Book Review: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro


Author: Robert Caro
Title: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York
Narrator: Robertson Dean
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2011) – Originally published in 1974
Summary/Review:

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.”

Recommended books:

Rating: *****

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