A couple of months ago a package arrived that was large enough to fill almost all the available space in our small mailbox. I had a premonition of what it contained and the prospect of opening it made me uncomfortable, but open it I did to find, as I suspected, a copy of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and The Decline of New York by Robert Caro. It was from my friend Peter who had told me a while back that he was reading the Caro book. He was hoping he could convince me to do the same so we could discuss it, so my guess about the contents was on the mark.
The Power Broker was published in the mid-70s, and I’ve avoided reading it for more than 45 years for the simple reason that it is more than 1200 pages long. For a painfully slow reader approaching this behemoth is like booking space in a hermit’s cave for an indefinite period to allow time for the slow turning of that many pages. Faithful readers of my blog may remember that early on in the pandemic, I had committed to reading some of the long fiction classics like Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and Proust that had languished too long on my To Do list. This would be the first XXX-size non-fiction classic on my pandemic reading list. Peter’s appeal for an intellectual partner had penetrated my defenses. I had no choice but to dive in and, man, am I glad I did.
Peter, like me, is a native New Yorker. For anyone who grew up in the city and is older than 50, Robert Moses needs no introduction. We were surrounded by his “works” – highways, bridges, state parks, including his crown jewel, Jones Beach, which swallowed tens of thousands of New Yorkers on a summer weekend. I remember my sole visit there as a child, traversing its mammoth parking lot before one could catch even a distant glimpse of the ocean. Why only once? Because we didn’t own a car, which touches on a big piece of the Moses story. He was careful enough about keeping the “wrong people” away from his prize projects to order the height of the overpasses leading to his parks to be too low for buses to pass through. There were also special projects, like the Colosseum and the World’s Fair in Flushing. In a word, our modern-day Moses was everywhere, appearing to improve our lived environment while oblivious to the great harm he was causing.
When I re-read my first pass at this piece, I realized that it sounded too much like a book report. It didn’t capture at all the unexpected heat it generated in me. Confronting the details of Moses’s expanding power and the high-handed way in which he exercised it had me constantly interrupting my wife’s reading to beg to read to her one more piece of this story of power gone awry.
Over the course of more than forty years Moses established himself as an unstoppable force in the construction of parks, highways, bridges, dams and housing, both in New York City and across the state. Initially he used the newly created State Parks Commission and the Long Island Parks Commission to build the infrastructure that reshaped Long Island from a playground for the wealthy and a long-time home to fishermen and potato farmers to a weekend getaway for fresh air starved city folk and eventually to a bedroom for commuters working in the city.
Moses was a master at the art of drafting legislation, so the bill for every commission and authority he created protected that body from outside interference and vested decision-making in the commission’s board, which was often a one-person body or a small group loyal to the commissioner. All you had to do was get appointed to the commissioner’s chair, which Moses did 12 different times, holding all concurrently, a shocking and potentially toxic concentration of power in the hands of one man who was essentially accountable to no one.
His reign of power lasted through the administrations of many governors, and later, when his attention shifted to the city itself, through the tenures of a long string of mayors. He was able build power and influence through his almost maniacal work ethic and his ability to get things done in areas popular with the general public. Everybody (almost) loved parks and the increased access to them through the highways he built. His reputation for planning projects and pushing them through speedily in ways that appeared to be free of corruption and political influence won him support not only from ordinary citizens but from the powerful New York press which cranked out countless laudatory editorials and provided a platform for Moses’s own flood of self-aggrandizing articles. His popularity was such that any time questions were raised about the wisdom of a particular project – the expense of a bridge, the route of a highway – he would threaten to quit if it wasn’t done his way, knowing that his departure would raise an angry outcry from both press and public. One after another, mayors and governors made the painful discovery that they didn’t even have the power to fire him because of the crafty way he had written himself into power.
Later when the Federal government made substantial funds available for “slum clearance,” Moses added housing to his portfolio. Already, in the building of highways, he had displayed his indifference to the fate of the people affected, particularly if they were Black or Hispanic, whose homes stood in the way of his wrecking ball. He demonstrated little concern for erasing entire vibrant neighborhoods, as he did in building the Cross Bronx Expressway. In housing, this disregard for community and his indifference to the suffering of individuals and families displaced by his plans was magnified. He moved people out of their homes without any clear plans for relocating them. They were forced to double and triple up in adjacent neighborhoods, creating new slums to replace the ones that he was purporting to dismantle.
So, why is knowing Robert Moses’s story significant for us today, particularly those of us outside of New York’s orbit? First, his almost maniacal obsession with building extremely costly highways and bridges has shaped so much of America’s post-WWII culture – the reliance on cars, the creation of suburbs whose very existence is dependent on them, the fossil fuel economy that relies heavily on the use of their products by automobiles, the residential segregation that limits the housing options of those without access to cars. Caro demonstrates that if even a small fraction of the billions that Moses spent unchecked on highways and bridges had gone instead to the construction and upgrading of public transportation – subways, buses, commuter railroads – the lives of so many people would have been improved. We’ve seen an example during these pandemic years of the burdens that were lifted from many commuters whose travel time was reduced or eliminated.
While wielding his unbridled power,Moseswas completely unresponsive to the ideas, appeals and pleas of others, particularly those whose lives would be affected by his plans. When he decided on a route for his highways or the location of public housing, he was deaf to recommendations of alternative routes or sites that would cause far less damage and disruption. He surrounded himself with a staff that knew not to challenge his decisions on pain of losing their jobs instantly. No architect or engineer who questioned his plans was ever able to land another job with the city or state. Moses kept score and was unforgiving.
His ruthless exercise of power worked until he encountered someone – Governor Nelson Rockefeller – with even greater power, both financially and administratively. Rockefeller was able to call Moses’s oft-repeated threat to resign by accepting his resignation, thereby stripping him of virtually all the power he had been wielding for almost five decades.
Moses was ruthless in his actions to protect and expand his power. He lied. He slandered and humiliated his opponents. He demanded total loyalty. His arrogance and ego were boundless. It’s impossible to read this book without confronting all the parallels between Moses and his fellow New Yorker, Donald Trump. The difference is that Moses, as Caro was quick to admit, was a genius. He was bursting with ideas for new projects that would change the landscape of the city and the state. The power he accrued to himself was in the service of moving his projects forward. Unlike Trump, he had little concern for personal wealth. While others became wealthy as a result of the billions of dollars that flowed through his bridge and highway projects, Moses often did not even draw a salary from most of his positions, which further enhanced his reputation for incorruptibility. In contrast, Trump sees power as a means to acquire greater personal wealth and control over the lives of others. Both men share many despicable qualities, but their shared passion for power served very different objectives.
Robert Moses died in 1981 but no matter where we live, we are surrounded by his legacy. Although the stage he played on was almost entirely within New York state, his work was imitated everywhere. He is our pharaoh. His monuments outlive him, although he would be dismayed to see that they are not always judged through contemporary eyesas favorably as he had hoped. Take a leave from your job and dig into to this monumental volume. Like me, you won’t regret it.