The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

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Robert Caro’s massive biography of Robert Moses was published in 1974 after seven years of research, interviewing over 500 people, and writing. The resulting 1162 page are an incredible roller coaster with the arc of the story revealed in the Contents: The Idealist; The Reformer; The Rise to Power; The Use of Power; The Love of Power; The Lust for Power; The Loss of Power. This is a man who did much to shape New York for over forty years of his reign of terror: paving parking lots in Central Park, ramming huge expressways through heavily-residential areas, building endless miles of highways that became immediately clogged with traffic jams while gutting public transportation and denying brown people the right to go to the beaches he was creating. The book is almost too much; especially in my post-election trauma recovery, it was painful to encounter another lying, bullying egomaniac ruining people’s lives.

His sneakiness, deviousness, treachery knew no bounds. Latching onto Governor Al Smith, he becomes “the best bill drafter in Albany” and crafts laws with obscure passages granting wild powers, then misleads lawmakers into passing them. For his first land grab, he discovers an act passed in 1884 that allows the state to “appropriate” forest lands simply by walking onto the land and telling the owner that he no longer owned it. This definition of appropriation is written into his 1924 bill, and he later used it to great advantage in Long Island.

He used people mercilessly, then tossed them aside. One conservationist who had donated large tracts of land to be set aside for preservation was snipped out of planning and no mention made when plaques were laid to honor the park that resulted in Niagara. He worked his underlings to the bone, causing alcoholism, nervous breakdowns, marital difficulties. “There was at least one suicide.” When he wanted to take over land, he swept away hundreds of thousands of poor, or demolished necessary buildings like the Hospital for the Feeble-Minded.

But he got things done, so politicians loved him. He showed up with blueprints and walked away with millions in dollars from the federal government. By 1936, NYC was receiving one-seventh of the entire WPA allotment for the country. He got greedy for power, lied, cheated, swindled, and did whatever it took to obtain that power and to cement it.

Famously, he and FDR had a mutual hatred of each other. Moses insulted him and, of course, Eleanor. “I wouldn’t repeat what he said about Eleanor Roosevelt. Just say he dwelt on her physical appearance and her voice and was quite insulting,” said one source.

Does this sound familiar? As Moses runs for office, “his campaign was almost entirely a campaign ad homines, an exercise in wholesale insinuation and vituperation. Seeing his hopes for elective office vanishing, he spewed venom over his opponents.” More similarities: “He is the most unethical man I have ever met… he is a liar. And he is a liar in the way that Hitler was a liar. He doesn’t lie because he can’t help it. He lies as a matter of policy,” said Walter Binger.

He was big on grudges, maliciousness, and spite. He almost tore down Castle Clinton in the Battery—an important historical immigration station that predated Ellis Island—just because he could. He wasn’t a fan of non-whites or poor people: during the 1930s he built 255 playgrounds in NYC and only 1 in Harlem.

First obtaining power as a Park Commissioner, Moses didn’t think parks should be unspoiled nature, but teeming with tennis and basketball courts, stadiums, swimming pools, and concrete. Once he began his love affair with concrete, it was over. He believed absolutely in roads but never learned to drive, always had someone chauffeur him around, so he never had to deal with the agony of traffic jams. NYC caught on quickly that private cars were not the solution to their transportation woes. The NYTimes in 1945 has a letter to the editor that suggests banning private cars from Manhattan, and these types of letters became common in 1946.

As I suspected (I’m also reading Benjamin’s Arcades Project about Paris), Moses saw traces of himself in Haussmann. “He had long seen the parallels between his own career and that of the man who, in the modern world, ranked closest to him as a city-builder, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann…”

The massive build up to the loss of power takes a long time, but it’s worth it once the wheels start coming off Moses’ grip on the city. He insists on bulldozing trees in Central Park to make way for a parking lot, suffering damage to his otherwise stellar image. Newspapers begin to FINALLY start digging into the shady practices he’s used for so long, and his iron-clad noose on media turns against him. He tanks the World’s Fair, his last hurrah, ending up costing the city millions of dollars. He ends up a frustrated, deaf, old man with nothing to do.

Insults to bring back into circulation: blatherskite, bullyrag

A-ha! It looks like there was a chapter on Jane Jacobs that got cut from the book:

There are two entire chapters that were cut out that I’m sorry about. One was on Jane Jacobs stopping the Lower Manhattan Expressway. And one was why the New York City Planning Commission has no power so that someone like Robert Moses could run over the Planning Commission. Those are very significant things. Today I get asked a lot about both those subjects, and then I always have a pang of regret that they’re not in The Power Broker.