Erik's Reviews > The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro
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's review
Dec 26, 11

Read from November 22 to December 26, 2011

The best book ever written about New York and its cast of characters in the twentieth century. They are all here: Tammany Hall sachems, Beau James, Al Smith, Fiorello La Guardia, Justice Seabury, Franklin Roosevelt, the Rockefellers, Mayor Lindsay and a cast of lesser known but equally colorful characters. Caro is like a modern day Tacitus. Combine Jim Sleeper's The Closest of Strangers and you have the whole story. Someone needs to do a similarly detailed expose and tough investigation on the Giuliani and Bloomberg years and the vertical suburbanization, uglification and yuppification periods.

The subtitle is the Fall of New York, which obviously makes no sense to most people because New York did not fall, as seemed inevitable in the 1970s when Caro wrote. What Caro means is the fall of Urbanism as it was experienced before the total dominance of the automobile, the flight from the cities and the rise of suburbia. Dense and intense city life, which had been the cultural lifeblood of so many social movements, intellectual and artistic heights and cultural achievements in America, seems to have died out because planners like Moses thought it had no future. Moses funneled money out of urban schools and hospitals and rapid transit to build highways and bridges for cars. He destroyed rich ethnic urban neighborhoods like Sunset Park and East Tremont with overpasses, which he refused to divert even a single block from his original plans. He was a corrupt public official who drafted bogus laws in Albany, participated in a system of so called "honest graft" and patronage and colluded openly with the banks, with no investigation. He probably contributed greatly to the eventual bankruptcy of the city in the 1970s, which I lived through in my childhood.

Moses himself was an intelligent, driven man, and a meritocrat, but a dictator, with little sense for people and their needs. As Caro is not shy of emphasizing, the lust for power was far more important to Moses than any ideas or principles he had, or projects he built. He was willing to lie and manipulate to get what he wanted and was a coward when confronted. He had the press and the system so rigged that he egged on one opponent: "Do whatever you think you can do!" (to stop him). The New York Times failed miserably in defense of the public good, printing Moses's press releases often word for word and branding his opponents obstructionists. It took two renegade reporters Gleason and Cook to finally expose Moses' handling of Title 1 housing. It took both Rockefeller brothers to finally break him, after even Franklin Roosevelt had failed, issuing a famous order 129 from the Oval office just to fire Moses. A child of wealth and privilege, who did not exactly like poor people and hated them for being ungrateful, Moses began as an earnest reformer and soi disant champion of the downtrodden only to become the architect of the vast housing projects and warehousing of the poor in urban ghettos and the driving of highways straight through vibrant neighborhoods, until he was finally stopped, alas too late to reverse his policies.

Power is a disease, but Robert Moses did not have the character, or the humanity, to resist it.

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11/23/2011 page 100
12/01/2011 page 400
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