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

by Robert A. Caro

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2,947484,803 (4.58)71
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.… (more)
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» See also 71 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 49 (next | show all)
Finished part 1 4/23
Finished part 2 6/8
  jscape2000 | Apr 23, 2024 |
Simply a stunning achievement, and by far the best book of its kind I have ever read; perhaps the best book of any kind I have ever read.
  Mark_Feltskog | Dec 23, 2023 |
Changed how I think about New York and cities in general.

Actual conversation with a waitress when I was reading the book over lunch:

Waitress: That's a really big book! What's it about?

Me: The destruction of New York City.

Waitress: Oh, so it's science fiction?

Me: It's history. It already happened. ( )
1 vote Karen5Lund | Dec 1, 2023 |
This is a prime example of why non-fiction can be more captivating than fiction. It is unbelievable yet helps explain how and why things happen in the world as they do. You may not agree but you will miss out on so much if you ignore the show case of this book. It explains how the world is shaped good or bad. ( )
  khotenko | Aug 12, 2023 |
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. ( )
  fji65hj7 | May 14, 2023 |
Showing 1-5 of 49 (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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FOR INA

and for DR. JANET G. TRAVELL
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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.
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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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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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