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Paperback The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York Book

ISBN: 0394720245

ISBN13: 9780394720241

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

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Book Overview

PULITZER PRIZE WINNER - A modern American classic, this huge and galvanizing biography of Robert Moses reveals not only the saga of one man's incredible accumulation of power but the story of his shaping (and mis-shaping of twentieth-century New York. One of the Modern Library's hundred greatest books of the twentieth century.

Robert Caro's monumental book makes public what few outsiders knew: that Robert Moses was the single most powerful...

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

The best biography ever. An amazing read!

Don't be daunted by the length of this book. Caro's exhaustive work about one of the most politically-powerful men in 20th Century New York (who was never elected to public office) is a page-turner and a classic story of a man acquiring power for power's sake.Many readers and historians have used this book for a primer on how NOT to conduct urban planning. Moses' heavy hand, disdain for delays and love of the automobile in transit-centered New York City are really only a small part of this story. Like the title says, I think Caro really wrote a tale of a man whose official job titles were "only" the head of the Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority and the NY Parks system, but the power he wielded shook mayors, senators and even a president or two along the way. His power transcended political party and popular will, and only did late in his career, as he battled society women over expanding a parking lot in Central Park, did he begin to fall from his once-untouchable pedestal. Caro emphasizes that Moses never used power for financial wealth, and lived modestly his entire life.Caro does a phenomenal job by describing how Moses' insistence on building the Cross-Bronx Expy through the heart of a thriving residential neighborhood led to the widescale decay of that neighborhood for generations to come. It was certainly the book's high point.Historians today now look at Moses with a kinder light than Caro did in 1974, citing him for the quality and aesthetic touches he put into many of his highways and parks (remember, by 1974, "form follows function" reigned supreme, and all public buildings and projects were bland, faceless monoliths of concrete and cinderblocks). Even the oft-quoted statement that Moses deliberately designed his parkway bridges too low to accomodate buses has been discredited by Caro himself in later years.Even if you have never ridden public transit or set foot in New York City, you will not be disappointed by this book. It is perhaps the best biography I have ever written and one of my favorite works of non-fiction.

A scathing, but brilliant, portrayal of a powerful man.

As with his biographies of LBJ, Caro delivers a scathing critique of the means and purposes of a powerful man in 20th century American government. "Power at all costs" is the theme he applies to both subjects. The amount of detailed research in the book is amazing. We are able to follow the character development of Moses from his days as an idealistic civic reformer through the transformation by which he became one the most shrewd, and venal, operators in the system he set out to reform. As the years go by, we learn that although Moses's energy and ambition do not wane, his ideas of urban infrastructure design are hopelessly out of date. Furthermore, his preference for glamorous bridges instead of more practical tunnels, and his stilting of the mass transit system in favor of more and more expressways results in censure from Caro. In he end, we are intended to believe that the work of Robert Moses has become a barrier to the development of the greatest American city.In his judgement of Moses, however, Caro still brings out the genius of one of the most influential shapers of modern urban design of the last century. The genius was, unfortunately, corrupted by the trappings of absolute power in his field.The book is worth reading as an insight into urban politics, as a history of the infrastructure of New York, as a character study of an amazing personality and as a well written narrative biography. Combined, these factors make the 1200 pages well worth plowing though. Several unexpected stories within the book could stand alone as great (but certainly not impartial) writing. The story of a Jewish neighborhood that was torn down to make room for a Moses expressway is perhaps the most powerful passage in the book.One final point is that Caro tends to sensationalize the sins of Moses, while painting other characters in a more positive light. For example, very little of the political machinations of Fiorello LaGaurdia and Al Smith are discussed, making Moses look evil in comparison to the two. Caro does a similar thing with his portrayal of Coke Stevenson in the LBJ books. Caro definitely sets out to get Robert Moses, but he backs up his criticism with a brilliant book.

