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

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One of the most acclaimed books of our time, winner of both the Pulitzer and the Francis Parkman prizes, The Power Broker tells the hidden story behind the shaping (and mis-shaping) of twentieth-century New York (city and state) and makes public what few have known: that Robert Moses was, for almost half a century, the single most powerful man of our time in New York, the shaper not only of the city's politics but of its physical structure and the problems of urban decline that plague us today.

In revealing how Moses did it--how he developed his public authorities into a political machine that was virtually a fourth branch of government, one that could bring to their knees Governors and Mayors (from La Guardia to Lindsay) by mobilizing banks, contractors, labor unions, insurance firms, even the press and the Church, into an irresistible economic force--Robert Caro reveals how power works in all the cities of the United States. Moses built an empire and lived like an emperor. He personally conceived and completed public works costing 27 billion dollars--the greatest builder America (and probably the world) has ever known. Without ever having been elected to office, he dominated the men who were--even his most bitter enemy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, could not control him--until he finally encountered, in Nelson Rockefeller, the only man whose power (and ruthlessness in wielding it) equalled his own.

1246 pages, Paperback

First published September 16, 1974

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About the author

Robert A. Caro

23 books2,156 followers
A former investigative reporter for Newsday, Robert Caro is the author of The Power Broker (1974), a biography of the urban planner Robert Moses which he won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize. President Obama said that he read the biography when he was 22 years old and that the book "mesmerized" him. Obama said, "I'm sure it helped to shape how I think about politics."

Caro has also written four biographies on Lyndon Johnson, including The Path to Power (1982), Means of Ascent (1990), and Master of the Senate (2002), and The Passage of Power (2012), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is currently at work on a fifth and final volume about Lyndon Johnson

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Profile Image for Jessica.
593 reviews3,387 followers
May 22, 2008
This is definitely the greatest book that I have ever read.

Midway through adolescence, I began wondering a bit which life event would finally make me feel like an adult. Of course I had the usual teenaged hypotheses, and acted accordingly to test some of them out. Getting drunk? Having sex? Driving a car? Going to college? None of these things did make me feel grownup; in many instances, their effect was the opposite. I had a brief thrilling moment of maturity when I voted for the first time at age eighteen, but election returns in the years since (in particular the 2004 presidential race) dulled the sophisticated glamour of the ballot box, forcing me to admit that an ability to vote does not indicate the presence of intellectual maturity... The first time I got a job with benefits and sat through a presentation explaining the HMO plan, life insurance, and “401K,” I did feel old in a certain kind of way, but there was a sense of the absurd to it, as if I were in drag as an adult, staggering around in my mother’s too-big high heels and smudgy lipstick in a silly effort to look like a grown woman.

For the past few years I’ve had the sense of wearing an oversized grownup life that wasn’t actually mine, while that magical rite of passage into adulthood continued to elude me. Maybe when I have children things will click into place, I’ve mused, listening to Talking Heads with one ear and sort of doubting it.... Part of this might be generational; if thirty is the new twenty, it’s no wonder that I get that Lost Boys feeling, and shrug confusedly when overnight company makes fun of my teddy bear.

I’m pleased to announce that thanks to the glory of Robert Caro, this stage is basically behind me. Having finally finished The Power Broker, I feel much more like a grownup, and believe it or not, I’m pretty into that.

When I was a little kid, I felt that the adults around me had a thick, rich, complicated understanding of the way the world worked. They knew things – facts, history – and they understood processes and people and the way something like a bond measure or a public authority worked. It was this understanding – which they had, and I didn’t – that made me a child, and them adults. Grownups had an infrastructure of information, truth, and insight that I lacked. As I grew older, I was dismayed to discover that grownups really didn’t know a fraction of what I gave them credit for, and that most of the people ostensibly running the world had no clue how it operated, and my intense disillusionment caused me to lose sight of that adulthood theory for awhile.

But reading this book made me feel like a grownup because it helped me to understand the way the world works as I never had before. This book is about power. It is about politics. It is a history of New York City and New York State. It is an explanation of how public works projects are built. It is about money: public money, private money, and the vast and nasty grey areas where they overlap. This book is about democracy, and the lack thereof. It is about social policy, and economics, and our government, and the press. This book is about urban planning, housing, transportation, and about how a few individuals’ decisions can affect the lives of the masses. It helped explain traffic in the park, and the projects in Brownsville, and a billion other mysteries of New York City life that I'd wondered about. The Power Broker is about ideals, talent, and institutional racism. It is about inequality. It is about genius. It is about hubris. It is the best goddamn book I have ever read in my entire life, hands down, seriously.

Please do not think that it took me five months to read this book because it was dense or slow! This was a savoring, rather than a trudging, situation. Robert Caro is an incredibly engaging writer. One thing that happened to me early on from reading this was that I lost my taste for trashy celebrity gossip. Who CARES about Britney’s breakdown or, for that matter, Spitzer’s prostitute peccadilloes when I could be reading about the shocking intricacies of Robert Moses’ 1925 legislative consolidation and reorganization of New York State’s administrative structure? This book gave me chills – CHILLS! – on nearly every page with descriptions of arcane political maneuvering and fiscal policy so riveting that I lost my previous interest in reading about sex and drugs. Let’s face it: sex and drugs are pretty boring. Political graft, mechanics of influence, the workings of government: now that’s the hot stuff, when it’s presented in an accessible and digestible form. Nothing in the world is more fascinating than power, and Robert Caro writes about power better than anyone I’ve come across. There are no dry chapters in this book; there’s barely a dull page. It is infinitely more readable than Us magazine, and not much more difficult.

Of course The Power Broker is many things, among them a biography. While any one portrait of New York power icons from Al Smith to Nelson Rockefeller is more than worth the price of admission, this book is primarily about Robert Moses. Caro understands and explains the relationship between individual personalities and systems. One of his main theses is that Moses achieved the unchecked and unparalleled levels of power he did because he figured out how to reshape or create systems around himself. The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority would not have existed without Robert Moses, and Robert Moses would not have been what he was, or accomplished what he did, without the brilliance he had for shaping the very structure of government into conduits for his own purposes. To explain this, Caro needs to convey a profound understanding not only of how these systems worked, but of who this man was. He does so, and the result goes beyond Shakespearean: it is Epic. The Power Broker is the story George Lucas was trying to tell about Anakin Skywalker’s transformation to Darth Vader, only George Lucas is no Robert Caro, and The Power Broker succeeds wildly in the places where Star Wars was just a hack job (of course, Caro wasn’t handicapped by Hadyn Christensen, which does indirectly raise the burning question: WHO’S OPTIONED THIS???).

Robert Moses was an incredible genius. He was also an incredible asshole. Robert Moses was probably one of the biggest assholes who ever lived, or at least, who ever got free reign to redesign a major modern American city to his fancy. One of the innumerable triumphs of this book is that while it certainly does demonize Moses to a great extent, it doesn't seem to do so unjustifiably, and it never strips him of his humanity. Caro conveys a deep respect and empathy for his brilliant subject, even as he also expresses horror, disgust, and rage as he describes Moses’ forty-four-year unelected reign of power.

I know it’s a mistake to do this review right after finishing, and I’m a bit grossed out that I could write something so gushingly uncritical; that’s unlike me, and it’s possible that later I’ll think of some complaints…. I might not, though. I really do think that this is the best book I’ve ever read, and I wish there were some way that I could adopt Robert and Ina Caro as my grandparents, and that I could go over to their house for Sunday dinner and then take walks together in Central Park. Right at this moment I believe that Robert Caro is the smartest person in the world, and I’m not in the least bit resentful that I’m going to have to devote the rest of my life to reading his LBJ doorstoppers; in fact, I welcome it (though I’m not in a huge hurry to start).

Oh, I’m sure this book has flaws like any other. My main problem with it was that it was too short. Caro did not go into nearly enough detail about a large number of issues that I’d expected to learn about. For instance, there was little more than offhand mentions of Moses’ upstate projects; I was surprised that there was virtually nothing in here about Niagara Falls. There was also almost nothing on Shea Stadium, and while they did keep coming up, I never felt adequately informed about Moses’ plans for the three crosstown expressways, and the successful opposition to them. How real a prospect were these, and what did the public fight look like? I wasn’t so clear on that. While it’s possible that Caro had nothing interesting to say about these projects, it’s more likely that he had to draw the line somewhere, and 1162 pages was that place. I mean, otherwise he probably could’ve gone on forever…. There’s a lot to say.

I definitely recommend that anyone who reads this book do as I did, and divide it with an exacto knife into four duct-tape bound commuter volumes. It’s fun to draw your own Power Broker covers on your personalized editions, and a good excuse to pull out those crayons which, as a bona fide adult, you so rarely use!

It occurs to me that I’ve babbled on forever but still haven’t explained at all what this book is about. If you think you might want to read it but you’re not sure, check out this article by Robert Caro:
It has those stupid New Yorker dots, which the book thankfully does not, but otherwise is kind of like a miniaturized version of The Power Broker and gives a much better sense than I just did of what it’s all about.
Profile Image for Matt.
908 reviews28.1k followers
June 19, 2020
“As the families drove, they could see on either side of them, through gates set in stone walls or through the openings in wooden fences, the beautiful meadows they had come for, stretching endlessly and emptily to the cool trees beyond. But the meadows and trees were not for them. The gates would be locked and men carrying shotguns and holding fierce dogs on straining leashes would point eastward, telling the families there were parks open to them ‘farther along.’ There was no shade on Northern Boulevard and the children became cranky early. In desperation, ignoring the NO TRESPASSING – PRIVATE PROPERTY signs that lined the road, fathers would turn onto the narrow strip of grass between the boulevard and the wall paralleling it and, despite the dust and the fumes from the passing cars, would try to picnic there. But there guards were vigilant and it was never long until the fathers had to tell the kids to get back into the car. Later, in Oyster Bay Town and Huntington, they would come to parks, tiny but nonetheless parks, but as they approached them they would see policemen at their entrances and the policemen would wave them on, explaining that they were reserved for township residents. There were, the policemen shouted, parks open ‘further along…’”
- Robert Caro, The Power Broker

At nearly 1,200 pages of text (not including endnotes and the index), Robert Caro’s The Power Broker is a huge book. Despite its uniformly excellent quality – its Pulitzer Prize is well deserved – I felt every single one of those pages. More than that, my back started feeling the strain of hauling this around.

