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The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall…

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974)

by Robert A. Caro

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Robert Moses may not be a familiar name to many people but Robert Caro's extensive biography argues that he was one of the most powerful persons in the United States in the 20th century. Moses was a man of contrasts. While known as a park commissioner, his greatest achievements were highways, bridges, and tunnels. While radically redesigning cities to accommodate to the automobile, he never learned how to drive himself. And while dedicating his life to creating great public works, Moses was dismissive of the people who would use them.

Caro, as a biographer is most interested in the idea of power, how it is gained and how it is used. Since publishing The Power Broker in 1974, Caro has dedicated his life to writing a multi-volume biography of another powerful figure, Lyndon B. Johnson. While not a strict biography, nevertheless does begin with an exploration of Moses' youth. Born into prosperity, Moses is strongly influenced by his grandmother and mother who consider their family exceptional. Moses is isolated when attending Yale, partially due to being Jewish (although Moses was not actively religious) and partially because of his bookishness. Moses would instead create new organizations within the university and put himself at the head, a pattern established for his future.

As a Rhodes Scholar studying at Oxford, he studied the British Civil Service, and became determined to implement its ideas in the United States. Despite establishing himself as an idealist and opposed to the corruption of New York's machine politics, Moses is not able to gain influence until he attracts the attention of Tammany Hall governor Alfred E. Smith and becomes his advisor. Smith and Moses would become very close and although Moses would work under 6 governors, Smith is the only one he ever referred to as "Governor." Later, when Moses renovated the Central Park Zoo, Moses recognized his friend's love of animals and made him Honorary Night Zookeeper, so Smith could bring his guests to the zoo after hours

Moses comprehensive knowledge of law lead him to draft numerous bills which the legislature enacted unwittingly giving Moses extensive power. By the time many lawmakers realized what they had done it was too late to remove Moses from office. Smith appointed Moses as President of the Long Island State Park Commission and Chairman of the New York State Council of Parks in 1924 (positions he retained until 1963). Moses also served as New York Secretary of State in 1927-1928.

Moses' earliest projects focused on Long Island. In the 1920s, New York City residents overwhelmed by the summer heat sought to find a bathing beach to cool off at, but instead found themselves on narrow, congested roads and turned away from beaches that were privately owned by Long Island Robber Barons. Moses built parkways from the city to the new public bathing beaches he also designed. His crowning achievement, Jones Beach, opened in 1929 providing beach access to tens of thousands of New Yorkers as well as two enormous bathhouses, a boardwalk, restaurant, an outdoor amphitheater, and numerous recreational sports facilities. Moses' design was extensively themed to ships and maritime activities, with staff in sailors' outfits, who fastidiously picked up litter seems to presage Disneyland (Moses and Walt Disney would later work together on the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair).

The beaches and the parkways that lead to them made Moses a very popular figure and he became seen as someone who could get things done amid New York's corrupt and gridlocked politicians. Moses played on the popular perception that he fought the Robber Barons for land to build the parkways, when in fact he actually moved them several miles to accommodate the desires of the wealthy, while providing no similar accommodations to poorer farmers. Moses also designed the parkways to be crossed by low bridges, preventing them from being used by buses, which many people - including Caro - believe he did deliberately to keep New York City's poorest residents, especially African Americans, from getting to the beaches.

In 1934, while retaining his state positions, Moses was appointed commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks. This meant he would be working with the city's newly elected mayor, Fiorello H. La Guardia, a Progressive Republican who campaigned against Tammany corruption and promised new housing, hospitals, schools, parks, and transportation. La Guardia and Moses didn't see eye to eye, but Moses had the ability to get money from Federal and state programs and use it to get things done. Moses was able to rebuild dozens of parks and playground and cheaply acquire or redistrict land to build new parks. While unable to get the housing, schools, and hospitals he desired, La Guardia could always appear at the dedication of another Moses park to show that he was getting something done as mayor. Caro details that despite the hundreds of parks, playgrounds, pools and other features opened by Moses, that it was not done in an equitable way. African-American neighborhoods like Harlem received very few parks while middle-class white neighborhoods got an abundance.

Moses ran for governor in 1934, which proved to be a miserable failure as his natural arrogance didn't play well in the campaign. Nevertheless, his parks made him popular with the people, and he particularly received strong support from the newspapers. While never holding elective office, he would eventually hold as many as 12 appointed positions at the same time. Elected officials who served at the whims of the voters found themselves needing to work with Moses if they wished to get anything done. If they tried to stand up to him, Moses simply wouldn't distribute money to their projects, and in fact would hold a grudge and never work with them again. Moses would respond to efforts to slow or rethink his projects by having his crews go in and lay out a roadbed or bulldoze all the trees, making his project a fait accomplis. Moses would also openly criticize his opponents by creating scandalous rumors about them, including derailing the careers of several politicians by accusing them of being Communists, decades before Joe McCarthy would use the same tactics. Moses vindictive streak can also be seen in his destruction of the Central Park Casino, an historic building in the park that was renovated into a restaurant and nightclub in the 1920s. The Casino became the place where Moses' rival Mayor Jimmy Walker entertained and conducted business, and Moses demolished the building as an act of revenge despite calls to renovate the building to its original public purposes.

