Monday, May 26, 2008

Review: “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York”

In 1974, the historian Robert Caro published The Power Broker, his masterful biography of Robert Moses. It won the Pulitzer Prize and, in 1999, was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the 100 greatest works of nonfiction written in the 20th century (it ranked at #92).

So who was Robert Moses? He was, unquestionably, the most important person ever in New York City history. His impact on this town was enormous, immense, reverberating. We are, for all intensive purposes, living in Robert Moses’ NYC. No one has ever held so much power in this town for so long – more than 44 years – and he was never elected to anything.

So what did he do? He was New York’s master builder. He developed the city we live in today. “Robert Moses shaped New York … He built the Major Deegan Expressway, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Sheridan Expressway and the Bruckner Expressway. He built the Gowanus Expressway, the Prospect Expressway, the Whitestone Expressway, the Clearview Expressway and the Throgs Neck Expressway. He built the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Nassau Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway and the Long Island Expressway. He built the Harlem River Drive and the West Side Highway.” He also built the Triborough and Verrazano Bridges as well Jones Beach, Orchard Beach, Jacob Riis Park and other public parks out on Long Island and upstate. He constructed hundreds of playgrounds, tennis courts, boathouses and baseball diamonds. He also built public pools, including the Astoria Park Pool, one of his better accomplishments.

Oh, he built buildings too: housing developments like Stuyvesant Towns and Peter Cooper Village, as well as Co-Op City. He built some other buildings you might know about: Lincoln Center, the United Nations, Shea Stadium, the New York Coliseum (since demolished, the Time Warner Center sits there now). He also built three of Central Park’s notable structures: Tavern-on-the-Green, Wollman Rink and the Delacorte Theater and the 79th Street Boat Basin in Riverside Park. And he ran (badly) the 1964 World’s Fair.

You get the idea. He built everything. “And what Robert Moses built on was as lie.”

The lie was the image Moses cultivated and propagated for five decades: that he was a self-less servant of the people, above politics, only “doing good” for “the masses.” The reality was that he warped the city to serve the rich few and not the poor and middle class many.

The lie was that he was answerable to the Mayors and Governors who appointed him to head dozens of state and city agencies over the years when, in reality, these elected people deferred to Moses. This includes Franklin Roosevelt when he was Governor and President, as well as Fiorello LaGuardia. Moses was a bully supreme. There’s a great scene in the book where, when FDR was governor, Moses stormed into his office and screamed “You’re a liar Mr. Roosevelt!” Can you imagine anyone doing that? Moses called his supposed elected superiors by their first names: he addressed one letter to Mayor Vincent Impellitteri “Dear Vince.” And he called LaGuardia “that dago son of a bitch.” Nasty, nasty man, this master builder was.

So how did he do it? Moses created and ran a public authority called Triborough that raised money through toll-booths and public bonds and that gave Moses nearly a billion dollars that he could hand out (or not) to the public officials he supposedly served. Needless to say, money talks, or in this case, rules. And the unelected, unanswerable Robert Moses ruled this town for nearly half of the 20th century.

And while Moses certainly did some good for the city, the lie was that New York was better off because of Moses rather than the opposite.

“Robert Moses was America’s greatest builder,” Caro writes. “He was the shaper of the greatest city in the New World. But what did he build?” What did he do to construct the city we live in today? “By building his highways, Moses flooded the city with cars. By systematically starving the subways and the suburban commuter railroads, he swelled that flood to city-destroying dimensions.”

He “threw out of their homes 250,000 persons … He tore out the hearts of scores of neighborhoods, communities the size of small cities themselves, communities that had been lively, friendly places to live, the vital parts of the city that made New York a home to its people.” The Cross-Bronx Expressway gutted a pleasant neighborhood called East Tremont, wrecking the Bronx and turning it into a crime-ridden, poverty-stricken borough. The Gowanus Expressway similarly destroyed a lovely middle-class area in Brooklyn, burying it under shadow generating highway. And the public housing Moses built was ugly and depressing. He also built almost no playgrounds and public pools in Harlem or other black neighborhoods. The one public pool he built in Harlem wasn’t even heated – he didn’t think, for some reason, that black people could get cold.

If there are things about New York that drive you crazy today, you can thank Robert Moses for them.

Why aren’t there subway lines that go directly to La Guardia or JFK? Why aren’t there subway lines serving huge parts of Queens? Why can’t you take a subway to Red Hook? Why is there still no 2nd Avenue Subway? Because Moses didn’t believe in public transportation and had contempt for people who needed it and couldn't’t afford cars. From 1933 until 1968, Moses years in power, not one new subway line was built and New Yorkers had to, and still have to, pack themselves like sardines into the subway cars on the old, old tracks. It’s not exactly a secret that our city’s public transportation is inadequate and overcrowded. Moses was so convinced that cars were the future of New York, he even proposed a Lower Manhattan Expressway that would have run through and destroyed Soho and Greenwich Village! (Mercifully, that was stopped.) And the irony was that Robert Moses never drove a car a day in his 92 years of life.

In short, Caro writes, Moses “systematically defeated every attempt to create the master plan that might have enabled the city to develop on a rational, logical, unified pattern.” By destroying so many neighborhoods and making so many others inaccessible with little or no public transportation, Moses reduced the number of pleasant areas where New Yorkers can or want to live. That’s why it costs so much to live here today and why New Yorkers are paying so much for so little space.

Needless to say Moses’ legacy is what contributed to the subtitle “The Fall of New York” and, for the last few decades, Mayors and Governors have been trying to undo a lot of the problems he created. Bloomberg’s PlaNYC is basically an attempt to overturn and minimize the Moses mess.

So what about the book itself? The Power Broker is a long, exhausting, infuriating, and brilliant book. Caro is an absolutely masterful writer and the jaw drops when you read about all of the interviews he conducted and all of the documents he browsed through. Caro’s gift is explaining the details and decisions of public policy making and how they affect people’s lives. Ultimately, this book is really not a biography of Moses or a history of New York City or a sociological study of urban planning, but an examination of power (hence the book’s title): Caro brilliantly explains how Moses got power, used it, kept it, and eventually lost it.

Because of its length, The Power Broker is a door stopper and it takes a commitment to read it. It took me over a month! But I highly recommend it if you have any desire to understand how New York City changed and grew in the 20th century.


  1. Sounds like a fascinating read. I enjoy books on architecture and city planning so this seems up my alley. Have you read Suburban Nation? Scary stuff...

  2. Thanks to your informative (and interesting) review, I won't have to read the book! ;) But seriously, it was definitely interesting.

  3. Thanks for your kind words guys! Btw, I'm still reading and loving your blogs. :)

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  5. I am currently reading The Power Broker and I'm almost halfway through it. It is an incredible book. Let me just say this. One thing that comes through in The Power Broker is simply that the politicians are human beings. Roosevelt hated Moses and one story of Order Number 129 tells of how Roosevelt, as President, tried to force LaGuardia to fire Moses. He couldn't do it. According to Caro, Roosevelt's only reason was revenge. And the characters! One I've learned a lot about is Al Smith. He was nothing but a historical name to me. But Caro brought him to life, even though he has been gone over 60 years. I don't have the time to read it in a month. I've been at it off and on for a couple of months already, but I'll get through it. It's that good.


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