The problem is not quality. Not even close. The quality here is unparalleled. The reason, at least partly, is that this is not the typical biography I am used to reading. Usually, if I’m going to plow through a thousand pages or more on a person’s life, that life has to be on par with Napoleon.

This is not about Napoleon, by the way.

Rather, the subject of Caro’s intense focus is Robert Moses.

Moses was not a president or national-leader, a battlefield general, a religious figure, or a world-historical mover and shaker. Moses was never elected to public office or explored an unexplored region or climbed a mountain or mapped a river or wrestled a shark. He never held his breath for more than a minute or invented a new fitness routine. He did not set world records for eating hot dogs on the Fourth of July. He did not win the Boston Marathon, the Super Bowl, or the World Cup.

No, Robert Moses’s immediate impact was purely local. And even though that locality happened to be New York City – one of the greatest cities in the world – he is still rather an unknown, unless you are a student of urban planning. His legacy was building parks and expressways. He is remembered as the man who shaped and (according to Caro) destroyed (at least for a time) New York City. But he wasn’t even an architect or an engineer.

Rather, Robert Moses was that most interesting species of mankind: a bureaucrat.

That’s right. Robert Caro’s The Power Broker is a 1,200 page tome on the life of the ultimate functionary. You want red tape? You want zoning rules? You want arcane statutes? You want to learn everything you need to know about the semi-public, semi-private nature of City Authorities? You’ve got them!

If you are a normal person, you’ve already stopped reading. But that’s not my intent. Because The Power Broker is more than Robert Moses. It’s the story of a city.

Still, Caro begins and ends with the man. So who was he? Well, he’s a little like Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation, except also a terrible racist. That, at least, is the short version. But this is Robert Caro, so strap in for the long version.

Robert Moses did not begin how he ended. In the start, as Caro shows, the young Moses was a reformer and an idealist. Born into modest wealth, he attended Yale and Oxford and studied city planning. When he returned to New York City from overseas, he took a job trying to fix the City’s patronage system. Though he made little money and had little power, he was tireless and undaunted and dedicated. All in all, he seemed a good sort. The kind out to change the world for the better.

That all ends around page 200.

Moses’s talents were recognized by Belle Moskowitz, an advisor to eventual New York Governor Al Smith. Moses goes to Albany where he attains a talent for drafting legislation. He uses that talent to craft laws creating Commissions with extremely powerful Commissioners. And then he got himself appointed to those Commissions.

The rest…is a very long book.

Not surprisingly for a man thousands of pages deep into a multi-volume Lyndon Johnson biography, Caro is obsessed with the attainment and use of power. To that end, he structures the The Power Broke like a three act play, highlighting Moses’s rise to power, his exercise of power, and his loss of power. I’d like to explain what that all means in more specific terms, but frankly, I can’t. Explaining Moses’s career literally takes 1,200 pages.

Oh, what the heck. I’ll give it a try.

In the simplest terms, Moses used his various Commissionerships, imbued with authority that he wrote into the laws himself, to undertake massive public projects, such as Jones Beach and the Long Island Expressways. In the beginning, these projects were hugely popular with the public. With the populace and the newspapers behind him, Moses felt comfortable taking bigger risks and funding bigger projects. And no one could stop him. Due to the staggered terms of these various posts, Moses found himself able to leverage his authority in such a way that he outlasted dozens of mayors and governors, none of whom could afford to anger him. From the 1920s to 1968, Moses reigned supreme as the shaper of New York City. His vision of New York City became the vision of New York City. He drove expressways through neighborhoods; he built bridges and roads rather than subways; he ran the Triborough Authority like an emperor, chauffeured about in a black limousine. He wasn’t a crook and he never used his power to enrich himself. For him, the power was the juice (though of course he certainly enriched hundreds and thousands of others at taxpayer expense).

Part of the reason why this book took me so long to read what that I had to spend so much time with Moses. It can be a drag. Unlike Caro’s other biographical subject, Lyndon Johnson, Moses never used his power for a greater good. He had no Great Society. Instead, Moses becomes a worse human with each turn of the page. In the beginning, at least, as State Park Commissioner, Moses actually worked for the common man, breaking the grip on Long Island of the wealthy estate owners. As time went on, however, Moses lost all compassion for ordinary folk; lost all compassion whatsoever. He seemed to exercise power only for the sake of power. He did things because he had it in his mind to do them.

To be sure, Caro’s achievement and Moses’s “achievements” need to be separated. I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like The Power Broker simply because Robert Moses was an enormous ass. That’s not the case. To the contrary, The Power Broker may be the best one-volume biography I’ve ever read. There are so many superlatives, I don’t know where to begin.

Let’s start with the fundamentals: the quality of the writing. Caro is a great writer. I don’t know how to put it better than that. He writes with elegance, he writes with clarity, and he structures his sentences and his paragraphs in such a way as to heighten the dramatic effect. Caro packs in so much detail, without confusing the reader, that I got exhausted imagining the effort it took to maintain this style. His writing is helped by his sensitivity; he manages to find and inject humanity into his subjects. Moses was a jerk, but a human one. Caro also is a master of context, giving the supporting characters as much depth as the lead actor.

I also loved Caro’s literary set-pieces. In most books, if there’s a problem to be solved by the protagonist, the author would simply say: “here’s the problem.” Caro is too imaginative for that. He does an amazing job describing the paradigm in Robert Moses created his public works. For instance, early in the book, Caro describes Moses’s attempts to create public beaches on Long Island taking you – the reader – on an imagine car ride that shows you every mile of the trip, illustrating the difficulties of a middle class family attempting to get to a Long Island beach in the 1930s. (This is where the opening excerpt came from).

Later in the book, when Moses is trying to plow under a neighborhood for one of his expressways, Caro tries to show you what that meant for the people who lived in the bulldozer’s path. Instead of giving you cold hard facts – the number of people, the number of apartments, the basic demographics – Caro devotes an entire chapter to one square mile slated to be destroyed. He interviews the residents, describes their lives, and tells of their ill-fated fight against Moses. This case study is an incredibly effective way to personalize the stakes between Moses the Builder and the People.

This dovetails with my next point: Caro can explain anything. And he can explain it in an interesting way, making you care about stuff – such as bureaucratic enabling laws and public authorities – that you never thought you’d be interested in. He imbues this arcane field with as much excitement as is possible (which is obviously relative), and is careful and methodical in relating the complex interactions that gave Moses his power.

Finally, Caro is a great researcher. He conducted hundreds of interviews, including hard-to-get face-time with Moses himself. This was no small thing, especially in 1975, when this book was published. At that time, Moses was still alive, and his cronies, the Moses Men, were a tight-lipped group. Indeed, while The Power Broker is now a historical artifact, it was once as much an exposé as a traditional biography. It was Caro who helped strip away the Moses myth and show how much destruction he’d wrought. (I wasn’t alive to see New York in the 70s, after Moses strangled it with concrete and steel. Judging it solely based on the film The Warriors, it wasn’t a great place).

One of the few problems I had with The Power Broker is that Caro didn’t have enough room. He crammed all his research into this one-volume work, instead of giving the story space to breathe (as he’s doing with Lyndon Johnson).

As such, there’s a lot of scrimping of certain aspects of Moses’s life. For instance, the farther along you get, the less you hear about his family life, such as it was. (I, for one, would’ve enjoyed more elaboration on the string of mistresses Moses kept). More importantly, there’s no Jane Jacobs! Jacobs was an activist and author (The Death and Life of Great American Cities) who – Caro once said, outside this book – was the only person to ever beat Moses, when she helped stop his Lower Manhattan Expressway. At one point, Caro had an entire chapter on Jacobs. Then, at the behest of the editor, this was removed. Now there’s not a single mention of Jacobs in 1,200 pages!

The other issue is the constant time shifting. Caro doesn’t follow a strictly chronological approach. Instead, his method is more theme-based. For example, Caro will devote an entire chapter to a single public works project, while excluding reference to all the other things going on at that time. This can be a good thing for the reader, as it adds these dramatic mini-narratives within the book’s overall arc. However, the result is that you might move forward several decades within a single chapter, only to be thrust back in time when a new chapter begins. The bottom line is that you need to pay close attention.

I spent much of The Power Broker loathing the petty brutishness of Robert Moses. Part of the reason I wanted the Jane Jacobs chapter reinstalled was because I wanted to see Moses get his butt kicked. That never happens in this book. Caro writes that Moses lost his power, but I don’t see it that way. Moses never got beat; he simply got old. And it’s a testament to Caro’s skills and fairness that by the end, as Moses saw his name start to fade, you actually feel a bit of sympathy for the guy.

Like all great builders, Moses strove for immortality. However, by the end of his own life, he must have realized that he’d written his name upon the sand. Most people today don’t know him, and I’m fine with that, because it would have pissed Moses off.

So just forget I ever mentioned him.
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews68k followers
October 6, 2018
Before Trump There Was Moses

Want to understand the politics and the reasons why NYC is the way it is? Read it and weep.

Robert Moses was never elected to public office. Yet his power over public finance and social decision-making was greater than that of any elected official, including at times the President of the United States (His nemesis, however, was the president's wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was also unelected to anything but just as crafty).

Moses created his power by creating the laws which New York State politicians passed without reading or understanding the fine print. He effectively institutionalised himself as, among other posts, the Chairman of the Long Island State Parks Commission, and the head of the Triborough Bridge Authority. These positions, thanks to his foresightful design, were immune to political review.

At the LISPC, he single-handedly designed the expansion of the New York City suburbs from the 1930's onward as totally dependent on the automobile and in such a way that would limit racial integration. At the Triborough Bridge Authority, he created a spectacularly successful cash cow whose funds could not be touched without his approval. And even the 1970's financial collapse of the City was not enough to attract this approval.

Yet other administrative positions, often held simultaneously in the City and the State, gave Moses blanket-control of every significant planning and planning-variance decision within the City. His tentacles of power extended even to the Northern reaches of the State through his control of electricity generation along the St. Lawrence River.