Moses greatest source of power would come as Chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. The Tribourough Bridge is actually three separate spans connecting the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens by way of Randalls Island, opened in 1936. Moses' office beneath the toll plaza on Randalls Island became the base of his empire. The Triborough was able to bring tens of millions of dollars through toll revenues at a time when other city agencies were starved for cash. Moses raised even more money by selling bonds for construction projects, and instead of paying off the bonds, used the revenues for more projects, creating a cycle that kept Triborough in existence long beyond what lawmakers had expected. Moses merged the Triborough with other agencies, growing it to control seven bridges and two tunnels, as well a convention center called the New York Coliseum. In 1965, the Triborough was merged into the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which curiously still has the legal name of Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority to this day.

Moses also arranged the wording in his bridge construction bills to allow him to contract bridge approaches, which he used to build actual parkways through the city connecting the new bridges to existing parkways in Long Island and Westchester County. Eventually he took the lead on building highways throughout the city (with plans for more thankfully never completed). Moses used the term parkway because of the practice of early automobile owners taking leisurely, scenic drives, thus the highways were in themselves "parks" designed to display the best scenery. In practice, the parkways were used from their earliest days by commuters who typically looked at nothing but the bumper of the car in front of them.

This rigid adherence to his vision lead Moses to refuse to amend his plans for the Henry Hudson Parkway on the west side of Manhattan and into the Bronx. Scientists pointed out that the highway cut through a unique wetlands in the Bronx. Residents of Manhattan's Inwood neighborhood noted that Parkway would destroy the last old growth forest on the island. The plan also included Moses Riverside Park along the Hudson River, yet the planned route of the parkway would cut off access to the river for people from adjoining neighborhoods. Alternative plans that shifted the parkway short distances to adjust for the wetlands, woods, and riverfront were all rejected by Moses.

In the late 1930s, Moses took control of a project to construct a link between the lower tip of Manhattan and Brooklyn. While many advocated for a tunnel, Moses insisted on a bridge which would include approach routes, a parking garage, and a connecting viaduct to the West Side Highway in Lower Manhattan. This construction would decimate Batter Park and the New York Aquarium at Castle Clinton, while forever altering the view of the city's skyline. In this instance, powerful financial district executives and leaders of old money families lead the opposition. Yet, even they could not defeat Moses as time after time city leaders were browbeaten into voting for Moses' plan.

Despite the fact that I know a Brooklyn-Battery Bridge does not exist, I was breathless during these passages wondering how Moses could be defeated. Turns out that President Franklin Roosevelt - a bitter enemy of Moses - was able to get the War Department to declare that if the bridge were destroyed in a bombing it would block access to the Brooklyn Navy Yard up the river. Moses took control of the tunnel project, but always complained about it and closed off the Battery Park behind fences for the decade of construction. He had the aquarium demolished and came close to destroying the historic Castle Clinton, before the Federal government once again intervened taking ownership of the fort as a National Monument. While Moses' opponents celebrated these victories, Caro notes the fact that Moses had become so powerful that only acts of the President could stop him was an ominous sign of what was to come. Moses did build a new aquarium at Coney Island, and while it had plentiful parking, it was much harder to access by public transit, and charged an admission fee, unlike it's free and centrally-located predecessor.

Moses justified the construction of new bridges and highways as ways of reducing congestion on the existing structures. Yet, as early as the 1930s, the flow of traffic increased on all bridges with the opening of each new bridge, as new construction encouraged more people to choose to drive cars (a process called "induced demand" although Caro doesn't use this term). Moses indifference, and even hostility, to public transit exacerbated congestion on the new highways. The construction of new highways also sped up the process of "White Flight" to the suburbs and lead to decay in the neighborhoods they sliced through. Caro notes that plans for the Van Wyck Expressway in the 1950s provided an opportunity to run a rapid transit line down the median that would perfectly connect Midtown Manhattan to the new Idewild Airport (now JFK Airport), but was rejected by Moses. He similarly dismissed suggestions for the Long Island Expressway to be bundled with a new high-speed commuter rail, allowing commuters to live in dense residential/commercial districts along the spine of Long Island. Moses plan for automobile-only infrastructure contributed to the growth of sprawl across Long Island the engulfed the natural beauty that made it a desirable place to live in the first place.

