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

Modern Library Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century

I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without removing people as I hail the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs.
Robert Moses, 1974

If you've not yet bought your Summer vacation books, allow a strong pitch for this one. It has all the drama and scope of a great tragedy and, more than just a biography, it is the story of the failure of liberalism, its corruption by power and its blindness to the manner in which even well-intended government projects have a destructive effect on society.

On the very first page, Mr. Caro writes:
[M]oses was always talking--quite movingly, too--about dedicating his life to public service, to helping the lower classes.
On the very last page--1161 pages later--he writes:
In private, his conversation dwelt more and more on a single theme--the ingratitude of the public toward great men.
In between, while building the New York City and surrounding area that we know today, and defining urban planning in the 20th century:
The whole life of Robert Moses, in fact, has been a a drama of the interplay of power and personality. For a time. standing between it and him was an interceding force, the passionate idealism he had expressed in the Yale bull sessions. Dedicating his life to public service, he remained, during the first years of that service, the idealist of those bull sessions, an idealist possessed, moreover, of a vision of such breadth that he was soon dreaming dreams of public works on a scale that would dwarf any yet built in the cities of America.
But then, as a young reformer in Mayor John Purroy Mitchel's administration, in the mid-1910s, he ran afoul of Tammany Hall and ended up traveling as far as Cleveland just looking for a minor municipal job:
When the curtain rose on the next act of Moses' life, idealism was gone from the stage. In its place was an understanding that ideas--dreams--were useless without power to transform them into reality. Moses spent the rest of his life amassing power...
The story of the getting of that power, of the losing of that power, of the magnificent uses of that power, and of the senseless annihilation of neighborhoods, communities, and ways of life in the exercise of that power, makes for an almost Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. The next time an American composer feels the urge to write an opera, this could be the libretto. Many people regard it as the best biography ever written--with its interplay of personal, political and universal themes it may actually be the greatest book ever written. It is the Great American Novel; it just happens to all be true.


Grade: (A+)


Robert Caro Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Robert Caro
-AUTHOR SITE: Robert A. Caro
    -BOOKNOTES: Means of Ascent by Robert Caro (C-SPAN, April 29, 1990)
LAMB: Can you remember the moment, the first moment that you said, "I want to do Lyndon Johnson?"

CARO: Well, I was a reporter on Newsday, and what I realized was not that I wanted to do biographies, Brian. I never conceived of writing books just as the lives of famous men. I really had no interest in that at all. What I wanted to do was explain how political power worked, because I was a reporter and I was covering politics, and I felt that I wasn't really explaining what I had gone into the newspaper business to explain, which was how political power worked, and a lot of it led back to this man, Robert Moses, a lot of what I didn't understand. Now, here was a guy who was never elected to anything, and I was coming to realize that he had more power than anyone who was governor or mayor.

LAMB: Who was he, by the way?

CARO: Well, Robert Moses was this Park Commissioner of New York and the Chairman of the Triborough Bridge Authority. He built every bridge that has been built in New York since 1930. The Verazano, Throgsneck, Bronx, Whitestone, Henry Hudson. He built every mile of expressway and parkway that's been built in New York since the 1920s. All the parks he either built or rebuilt. He created so much of the landscape of New York. The book is called, "The Power Broker" and I really picked that title because he wasn't elected to anything, he got power from extra democratic means, such as the public authority.

He created public authorities in their present form, but I would be reporter, and no one knew this, including me, and I would be sitting there, and you typed City Park Commissioner, Robert Moses, and I'd wonder what did that have to do with the fact that he built the Long Island Expressway. Or you typed Triborough Bridge Authority, Robert Moses, and you'd say, well what exactly is an "authority", you know. We thought it was just something that built one bridge, collected tolls and went out of business. So I really wanted to examine how urban political power worked. I thought I could do it through the means of the life of Robert Moses, and all the time I was doing it, see I never thought I'd get to do another book, because we were just broke, the whole, I had a tiny advance. No one thought anyone would be interested in the book on Robert Moses. All I was trying to do was finish it.

    INTERVIEW: Interviews : Robert Caro, The Art of Biography No. 5 (James Santel, Paris Review)
    -INTERVIEW: Conversation: Award Winner Caro (Online NewsHour , June 3, 2003)
    -AWARD: Master of the Senate by Robert Caro (2002 National Book Award)
-ESSAY: Robert Caro’s Journalism Lessons: A trip to the New York Historical Society’s exhibition of the legendary biographer’s archive with CUNY journalism graduate students (Alex Shephard, December 7, 2021, New Republic))
    -ESSAY: Caro's Way (Scott Sherman, Columbia Journalism Review)
    -Robert A. Caro    -PROFILE: The Lifer: What could possibly have made biographer Robert Caro devote nearly three decades (and counting) to chronicling the life of LBJ? It's all about his -- and our -- addiction to power. (Michael Wolff, New York)
    -PROFILE: Mastering Johnson: Lyndon Johnson has consumed more than a quarter-century of Robert Caro's life. So what's a few more years? (Don McLeese, May/June 2002, Book)
    -PROFILE: Ghost Buster (Eric Alterman, 4/18/02, The Nation)
    -ARCHIVES: "robert a. caro" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of MASTER OF THE SENATE: The Years of Lyndon Johnson By Robert A. Caro (Anthony Lewis, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Master of the Senate (Jill Abramson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Master of the Senate (Ronald Steel, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of Master of the Senate (Alex Lee, Yale Review of Books)
    -VIDEO REVIEW: Turn Every Page (Jeannette Cooperman, Common Reader)

