Jan 23, 09
Read in January, 2009
In addition to serving as a handy doorstop (weighing in at ~4.5 pounds in paperback) or a blunt weapon, this 1162-page opus on Robert Moses has a lot to offer. Caro's biography of New York City's "Master Builder" completed the job of destroying Moses' once-sterling reputation--and with due cause. Apart from being a political genius and a visionary planner, Caro presents Moses as a ruthless egomaniac: he destroyed countless New York neighborhoods to make way for his expressways and bridges, displaced tens of thousands of families into decrepit public housing, squelched public transit in favor of highways, lined the pockets of bankers and developers while bankrupting the city, and to top it all, let his own brother die in poverty while he reigned as New York's most powerful official.
In recent years Moses has seen a slight revival, but most of Caro's attacks still stick, and it's hard not to be impressed by the scope and detail of his argument. Underneath the often grandiose Shakespearian narrative--family betrayal, lust for power, hubris, justice--Caro paints a vast canvass showing in intricate detail how New York City and New York State operated in the 20th century. Legislative wheeling-dealing, access to patronage, and influence over the media were the levers of power for any aspiring player, and Moses was among the savviest players of all; he counted among his friends Mayors, Governors, editors, even Presidents.
While he butted heads with talented opponents including Fiorello La Guardia, Moses' intellect and talent for coercion allowed him to carve out an impregnable position in New York's power structure for nearly 40 years; through the two public authorities he created (The Triborough Authority and the Long Island State Parks Commission), he gained control of tens of millions of dollars in toll money, and used those to finance his own projects, to dispense patronage that bought him political influence, and to blackmail mayors and other politicians into supporting his ideas.
While Moses started out as a good government reformer and gained wild popularity as a prodigious builder of parks in New York City and throughout the state, Caro describes Moses' Darth Vader-like path to the dark side, starting with his first taste of real power as an assistant to Governor Al Smith in the late 1920s. Over time, his megalomaniacal obsession with large public works--he conceived and built the Triborough Bridge, Lincoln Center, Shea Stadium, Jones Beach, and the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge, just to name a few--came at the expense of the city and the "little people" who often stood in the way. He spent public funds without regard to the public good (even though he saw himself as an irreproachable public servant), and crushed countless lives to satisfy his insatiable appetite for monumental symbols to his own power.