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The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974)
by Robert A. Caro
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I loved this biography of Robert Moses, a man I had never heard of before. He is a fascinating character. He started off an idealistic young man that wanted to make the world a better place, and became the most powerful man in New York. At one time, he held 12 different jobs in the city and state government. The ending of the story is pretty sad (how could it not be?).
At 1245+ pages, this is almost too heavy to hold to read; however, fascinating look at a man who had so much influence, both good and bad, on New York City. Robert Moses was the son of a privileged and strongly opinionated mother. He received the best education possible and went to work in various offices always intending to do what was right and with a vision of how the world should be. Eventually he was appointed the Commissioner of Parks for New York City and his power grew to the point that he was almost uncontrollable. He worked (or manipulated mayors, governors, Congresspeople.
The book reads almost like a novel, but with so much detail the reader can almost read every other page and get the gist of the story. This is probably the most intently researched book I've ever encountered. The writing style is so readable yet with so much detail.
So many interesting characters: LaGuardia, Al Smith, Nelson Rockefeller. I admit I did not read every page, but am so impressed. What a life, and what an example of what power does to the individual who can then in turn affect the lives of so many other people.
An epic and important--but undeniably hard to read--classic in urban planning. Moses is one of the most infamous people in 20th century planning and the history of New York, and much of that credit is due to Caro's classic. In a sprawling, 1,161-page (!) narrative, the author takes us through Moses' life from an upper-crust childhood and through the frustrating times of trying to establish a career, before we get into the jobs that actually cemented his legacy over a decades-long grasp of power building parks, beaches, highways (so many highways!), tunnels, and his beloved bridges. Once he got to that point, Moses was openly corrupt, physically and verbally violent toward subordinates, and an avowed racist.
If that wasn't enough, his life and pet projects were heavily subsidized throughout early adulthood by his wealthy mother, never seeming to appreciate this advantage or even understand how everyday New Yorkers, the users of his public works, lived without them. As a result, playgrounds weren't located in poor and working-class neighborhoods, highways were chronically congested from their opening day, mass transit was left without investment for decades, and worst of all, literally thousands of New Yorkers had their homes taken and bulldozed, all because Moses didn't consider the individual to matter in the face of building great works. Those factors all contribute to the full story of who Robert Moses was, and it's important they are in the story, but it does make this hard to read in some points. Nevertheless I am glad this hefty biography exists, for the benefit of the history of planning and what not to do as a practitioner.
When I first open The Power Broker to begin reading it and slowly turn past the maps, copyright, title page, and table of contents to the introduction, my heart beats a little faster. I love this. The length of this book, 1246 pages, doesn’t intimidate me. I love this. I’ve wanted to read this for years, years of hearing this is among the greatest biographies ever. I love this.
Robert Caro paints the portrait of Robert Moses, builder of New York City, first broadly, then in fine detail. The portrait is not idealized: though one could read the broad portrait and find a genius god-man who formed New York City into the modern marvel we know, that is not a complete picture. Caro fills in the moral corruption in the soul of Moses. His anger is shown, his manipulation is revealed, his lies are detailed. Perhaps he believed the ends justified the means — how could he not? — but most people will come away from this believing the means do not justify this end.
The strength of The Power Broker is Robert Caro’s clear, direct writing. This is a complex subject without complex language. A fifth grader could understand this. This doesn’t reduce Caro at all, for simplicity is necessary. Beyond the simplicity, however, Caro uses colorful language to great effect. His characters are not just “politicians” but “red-faced, burly, cigar-smoking” politicians. The anger becomes visceral, the rooms smoke-filled, and the air acrid from both.
Carl’s organization of the book is masterful. In the first 250 pages, we learn about Moses’s efforts to develop parks in Long Island, then in the chapter on Moses’s relationship with FDR, the reader learns Moses was fighting the future president on budget accommodation at that same time. Rather than told chronologically, Moses’s life is told by subject: to great effect.
Though end it must. Robert Moses was not immortal, though he may have thought he was. This man, with amazing ideas and a career unparalleled in modern history (Caro has to look back to Ancient Rome to find a comparable builder, and even then falls short), idealized, then compromised, then lied, cheated, and abused his way into power to shape his city in the image he desired. Long Island is a suburb of New York due to his decisions. Both public transportation and car traffic in New York City are many times worse due to his decisions. He neglected advice or other experience because of his desires to bend others to his will. Eventually, his hubris and his arrogance was his downfall. Caro parallels this with the downfall of the city, but New York has seemed to recover over the last few decades since the book was written. It will, however, never be the same because of the man that carved his image into it. Perhaps Moses’s reputation never will be either.
Lined I liked —
- One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been. - Sophocles
- “All decisions should be unanimous. If not, I will make the decision.”
- Water alone slacked the tautness of existence. Water seemed to attract him.
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.
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Everywhere acknowledged as a modern American classic, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and chosen by the Modern Library as one of the hundred greatest books of the twentieth century, The Power Broker is a huge and galvanizing biography revealing not only the saga of one man's incredible accumulation of power, but the story of the shaping (and mis-shaping) of New York in the twentieth century. Robert Caro's monumental book makes public what few outsiders knew: that Robert Moses was the single most powerful man of his time in the City and in the State of New York. And in telling the Moses story, Caro both opens up to an unprecedented degree the way in which politics really happens--the way things really get done in America's City Halls and Statehouses--and brings to light a bonanza of vital information about such national figures as Alfred E. Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt (and the genesis of their blood feud), about Fiorello La Guardia, John V. Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller. But The Power Broker is first and foremost a brilliant multidimensional portrait of a man--an extraordinary man who, denied power within the normal framework of the democratic process, stepped outside that framework to grasp power sufficient to shape a great city and to hold sway over the very texture of millions of lives. We see how Moses began: the handsome, intellectual young heir to the world of Our Crowd, an idealist. How, rebuffed by the entrenched political establishment, he fought for the power to accomplish his ideals. How he first created a miraculous flowering of parks and parkways, playlands and beaches--and then ultimately brought down on the city the smog-choked aridity of our urban landscape, the endless miles of (never sufficient) highway, the hopeless sprawl of Long Island, the massive failures of public housing, and countless other barriers to humane living. How, inevitably, the accumulation of power became an end in itself. Moses built an empire and lived like an emperor. He was held in fear--his dossiers could disgorge the dark secret of anyone who opposed him. He was, he claimed, above politics, above deals; and through decade after decade, the newspapers and the public believed. Meanwhile, he was developing his public authorities into a fourth branch of government known as "Triborough"--a government whose records were closed to the public, whose policies and plans were decided not by voters or elected officials but solely by Moses--an immense economic force directing pressure on labor unions, on banks, on all the city's political and economic institutions, and on the press, and on the Church. He doled out millions of dollars' worth of legal fees, insurance commissions, lucrative contracts on the basis of who could best pay him back in the only coin he coveted: power. He dominated the politics and politicians of his time--without ever having been elected to any office. He was, in essence, above our democratic system. Robert Moses held power in the state for 44 years, through the governorships of Smith, Roosevelt, Lehman, Dewey, Harriman and Rockefeller, and in the city for 34 years, through the mayoralties of La Guardia, O'Dwyer, Impellitteri, Wagner and Lindsay, He personally conceived and carried through public works costing 27 billion dollars--he was undoubtedly America's greatest builder. This is how he built and dominated New York--before, finally, he was stripped of his reputation (by the press) and his power (by Nelson Rockefeller). But his work, and his will, had been done.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)974.7040924History and Geography North America Northeastern U.S. New York
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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. ( )