There is no evidence that Moses ever took a bribe or benefitted financially from his immense power. He started his career and pursued it as an idealist. He was nonetheless a dictator who routinely destroyed neighbourhoods, regularly flouted the law, coerced politicians of both major parties, and ultimately left a legacy of social devastation which will last for decades if not centuries.

Caro's documentation of Moses's strategy and activities is unparalleled. His attention to detail and nuance is acute. His judgments and conclusions are never precipitous and always subtle. This book should be on the required reading list of every course in democratic government in every country on the planet.
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,535 reviews1,791 followers
March 27, 2020
This is a book about power...And parks.

For forty-four years Robert Moses through the control of different institutions, often whose formal authorities he had designed and drafted into legislation, created a power base that enabled him to escape the constraints laid upon bureaucrats and elected officials and to stamp his vision upon the developing city of New York.

If the Bonfire of the Vanities is the shock book of 1980s New York then The Power Broker Robert Moses and the Fall of New York tells the story of some of the factors that made the city that way.

Robert Moses was energetic, ambitious, hugely gifted but deeply arrogant, a bully, and prejudiced. Initially enthusiastic for public service reform to break the power of Tammany Hall over New York politics and government and from a prosperous German-Jewish background involved in charitable works, he became a master of manipulation, building support through public relations, disbursing jobs and patronage, keeping files on public figures and carrying out revenge with a thoroughness that makes burying a rival in the foundations of a building seem amateur and unimaginative.

Mayors and governors were successively seduced by his ability to complete massive public works before the following election but also successively learnt that his power base made him virtually invulnerable.

Moses' vision was of sweeping roads, bridges and parks. His work reshaped the city. Unfortunately his vision was of a New York designed to be middle class and white. Roads and bridges in some cases were designed to be suitable for cars only and were deliberately set to low to allow buses to pass under them. Attempts to provide mass transit links either to the parks or the World's Fair or even to allow for the possibility of others providing such links in the future were explicitly blocked or prevented through design. His ideal for Long Island in particular was striking - to be a suburban area of low density housing with no industry.

The outcome of all this was a city congested with car traffic (which in turn necessitated the early adoption of multi-storey car parks). Neighbourhoods with all their existing networks of employment and local commerce were broken up and either degenerated into slums or were replaced with higher cost housing. The massive building projects swallowed up city, state and federal funds to the extent that there was not even the money available for the maintenance of the new parks let alone for non-Moses approved transport development. However since a key source of Moses' power was the money raised from toll bridges it was a situation that at least worked to the advantage of one man.

The giant swimming pools that Moses had built in New York show the workings of his mind to both good and ill. On the one hand he and his team developed new systems of underwater lighting and the system of disinfecting foot baths that are ubiquitous in public swimming pools today. At the same time because he believed that black people prefer to swim in warm water he had the temperatures of certain pools kept low and to further discourage non-whites from swimming would only employ white staff (the same policies were also used at his beach developments and parks) to signal the type of users who would be welcomed, and it is striking to observe the application of careful intelligence to the business of purely being nasty to groups of people he would never come into contact with. At the same time the financial drain on the city from paying for these public amenities which through management and placement were targeted at white middle class users meant that spending on schools and hospitals was inadequate.

As befitted a man educated at Yale and Oxford he didn't offer patronage in the obvious Tammany Hall method of jobs with inflated salaries with the city but in a subtle way. This included cut price concessions, advance information about road building plans, consultancy jobs, lavish entertainments, long-term relationships with banks and even effectively creating a bank run by a leading member of the New York Democratic party Thomas Shanahan by depositing large sums of money with him at zero percent interest and obliging contractors he worked with to bank with Shanahan. Cronies had businesses created for them to manage the relocation of people dispossessed by building works, in turn sub-businesses were created to drain out money, for example by buying the fixed appliances in apartments for a nominal sum and leasing them back to the main company for sums which were not nominal. The main company itself would be funded by the city to manage the relocation process, while dispossessed residents were largely left to fend for themselves.

Essentially Robert Moses became an Augustus and created step by step an Empire for himself. The legislation that he had drafted protected him, almost totally, from political interference. Toll incomes and increasing car traffic allowed him to raise enormous sums on the money markets. Massive building works provided masses of patronage to disburse. Association with public parks won him widespread support and the mistaken impression that he had the public's interests at heart and was opposed to the vested interests, whose interest was entirely vested in Moses until he was finally deposed. (An arrogant man, the one time he stood for election he managed to lose the support of the press by insulting them at his first press conference and managed to speak against the particular local concerns of voters where ever he was on the campaign trail).

This is a book about the realities of power. It is full of politicking, intrigues, machinations, deals, law making, the importance of effective law drafting, the exploitation of the naive, dealings with politicians and interest groups alike. Also power over the environment, marshes drained, rivers bridged, moved and channelled, beaches created, land created. It is virtually a history of New York in the middle of the 20th century as seen through the work of one man. The paperback edition is 1.7 kilos of fascinating, audacious and breath-taking undertakings few of which were ever tainted with legality as Moses himself liked to say.

I was drawn to reading this after reading a review of a volume of Caro's Johnson biography, a massive multi-volume biography of President Johnson was a commitment I was prepared to make but this seemed an approachable alternative that wouldn't require reinforcing the bookshelves.
Profile Image for Brian.
Author 1 book969 followers
October 8, 2017
In early 2012 on a business trip to NYC, I was driving on Long Island Expressway for the first time when an odd and seemingly unnecessary bend in the road got my curiousity. Searching for the answer later in the day brought me to Robert Moses, which then brought me to this book, and as much as I loved this behemoth, I'm still trying to figure out if I'm in a better place viz-a-viz humanity for having read it.

Want to read a good horror book? Forget the kings of the genre in fiction, Caro has served up a page-turning, real life horror story with a haunting over millions of people that could conceivably last forever. I love New York City, and the more I read of this masterpiece, the more I found myself needing to walk away from the book - sometimes for weeks at a time - to deal with the subject matter. Moses wasn't just a Grade-A Asshole, he was the Antichrist of Architecture. How is it even possible that in the 20th century, in one of the greatest cities in the world, that one man could garner so much power and then weild it for 40 years? Yes, I know, American politics and American politicians are a mess (as they are everywhere arond the world where power is to be had), but 40+ YEARS! Chapter after chapter of amazingly researched and detailed depictions of Moses's malfeasance makes the reader shake his/her head and wonder how this could possibly have happened. And then you visit the places that Moses ruined, sit in the traffic that is a direct by-product of his lack of vision, and you realize that the Horror of the book is something that we get to live - for countless generations.

Can I recommend this book? I can, but with a caveat. The truth in the pages won't set you free. At best it will break your heart, at its worst you will wonder with the advances of science and the prolongation of life - what is going to happen one day when the really, really evil bastards of this world get to live to be 200? Can we survive that?
Profile Image for Matt.
3,671 reviews12.8k followers
June 8, 2019
I am neither an urban planner, nor a New Yorker. With that cleared up, I can attempt to review this epic biography by Robert A. Caro, which has garnered a great deal of hype over the past 40 years. Caro takes the entire life of this man and puts it out for review, letting nothing escape his descriptive powers (though the book is a mere 1200 of the original 3000 pages Caro prepared). The book is so thorough and complex that the reader must digest a great deal of information to move through the sections and absorb all that is on offer. Caro depicts the life of Robert Moses as being quite multi-faceted: a staunchly matriarchal home, joyful playground developer, power hungry Parks Commissioner, villain to many. Filled with numerous sources and a plethora of interview comments, Caro describes this vastly powerful man who changed New York City, quite literally, into the urban powerhouse of the United States. Caro’s three themes (discussed below) emanate throughout the text: Moses’ hunger for power, his ability to gain it without election, and the complete about-face done by New Yorkers over the decades because of that power. These themes keep the pace of the book moving and ensure the reader pays attention, to see the apparent changes as the chapters (and events in time) progress.

Moses’ hunger for power could be said to have been planted in a home run by his mother, who accepted no other opinion but her own. Caro lays the groundwork for Moses’ eventual insatiable need for control at her feet, indirectly. A benign search for power by Robert Moses begins upon his returns from Oxford, with the hopes of building new parks for the people of New York, especially children who have no playgrounds on which to spend their time. This morphs into a lust for larger parks and the development of edifices that will leave an indelible mark on the city as a whole. Caro exemplifies this early malignant power intoxication through the creation of the Central Park Zoo, his numerous bridge projects, as well as the construction of the UN buildings. This hunger is not sated there, as Moses continues to forge ahead with expressways to better deal with the increased traffic the 1940s and 50s bring with it, caring little for those in whose way his grand ideas sit. Caro portrays Moses as one who becomes deeply inebriated on power and who eventually loses touch with those he, originally, sought to help. He wants to leave his mark on the city and uses his backhand connections to get the needed ‘in’ to do so. He outwardly circumnavigates those in his way (even elected officials) by writing and forcing legislation to pass the New York Legislature that gives him quasi-deist control of New York (city AND state), to do with what he will. Caro is clear, however, to include those men who stand in his way, including the one man with more power than he and no interest in ceding it, Nelson Rockefeller. It was Rockefeller’s emergence on the political scene and saw the end of Moses’ power. Add to that the horrible 1964 World Fair presidency, as well as Mayor John Lindsay, and you can already hear the nails slamming into the coffin.

Caro also depicts the Moses power addiction as one run entirely from the backrooms and within arm’s length of the election box. Save for a single run for Governor of New York, Moses never had to face the people to seek their permission for his ideas. He cozied up to mayors and governors into whom he created yes-men or disposed of those who tried to thwart him with his numerous other connections. Legislation penned from his desk came to the floor of the State Legislature and was pushed through with some ease, leaving it only to be signed by a governor here and there. Until FDR came onto the scene (first as Governor of New York and then as President of the United States), Moses had an easy cake walk. Caro denotes how Moses dodges many bullets and used his connections in media and various arms of the political realm to continue forging ahead and getting his ideas approved. A true schemer who saw no issue with sidestepping the democratic process, yet tossed out communist epithets against his opponents, to blackball them during the highly McCarthy-esque era in America.