One of the most heartbreaking chapters of the Robert Moses story is the Cross Bronx Expressway. While previous highway building projects were on undeveloped land (in the suburbs) or along existing parks (in the City), the Expressway was planned to cut right through urban neighborhoods, displacing thousands of residents. People in the Bronx neighborhood of Tremont fought back, proposing an alternate route only a block to the south that would only destroy a handful of residents. Bronx borough officials agreed only to switch to Moses' side when the vote came. Oddly enough, the alternate route was more of a straight line than Moses' proposal, which ran counter to Moses' desiring highways to travel in straight lines. Caro is not able to explain why Moses refused to switch from his proposed route but rumors have it that the alternate route cut through property owned by a prominent Bronx official or because it cut through the depot of the then powerful Third Avenue Transit Company. Once construction began, Moses' operatives cruelly cut off the top floors of buildings once the occupants left, even while people continued to reside in the lower floors. Children walked to school alongside the deep trenches for the Expressway with no fences protecting them from falling in.

Moses fall from grace began with a deceptively smaller project, an attempt to demolish a Central Park playground in order to build more parking for Tavern on the Green. Prosperous mothers banded together and this time were able to defeat the Power Broker. Another Central Park battle centered on Moses opposition to free Shakespeare in the Park performances. But the big hit to Moses' reputation would be the 1964-1965 Worlds' Fair. In his arrogance, Moses was not able to get official sanction for the fair, and many nations refused to participate as a result. Actual attendance at the fair was much lower than Moses' projections and thus many of the fair was unable to fulfill many of the benefits it was supposed to provide to the city. Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and his family's interests in Chase Manhattan Bank, would finally have the influence to remove Moses from power in the late 1960s.

This is a long "review," more of a book report really, but there's a lot I want to remember about this book. This is an important book that details the irrevocable changes to New York City, and by extension to the United States, as the automobile was given priority. It's a cautionary tale of what can be lost when too much power is extended to an individual in a democracy under the auspices of "getting things done." ( )
1 vote Othemts | May 28, 2019 |
Although long, especially when listened to as an audio book it was a rewarding read. There are many lessons - not the least of which is that Robert Moses was very smart and focused. He also made misjudgements - some of which reflect larger mistakes in the US - such as the idea that building roads solves traffic problems. Building roads instead encourages suburbinization which is less sustainalbe than urbanization.
It is also a lesson on the relationship between individiuals and power. Clearly the nominal organization tree doesn’t reflect true power hierarchies. It is interesting the degree to which the press failed to recognize that about Moses. Had Moses not been present would New York’s mass transit be better and would the city be as big? Food for thought.
I attended the New York’s World Fair - I think it was in 1963. I vaguely remember hearing about Moses at the time. We had traveled to New York fro Los Angeles, but my father had lived in New York for about 2 years. I also had a cousin living there so I had a delightful experience. I still recall the Pieta, Belgian waffles, and GEs carosel of progress. I wouldn’t have missed the experience.It is also a good history of the early 20th century. New York was an axis for many national issues. ( )
  waldhaus1 | May 18, 2019 |
SCRIBD Caro - The Power Broker (Full and Light)
Uploaded by Paul Laroque on Apr 14, 2013
The New Yorker, July 22 to August 19 1974, Full Article about Robert Moses in Annals of Politics
  lulaa | Sep 28, 2018 |
An epic story of Robert Moses's career spent transforming the New York area, especially in parks, bridges, roads and housing. Moses built on an incredible scale. Certainly he made terrible, irremediable mistakes, but he did get things done, beyond what anyone else has done before or since.

The blow-by-blow details of how Moses got things done, accumulating and maintaining power, ensconcing himself as the unaccountable head of the Triborough Bridge Authority as well as around a dozen other city and state positions, are fascinating. Although initially an idealist reformer, even working without taking a salary, Moses is soon corrupted---not so much by money for himself, although he enjoyed perks and luxury, as by whatever it took, including money, to control others. He battles with mayors, governors, even President FDR, and is only taken down by Governor Nelson Rockefeller (whose unique advantages included being of the family controlling Chase Manhattan Bank, which was the trustee for the Triborough bonds, and who manages to trick Moses into allowing his authority to be merged into a larger transit authority with no role for Moses). He takes what levers he has, and uses them (for example, knowing future road routes is quite useful for a local politician, to profit from development instead of fighting it). Moses defends his own position (e.g., keeping files on everyone). Moses is arrogant and does not like the public, and his reputation is eventually destroyed as he futilely battles the press---while still maintaining his power.

