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The New York Sun reports Moses, in the totality of his reign as ‘Master Builder,’ “built 13 bridges, 416 miles of parkways, 658 playgrounds, and 150,000 housing units, spending $150 billion in today’s dollars” across the City of New York. Nearly unfathomable nowadays is that Moses was able to wield such lofty power, from the mid-1920′s through 1968, without holding any elected office. Instead, as reported by Paul Goldberger in his New York Times obituary, Moses “held several appointive offices and once occupied 12 positions simultaneously, including that of New York City Parks Commissioner, head of the State Parks Council, head of the State Power Commission and chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.”
These notes are on roughly the first 1/6 of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Since I listened to this as an audiobook, it’s hard to reference specific chapters etc. I can say that the notes below are based on Caro’s retelling of Moses’ life up until his mid-30’s, shortly after he is finally made Park Commissioner.
Early on, Moses is presented to the reader (or listener, as the case may be) as very smart, very literate and extremely self-assured. He also demonstrates an extreme attention to detail, a very elitist attitude, a high tolerance for risk. Robert Moses is a voracious reader, a lover of poetry, and also maybe cruelly aggressive. In the prologue, the author (Robert Caro) offers two glimpses of Robert Moses: one is college-aged Robert at Yale, threatening to quit the swim team if the team’s funding needs aren’t met (which includes his plan to be less-than-forthcoming to a potential donor about where the money is going… this turns out to be a motif); the other is a middle-aged Robert, self-assuredly threatening to quit his assigned posts if he does not also get a seat that he coveted but was denied by the Mayor, who gave him two other seats instead. Young Robert failed and quit swimming altogether. Older Robert Moses got exactly what he wanted, presumably as he always does. Caro questions how a person can have that kind of power in a democracy.2 Comments
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.Leave a Comment