Surviving Robert Moses

the-power-broker-p_1161886aReaders of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker (first published in 1974, but only out in the UK very recently) are going to be daunted by one obvious thing. This is a hardback that clocks in at eleven hundred pages and change. My uncle advised me to clear a month for his biography, but The Power Broker has the curious quality of the Game of Thrones books: it’s dense, dull, almost infuriating in places – and near impossible to put down.

There are long dead politicians and businessmen whose names are invoked in praise and curse on the street still. Robert Moses appears to have been quietly forgotten. The first reference I found outside of Caro was a line in Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities: ‘Robert Moses bringing expressways into New York’. And that’s an understatement. Although in NYC he began with parks, I think his real love was expressways, freeways, parkways, suspension bridges, arterials and gyrations, big, big roads. From Caro’s intro:

Standing out from the map’s delicate tracery of gridirons representing streets are heavy lines, lines girdling the city or slashing across its expanses. These lines denote the major roads on which automobiles and trucks move, roads whose very location, moreover, does as much as any single factor to determine where and how a city’s people live and work. With a single exception, the East River Drive, Robert Moses built every one of those roads. He built the Major Deegan Expressway, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Sheridan Expressway and the Bruckner Expressway. He built the Gowanus Expressway, the Prospect Expressway, the Whitestone Expressway, the Clearview Expressway and the Throgs Neck Expressway. He built the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Nassau Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway and the Long Island Expressway. He built the Harlem River Drive and the West Side Highway.

The Power Broker is like a three act play, and the reader forms three distinct impressions. At first we’re cheering on the young reformer Moses as he slices through Tammany Hall to lay decent green spaces for the city’s people. Disquiet creeps in as you understand the means he is prepared to employ to build his highways: families thrown out of their homes and lively intown communities ruined in the shadow of yet another gigantic overpass. By the final chapters, the reader applauds out of sheer joy as the Moses World Fair falls over, the press wake up to him and Rockefeller finally finds the balls to oust the old campaigner forever. Moses the passionate workaholic is brought to astounding life. He set up an office in his car, he graduated from Yale and Oxford, he ran an empire from an office under the Triborough Bridge, he near strangled a man in argument, he planned roads and waterfronts and zoos down to the smallest detail, his only recreation was swimming, he had no social life; he was genuinely terrifying.

There are bad men audiences are drawn to. There’s the Tony Soprano type who works his way up from nothing. Or the Roy Cohn (or Saul Goodman) style showman, who demonstrates a genuine delight in the buzz and the game. But although we respect, admire, and despise Robert Moses, we never really get to like him in Caro’s book. Probably the root of this is his unapologetic disregard for the common people in his life. Napoleon, historians say, had a fantastic memory for his soldiers’ names. Moses didn’t bother with such things. His contempt for people from New York’s ethnic minorities was common in his day, but still chilling on Caro’s page. Here’s a para from the days where Moses finally found time to extend a park to Harlem:

Robert Moses had always displayed a genius for adorning his creations with little details that made them fit in with their setting, that made the people who used them feel at home in them. There was a little detail on the playhouse-comfort station in the Harlem section of Riverside Park that is found nowhere else in the park. The wrought-iron trellises of the park’s other playhouses and comfort stations are decorated with designs like curling waves.

The wrought-iron trellises of the Harlem playhouse-comfort station are decorated with monkeys.

The Moses mania for carving up the city with highways was understandable because Moses began in the automotive age of the 1920s when cars were still a cool new thing that consumers associated with leisure and family time. As the decades went on, though, cars and roads came to be associated with stasis: the traffic jam. Supply creates demand. If you build it, they will come, the hippies said. If you build more and more roads, what you get is more and more traffic. Because Moses (who never learned to drive) was chauffeured everywhere in a limousine so large he could run a small office out of it, and in his later years surrounded himself with people who agreed with everything he said, the old campaigner never understood this. I can forgive the master builder that mistake, though – it’s one made by governments who right into the twenty first century give in too easily to the car lobby, and fail to build adequate mass transit systems into cities.

Reading about a life like this, all the work, all the meetings, all the politicking, heartbreak, ruination and shitty deals, the reader finally wonders: what, exactly, was the point of all that? You almost feel sorry for Moses in his eighties, finally thrown out of City Hall and unable to reconcile himself to a life without power – which for Moses meant a life without activity or diversion. (‘Things he had once enjoyed doing were less and less solace to him now. For no matter what he did, he could not get away from himself.’) It’s a fine thing to work hard, and shape a city. But the power broker could have used Darran Anderson’s advice that all buildings contain their own ruins.

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