means through which we have dominion, irrespective of whether we are aware of it or not.

    I think that argument could be made without attempting to draw an etymological link from ‘rule’ and ‘have dominion’ to ‘culture.’

  11. Tim – I’m fine with that. It’s not an original link with me. More important to me is the lack of faith communities who see “make culture” or “have dominion” as their central job description.

  12. Yep, and that’s where I’m with you, too, Metz: “the lack of faith communities who see ‘make culture’ or ‘have dominion’ as their central job description.”

    Instead, there are so many who embrace the “Be ye separate and apart!” and who attempt to “redeem” culture (if at all) by producing a “Christian” version of it.

    Nice work, Tim, in helping us all clarify this word study!

    That said, I’m still thinking through possible applications. I also appreciated some of the comments that questioned the individual vs. institutional vantage points. What changed, for example, for R. Moses? He was still always an individual with ideas. . . .

  13. “Second, I’d urge you to read my column again – the point is the ideas alone do not change culture. Moses correctly understood it is ideas instituted by overlapping networks of powerful institutions.”

    I see your point, but I am not completely convinced that you can separate institutions from ideas. Without ideas, would there even exist institutions? Whether good or bad, it seems that ideas precede institutions, not the other way around. Look at Social Security, the military, higher education, traffic laws, treaties, Constitutions, CAFE standards, . . . even God’s laws (institutions) came from the preceeding nature of God (ideas).

    I’m looking forward to Monday, as always!

  14. Merrill – I agree with you. You cannot separate ideas from institutions. I was simply trying to make a distinction between the two. As you can see, this reality of the interplay between ideas and institutions is not easily described. Thanks for hanging in there!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *