Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Book Review: “The Power Broker”

Robert Caro’s monumental work on the life of Robert Moses is a long and often difficult read, over 1,100 pages of frequent slow going though myriad details.  But “The Power Broker” (1974) is compelling throughout.

Moses is a fascinating case study and Caro explores him well.  As a young man of status, Moses was an enthusiast for municipal reform.  He devoted long, virtually unpaid, hours toward the cause of better government.  But his efforts went nowhere, leaving him with little apparent future.  When a new door opened into state government, he charged in, discarding his earlier beliefs and becoming everything that he abhorred in his earlier life.  For much of his career, people would interact with him, thinking that he remained Robert Moses the Reformer, only to realize too late that he was Robert Moses the Power Broker.

It’s often said, mostly in jest but with a small kernel of longing, that what this country needs is a few years under a benevolent dictator.  The best response to that yearning is Robert Moses.   In many ways, he was benevolent.  He didn’t accumulate power for the purpose of using it for personal gain.  But he built an indestructible power base and failed to use it for the betterment of his city.

As the Administrator of the Triborough Bridge Authority, and with ties of mutual financial benefit to other local Authorities, banks, contractors, and labor unions, he was impregnable.  And from his position of clout, he could force New York City to conform to his vision.  Unfortunately, as a child of privilege in the early years of the century, before the automobile began to choke the city, his vision was being rapidly outdated by the burgeoning metropolis.  Also, he never learned to drive, but instead worked productively in the backseat while being driven around town.  Thus, he had neither empathy nor sympathy for the drivers stuck in traffic around him.

Being isolated within his power base, he was also isolated himself from criticism.  He couldn’t realize how flawed his vision had become.

Among the mistakes in his approach to public works, he always favored cars over transit.  He frequently didn’t allow acquisition of a right-of-way width that would allow rail transit to later run alongside his freeways.  On the expressways serving his string of parks on Long Island, he specified bridge clearances that effectively excluded buses from the routes.

When doing routing studies, he was willing to undermine solid, working class neighborhoods, even if alternative alignments were available.

He always preferred bridges over tunnels, even when engineering analyses showed that a tunnel was the superior alternative.  Perhaps he wanted to view the massive structure that he brought into being.  Or perhaps he wished to gaze out over the city, his city, from the elevated deck of a new bridge.

When it came to urban redevelopment, he preferred leveling blocks of housing which could then be replace with the massive towers that posterity has proven to be so flawed.  Moses knew how the poor should live, even if the poor had different ideas.

Nor were Moses’ effects limited to New York City.  As his prestige grew, he was often asked to consult for other large cities.  His teams would quickly sketch plans obliterating working class neighbors to accommodate grand freeways to far-flung suburbs.

To some, Moses is still remembered as “the man who got things done”.  And he did.  But if much of what he did was increasingly wrong-headed and failed to adequately prepare New York City for the future, “getting things done” doesn’t seem like a favorable encomium.

Two indelible images from the book revolve about the preservation of Castle Clinton, a long-decommissioned battery near the lower tip of Manhattan.  The castle, which was built for the War of 1812, never fired a shot in anger, but gained the affection of New Yorkers as the long-time home of the New York Aquarium and an even longer-time favored trysting place.

When the need for another crossing between Brooklyn and Manhattan became evident, Moses, to no one’s surprise, proposed that the crossing be a bridge.  Others proposed a tunnel.  One of many reasons to prefer a tunnel was that the bridge approach would have passed through the site of Castle Clinton, requiring that the old battery be demolished.

The tunnel proposal eventually won, one of the few losses that Moses sustained.  However, he had already barricaded the castle from public access.  In an act of spite, he now claimed that it had been damaged by the underground blasting for the tunnel and would still require demolition.

The bluebloods of New York doubted Moses’ claims, but lacked the information to support their case.   A pair of amateur New York historians, one of them in his 80s, clambered over the barricades under the cover of darkness to assess the actual condition.  They found that much of Castle Clinton remained in place and was fully restorable.

Moses was again forced to yield.  But the Mayor of New York remained concerned that that Moses’ rapacious grasp would overcome the temporary setbacks and eventually claim Castle Clinton.  To stop Moses, he asked that the Federal government accept ownership of the castle.  The national government, under long-time Moses adversary Franklin Roosevelt, quickly agreed.

From the most powerful mayor in the world asking for the Federal government to restrain a public servant to a pair of respectable but aging New Yorkers feeling around in the dark to uncover Moses’ duplicity, this story shows the range of efforts that were required to deter Robert Moses from his goals.  It’s an indication of how badly Moses was able to contort the world of public works to his own ends.

Castle Clinton remains in place today.  It’s now overlooked by lower Manhattan skyscrapers, but still serves as a favored meeting place.

When I picked “The Power Broker” from my bookshelf, there were two episodes of Moses’ life that particularly interested me, his battles with Jane Jacobs and his refusal to accommodate Walter O’Malley that resulted in the Dodgers moving west.  (For Giant fans, if the Dodgers hadn’t moved to Los Angeles after the 1957 season, it’s not clear that the Giants would have moved to San Francisco.  So you owe a bit of thanks to Robert Moses for the 2010 World Championship.)

To my surprise, neither O’Malley nor Jacobs received much mention in the book.  In an online interview I found after I’d finished the book, Caro said that he’d written detailed sections on Jacobs and O’Malley, but his editors felt that he had to reduce the length of the book.  So the two stories that most interested me were left on the cutting room floor.

I may have picked up the book for the wrong reasons, but was rewarded with an engrossing read.   If you’re willing to work your way through it, you’ll be rewarded with images and lessons that will remain with you for years.  And will likely affect the way you look at urban planning.

As a far as a lesson for new urbanism, it would be to never trust an overly powerful public servant, or for that matter an overly powerful private developer.  Even if they can “get things done”, their vision may run astray.  Even if the progress runs a little slower, listening to and acting upon regular public input is essential.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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