by Dan Cohen
It has been fifty years since the publication of Robert Caro's The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, but the book is as vital as ever. Like all great books, especially ones with the heft to counterbalance a child on a seesaw, it contains multitudes, interlocking stories and ideas that have lost no vibrancy, that still speak to us.
The Power Broker is a history of New York and a biography of Moses, who so irrevocably altered the region through parks, playgrounds, housing, bridges, and especially his beloved roadways, that a journey across New York is a passage through his realized dreams. The book is also a vivid nightmare: an unflinching account of the loss of neighborhoods to pavement, good government idealism to corrupt dealing, the possibility of integration to the reality of segregation.
The Power Broker is about a past that is still very much present, especially the legacy of underinvestment in public transportation and our constant failure to build enough housing. But the book is not titled The Transportation Czar or The Housing King. It is about power: how it is acquired, used, and preserved. It forces us to look, in the mundane details and the fearsome aggregate, at the allure of power and how it persists. This is The Power Broker's universal theme. We still haven't learned much from it.
Moses assembled power in ways that remain instructive. He understood the hidden power of local governmental roles that we now laugh at in sitcoms: the city planner, the parks commissioner, the comptroller, whatever that is. While we obsess about national, rather than local, elections and appointments, Moses knew that one could derive immense power from a network of municipal and state officials working in the same direction. He also understood, as well as a Wall Street banker, how financial instruments worked, and how to use them to his advantage. A trickle of cash flow from a bridge toll could be leveraged into a stream of large bonds, which in turn could generate a flood of federal and state funds for major public works. He knew that few people pay attention to all of the minutiae of bills, so he could craft legislation that would extend more power to himself. He understood the landscape of the entire government, so he placed his power in areas that resisted accountability.
Moses grasped that media coverage was important, but only to a point. He befriended the owner and publisher of the New York Times, as well as other newspaper magnates and reporters, to ensure positive coverage. (For a long time only the New York Post attacked him, justly, for his many misdeeds.) Although he could be a persuasive writer and speaker, Moses thought that language ultimately had little power. True power was to be found in the nitty-gritty of laws, money, and politics. He may have been annoyed by op-eds, and would inevitably write furious responses, but he also considered them naïve, an outlet for those who didn't know how to get things done.
And Robert Moses got things done. The Power Broker may be a brutal indictment of Moses, but Caro also beams with admiration — and invites the reader to stand in awe, as well — at what Moses was able to accomplish, and with such speed. How did Moses stay in power for decades, through many administrations, with many detractors? Mayors and governors knew that big, tangible accomplishments electrified the public more than big words. A ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new bridge or park or highway in October meant re-election in November. Moses was the one who could deliver those grand openings, with trumpets, confetti, and those incumbents riding up front as grand marshals of the parade. He may have upset some of the public in building those grand works, but most of the public adored the new span or swimming pool or scenic drive, and looked the other way at what was lost in the process.
And isn't this still true today? Aren't we ceaselessly attracted to the grand accomplishment ruthlessly pursued rather than the carefully conceived project that is hindered by consensus-building? At a time when we need to build a new grid for green power, for instance — not so dissimilar from the network of highways Moses built — with electrical lines snaking across the country and thus across thousands of miles of private land, with ugly transmission towers and the desecration of rolling hills and fields, would we not appreciate — would we not applaud — someone like Moses, who could just ram it through quickly? Doesn't climate change require that urgency?
Late in The Power Broker, Moses stares at the audience and declares his icy credo: "The public say, on public works, should be limited." Go have your endless community meetings, keep changing your design in ways that will only hurt other communities that are less vocal, keep waiting for consensus that will never come. I'm over here with the bulldozers, blueprints in hand, ready to go.
Caro highlights this appeal that autocrats have over the messiness and inefficiency of democracy, and The Power Broker asks us to think about how, in response to this inconvenient truth, democratic processes can deliver. This is no small question, especially today, with our polarized politics and governmental paralysis. It explains the love-hate relationship we have with Big Tech, which acts very much in the mode of Robert Moses, moving fast and breaking things.
What accounted for Moses' eventual defeat? Caro's answer is unsatisfying, I believe intentionally so, to discomfit the reader. Moses uncharacteristically started to upset most of the public most of the time rather than just some of the public some of the time. He bulldozed a beloved neighborhood playground to build a parking lot for the tony Tavern on the Green. He attacked the new Shakespeare in the Park series, which rich and poor New Yorkers attended with glee. The media, sensing a shift in public opinion, finally started to look into Moses' corruption and graft.
But disturbingly, Robert Moses may have weathered these "wars of Central Park" and their aftermath, which after all seem fairly minor compared to evicting hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, unless those with even greater power than him came along. When it takes not one, but two Rockefellers, to take an autocrat out, it should tell you something about the nature of true power. There is a reason that the subtitle of Robert Caro's The Power Broker includes the word "Fall."