Political power primer

This massive work, published in 1975, is unfortunately just as timely today as it was a quarter century ago. It is the story of Robert Moses, arguably one of the most important and influential men of the second half of the 20th century. He, for better or for worse, gave us our models for the modern highway transportation system and wielded enormous power in the city and state of New York -- without ever being elected to a single public office.At 1,162 pages, Caro's work will undoubtedly always face the charge that it needed editing. But to address large themes, a writer needs to expand, and Caro does, brilliantly for the most part. "The Power Broker" takes on the question of whether democracy in America really works. Using Moses' life as a model, the answer is "no." Moses began as a passionate believer in reform, a man who wanted to end favoritism and corruption in New York. Yet early on he concluded that to "get things done," he needed to beat the power-wielders at their own game, and he did. He built an enormous network of influence that included politicians, unions, banks and big business. And he used that power to build the most enormous transportation system in the nation, often over the objections of elected officials.But the book also makes clear the cost of power. For one thing, there were political losers. Moses was ruthless in his attacks on those who opposed him, often lowering himself to attacking character. Mass transportation was a loser during the time Moses wielded power. He considered the automobile the premier mode of transportation, and he steadfastly refused to accommodate plans for subway, bus, and train improvements. And the poor and working class were losers in Moses' power game. He had no respect for the poor, particularly those with dark skin, and he ruthlessly destroyed their neighborhoods in his grand building schemes.In the end, we have all lost because of Moses' vision. His idea that we can solve transportation problems by building more and more roads, bridges and infrastructure to accommodate commuters who live farther and farther from the places they work has carried the day, and those of us who live in medium-sized and big cities continue to suffer for it with every minute we lose in traffic.Tremendous book -- grand in its vision, grand in its documentation, grand in its achievement.

There and back again (but not on the Long Island Expressway)

I first picked up The Power Broker when it was published 25 years ago. Since then I've re-read it three or four times over the years. It is a true monument to Caro that this book has remained in print in both hc and pb over these years. This massive work is at the same time a biography of Robert Moses and the metropolitan New York City area. Moses, originally a reformer and a true public servant, somehow became tainted by the power entrusted to him. It was his way or no way -- and once he became firmly entrenched there was no "no way." A typical Moses tactic: design a great public work (bridge, for example) and underestimate the budget. A bargain sure to be approved and funded by the politicians! Then run out of money halfway through construction. The rest of the money will surely be forthcoming because no politician wants to be associated with a half-finished and very visibile "failure" -- it's much better to take credit for an "against the odds" success. I grew up in NYC at the tail end of Moses' influence and I remember the 1964 Worlds Fair in NYC vividly, especially a "guidebook" that lionized Moses' construction prowess. In school, Moses' contribution was also taught (always positively) when we had units covering NYC history. If nothing else, Moses understood the power of good publicity, and used tactics later adopted by the current mayor (King Rudy) to control the press and public opinion. This book brings Moses back to human scale and deconstructs (no pun intended) his impact on the city.The book is long, detailed, and compelling. Great beach reading -- especially at Jones Beach! Now that it is celebrating its 25th anniversary, a new retrospective afterword from the author would be appreciated (perhaps a reprint of the article he wrote for the New Yorker a few years ago on how he wrote the book).An interesting counterpoint to this biography of Moses is The Great Bridge by David McCollough. This story of a great public works project is also a biography of the Roeblings, the family of engineers who designed and built it. They shared Moses' singlemindedness, but the methods and results had far less negative results.

Don't blame us--blame the "Authority"

Everyone knows--or intuitively feels--that American cities had some great opportunities to become enjoyable, livable places during the course of the 20th Century but somehow blew the opportunity. This book explains a major component of why and how the betrayal occurred by focusing on the man who was both the cause and the victim of the betrayal, a powerful bureaucrat little known outside of metropolitan New York, Robert Moses.The book details Moses' slow rise to power as an idealistic Wilsonian Democrat fighting the entrenched power of corrupt Tammany Hall politics, his novel approach to parks planning (he virtually invented the "parkway," for example), his massive public works (among them the Triborough Bridge and all of New York City's expressways), and his inevitable decline and fall after he refused to relinquish power in old age.As time wore on Moses became less and less the man of the people and more and more the man of the system of his own creation, and that system was the toll-gathering mechanism of New York's bridges and tunnels. He invented that peculiar institution, the "authority" (as in Port "Authority" or Tennessee Valley "Authority") that is neither wholly governmental nor wholly private, and so lacks the restraints of either; Moses' cash cows kept him in power and gave him an antidemocratic arrogance that is truly breathtaking and, one hopes, will never be duplicated.This book isn't just for New Yorkers or for those who wonder why New York's roadways are so confusingly laid out. America's other big cities are New York writ small--they went to New York at the height of Moses' power and emulated his methods! That helps us understand the mania for building our now hopelessly overcrowded expressways and devaluing public transportation, whose lack we are just now trying to address by building expensive light-rail and commuter-train systems that should have been in place for decades.This is an extremely long book and extremely "wonky" in terms of policy discussion but gripping reading nonetheless. It also set the tone for further political biogaphy/psycho-biography, by both Caro and other writers. The depth of research in this book is simply amazing.
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