Caro’s greatest feat has got to be the radical change in public opinion he demonstrated. From chanting school children loving Robert Moses to the hatred by all New Yorkers by the mid-1950s, Moses was left to dodge fists, bottles, and anything else that could be thrown. Caro is sure to include some of the key turnarounds in the book. Schoolchildren, as mentioned above, are but one group who came to vilify him. Mothers with babies, who, in the early chapters, adore him for creating parks and playgrounds (complete with diaper huts) turn on him as he decides to bulldoze those parks down 30 years later to create a parking lot. The poor, who cheered on the creation of open space for them, free of charge, became his greatest obstacle when he needed to destroy their homes to create expressways. Caro is masterful at simply telling the tale and letting the reader make the connections.

Caro’s missive is so detailed that it makes sense why this project was years in the making. It uses the vast amount of information at Caro’s fingertips to lay out the story and lets the reader decide what they wish about the entire story on offer. That said, there is no doubt that any reader who takes the time to read the book will come away with at least some sour taste in their mouth for all Moses did in New York City. Caro throws no punches and does not apologise for what his research discovered. The book added fuel to the already strong fire of dislike surrounding Robert Moses in 1974. It is not hard to understand why this is the case.

The book’s length may be its own downside, although I did not feel things dragged on too unnecessarily. The reader may, stuck in a quagmire of verbose explanation, wonder why we care so much about a certain issue. Having patience to forge ahead and connect the eventual dots leads to that ‘ah ha’ moment where previous glassy-eyed reading is worth the outcome.

Having read all that Caro has penned already in the LBJ saga, I am well-versed in the format and style used in the biographies. I thoroughly enjoy this, even with long and complex missives with hours of detail on many subjects. It is only through this detailed analysis that the reader can truly come to see the duplicitous nature of Moses. The latter part of the book shows just how racist and how completely out of touch Moses became with the people he tried to help in his early years. Caro’s presentation of this about-face is stunning and leaves the interested reader to wonder where things went wrong. Alas, the details are woven through hundreds of pages that it is difficult to pinpoint the precise location of this change.

There is too much for the casual reader to digest in this, and likely any Caro book, biography. I would not recommend its undertaking by anyone who does not have a strong thirst for knowledge or someone looking for a quick read. Then again, the mere size of the book (or length of its audio version) will scare many away. However, those who are intrigued by political and urban histories will surely devour all this book offers. Caro is the master storyteller and can bring many stories to life with his detailed descriptions as well as his highly researched perspectives. A must read for those who marvel at the intricacies of New York City’s traffic edifices and green spaces.

Kudos in high order, Mr. Caro, for this your first work. It shows your attention to detail and interest in a thorough analysis for all to interpret. You have outdone yourself for sure.
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,127 followers
August 11, 2017
Many are concerned about the monuments of the West and the East—to know who built them. For my part, I should like to know who in those days did not build them—who were above such trifling.

—Henry David Thoreau

“Who’s Robert Moses?” I asked my brother, after he bought this book

To drive from my house to the city, you need to take the Saw Mill Parkway across the Henry Hudson Bridge onto the Henry Hudson Parkway. Those roads, and that bridge, were built under the direction of Robert Moses. If you have a flight to catch, you take the Hutchinson Parkway across the Whitestone Bridge to the Whitestone Expressway, which takes you the JFK airport; these, too, are Moses constructions. To get from my house to my old university in Long Island, you can take Bronx-River Parkway, which links up with the Cross-Bronx Expressway; then cross over the Throgs Neck Bridge onto the Long Island Expressway or the Northern State Parkway—and that bridge, and every one of those highways, is a Moses project.

Who was Robert Moses? He had formed the world around me. Robert Moses was the most decisive figure in shaping 20th century New York. But what was his job?

In his forty-four years as a “public servant”—from 1924 to 1968—Moses came to hold twelve titles simultaneously. He was the New York City Park Commissioner, with control over the city’s parks and parkways; he was the Long Island State Park Commissioner, with control over all the parks and public beaches on Long Island; he was the chairman of the Triborough Bridge Authority, with near-total autonomy from the city or state government. He was the chairman of the New York Power Authority, the chairman of the State Council of Parks, and the head of Title I, which oversaw all the public housing in New York City—and this is not to mention his membership on the City Planning Commission and the City Youth Board—and his eventual title as the City Construction Coordinator, which gave him control over nearly all public works in the city.

Robert Moses was a master builder. He built hundreds of miles of parkways and expressways; he opened hundreds of parks and playgrounds; he built some of the biggest bridges and tunnels and dams the world had ever seen. In the process, Moses displaced hundreds of thousands of people, condemning and demolishing their homes, and tearing the hearts out of old neighborhoods. How did he build so many things, acquire so many titles, move so many people? How, in other words, did he get and hold onto so much power? This is the central question of Robert Caro’s biography. And I can’t give you an idea of Caro’s biography, or why it is so incredible, without giving you an idea of Robert Moses.

The old adage about power and corruption is repeated so often, in such different contexts, that it can sound stale and meaningless. Moses’s story gives meaning to the adage—and qualification. He began his career as an idealist and a reformer; he was an opponent of nepotism, graft, and privilege. Moses’s first major effort was to institute civil service exams and strict pay scales that would serve as checks on government inefficiency and corruption. This effort failed utterly, defeated by the forces Moses hoped to check, leaving him out of a job.

After that, Moses learned to change his tactics. He stopped being an uncompromising idealist and started working with the forces he had once hoped to subdue with his ideas. And once he began to use the tactics of his erstwhile enemies, his prodigious intelligence and drive allowed him to master every force in his way.

The more power he gained, the more he wanted, and the more adept he became at getting it. One strategy was legislative. He was very crafty at drafting bills, sneaking through obscure clauses that extended his reach. His first master-stroke was to give himself, as the Long Island Park Commissioner, power to condemn virtually any piece of land he chose to for his parkways. Later, he managed to pass a bill that allowed him to simultaneously hold city and state government posts. Later still, he wrote the legislation authorizing the creation of the Triborough Bridge Authority, an entity with so much power and wealth that it was essentially a separate government, unelected by the people and unaccountable to and uncontrollable by the city or state governments.

He used underhanded tactics to build his parks and roads and bridges. To get the approval he needed from government boards, he would give extremely low estimates for the construction projects; and then, when the money ran out when the project was half-complete, no politician could refuse him more money, since that would require leaving a road or a bridge embarrassingly incomplete. He used scare tactics to speed eviction of buildings, telling tenants that demolition was imminent and they needed to vacate immediately, when in reality demolition was months away. To outmaneuver opposition to his projects, he would wait until his opponents were asleep and then bulldoze and jackhammer in the night—destroying dockyards, apartments, old monuments—rendering all acts of defiance pointless.

Moses was a master organizer. He learned to use the selfish interest of the major power-players in the city to accomplish his own ends. The unions and construction companies loved him because he provided work on a massive scale. The banks were eager to invest in the safe and high-yield Triborough bonds; and Moses rewarded the banks by depositing his massive cash reserves into their coffers. Cooperative lawyers received lavish rewards as “payment,” hidden through third-parties and carefully disguised as fees and emoluments. In everything, Moses prized loyalty and doled out money, commissions, and jobs based on how much power was at stake. He also forged a close relationship with the press by throwing lavish parties and befriending many newspaper owners and publishers. His carefully cultivated public image—as a selfless public servant who Got Stuff Done—made him an asset to politicians when they worked with him, and a major liability if they antagonized him.

And the more power he gained, the more uncompromising he became. He surrounded himself with yes-men—he called them his “muchachos,” and others called them Moses Men—who never criticized, or even questioned, what Moses said. He would refuse calls from mayors and governors. He did not go to council meetings and sent delegates to City Hall rather than go himself. Once he had planned the route of a road, he wouldn’t even consider changing it—not for protests or activists or local politicians; he wouldn’t divert his road one mile or even half a mile. If you opposed him once, he would use all his connections and resources—in government, construction, law, and finance—to ruin you. He ruined his own brother’s career this way. He kept files on hand full of compromising information that he would use to threaten anyone who dared oppose him, and during the Red Scare he freely accused his enemies of being closet communists—and if that didn’t work, he would accuse their families.

Summed up like this, Moses seems to be a classic case of a man corrupted by power. He went from a hero, fighting on behalf of the citizens to create public parks, struggling to reform an inefficient and corrupt government, to a villain—bullying, blackmailing, evicting, bulldozing, handing out graft. However, as Caro is careful to note, power did not so much corrupt Moses, turning him from pure-hearted to rotten, as allow certain elements of his personality free play, unhampered by consequences. The most prominent of these elements was his monumental arrogance. There are not many clips of Moses online, but the few there are give some idea of Moses’s egotism. He was uninterested in others’ ideas and perspectives, and could hardly deign to explain his own thinking. He spoke about the removal of thousands of people in a tone of utter boredom, as if the families he was moving were less important than gnats.

Compounding his arrogance, Moses was an elitist and a racist. He built hundreds of playgrounds in New York City, but only one in Harlem. He kept the pools in his parks cold, in the odd belief that this would keep black residents away. He built exclusively for the car-owning middle-class, draining resources away from public transportation, even encouraging subway fare-hikes to finance his projects. He made no provisions for trains or buses on his roads, and refused even to build his highways in such a way that, in the future, they could be easily modified to include a railway. It would, for example, have cost only a few million to do this while the highway to JFK was under construction, keeping a few feet in the center clear for the tracks. But because Moses didn’t do this, the railway to JFK, when it was finally built, had to be elevated high up above the highway; and it cost almost two billion dollars.

Moses was also a workaholic. He worked ten-, twelve-, fifteen-hour days. He worked on vacations and on weekends, and he expected his subordinates to do the same. Politically, Moses was a conservative. Ironically, however, Moses was a key figure in the implementation of the progressive New Deal policies of FDR (who was Moses’s arch enemy, as it happens). Also ironic was Moses’s adoption of progressive, modernist urban-planning principles. His ideal of the city was, in its essentials, no different from that outlined by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, who was certainly no conservative—an orderly city of parks, high-rise apartments, and highways, with no messy downtown areas and no ordinary streets for pedestrians to stroll about. But perhaps the most ironic fact in Moses’s life is that this most fervent believer in the automobile, this builder of highways and bridges, never learned to drive. He spent his life getting chauffeured around in a limousine that he had converted into an office, so he could work and hold meetings on the go.

