The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro review
This damning portrait of the planner who most shaped modern New York, aside from being a considerable work of biography, is a near-peerless work of narrative nonfiction
Builder, wrecker, blinkered visionary: Robert Caro writes that “to free his hands for the grab” of power, Robert Moses “shook impatiently from them the last crumbs” of his principles. Photograph: Joe Scherschel/National Geographic/Getty Images
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York
Robert Caro’s monumental biography provides ample evidence that the vision of one man, Robert Moses, profoundly shaped twentieth-century New York. A master urban planner, Moses radically changed the character of the city by means of the gargantuan road, bridge and park projects he undertook over the course of his lengthy career.
A skilful drafter of legislation, Moses secured a scarcely credible level of power and tenure – the mayors and governors who came and went during his 44 years of power found, to their cost, that he was effectively unsackable. For a substantial period of his career, he held 12 chairmanships of New York authorities, acting as the City Parks Commissioner, the head of the State Parks Council and the State Power Commission, amongst others. Almost every public project of any significance had to go through him.
Nothing about this book is small. Its ambition, which is vast, matches the scale of vision of its subject. Originally published in the US in 1974, and now published for the first time in Britain and Ireland, the book is over 1,300 pages in length, and I lugged it in my backpack for months as a hefty reminder of Moses’s profoundly mixed, yet undeniably impressive, achievements – and of Caro’s dogged, steely reportorial excellence. (It was Caro’s first book, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1975. Subsequently the author has written four volumes of a biography of Lyndon B Johnson. A fifth volume is forthcoming.)
Moses was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1888. He studied at Yale University before going on to Oxford, where he carried out research for a PhD thesis about the British civil service. As a young man he had been a reformer, an advocate for good, enlightened government. But, once Moses gained power, he refused to let it go. And power changed him. Caro writes of the “harsh alchemy” it performed on his character, “eating away at some traits, allowing others to enlarge”. Caro refers to Moses as “the best bill drafter in Albany”, the state capital, and then, 50 pages later – his newly acquired power having bred severe enmity – “the most hated man in Albany”.
In practice, being hated by politicians presented few problems for Moses. Initially he was protected by Al Smith, the Irish-American Democratic governor, whose mentorship and patronage gave him practical lessons in power and how to use it. Moses served first as an informal adviser to Smith, and later was appointed his secretary of state. He learned from the Tammany Hall political machine of which Smith was the figurehead, and cemented his power in the years that followed by rewarding blind, uncritical loyalty and freezing out anyone who wronged him. In Caro’s startling judgement, Moses “replaced corruption in New York City” but was, in reality, “worse than corruption for the democratic process”.
(Moses attempted to emulate Smith, running as a Republican in the 1934 election for governor, but received only 35 per cent of the vote, “the smallest percentage polled by a gubernatorial candidate of any major party in the 157-year history of New York State”. He never ran for election again. But that didn’t matter – he eventually amassed enough power to effectively ignore the elected officials of New York, and in the exercise of that power he was not responsible to the public. Democracy didn’t suit Robert Moses.)
Under Governor Smith, Moses became, in 1924, president of the newly formed Long Island State Park Commission, and set to work creating vast parks and public beaches. Here is where he made his reputation as a friend of the common man and an enemy of special interests. He was neither of these things. The parks and beaches of Long Island were reachable by private car along Moses’s new parkways. But not by bus – Moses saw to it that the bridges crossing the roads had insufficient clearance. Moses redirected the parkways away from the estates of Long Island’s elite and instead drove them through land owned by farmers with “neither wealth nor influence”. Caro writes that “to free his hands for the grab” of power, Moses “shook impatiently from them the last crumbs” of his principles. Soon Moses was to extend his power, becoming New York City’s Park Commissioner and the president of the Triborough Bridge Authority. The tolls gathered from this latter role were to help bankroll his extensive road-building programme.
Caro pays close attention to the precise details of human lives. Moses was notoriously indifferent to such things, preferring instead the grand vision while ignoring the consequences. The Power Broker is acutely concerned with those consequences. The book painstakingly documents the lives of campaigners who opposed him, the poorer residents displaced by his roads, and the indefatigable work of the young reporters whose concerted campaign of muckraking helped to radically change public perception of Moses.
Caro perhaps sees in these reporters a foreshadowing of his own method. Huge as this book is, and broad in its historical and biographical sweep, it is dependent on a reporter’s tirelessness. Aside from being a considerable work of biography, The Power Broker is a near-peerless work of narrative nonfiction. Caro’s style is born of his obsessive attention to detail: he specialises in the rapid-fire accumulation of crushing facts, and the well-placed one-sentence paragraph that knocks you out like a sucker-punch. The chapter titled One Mile, which looks at the destruction wrought by Moses during the building of a single mile of the seven-mile-long Cross-Bronx-Expressway, stands out – but there are many moments of greatness in this brilliant book.
Near the end of The Power Broker, Caro writes that Moses thought of New York City as “a product he had created”. Caro shows how this product was a faulty one constructed by a blinkered visionary. Moses wasn’t alone in his belief that the car would be the prime mode of transport – and he built hundreds of miles of parkways to accommodate them – but his wilful obstruction of public transport in New York was to the detriment of the city. His slum clearance was informed by his own prejudice against non-whites and the poor. The centralisation of a city’s power in one man made it subject to that man’s whims.
The fall of Moses, when it finally happened, happened relatively quickly. Moses, up until then seemingly impossible to dislodge from power, found himself working with – that is to say, up against – governor Nelson Rockefeller. Moses, who had in the past always used the threat of resignation to successfully get his way, finally found his resignation accepted. While Rockefeller saw the expansion of public transportation as essential, it seems certain that Moses would have continued to pour money into roads and bridges, escalating gridlock exponentially. For the first time, Moses found himself outgunned and outthought by a foe whose power was greater than his, and had even deeper foundations.
Moses, still alive when Caro’s book was published, died aged 92 in 1981. In the final chapter, Caro travels to meet Moses at a rented summer cottage on Long Island. As Moses sits at his desk, outlining further plans for New York, plans that he’d never achieve, Caro notices on the wall a giant map of the metropolitan region, on which are marked solid lines representing projects built, but many more broken lines representing those not yet realised.
After a number of meetings with Caro, Moses cut off contact with the biographer. Perhaps he could tell, so soon after being defeated by Rockefeller, that he had encountered another powerful foe, and that The Power Broker would not rescue his reputation, but destroy it.
Karl Whitney is the author of Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin (Penguin)