Moses himself is less interesting a character than Caro's other biography subject, LBJ. Moses ages poorly, becoming a deaf old codger. Having surrounded himself with yes-men, he is unable to recognize that New York's problems have changed. Traffic won't be solved by another bridge or a cross-town expressway. Mass transit is needed, but Moses is fixedly opposed to mass transit (not only refusing to build it, or to reserve some space along his parkways for future transit---but deliberately trying to frustrate transit by, for example, making the overpasses too low for buses). Moses is narrow-minded. He never learns to drive and for his whole life he thinks of driving as a recreational activity for the wealthy. He is severely racist, and would like to keep the poor away from his parks. He is in my opinion much less perspicacious than Caro tries to argue. He is not a sympathetic figure. The tragedy is not Moses, but the victims of his housing condemnations (often made for corrupt reasons) and, especially, the major development mistakes he made in laying out Long Island parkways to encourage sprawl.

The book is occasionally repetitive and drawn-out. It could probably be edited to half the length. But why would you want it to be? The story, and the writing, are fantastic. ( )
1 vote breic | Aug 1, 2018 |
In the middle of New York City, a man sits on an island in the headquarters of a bridge and tunnel authority, collecting tolls without end from the drivers passing through, his vaunting dictatorial powers to build and regulate parks, roads and any facilities he pleases written into indefeasible bond contracts protected against interference from city or state by the US Constitution: a man who plotted with sociopathic genius his way to arbitrary power through the unsuspected minutiae of city government, to the point where NYC became his own Sim City.

This is a compelling study of the man who shaped New York's built environment. A domineering, misanthropic narcissist who used every trick in the book to "get things done", Robert Moses deployed corruption, abuse of power, blackmail, legal chicanery, slander and more to ensure he got his way as he constructed parks, highways, bridges, apartment blocks and prestige projects. His highways failed to relieve traffic; his improvements often systematically and maliciously neglected minority populations; he callously condemned natural areas and communities that got in his way to demolition or ruination; he left a trail of appalled and ruined people behind him while long garnering almost unwavering public and press support. It is really something to write a 1,100-page book about a city planner that reads as a thrilling page-turner: on every page the reader will find fascinating material about how one man, who was decisively rejected on the only occasion he sought an elected position, was able to do so much and amass so much power, what kind of character that took, and what it cost the people and the city around him. ( )
  wa233 | Apr 19, 2018 |
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From time to time Mr. Caro feels that he ought to explain why Moses is what he is and his narrative is occasionally marred by vulgar Freudianisms in the Leon Edel manner. This is a pity because the chief interest of biography is not why men do what they do, which can never be known unless one turns novelist the way Freud did when he wrote Leonardo, but what they do. One does not want a theory explaining Moses's celebrated vindictiveness when examples of that vindictiveness are a matter of interesting record. For instance, after a run-in with Mayor Jimmy Walker, Moses tore down the Casino in Central Park because Walker had patronized it; yet the building itself was a charming relic of the previous century and the people's property. Prematurely, he razed a yacht club because the members "were rude to me." Shades of Richard Nixon! Petty revenge was certainly behind his desire to remove the Battery's most famous landmark-the Aquarium in the old fort known as Castle Garden...

Finally, in looking back over all that Robert Moses has done to the world we live in and, more important, the way that he did it by early mastering the twin arts of publicity and of corruption, one sees in the design of his career a perfect blueprint for that inevitable figure, perhaps even now standing in the wings of the Republic, rehearsing to himself such phrases as "law and order," "renewal and reform," "sacrifice and triumph," the first popularly elected dictator of the United States.
added by SnootyBaronet | editThe New York Review of Books, Gore Vidal
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As The captain of the Yale swimming team stood beside the pool, still dripping after his laps, and listened to Bob Moses, the team's second-best freestyler, he didn't know what shocked him more—the suggestion or the fact that it was Moses who was making it.
You can draw any kind of picture you want on a clean slate and indulge your every whim in the wilderness in laying out a New Delhi, Canberra, or Brasilia, but when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0394720245, Paperback)

One of the most acclaimed books of our time, winner of both the Pulitzer and the Francis Parkman prizes, The Power Broker tells the hidden story behind the shaping (and mis-shaping) of twentieth-century New York (city and state) and makes public what few have known: that Robert Moses was, for almost half a century, the single most powerful man of our time in New York, the shaper not only of the city's politics but of its physical structure and the problems of urban decline that plague us today.

In revealing how Moses did it--how he developed his public authorities into a political machine that was virtually a fourth branch of government, one that could bring to their knees Governors and Mayors (from La Guardia to Lindsay) by mobilizing banks, contractors, labor unions, insurance firms, even the press and the Church, into an irresistible economic force--Robert Caro reveals how power works in all the cities of the United States. Moses built an empire and lived like an emperor. He personally conceived and completed public works costing 27 billion dollars--the greatest builder America (and probably the world) has ever known. Without ever having been elected to office, he dominated the men who were--even his most bitter enemy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, could not control him--until he finally encountered, in Nelson Rockefeller, the only man whose power (and ruthlessness in wielding it) equalled his own.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:03 -0400)

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Moses is pictured as idealist reformer and political manipulator as his rise to power and eventual domination of New York State politics is documented.

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