Now if you’re like me, you may think there is something obviously wrong with a racist and elitist planning housing for poor people of color. There is something wrong with a man who couldn’t drive planning highways for an entire state. There is something wrong with a workaholic who was never home planning homes; something wrong with a lover of the suburbs organizing a city. There is something wrong with a man who was never elected wielding more power than mayors and governors. There is something wrong with a man who was scornful of others, especially the lower-class, being allowed to evict thousands from their homes. There is something wrong with a man who did not care about other perspectives and philosophies, who never changed his mind or altered his opinions, wielding power for over four decades. Really, the whole thing seems like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it?

And, indeed, many came to see Moses’s policies as disasters. Caro certainly did. Moses thought that his legacy would speak for itself, that his works would guarantee him immortal gratitude. Rather, Moses’s name came to be synonymous with everything wrong with urban planning. Sterile public housing that bred crime and hopelessness; ugly highways that cut through neighborhoods and flooded the city with cars; top-down implementation that didn’t take into consideration the needs and habits of residents; cities that had superhighways but lacked basic, affordable public transportation. Even the harshest critic, however, must admit that Moses did some good. That both the city and the state of New York have such an excellent network of parks is in no small measure due to Moses. And if his highways were hopelessly congested when Caro wrote this book in the 70s, nowadays they work quite well, perhaps because they’ve since been supplemented by better public transportation.

While the value of his legacy is at least debatable, the injustice of his tactics is not. Moses was extremely fond of saying that “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” For him, the ends always justified the means. If a few people—maybe a great many people—would be inconvenienced or hurt by his projects, future generations would thank him. But I think his story is an excellent example of why this type of thinking is dangerous, since it allowed him and his followers to trample over the lives of thousands, destroying houses and neighborhoods, treating those in his way with neither respect or dignity, for the sake of the “common good.” It allowed him, in other words, to be a tyrant in good conscience. And the reason he was able to do this and get away with it was because, as an appointed official, his power did not derive from the public—something intolerable in a democracy.

And yet, as Caro points out, Moses does illustrate a conundrum at the heart of a democratic government. Moses tried to achieve his dreams through the normal channels of government, and failed utterly. It was only when Moses started circumventing the usual rules that he was able to accomplish anything. And I think anyone who has ever tried to make a group decision—whether at work or with friends—can appreciate how enormously inefficient democracies can be. Moses was unjust, but he was efficient. That’s a major reason why no mayor or governor dared fire him; while other officials were mired in red tape and board meetings, waiting for approval, allocating funds, holding public hearings, Moses was plowing through and building his works. As he was fond of saying, he Got Stuff Done. His record of achievement made him, for a time, into a political asset and a public hero.

Here is the democratic conundrum in a nutshell. Quick decisions require unilateral power. This is why the Roman senate appointed dictators in times of trouble. But just decisions require a legal framework, open debate, and the people's approval—a slow and often painful process. And as the story of Caesar shows, it is a risky matter to grant unilateral power temporarily. Power, once granted, is difficult to take away; and power, once concentrated into one area, tends to keep on concentrating.

But the major lesson about power I learned from this book is that power is particular and personal. This is why this book is so eye-opening and shocking. Before reading this, my operating assumption was that power derived from rules and roles. You were elected to a position with a clearly delineated scope and legally limited options. Each position came with its own responsibilities and jurisdiction, unambiguously defined in black and white by a constitution or a law. Yet Moses’s story illustrates the opposite principle. The scope of a role is defined by who holds it; the power of the position is derived from the ingenuity of the individual. Everything comes down to the personality of the man (usually a man, then as now) in charge, his philosophy, his force of will, his cunning, his intelligence, as well as the personality of the people he has to deal with. Circumstances play a role too. Success or failure depends on the individual's ability to take advantage of any opportunity that arises. Power is not embodied in an eternal set of rules but rather in an ever-changing set of particular circumstances.

Here’s just one example. Moses thought that his power over the Triborough Authority was inviolable, because he had made contracts with his investors, and contracts are protected by the United States Constitution. But when Nelson Rockefeller, the governor, wanted to merge the Triborough into the Metropolitan Transit Authority—a clear violation of the bond contracts—Moses couldn’t stop him, since the banks were represented by Chase, which was owned by Nelson Rockefeller’s brother—who wouldn’t take the matter to court. In other words, because of the particular circumstances—the family relationship between the governor and the bank—the most sacred rule of all, the Constitution, was broken and Moses was defeated. And the reason this happened was not due to any regulation; it came down to the incompatibility of Moses’s and Nelson Rockefeller’s personalities.

I have written an enormous review, and yet I still think I have not done justice to this enormous book. Caro weaves so much into this story. It is not simply a biography of Robert Moses, but a treatise on power, government, and city-planning, a history of New York City and New York State. Robert Caro is an excellent writer—dramatic, sweeping, and capable of weaving so many disparate threads and layers and levels together into one coherent narrative. The one virtue he lacks is brevity. This book is long; arguably it is unnecessarily long, full of peripheral details and sidenotes and rhetorical passages. But its length is what makes The Power Broker so engrossing. It is more absorbing than a fantasy novel, pulling you completely into its world. For three weeks I lived inside its pages.

I loved this book so much, and learned so much from reading it, that it seems peevish to offer criticisms. I will only say that Caro is clearly hostile to Moses and perhaps is not entirely fair. He is an extraordinary writer, but uses repetition as a rhetorical device a bit too much for my tastes. Also, despite this book’s huge scope and length, there are some curious omissions. Particularly, Jane Jacobs’s conflicts with Moses—which have become somewhat legendary, even the subject of a recent opera—are not covered. Jacobs, who articulated many of the intellectual criticisms of Moses’s approach, isn’t even mentioned.

All these are mere quibbles of a book that totally reconfigured my vision of power and government. I recommend it to anyone. And if you’re from New York, it is obligatory.
Profile Image for Max.
341 reviews298 followers
September 16, 2014
The ultimate in investigative reporting - a history so well written, so thorough, so deep and with so many takeaways that it is beyond thought provoking. It changes the way you perceive the world. Caro shows how money, politics and power work behind the scenes to determine events in ways we ordinarily never see. He meticulously details a half century of greed and ambition ever evolving to control government from one generation to the next, from one set of power brokers to the next.

We learn how Robert Moses begins with values, ideals and dreams, with ambition and drive. As he pushes his new ideas forward he runs into the establishment, an entrenched society based on wealth and connections. His only way forward is to compromise, to manipulate the system the same way the establishment does. He then tastes power and it becomes his crack cocaine. His fix is facilitated by playing up to or paying off those he needs, rewarding those who fall in line, humiliating and ruining those in his way and forgetting the rest. Money, intimidation, threats, lies and deceit get things done. His dreams survive, but his values don’t. Robert Moses’ story exposes the raw nature of politics and its practitioners revealing a stark brutal reality.

While the author belabors some points, Caro’s biography never ceases to be enthralling and it always feels authentic. FDR, Nelson Rockefeller, Fiorello La Gaurdia, Al Smith, and every other politician that had anything to do with New York from 1920 to 1970 is there. And we are there, witnessing corruption of both the body politic and the human spirit. We live through the fascinating life of the ruthless genius who built so much of modern New York. We follow him from the bottom to the top and down to the bottom again. We see how generational ideals outlive their relevance in a rapidly changing world and how power based on new paradigms replaces old. But the game stays the same. The times and people change. The politics and human nature don’t.
Profile Image for Nancy.
382 reviews57 followers
December 10, 2015
Can a book be both endlessly enthralling and gratuitously tedious simultaneously? Apparently, it can.

They say that biographers identify with their subject, and Robert Caro was not untouched by the megalomania that drove Robert Moses. The worst problem was his tendency to belabor his points, as if his readers were slightly dim and couldn't be trusted to get a point the first time, or remember it. How many times should it be necessary to say that the West Side Highway would cut off New Yorkers' access to the Hudson forever? The repetition of his points about Moses and power, how he got it, maintained it, and exercised it, was mind-numbing. It extended to little things, too. Numbers in the hundreds of millions don't have to be carried out to the last dollar. Lists of playgrounds, roads, buildings, and so forth were stultifying. Even when Homer does it, my eye glances it over it, and Caro's not quite Homer; and since I was listening and not reading, I had to hear every single last one. It was unconscionable in a book clocking over 1300 pages. Megalomania. Moses would have understood, even as he raged over the analysis.

That out of the way, as the ratings and reviews attest, this was engrossing and a testimony to Caro's research and ability to write a story that kept drawing you on. There's nothing for me to add. For anyone with an interest in New York, urban planning and development, the sociology of power, or the nature of evil, it's a mandatory, if lengthy, read. It took me two months to listen to it.
Profile Image for Christy.
113 reviews273 followers
December 19, 2016
Moses was a horrifying example of the idea of "progress" gone stupid and taking advantage of a Manifest Destiny-like philosophy of urbanization. His tactics in NY and so many other cities severed people from each other with scalpel looking to exacerbate class divisions. So despicable that he deliberately build bridges too low to accommodate the city busses so that so the poor and especially the Blacks couldn't go out to the Long Island beaches. He advocated for a "White only" area of Stuyvesant, and tried all kinds of sleazy legal maneuvers in the courts to do what he wanted with New York neighborhoods. The part about Moses and Roosevelt is quite telling.

I read this a long time ago, but reviewed it (and got angry about it again) after I learned that in The Trumps: Three Generations That Built an Empire the corrupt business dealings between Moses and Fred Trump (father of "Don the Con" - President Elect) are detailed. Their shady dealings included claims of quid pro quo over land and development deals with one where Trump took a powerful role on a city council to make decisions to help Moses and Trump helped get Moses appointed as the president of the World's Fair.
Profile Image for Susan O.
276 reviews98 followers
April 17, 2017
Brilliant! I really don't know what to say about this book. It's monumental, brilliantly written and strangely enthralling. I would never have believed that a book about parks, highways, and bridges, many, many, of each, would be so interesting. Of course they all revolve around Robert Moses, who is fascinating and also despicable. He is however, an example of how to amass power, and how to use it, for better and for worse.