Book-related and General Links:

-REVIEW ESSAY: Car Crash: Straight Line Crazy, a new play about Robert Moses, can’t get out of its own way. (Nicole Gelinas, October 25, 2022, City Journal)
    -VIDEO: The Master Builder (1977) (cHANNEL 13)
    -ESSAY: The psychopath who wrecked New York: Robert Moses played the humble public servant, yet he despised the poor (Robert Gore-Langton, March 19, 2022, Spectator)
OBITUARY: Robert Moses, Master Builder, is Dead at 92 (PAUL GOLDBERGER, July 30, 1981, The New York Times)
Robert Moses, who played a larger role in shaping the physical environment of New York State than any other figure in the 20th century, died early yesterday at West Islip, L.I. Mr. Moses, whose long list of public offices only begins to hint at his impact on both the city and state of New York, was 92 years old.

A spokesman for Good Samaritan Hospital said he had been taken there Tuesday afternoon from his summer home in Gilgo Beach. The cause of death was given as heart failure.

"Those who can, build,' Mr. Moses once said. 'Those who can't, criticize.' Robert Moses was, in every sense of the word, New York's master builder. Neither an architect, a planner, a lawyer nor even, in the strictest sense, a politician, he changed the face of the state more than anyone who was. Before him, there was no Triborough Bridge, Jones Beach State Park, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, West Side Highway or Long Island parkway system or Niagara and St. Lawrence power projects. He built all of these and more.

Before Mr. Moses, New York State had a modest amount of parkland; when he left his position as chief of the state park system, the state had 2,567,256 acres. He built 658 playgrounds in New York City, 416 miles of parkways and 13 bridges.

But he was more than just a builder. Although he disdained theories, he was a major theoretical influence on the shape of the American city, because the works he created in New York proved a model for the nation at large. His vision of a city of highways and towers -which in his later years came to be discredited by younger planners - influenced the planning of cities around the nation.

His guiding hand made New York, known as a city of mass transit, also the nation's first city for the automobile age. Under Mr. Moses, the metropolitan area came to have more highway miles than Los Angeles does; Moses projects anticipated such later automobile-oriented efforts as the Los Angeles freeway system.

But where Los Angeles grew up around its highways, Mr. Moses thrust many of New York's great ribbons of concrete across an older and largely settled urban landscape, altering it drastically. He further changed the landscape with rows of red-brick apartment towers for low- and middle-income residents, asphalt playgrounds and huge sports stadiums.

The Moses vision of New York was less one of neighborhoods and brownstones than one of soaring towers, open parks, highways and beaches - not the sidewalks of New York but the American dream of the open road. [...]

Mr. Moses was closely associated with a view of city planning as a sweeping, total process to be carried out on a grand scale and, as that view began to be replaced with a more modest, preservation oriented philosophy in the 1960's, his reputation began to suffer.

He indicated no wish to change with the times, but held to his views more ardently than ever in his later years, dismissing community opposition to his vast projects by saying, as he did in a 1974 statement, 'I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without removing people as I hail the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs.'

The statement came in a much-publicized 3,500-word rebuttal that Mr. Moses offered to a highly critical biography of him by Robert Caro published in 1974, The Power Broker. The exhaustive 1,246-page work, which won the Pulitzer Prize, was written from the perspective of the newer approach to planning and redevelopment, and it contended that Mr. Moses had callously removed residents of neighborhoods undergoing urban renewal, had destroyed the traditional fabric of urban neighborhoods in favor of a landscape of red-brick towers and throughout his career had worked somewhat outside the normal democratic process.

Mr. Moses was deeply hurt by the great attention given the book, the only full-length investigative biography of him ever written. For while Mr. Caro called Mr. Moses a genius and 'perhaps the single most influential seminal thinker' in 20th-century urban renewal, the book's overall tone clearly indicated the extent to which Mr. Moses' views had become different from those of the mainstream of planners and politicians by 1974.

    -ESSAY: ON THE BRIDGE: The Verrazano-Narrows and the shape of New York (Gay Talese, 2002-12-02, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: The Master Builder: How planner Robert Moses transformed Long Island for the 20th Century and beyond (George DeWan, Newsday)
    -ESSAY: WHOLLY MOSES (Keith Kloor, June 2002, City Limits)
    -Robert Moses (Reference Library: Encyclopedia)
    -ESSAY: The Power Broker Revisited (Erica Pearson, August 18, 2003, Gotham Gazette)
    -ESSAY: Generating Traffic: A Legacy of Congestion
    -ESSAY: Robert Moses: A Tribute To The Man And His Impact On The Borough (Ginna Purrington, 6/30/99, Queens Gazette)