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The Power Broker 2009/12/08

Posted by tcaiafa in Transportation Planning.
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The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York was written by New York Newsday reporter Robert A. Caro and published in 1974 by Vintage Books. It is an exhaustive, 1,336 page biography of Robert Moses, who was widely considered to be the “master builder” of the New York City metropolitan area during the mid-20th century. The work itself stemmed out of Caro’s investigative reporting of the 1964-65 World’s Fair, of which Moses was president. At the time of its release, it receive numerous positive reviews and was the recipient of the 1974 Pulitzer Prize and Francis Parkman Prize. Moses himself viewed the book with tremendous disdain, and even went so far as to publish a twenty-three page “rebuttal” of the book.

The book acts as a sort of narrative of Moses’ life, beginning at his 1888 birth in New Haven, Connecticut and continuing almost non-stop until the early 1970s. Much of the book’s focus is not necessarily on any one particular plan, but emphasizes the details in the behind-the scenes machinations that Moses utilized in “getting things done.” Given that Moses spent over four decades in twelve different positions of power (from his 1924 appointment to the Long Island State Park Commission to his dismissal in 1968 as chairman of the Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority), there was no shortage of information to chronicle. In addition to Caro conducting hundreds of interviews with people that worked with the book’s subject, Moses consented to be interviewed in the late 1960s, with much of the content providing the background information on his early life.

However, Caro’s description of two projects pushed by Moses stand out as prime examples of the immense amount of power that he had, as well as the effect that the implementation of said power had on the general public as a result:

The first project, that of the planning construction of the Northern State Parkway on Long Island during the 1930s, demonstrated how Moses would cater to wealthy landowners by shifting the road’s alignment two miles to avoid both their land and constant litigation. At the same time, Moses refused to move the alignment for middle-class residents whose small farms were split in half by parkway construction. This resulted in the infamous “Objectors’ Bend,” in which the final constructed alignment of the parkway requires commuters to traverse longer distances than the original, straighter alignment. In effect, this decision by Moses not only affected people at the time of the road’s opening, but even commuter and local residents in the area seven decades later.

Moses’ second project, the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, had much more devastating consequences for the area surrounding it. This section of the book, titled “One Mile” (an excerpt of which was also published in The New Yorker), underscores how a densely-populated neighborhood in a major city can be heavily disrupted by the introduction of six lanes of concrete rammed right through it. As he had done with the Northern State Parkway, Moses avoided shifting the planned route in order to avoid offending parties that could have potentially held up the project in court. In this case, the expressway would avoid a politically-connected private bus terminal, and instead required the demolition of thousands of homes and apartments in the East Tremont neighborhood of the South Bronx, which soon went into steep decline.

Regarding the merits of the book, The Power Broker is not only a fascinating study of the background of an extremely powerful individual, but also gives the reader an idea of the politics of New York City and state during the mid-20th century. In spite of its huge length (which was two-thirds the size of the original manuscript), The Power Broker is a relatively quick read, and while it takes multiple readings to properly digest all of the information it contains, doing so would be encouraged, and any reader who is interested in urban planning and public policy would most likely do so.

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