Caro is a brilliant writer. This is the 4th of his 5 published works that I have read and he is still my favorite non-fiction writer. The book is very long and quite an undertaking, so is probably not for everyone. But if you are a history lover I highly recommend it. If you are interested specifically in the history of NYC, then this is a necessity for understanding the growth and decay of the city in the 20th century.
Profile Image for Dax.
231 reviews107 followers
April 2, 2019
A biography, a history of mid 20th Century New York City politics and a study of the corruptive qualities of power. This is not my favorite biography I have ever read, but it might be the most impressive. For over 1,100 pages (with another 200 pages for notes and a bibliography), Caro is able to keep the narrative thread together despite a plethora of information and influential figures. “The Power Broker” requires a big commitment, but it was easily worth the two months of my reading time.
Profile Image for Rachel Moyes.
173 reviews1 follower
March 16, 2021
I DID IT! Reading this book was an event, an accomplishment, a marathon, and a joy!

Robert Moses has affected all our lives a lot and yet we've never heard of him! If you want 1,162 pages of fascinating information about New York, how cities work, political machinations, and how things might have been different, I can't recommend this highly enough!
Profile Image for Conor Ahern.
655 reviews186 followers
August 26, 2017
It took me almost half of a year, but I did it--I finished "The Power Broker." In many ways, this book feels like the nonfiction "Infinite Jest," a rite of passage for all serious readers and a shibboleth of dilettante scholars of urban life such as myself. I feel accomplished!

Based on my reading history, it is not difficult to tell that I'm a bit of a mass transportation enthusiast. When I first moved to New York I lived on the Lower East Side, at the mercy of the unpredictable F and erstwhile V trains, which usually didn't go where I wanted to go. So when I moved to Crown Heights thereafter and had either the 2/3/4/5 IRT lines or the IND Fulton C line at my disposal, it felt like the entirety of New York City had opened up to me, even as I decamped for the beginning of my continued foray into "Outer Borough" life. I left New York for law school and found my way back to Brooklyn, and I live in the neighborhood with the most subway options in the entire city, save Times Square, though the latter is more accurately described as a superterranean circle of Hell than a neighborhood. While my Brooklyn neighborhood has umpteen other charms, the subway options were why I moved here and they're a huge component of my decision to stay when I had to move earlier this year.

It's kind of weird to call yourself an enthusiast for the subways in a city where the favored pastime is measuring your weekly grievances against the MTA. It can't be denied that the system is outdated, poorly maintained, impossibly expensive, overcrowded, glitchy, dirty, and unreliable. But like the canals of Venice and the layout of Machu Picchu, imperfection does not preclude wonder. Due to a variety of geological, developmental, and riparian factors, New York is one of the most difficult and expensive places in the world to perform underground construction. Nevertheless, it has built a system that is one of the most expansive in the world when measured by number of stations, track mileage, or ridership.

Still, when you look at a spatially accurate map of the subway superimposed on the city, the lacunae are great--and greatly regrettable. Queens, almost entirely unpopulated until the early 20th Century, and therefore an excellent candidate for massive subway expansion, is only lightly dappled with subway access; huge swathes of outer Brooklyn, New York's most populous borough, are denied viable subway options; even gigantic portions of Manhattan are bereft, leading many to forget that the island has quite a bit of waistline extending beyond 8th Avenue. In the binary of subway access that has ensued, the rich tend to congregate around subway stops, while the poor and displaced--formerly locked into squalid city centers--have the difficulty of extended commutes and uncoordinated transfers added to their sizable burdens now that inner cities have become hypersafe playgrounds for the wealthy. Denizens of vehicular pseudo-suburbs in places like Queens, where subway access was repeatedly choked off, reap the advantages of the city without exposure to the shared living that urban life entails and which in turn fosters a sense of community and obligation, leading to curious redoubts of ethnic isolation, wealth, and conservatism in the world's most linguistically and ethnically diverse county.

Lest I expatiate on the subway any longer in a review of a book dealing mostly with roads and parks, I will try to get to the point: As much as I love the cheap and wide-ranging access of the tremendously flawed NYC subway system, I harbor an unusual wistfulness for its lost potential. New York runs the way it does because of the subway, and I wonder how many ills--hyperintense gentrification spurred whenever any reasonably-accessible neighborhood gets sufficiently safe, the criminalization of the working poor who cannot afford to commute, the pollution and diseconomies of space that car culture effect, etc.--could have been avoided or mitigated if subway access were truly comprehensive. To this end, I have spent untold hours mourning the failure of ambitious plans in the past, the provisions for connections optimistically but purposelessly built, the unrealized proposals of entirely new trunk lines articulated in a time when development and infrastructure did not make them prohibitively expensive. There are many, many factors to blame for these scuppered dreams, but the one that repeats like a mantra from students of New York's subway history is none other than this book's antihero: Robert Moses.

Moses, if nothing else, was a dynamo. He had superhuman intelligence, strength, will, confidence, and determination. Truly, one wonders were it not for his being Jewish in a more anti-Semitic age whether he would have become an elected official at the national level. He was born into wealthy circumstances and had all the advantages that wealth could endow, but aside from this huge thumb on the scale he was just a preternaturally magnetic, impressive, and capable person.

"The Power Broker" tells of Moses' idiosyncrasies and traits: his refusal to compromise, his mystifying ability to withstand the broadsides and enmities of mayors, governors, and even popular wartime presidents like FDR, and his primadonna tendencies. It explores the less than ethical and forthright ways in which Moses shored up and retained power, and his main tactic for building his mighty public works: over-promise on results, under-budget the costs, and prey on politicians' sense of failure to ensure that something once promised gets delivered, even if it requires multipliers of initial cost estimates. The book also alludes to Moses' racist and classist tendencies--his cooling by a few degrees of the temperatures of the public pools he built in white neighborhoods rimmed by pockets of Puerto Ricans and Blacks in the hope and under the impression that non-white people were constitutionally repelled by cool waters that whites were better able to endure; his quixotic war on Shakespeare in the Park, which he didn't believe poor people needed or could appreciate; and his busing and relatively meager accommodations for black New Yorkers. All in all, he seems to have been an impressive but unpleasant man who had an extremely particular and narrow view of what was best for the world and pursued the reification of that view with boundless zeal and undaunted determination.

And that's perhaps what is most striking about Moses. He was raised in the idealist tradition, by all accounts disproportionately influenced by his overbearing and talented mother and grandmother, who believed in social progress, but of a very specific type. Moses was not an evil man in most ways, he just really thought that landscaped roadways were the best ways to satisfy human needs for transportation while also giving "lungs" to the congested and miasmatic city. He didn't destroy entire swathes of the South Bronx out of spite, he did it because he believed that it was most conducive to the transit needs of the entirety of New York state. And much as it pains me to say it, when Moses refused to buy the right of way for future subway arteries in Queens, despite the knowledge that these rights of way would cost 10x as much a decade hence and using the cheeky excuse that doing so would put his project overbudget and destroy communities in the process, he did so because he earnestly believed that subways were a horrible way to travel, and that driving in a car was a luxury experience that should be--and someday would be--enjoyed by the great majority of New Yorkers. Being rich and too industrious to ever drive himself, he nurtured this mystifying view throughout his life, not really ever grasping the agony of a traffic jam or the pain of finding a parking spot in Lower Manhattan.

And so, just as I mourn the lost potential of the New York City subway system, I also mourn the lost potential of so powerful and impressive an individual as was Robert Moses, who could have achieved so much good if only he were instructed or sympathetic to the needs of a modern, global city. It is almost unquestionable that without a transit coordinator as powerful and hostile to subways as Moses was during that fecund period of subway construction, the subway network would be more expansive and suffer far less from the maladies attributed to it above. And imagine that, in addition to that barrier neutralized, what the system could look like in a world where Moses was its advocate! It's true that, having laid fallow in a time when the political will and practical possibility coexisted, so many plans for subway construction will likely never be resurrected. After all, New York's only really ambitious construction over the past few decades has been the 7 train extension--an addition of a single stop at a cost of over $1B, and the reinvigoration of the Second Avenue Subway, a line in the making for over a century that only just opened up its first three stops, and which is currently costing well over $2B per mile (the next closest rate is $400M per mile, the cost to construct subways in waterlogged Amsterdam) and not scheduled to be fully completed until likely the 2040s. While some think the completion of a portion of the Second Avenue line augurs well for future subway expansion, its difficulties, costs, and duration instead seem to signal that such ambitious projects need to be relegated to the realm of impossibility and impracticality. And this, sadly, as rapid bus services languish, as ferries fail to put a serious dent in ridership, and as rush hour trains go by 3, 4, 5, times before a passenger can squeeze on in increasingly bizarre positionings and uncomfortable proximities to complete strangers.

As I recall from Catholic school, the prophet Moses heralded the Savior. Perhaps we'll all be surprised and a savior of New York's mass transit woes will yet arrive. Until then, you can find me on the IND Lafayette Avenue local, lodged in a tunnel and waiting for an A express train to pass, wistfully wondering about what might have been...
Profile Image for Allison.
200 reviews22 followers
July 30, 2021
This book was crack to me. Reading this book feels like earning a college minor. Who knew nonfiction could be this interesting and this mutidimensional. Caro’s writing never felt like a slog. He has a gift of changing focuses and style every 1-2 chapters, without making the book feel disjointed. I’m so excited to read about LBJ next 🥺
Thank you Mr. Caro

I’ll let this old review speak for me: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Profile Image for Nicholas Sparks.
Author 228 books223k followers
January 13, 2016
This biography of Robert Moses—the highly influential urban planner who shaped the modern city during the 20th century—was first published in 1975, during a period of prolonged urban decline, adding another layer of complexity for today’s reader.
Profile Image for Anne.
131 reviews
May 10, 2008
Holy mother of all that is holy. If you've got any attachment to New York, any interest in city planning, and any stamina whatsoever, RUN (do not walk) to get your own copy and read, read, read!!!
Profile Image for Sharon Barrow Wilfong.
1,117 reviews3,942 followers
January 20, 2020
This book is a very long, thorough, exhaustive and phenomenal account of the man who made the public works systems and housing and parks in New York City what they are today. It deservedly won the author the Pullitzer for literature.

