Wednesday, January 29, 2014

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

The list of Robert Moses's accomplishments, even if cut in half, would be impressive compared to anyone, including presidents. He built hundreds of parks in New York City and State, the West Side highway, the Hayden Planetarium, Shea Stadium, Jones Beach, and Flushing Meadows. But he was also possibly the most arrogant man ever, not just dismissing any disagreement or questions, but often going so far as to destroy the reputation and career of those who dared question his ideas. He also was a racist, which had a direct impact on his building projects, as any minority-dominant neighborhoods in NYC were given a seriously short shrift when it came to playgrounds, parks, and recreation areas (the only recreation area he built in the Harlem area of Riverside Park was decorated with monkeys, in case you doubted his opinion.) A tyrant who surrounded himself with ass-kissing yes-men, Moses had an amazing ability to get things done quickly, cut through red tape, and while keeping an eye on the bottom line he didn't forget about aesthetics. To a point. His aesthetic view was from the seat of a car, so drivers on the West Side Highway got the Hudson River view, not the park-goers in Riverside Park, who were completely denied access to the riverfront. I always wondered why Flushing Meadows Park was bordered on all sides by highways, as I had never seen that design before and I found it quite lacking for park-goers. It now makes sense. The park was for the parkway. Pedestrians were an afterthought.

He amassed a great deal of power, the center of which was the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. I used to walk under this bridge in Astoria Park. Moses was the first guy to figure out that you didn't actually have to stop collecting tolls when the construction bonds were paid off. The money collected eventually was the largest amount in the state, and since he could use it to build almost anything, he managed to eventually get himself appointed to twelve different jobs (including keeping his original parks job). But when he started working on Title 1 housing (projects), the cracks started to show. He was overextended. The "friends" who got "favors" on the project not only were out of control, but they never actually got around to building anything. As Moses aged, his friends in the newspaper publishing business no longer protected his reputation as well as they once had, but also he became more tune-deaf to what the public wanted, and stayed stubbornly blind to counter-ideas such as public transportation. Eventually, a combination of bad work on Title 1, good work by newspaper reporters, and the election of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, managed to oust the power-monger Robert Moses.

I wish Mr. Caro had used fewer nicknames for the men involved (such as calling La Guardia "The Little Flower.") It's not only cutesy, but in the intervening 39 years since this book was published, a lot of those nicknames are no longer commonly known, so at times it did make it hard to understand who he was talking about. My biggest complaint was of course the length. But not as much as you would think. This book did win the Pulitzer Prize for a reason. There were occasional minor repetitions--but mostly those were to remind us of people and events that happened hundreds of pages ago. He is a little heavy-handed with descriptions but they greatly help paint the picture of events. And he does go into great detail on a lot of projects. But the detail is necessary, and the primary reason for the massive length of the book, was Moses's long life, indefatigable energy, stunning list of accomplishments, and towering persona. As long as this book was, I thoroughly enjoyed it. But you must be in it for the long haul. As good a reader as I am, I read this book for more than five weeks. But I'm glad I did.

I bought this book at B&N.

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