Before Reading “The Power Broker”

I’m 1/6 of the way through The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. The audiobook doesn’t divide in exactly the same way as the book does, but that sixth takes me through Moses’ first 35 years. Most of that time, he personally has no power at all.

Brief overview: Robert Moses would become one of the most influential public officials in 20th century New York. As a city planner, he would build and run unaccountable public authorities to achieve his vision of New York, which favored cars over public transit and dotted and crossed the metropolitan area with public parks and highways (often without regard for who or what was already there). He was the model authoritarian urban planner.

And it’s how he did it that was so remarkable. Robert Moses never held elected office. Mayors came and went, Governors came and went, but Robert Moses was a constant force in shaping New York for decades. He’s a man who turned roadbuilding into a method to reward or punish his political enemies, who invented laws and boards and then used them to sculpt the city as he saw fit.

At the time this book was published, New York was in a nadir. The subtitle, The Fall of New York, in hindsight, can now be seen as a comical overreach. As one reviewer put it, Moses’ surgical modifications to the city were not necessarily in the public interest, but they weren’t fatal. Cities don’t die easily.

The book is still highly lauded as a story about New York City, about “cities in general” (especially since Moses’ model influenced other cities), as a biography of a fascinating person, and as a study in power.

I want to check some of my positions before sharing notes on the book.

Thinking About Cities: I have shared notes here from reading the Jane Jacobs-esque Against the Smart City (I, II, III), and from Sandy Pentland’s excited view of future “Data-Driven Cities” from his book Social Physics. I’ve written about the properties of cities in the abstract, and about Authoritarian High Modernism etc.

SimCity, my Urban Planning primer: I have no real background on urban planning itself. My exposure to it – please don’t laugh – is mostly through the SimCity franchise. SimCity has come up in the deep past of this blog (e.g. here and here) and a big part of the reason is that generative videogames like SimCity have always been a big interest to me as a player and as an amateur game designer.

As mayor (or really, God-King), the player reigns over a highly legible, maximally malleable cityscape, where every resident wants a automobile-friendly suburban paradise, and every decision you make gets nearly-instantaneously executed to your specifications. There are vague game objects representing different public interests, but they have little agency and put up little resistance- they mainly react to you, Mayor Xerxes. Residents are interchangeable. Zoning is easy. Whole layers of complication (markets! social society! racial and class strife! aging and death to a significant extent!) are extracted away- and these are not meant as criticisms. A good game needs to be simple enough to be playable. Still, it’s a useful exercise to determine where the simulation chooses to simplify, and what argument a variables existence or omission makes about the world it simulates.

It should go without saying that anything this book has to say about urban planning will probably be new to me. And, even as a citizen of New York, I’m sure much of the city’s history in the book will also be a revelation- in the first slice here already, it has been.

On history and biographies in general: 

Sometimes it seems that folks that I know are reflexively over-concerned with bias in each other’s news or opinion sources. Let’s assume that the concern about bias is in good faith. Shouldn’t we be over this already? In a world with diminishing gatekeepers and central authorities, shouldn’t we be more adept at acknowledging the perspective of our sources without pretending that the disinterested authority was ever really a thing? As with the simulation gap in SimCity that I brought up earlier, writers make ‘editorial’ decisions in what they deem is relevant or significant to any given story. Being able to deliver any useful information requires a point of view, a shared understanding of the topic and some logic about what the topic means or doesn’t mean.

So, right, biographies are not final authorities on what actually happened. And time might vindicate or undermine aspects of Caro’s representation of Moses, or of New York as it was or is. I don’t believe that history (as in “thing that happened in the past”) happens to teach us moral lessons per se. But histories (as in “particular stories situated in past events”) are still useful tools to learn from precisely because they’re not disinterested list of facts.

Thinking about political power: On political power, I’ve written notes here from Fukuyama’s 40,000 foot view of political order and political decay, I’ve reacted to Kissinger’s World Order and his conceptions of ‘twin pillars’ of balance-of-power calculations and a shared sense of legitimacy. These are both very broad sweeps compared to the very specific episodes I’m beginning to see in The Power Broker.  I already see that Robert Moses found some way of wrapping himself into the mold of the disinterested scientific authority on urban planning, as a man of action with the public interest in mind (thus “legitimacy”) even while playing the hands he was dealt with incredible aggression. This will probably be the theme that will be developed the most in the book, judging from what I’ve heard so far.


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