Are Moses' accomplishments good or bad?

Robert Moses grew up in a household run by his mother, who had fierce opinions about fighting for the underdog. She raised her children to think like her, at least she expected them to. Robert Moses did, his brother did not, the sister did but wasn't useful. Therefore Robert got every single dime that his passive father made, which was a lot, and his siblings got absolutely nothing.

This arrogance and drive put Moses through Ivy League, Oxford and made him a prominent administrator over New York City's parks, housing and city transportation systems.

Caro's book gives a real insight into how politics and the power mongers who use politics work and think. Moses spent hours and months looking at all the laws and by laws on the books. He found obsolete rulings and used them to get himself in an un-elected position of power that had no expiration date.

He used people and developed a gigantic entourage that supported his power, and tirelessly and relentlessly held power over everyone from the governor of the state to the mayor of New York city.

But what really allowed him to become the despot over New York was the press. I found this interesting. If the press is on your side, it does not matter if you're a saint or a monster, people will take their cues from what the newspapers' slant is. The New York papers always slanted in Moses' favor.

What I also found fascinating is how brutal Moses could be towards anyone who did not allow him what he wanted and how vengeful as well, yet he had loyal followers who genuinely believed that Moses was all he claimed to be, i.e. the "Savior" of New York. These men, or dupes, if you will, kept Moses in power for decades. By the time any of them wised up, they had no power or were useless to Moses and he discarded them.

First Moses ousted the Old Money that owned private property on Long Island and made it public property. He did this forcefully and gracelessly and not legally. And he got away with it for the above mentioned reasons. But his official response was that he was doing it for the common worker who lived in New York and had no beach to go to on the weekends. He used this excuse for the entire time he tore down property, built up parking lots, highways, created car to car traffic congestion and, let us not forget, pricey admission prices to access the beaches that eliminated the average New York middle class worker.

He did the same with bridges and highways. Instead of building them along deserted areas with empty tenement buildings, of which, New York had more than a few, he chose to build them in thriving neighborhoods, effectively ousting tenants and turning the neighborhoods into dangerous ghettos. He did this all over New York. Digging up parks, robbing families of what little resources they had to take their children to play.

Under the guise of "renovating" neighborhoods, Moses created a horrible homeless population and also isolated poor neighborhoods, condemning them to the category of ghettos. Jane Jacobs discusses this in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. By destroying, self-sustaining, vibrant neighborhoods, Moses was instrumental in creating grey, dead tenement neighborhoods where crime moved in and those who could afford to, moved out.

What's frustrating is how much of it was avoidable if Moses had made his highways and bridges in other unpopulated areas. But Moses marched to his own drum.

And he could be vindictive. Someone ticked him off about the Brooklyn Aquarium and Park and he effectively bankrupted them. The reason? Because no one messes with Robert Moses.

This went on for decades. We think of despots running third world politics. It also runs on smaller scales in cities and towns. It's not about money; it's about power.

Moses' downfall finally came in the sixties when Nelson Rockefeller became governor. Rockefeller did not need Moses' money and he was young and arrogant and Moses couldn't push him around. There was a new sheriff in town. Little by little, Rockefeller plucked every piece of development that was under Moses' authority.

He was finally left with running the World's Fair in Queen's and it was a dismal failure. Moses thought the could push around delegates from other countries as he could officials in New York. Hardly anyone from Europe came.

Moses' private life wasn't much better. His wife and daughters were so neglected that they eventually fell from view altogether. His wife became such an embarrassing alcoholic that he stopped bringing her to dinner parties. Instead he brought his mistress, whom he married a few months after his wife finally died.

As hateful as Moses was, and it certainly helps explain the traffic situation in the Northeast, this book was such an eye-opener as to how politics work. It's not the elected officials you have to worry about so much as the ones that acquire their own little dictatorships.

I would be interested in reading a good book as to what New York has done since the early seventies in an attempt to rectify any of the damage this one man incurred on one of the greatest cities in the world.
Profile Image for Book Clubbed.
146 reviews152 followers
March 14, 2021
Listen to full reviews at: https://bookclubbed.buzzsprout.com/

I listened to the audiotape of this book, in lieu of kidnapping a baby to swindle three months of parental leave, surely necessary to finish this behemoth.

There is a concept in history called the “Great Man” theory, which, as you might expect, attributes most historical change to seminal figures who shaped our modern world. Lincoln. Hitler. Richard Simmons. You get the idea. The theory has been eroding recently, as historians give greater weight to environmental changes, the will of the people, and the political/cultural milieu of the time.

Reading about Robert Moses will make you believe in the “Great Man” theory all over again. Not just because he was a great man, as he was plenty flawed as well. Rather, because he used a combination of political wiles, insatiable knowledge of governmental proceedings, accumulation of power, and delirious ambition to shape one of the preeminent cities of the 20th century. It is not hyperbole to say that, without Robert Moses, the NYC we know and cherish today would look vastly different.

The arc of his career is impressive, every step documented within this book, and there is something satisfying about witnessing a human being with such a singular vision see it to fruition. Along with molding NYC, it is nearly as impactful that Robert Moses forever changed how local politics operates and the scope of what governmental agencies are capable of.

Certain chapters drag, as you can imagine in such a long book, and I could only handle so many bureaucratic fights before my eyes glazed over (I would have been fired by Moses on the first day). Still, a commendable book, and a figure that deserves to be discussed.
Profile Image for Tony.
897 reviews1,480 followers
April 11, 2009
A massive, magisterial work on the man who built the roads, parks, etc. in New York. I'd been meaning to read this book for a long time because the author's continuing books on Lyndon Johnson are superb. The Power Broker did not disappoint. At times this bordered almost on too much information and there were certainly some thematic redundancies. But these are mere quibbles. There is a real sense of 'being in the room' while events are occurring. Caro, likewise, is able to explain legal, structural and political nuance so that they become a moving part of the narrative. There are some side mini-biographies that are wonderful, most notably the portrait of Al Smith. Yet, this is a story, after all, of Robert Moses and if I had to recommend one book about evil genius, it would not be The Prince, but, instead, The Power Broker. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Mishka.
13 reviews
August 12, 2007
i have never been afraid of hyperbole so here goes: i bow down before the greatness of this book. i can separate my 10 years living in new york as pre-caro and post-caro. every aspect of my life in new york, the subway, the roads, parks, politics (current and historical), every detail of mishka brown's highly anticipated treatise 'what i would do if i was in charge - the new york city edition' (yes, i talk about myself in the third person) is influenced by this book...this book is so vast, so far-reaching that one is tempted to compare caro to herzog: the daring and intensity of the (anti)heros of herzog's films are easily matched by his own in creating them. caro must have had a healthy dose of moses' stamina and ambition (in the good sense) to have written this masterpiece.
Profile Image for Andrew.
1,975 reviews689 followers
May 3, 2022
There's a reason this is considered a classic in the world of biography. It's hard to imagine a more sweeping portrait of a man in all his contradictions, especially a figure like Robert Moses who spent his life building power by reading the fine print, working back offices, relying on obscure precedent, greasing the right elbows, and doing, when necessary, some good old fashioned bullying. I was enraptured with every move, over 1200 pages there wasn't a boring moment. You see his rise, and you see his fall. And you're left with one nagging question for Robert Moses, which is the same question you'd want to ask, say, any of the characters on Succession – “why?”
Profile Image for Clif.
436 reviews117 followers
May 8, 2021
Power must be limited, no matter who the individual. We all believe we have the right view of things and that means we disagree with each other. The conflict normally results in a contest to determine the best course of action. What ends up being done may not be the ideal, but it does accommodate multiple views.

When one person has freedom to do whatever he/she pleases then people are going to be hurt. Even if power did not corrupt, it would, as this book shows, completely ignore groups of people to the point of devastating lives.

The sole virtue of unrestrained power is it gets things done, whether or not they are what should be done. Hitler did marvels for Germany before he destroyed it. Jeff Bezos can spend $1 billion a year on space tourism as so many Americans go homeless and his workers cannot get $15 an hour for their labor.

Robert Moses was a genius in several ways. He was a master at engineering without ever taking a course in it, a quick learner, a great judge of talent, an inspiring team leader, insatiably curious, unmatched in writing legislation, willing to work any and all hours to get something done with a physical constitution that would not quit, marvelous at planning down to the smallest detail and able to manage multiple projects at one time driving each one to completion.

But he had three serious flaws. He would not listen to others, always insisting on doing things his own way. He was supremely arrogant; openly contemptuous of anyone who disagreed with him taking real pleasure in dishing out humiliation. Worst of all, while deeply involved in public projects he had no feeling for the public and would drive his projects through regardless of the effect on the people whose lives would be shattered by them. He wanted monuments to himself and created them one after another for decades overcoming all obstacles financial and political to do so.

A Rhodes Scholar, Moses wrote his thesis at Oxford on the British civil service then upon return to the United States joined the movement for reform in New York state that saw him design a makeover of the state civil service, the details of which allowed him to work that system to his advantage including the writing of legislation creating the first public authority with him in charge and, once appointed, unable to be removed. When threatened with dismissal he would advise the one threatening him to check the law. End of threat. Even FDR as president was unable to dislodge Moses, and was barely able to stop one of Moses' bridges.

Governors and mayors came and went while Moses remained in his positions, heading up 12 government bodies at the peak of his power. Starting in the late 1920's with the public pleasing development of Jones Beach on Long Island including parkways to allow access to it by car, he rode a wave of popularity with the public as the man who got things done even as his building of expressways within NYC did nothing to improve traffic jams as he ignored the crying need for rail improvements.

In the 1930's he built the Triborough Bridge, an engineering marvel tolls from which allowed him sole authority over millions of dollars annually. The Depression starved state and city funds, but Moses had the toll money that could be capitalized into bonds that would provide collateral to fund park and highway building, but only as he dictated it be done. And if neighborhoods were destroyed and people evicted left and right from their apartments to make way for six lane expressways, so be it.

While obsessed with power, Moses cared little for what money could buy for him personally. Not only was he seen as the master builder, but one who was incorruptible. His secret was in commissioning companies, unions and individuals with generous contracts that bound their loyalty to him. Any objections to his plans by elected officials brought a barrage of protest from the movers and shakers of the city and state.

