The Power Broker: A Very Late Book Review

Public Domain. Robert Moses ~1930; MTA Bridges and Tunnels Special Archives

The Power Broker was published over forty years ago. Robert Caro traced the career and impact of Robert Moses, perhaps the most powerful unelected civil servant of the 20th century. Moses built bridges, highways, parks and pools in New York City and across the state.

In December, Robert Caro wrote an article in The New York Times Book Review about re-reading the book that inspired me to finally read this doorstopper of 3 pounds 9 ounces and 1200 pages. It reads like a novel and truly deserves that horrible word “unputdownable.” It is a fascinating look at how real power works.

master builder

© Mashup of Moses and buses by Politecture

But what was most relevant and interesting to me was the whole basis of his planning, that the private car is the only means of transportation worth investing in, while public transit was not only ignored, it was actively and consistently undermined. When Moses built his parkways out to Long Island, he designed the bridges with lovely arches, carefully calculated so that a bus couldn’t fit under them; poor and Black people take buses and he didn’t want them in his parks. When he was designing the Van Wyck Expressway to the airport, he was asked to to reserve space for future transit; it would have cost under $2 million. He ignored the request; when a rail link got priced a few years later, it was estimated at $ 300 million.

And as for the existing commuter railroads and subways, he destroyed them. Caro writes:

When Robert Moses came to power in New York in 1934, the city’s mass transportation system was probably the best in the world. When he left power in 1968 is was quite possibly the worst.

The railroads were privately owned while the highways and bridges were subsidized by taxes. The roads and bridges siphoned off customers, and “every attempt to obtain meaningful subsidies was defeated by the highwaymen, the banks, construction unions, contractors, engineering and bonding and building-supply firms and pillions who reaped profit from Moses’ highways.”

The commuter railways just got worse and worse. As for surface transit, forget it. “building transit lines underground was wildly expensive. Building them at ground level was cheap.” But like the battles still going on in Toronto where I live, the car people don’t like surface transit. It’s subways or nothing, usually the latter.

Reading the book, one realizes how the 50s mindset has not changed at all. That the kind of thinking that got us into the mess of sprawl and incredibly expensive and slow band-aid solutions to congestion still prevails. I understand what is happening now in New York City with the battles over Vision Zero in the context of how the city and the mindset got that way. I will never look at it the same way again.

Washington Square

New York City Archives/Public Domain

Through the sixties Robert Moses started losing battles, most notably in Greenwich Village, where he wanted to run Fifth Avenue right through Washington Square. One of the leaders in that fight was Jane Jacobs, who then wrote the Death and Life of Great American Cities, and whose star ascended as Moses’s declined. Yet there is not a word about her; her name only appears in the critic’s blurbs, where she calls the book “an immense public service.”

wrestling with moses

Wrestling with Moses/Screen capture

Yet books and essays have been written about the battle, including Wrestling with Moses by Anthony Flint, which I read after finishing the Power Broker. After tweeting about it, Norman Oder sent me a link to a post he wrote in 2007, The missing Jane Jacobs chapter in The Power Broker. In it he quotes Caro’s wife and research assistant, via his agent:

"Over 30 years ago, when she typed the original manuscript for The Power Broker, there was a wonderful chapter on Jane Jacobs--as good, she thought, as the one on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Unfortunately, when the book was handed in it was one million words long and had to be cut by a third -- 300,000 words. Entire chapters were cut. One on the Brooklyn Dodgers and Moses, one on the Port Authority, one on the city planning commission, one on the Verrazano Narrow Bridge and one on Jane Jacobs. She hopes those pages are still in storage and can be read someday when a library acquires Mr. Caro's papers."

I would love to read that.