Robert Moses and New York’s Animals

Robert A Caro’s The Power Broker chronicles New York City Park Commissioner Robert Moses as he shapes the city’s physical landscape. In his vision to build a network of highways, parks, and bridges, he trampled over opposition as a charismatic tyrant. Moses operated outside the bounds of city, state, and federal governments, within a public authority that could seize land as he pleased. The general public had limited power over Moses through democracy or protest, as he claimed hundreds of apartments and evicted 1,500 individuals to build the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Moses’ wrath wasn’t limited to urban areas. In more than one case, Moses uprooted public spaces that contained the city’s beloved animals.


Moses was always fond of the zoo, and in 1934 he set out to redesign the disheveled “Central Park Menagerie” to make it more accessible to visitors. Upon the zoo’s opening, Moses awarded incumbent Governor Al Smith the title “Honorary Night Superintendent of the Central Park Zoo”. This position came with a master key that allowed him to enter the park anytime he wanted. The key also granted access to the animal cages. One anecdote recounts Al Smith walking across Fifth Avenue, cigar in mouth and an apple in hand for Rosie the hippo. A night janitor stumbled upon Smith opening an animal cage and turning on the light, disturbing the sleeping inhabitants but affectionately stroking their heads. Both the governor and the public were thrilled with the new Central Park Zoo, but over the next two decades Moses would wreak havoc on New York’s animals.


As part of his arterial highway network, Moses planned to construct a Battery-Brooklyn bridge that would span the East River. The entryway to this bridge required closing Manhattan’s Battery Park. The historical site contained Fort Clinton, an architectural remnant of the War of 1812. Surrounding this monument was the beloved New York Aquarium: the only one in the city. Reformers disapproved of Moses’ plan because it would destroy one of the last open spaces in Manhattan’s overdeveloped financial district. The general public took wind of this opposition and found that Moses would have to move the beloved aquarium to the Bronx Zoo, shutting down the facility for the duration of construction. Moses had no plan on where to store the sea-life during this period. With pressure from New York’s reformers, the federal government listed Fort Clinton as a national monument, preventing complete demolition by Moses’s engineers. But not before Moses destroyed the Aquarium behind the public’s back. His team moved the Aquarium to Coney Island and cost New York City taxpayers millions of dollars for the relocation. For low-income families, the trip to the aquarium became arduous, with limited public transportation options.


Over the course of his reign, Moses repeatedly jeopardized NYC’s resident naturalists by laying public works over the city’s dwindling wildlife. The Henry Hudson Bridge and West Side Improvement tore up Inwood Hill Park, cherished by biology teachers who would take their students to see the only salt-water marsh left in New York City. During the construction of the Major Deegan expressway, Moses built over a wildlife sanctuary, a decision that angered “bird lovers” who cherished the last patches of nature in the metropolis. “They had tried to obtain an injunction,” he said, “but we just filled in a little faster.”


Moses lacked the qualities of a conservationist: he was inconsiderate of what existed before, and unreceptive to the voices of others. We learn from Moses that untouched land is worth defending, and that the public has a stake in their cities’ animals.

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