The Power Broker is an account of the 45 years of Moses reign. Though it is 1200 pages long, my interest flagged at only one point with a detailed description of NYC borough politics. It is fascinating to see one politician after another step up to challenge Moses, even if in a minor way, only to face humiliation demanding cooperation with him. Moses made a point of having mayors meet with him at places and times of his own choosing. Heart rending accounts of people losing everything to make way for Moses' highways show how far removed he was from public pressure. He ran for governor of New York only to be resoundingly defeated due to his arrogant attitude toward the public that he should have been wooing.

The book was published in 1975 six years before Moses died, completed only after the author was rebuffed by him. This biography of a man who lived to the age of 93 proves that some people can face incredible stress every day for decades yet thrive. Robert Moses made NYC what we know today, still congested with a teetering public transportation system despite all the expressways, bridges and tunnels that he built.
Profile Image for Jerry Raviol.
6 reviews
October 3, 2007
Although many folks know he is responsible for parks, bridges, roads, and tunnels - did you know that he reformed the budget system for the state of New York? Did you know that he was an Ivy League do gooder that never had a real paying job until he was more than 30 years old? Did you know that he spent his entire young adulthood trying to reform government? Did you know that the man most responsible for the highway, bridges, and tunnels of NYC, never had a driver’s license? He was chauffer driven all his life.

Interesting study of a mulit-faceted man who points out the dangers of judging folks that do great things on either only one dimension or the same scale we use to evaluate our private lives. Interesting to see how men that do great things also make great mistakes, commit great sins, and have great personalities. A great example of how to make a great omelet you have to break some eggs.
A huge intellect
A huge reformer
A huge ego
A huge bully that believed in quashing any disagreement (important and unimportant), so that others would fear to disagree and therefore not impede his progress.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,659 followers
December 14, 2016
Every New Yorker should read this book and everyone who wants to be a writer should too. Caro is amazing and Robert Moses--holy cow. This book is fantastic. It's worth reading--even if it takes a while.
Profile Image for Vincent Masson.
42 reviews23 followers
January 27, 2021
This is one of the best books I've ever read.

It excited me, angered me, disturbed me, and moved me in a way no other book has. The writing was so simple, so engaging, and so effective, that I never wanted it to end. I won't say I understood every single detail of this book - every back door dealing with every committee or organization, but Robert Caro has such an incredible gift for assessing and summarizing everything in clear and interesting prose that it was never an issue.

This book is thematically similar to one of the best movies I've ever seen -- Citizen Kane. Both works depict men who were extreme idealists in their youth -- who believed in helping people, doing good, and working hard -- and through the application and acquisition of power, eventually turned into the opposite.

This book exemplifies the best qualities of a good biography. It pinpoints both significant, character changing moments, and the smaller minutae in it's subjects life that amounts to a well-rounded portrait.

The well-rounded part is especially important.

Rashida Jones directed the documentary "Quincy" - about her father, Quincy Jones, which turned out to be more of a million-dollar love letter than a documentary exploring his nuanced character and personality. This happens a lot -- both in film and literature and why Biographers like Robert Caro - who have an incredible ability to take a more objective view of their subjects - are so important.

This book also made me curiously introspective. I started to think about a lot of the pettiness with which I've treated a lot of people over the years. Most of it, like Robert Moses, was related to power. I'm not proud of some of those things, but I have a greater understanding of why I did it, and how I need to curb it.

The power of money, specifically, is one that is emphasized in this book. Money means power, and Robert Moses had a lot of it through committees, organizations, grants, funds. Eventually he amassed what turned out to be a significant portion of New York City's budget, and built many bridges and beaches and parks with it. Moses became accustomed to this authority and power, and did some truly disturbing things - notably evicting poor families, and making his parks geographically innacessible to those families, among other things.

Moses was able to do this for so long because Highways and parks are tangible city structures that are easy to support. I remember Paul Thomas Anderson recounting a story about how the early test screenings for the 1994 remake of "Miracle on 34th Street" were overwhelmingly positive, even though the movie ended up bombing hard at the box office. The answer is that nobody is going to say "No" to Santa Clause. It's Santa Clause, for gods sake.

It's the same with parks. No one is going to oppose a park. It's a...park. It's where kids play, and mothers go for walks. Sadly, what appears to be good for one aspect of the public, sometimes isn't good for others, as the city of New York eventually realized.

He was also enormously valuable to the politicians that he served. Moses built things. Building things meant progress. Progress is good for a politician.

The other thing this book made me reflect on, was how confused we all are about what progress really means. I think many people would agree that a highway that disrupts a peaceful neighborhood isn't progress. But Robert Moses didn't need to consider these things, and the public wasn't really made aware of them.
Profile Image for Steve.
329 reviews1,073 followers
August 13, 2019

ublished in 1974, “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York” was Robert Caro’s first book – and earned him the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Caro is best known for his ongoing series covering the life of Lyndon B. Johnson. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for the third volume (“Master of the Senate”) and is currently working on the fifth – and presumably final – book in the series.

“The Power Broker” is notable both for what it is – a monumental investigative work and piercing exploration of a fascinating personality – and what it is not – an easy-to-digest narrative intended for the casual fan of great biography. This 1,162-page book is hefty but engrossing, detailed but illuminating and unquestionably demands more patience and perseverance than most biographies.

Readers familiar with Caro’s series on LBJ will find his writing style strikingly familiar: penetrating and potent but not particularly elegant and frequently dense but rarely dull. And given Caro’s knack for uncovering and piecing together various elements of his subject’s life, his background as an investigative reporter is hardly surprising.

This biography starts off somewhat slowly but once it is running at full steam (after about two-hundred pages) it is almost inexplicably enthralling. Robert Moses is not someone familiar to most readers, but Caro’s biography carefully tracks each phase of his uniquely consequential life – his rise to power, the decades he spent exercising that power and his eventual fall. At times this is as much a study of power as of Robert Moses.

There are too many excellent moments to comprehensively chronicle, but among the best are the chapter outlining Moses’ early vision for the development of Long Island, the review of his rise to power in New York City, descriptions of the ongoing tension between Moses and Franklin Roosevelt and the examination of Moses’ involvement in the Central Park Zoo and Triborough Bridge projects.

Caro also provides excellent introductions to important supporting characters such as Al Smith, Fiorello La Guardia and Nelson Rockefeller. And the chapter dedicated to describing a typical work day for Moses near the peak of his power, including his strategy for entertaining guests and dignitaries, is one of the book’s best.

This book’s few weaknesses are not well-hidden. The narrative rarely hurries to get to the heart of a matter and paragraphs routinely consume most of a page. Lacking both efficiency and a colorful fluidity, this is not a carefree read. In addition, Moses’ early years elapse far too quickly and his personal life proves elusive. But because his life revolved almost entirely around his career, this imbalance is unsurprising if unfortunate.

Overall, Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker” is an incredibly interesting, uncommonly penetrating and unquestionably demanding biography of one of New York’s most consequential public figures. Anyone seeking a casual biographical experience will find this book weighty and intense. But readers seeking a a fascinating story about a surprisingly compelling subject (and underpinned by meticulous research) will find few better biographies than this.

Overall rating: 4½ stars
Profile Image for Charles Gonzalez.
117 reviews12 followers
April 5, 2016
I have read some amazing books over the past 30 years. For a long time Neil Sheehan's "A Bright and Shining Lie" was my all time favorite because it grabbed me in a way that no other work had until then (1989). It unwrapped the Vietnam war in a way that had not been unwrapped for me until then, and Sheehan's story of his hero's personal struggles, his rise and fall is forever ingrained in me as a lesson in the interchange between man and war. Gibbons Rise and Fall, Thucydides, Halberstam's , "The Children", Taylor Branch's civil rights trilogy and Caro's epic about Johnson all captured and held me with amazing stories and storytelling about special individuals who stood out from the crowd for one reason or another to change the world around them. This volume, perhaps Caro's masterpiece, as others have described it, is I believe first among equals among the greatest in my experience. It is less a biography than an epic, at times Homeric in its ability to get uncover the not so mysterious drive of its central character, the man who could make things happen, Robert Moses.
I wrote in my updates some of my feelings while reading it, and a life long New Yorker I felt that reading this book opened up the history and inner workings of my hometown in a way that no other story has done so far. I just can't believe I waited this long (40 years) to read it. Nonetheless, this is a GREAT book, it should be required reading , or at least parts of it , for all New Yorkers native or not, so that there next drive down the FDR or up the Henry Hudson Parkway , or their next visit to Jones Beach becomes not just a stream of cars on the way somewhere but a reconstruction of a time long ago when New York as it exists today did not exist. As damaged and dangerous as he was, Bob Moses created the New York that exists today, the good the bad and the ugly. His legacy is in millions of tons of concrete still connecting the boroughs together as well as the uglier and perhaps unnecessary damage done to people and neighborhoods and to city's fabric by his egomaniacal focus on getting things done.
If I could give Caro 6 stars I would !!
Profile Image for Christopher Saunders.
865 reviews835 followers
August 2, 2017
The Power Broker is Robert A. Caro's first book, and despite the brilliance of his Years of Lyndon Johnson series, it's still his best. Ostensibly a biography of Robert Moses, the building and public works commissioner of New York from the '20s through 1969, it's many things: a detailed account of urban planning and inner-city strife, a sweeping chronicle of New York politics and official wrangling, a study of the impact of indifferent government and careless bureaucrats on everyday lives. As with Caro's other works, it's principally a portrait of power in action, a grand tragedy in the Shakespeare or Orson Welles sense of an idealist who abandons his early reformist spark to gain and exercise power for its own sake. Moses backs projects that range from mostly beneficial (state and city parks, bridges) to ones that inconvenience or actively harm New Yorkers (the chapter on New York's subway system comes to mind), all for the sake of maintaining his private fiefdom against all comers. We only occasionally see glimpses of private Moses, especially his estranged brother and all-too-loyal wife, but the public Moses is compelling enough that it doesn't harm the work. It's hard to put into words how impressive, immersive and insightful a read this book is; even if the subject sounds boring, check it out immediately.
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