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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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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. ( )
  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 |
Great book about how Robert Moses used power and then overstepped and overreached. Interesting history of New York city and state. Learned much. An abridged version would have been better. The author was way too wordy. ( )
  ShadowBarbara | Jan 27, 2017 |
Totally absorbing book. The subject matter is riveting and the prose is top-shelf. Paints an at times depressing picture of how New York was (and likely is) governed. ( )
  Whiskey3pa | Jun 8, 2014 |
Caro's blistering bio of urban planner Robert Moses. ( )
  schmicker | Apr 19, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
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)

(see all 2 descriptions)

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

» see all 2 descriptions

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