It takes a long time to read, and even longer to digest Caro’s ‘The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.’ Not including notes, the book is well over 1,000 pages long and you’re left with the impression it could have easily been half as long again.
The immense length is justified on several counts, firstly, Robert Moses lived for a very long time, secondly he accomplished a huge amount and finally, thrown in for free as it were, Caro also includes mini-biographies of other characters and institutions which cross Moses’s path. Without wishing to stretch the metaphor too far, in order to track the paths and roads Moses created during his decades as the ‘master-builder’, you need to understand the institutions he crushed underfoot. Arguably the biggest of these was New York City itself.
Robert Moses began his career in 1913 as one promising reformer amongst a host of others. We’re told ‘It must have seemed like a great time to be young and a reformer in New York. In all American history, in fact, it would have been hard to find a better time.’ It appears that it also may have been hard to find a time with more pressing need for reform. I’m someone who was entirely ignorant about New York City politics, so the details of institutionalised corruption of Tammany Hall were reason alone to be grateful to Caro. Throughout the book, we learn not just about Moses but also the officials he worked for and dominated. Until now, La Guardia was only the name of an airport for me and I’d never even heard of Al Smith. Caro’s sections on Roosevelt are detailed and fascinating, as are the chapters dealing with Moses and Rockefeller. As a tourist, the first and last names on this list (La Guardia and Rockefeller) had only really been known to me through the airport and Centre. Next to Moses they become not only rounded historical figures, but also emblematic of the kind of ruthless political machinations that get people’s names on such monuments.
Caro’s book was written in the 70s and ends by fulfilling the promise of the title. It is a book about ‘Robert Moses and the fall of New York,’ and while Moses’ own life could be read as a grand tragedy, such an artistic and individualistic reading cannot face comparison with the depictions of more than city-wide deprivation and despair. Moses, an unelected official responsible for large pubic works projects, was not accountable to the citizens he served. In return for the power afforded him by his own skill at law-writing, he destroyed communities, systematically ensuring his projects only helped the moderately well off rather than those in most need. One example of many was his determination to prevent the poorest inhabitants of New York from enjoying his highroads or the parks to which they lead. Road lanes were deliberately made too narrow for buses and, to preempt possible changes in policy, bridges were also build too low. Often when things seem unfair in civic infrastructure its easy to blame carelessness or bad luck. In New York, it was one man’s clear agenda through which some benefitted and others were purposely excluded: ‘Robert Moses built 255 playgrounds in New York City during the 1930s. He built one playground in Harlem.’
I mostly read fiction, and if this book was about a fictional man it would be perfect. From the striving ambition and drive to his the dark, dark flaws, Moses’s life makes for compulsive reading. Sadly though, and I realise this is what happens when I stray into non-fiction territory, his scope is more than literary. Moses’s projects impacted on real people and communities; Caro’s journalism is brought to the fore when he exposes the terrible human cost of the engineering feats. Next time I visit the NYC I will have new landmarks to look out for and a far greater understanding of its form and history. More than that, next time I look at the news to learn about American politics (which will be in about five minutes from now) I will do so with a better and sadder knowledge of its context. This book might be heavy (and currently not available on Kindle) but it is a must-read for anyone who loves New York or wishes to understand more about how politics can and have worked in the USA.