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Book Review: The Power Broker – Robert A. Caro

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New YorkThe Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro

A towering, monumental biography of a huge, powerful civil servant, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker is a hell of a biography. It illuminates all the aspects of Robert Moses, who build up New York in a way nobody else had before and probably never will again.

Here’s a good way to sum up Moses. Right from the earliest points of his career, he led crusades to build parks for the general public, arguing with the robber barons who controlled the land he wanted and had the money to fight him. At the same time, he worked in ways of keeping the urban poor – minorities, generally – from using his parks and wasn’t above lying to people to get them to do what he wanted and dropping them the second they stopped being useful.

Or consider this. At one point, Moses was simultaneously building a huge hydroelectric dam, the world’s longest suspension bridge and planning a world’s fair. When he was in his 70s.

Caro’s book has all this and more. It’s huge and impressively detailed. It goes the gamut of his life, going through Moses days at Oxford and up to his fall from power in the late 1960s. It covers the ups, downs and many, many moves of power that Moses made to crush people in his way. They could’ve been anyone: newspaper reporters, mayors and other elected officials, even entire neighbourhoods. He didn’t care about anything, anyone but himself. Caro captures this arrogant, aloof attitude, which is why this book is so compelling: the average writer might have simply written off Moses as someone who grew old and out of touch; Caro shows him as a ruthless manipulator who was unwilling to bend to anyone, even the President of the United States.

It’s more than just that, though. Caro’s book doubles as a history of New York City through the 20th century, from the days when Tammany Hall controlled the city, up through the troubled mayoralty of John Lindsay. He explains the shifts in population, the way the city’s power shifted between parties and the rise of a more outspoken media. But where he comes through most is the rise of the automobile and it’s relationship to the city.

Which was Moses doing. More than anything – even the parks which made him famous and powerful – Moses was a highway-building man. He built parkways, highways and bridges. Toll-collecting made his Triborough Authority richer than any other authority in the city and Moses extensive ideas and planning for highways gave him a grip of power on the city. He didn’t just have the ideas for how cars should flow through the city, but he was the only guy with both the power and the money to get it done. And he did. His parkways gutted homesteads, slashed through neighbourhood and caused more congestion than they did relieve drivers.

It goes deeper: the specific ways in which Moses built his highways defined how the city would be shaped long after he was gone. He built bridges so low that buses couldn’t use the parkways, limiting them to the middle-class and higher. He evicted scores of people, pushing them into already-packed slums and public housing and destroyed neighborhoods. And his refusal to even consider public transit meant subways and trains wouldn’t have a part, but they never would: by the time he was finished, the land would be too expensive to buy.

Did Moses care? Hardly. As Caro relates, this was a man who laughed at people who were angry with him, scorned those who dared challenge him and refused to talk to anyone who wasn’t there to help him. He was arrogant, yes, but he had built himself so powerful he didn’t need anyone’s help, really.

And, as Caro relates in the book’s final sections, this arrogance undid Moses. He fought with the press, with the city and even people who wanted to put on free plays in the park. It’s a cliche, but I kept thinking of Lord Acton’s old line about power.

At well over 1,000 pages, Caro’s book is pretty weighty (even makes a nice dull thud when you drop it on a desk), is packed with numbers and figures and can occasionally get a tad overwhelming. But it never lets up on the drive and once Moses drive for power and arrogance towards everyone starts getting in his way, the book takes on a new power. Perhaps it’s because Caro was around for those battles, but maybe it’s just because Moses started losing these fights.

But the last quarter of this book is as exciting, as riveting as anything Caro’s written in his Lyndon Johnson biographies – if I had to rank it among those, it’s slightly behind┬áthe third volume, which is my favourite of the four, and just ahead of volumes two, four and one (in order). Granted, I would’ve liked to see more maps and maybe a postscript of what’s happened since this was first published, but those are minor gripes. If you’re looking for a political biography, how people carve out a position of power for themselves and keep it, this is your book. Recommended.

Rating: 8/10

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