Book Review: The Power Broker

April 17, 2018

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro is a 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction/biographical account of Robert Moses' career in New York City. Many others have written better reviews of the book, the writing of the book, and even re-evaluations of the book, so I won’t try to re-invent the wheel (or tire). What I do want to try here is to express my reaction to the book, and pull out some choice excerpts that relate most strongly to my own interests in urbanism and architecture.

I have a favorite saying: Never blame on malice what you can blame on ignorance. I had always blamed poor city planning and transit problems in New York City on ignorance. Now, I know better. Planners at the time of Moses knew his policies would be failures – but they had no power to stop him, so he went ahead anyway. You might be able to claim that Moses' excuse was ignorance, but it was willful ignorance and a blanket refusal to allow his ideas to be questioned. Most of the villains I have read about have caused tragic events, limited in time and space; Robert Moses is the first I can recall who has created tragic places, extended spaces of tragedy, unlimited in time. Every time I think of riding the “air train” to JFK, or notice the disheveled state of the subway in Manhattan, or remember the time I carpooled to Long Island – since the commuter rail station was too far to get to from the school I was visiting – , I now get to curse his name.

Only Alanis Morissette would find it ironic that Robert Moses, who never learned to drive and spent the majority of his adult life getting chauffeured around New York City in a limousine (to the point of using it as his office), would build so many automobile-oriented public works projects in a city where driving makes so little sense. I find it simply depressing.

If you aren’t familiar with Robert Moses, here’s my brief summary of his life: Born privileged, he became an expert on civil service, and used his bill drafting skills and increasingly laissez faire attitude toward morality to write himself into a position of unassailable power within the New York metropolitan area. Never elected to office, he held something like twelve appointed positions simultaneously, at both the city and state level (which was normally illegal but he had written himself loopholes out of this). From these positions, he directed unprecedented construction programs along the lines of his own vision for the region. Using his leverage at both city and state levels, and as overall “coordinator” of the city’s highway program as liaison with the federal government, he could play different groups off each other in order to force his own plans into approval. He held power for over 40 years and was only deposed in the 1960s (when he was over 70 years old) by a governor who tricked him into giving up his power. During that time, he implemented hundreds of projects: city and state parks as Parks Commissioner, hundreds of miles of highways, many (failed) housing projects, and many bridges, tunnels, power stations, dams, and other works. He apparently hated people of color and the poor, and ensured that it would be as difficult as possible for them to use his recreation facilities; for example, he purposefully built bridges too low for buses to go under, making it impossible for anyone to take a bus to the beach – thereby preventing the poor and people of color, who used buses, from getting there.

Reading this massive book was an exercise in continued disappointment, in reading how again and again, different people and groups tried to stop Moses' more egregious policies – tried to save their homes from destruction by highways, or tried to get some mass transit built along with those highways – only to be suppressed, ignored, or attacked by Moses in the press. Caro describes how Moses' eventual fall was mostly due to his own mistakes, which led the press to investigate his record more closely, thereby revealing the scheme of kick-backs and patronage that kept so many people, politicians and construction industry professionals alike, in his power. While not growing rich himself, he enabled many others to earn fabulous amounts in public works, either through unreasonably low concessions fees or leases, the awarding of profitable projects, or by forcing outsiders to do business through only those companies he approved.

It’s astonishing how much one man could control the city’s future. Supposedly now, that can’t happen again, since no one person would be given so many posts – and Moses never should have been, but his success bred confidence, and thus he continued to be appointed to more and more positions, allowing him to accrue more power, generate more success, and so on.

I can see now why some writers on the urban scene might want to rehabilitate him; he accomplished so much, on a grander scale than we can usually accomplish projects today. But at what cost? The financial cost is possibly something we could calculate – for example, take the cost of the Second Avenue Subway now, and compare it to what it would have cost then, when it was easily feasible as a relatively minor project compared to the money Moses controlled. But what about the cost to people’s lives who have had to suffer from decrepit transit for decades due to his policies? There is no formula for calculating that loss. And his influence across the country means that not just New York, but many cities, have suffered thanks to his influence.

It’s hard for me to understand, though, why people still think that building more highways, and more highway widening, is always the answer to highway congestion. Apparently planners knew this was a failure back in the 1920s. It’s inexcusable that the general public still thinks this is the answer. Why don’t we have better education about urban problems, like traffic, which affect all our lives? This is a crucial question to ponder as we in the Bay Area struggle to get more funding for Caltrain and high speed rail, over protests that what we truly need is more highways. I hope the pendulum can swing the other way, for once.

Favorite passages:

pg. 218

On Moses' tactics, pushing ahead with construction even without approvals, in order to force a project to be approved:

“[Moses learned from one of his early projects that] Once you did something physically, it was very hard for even a judge to undo it. If judges, who had to submit themselves to the decision of the electorate only infrequently, were thus hogtied by the physical beginning of a project, how much more so would be public officials who had to stand for re-election year by year? […] “Once you sink that first stake,” he would often say, “they’ll never make you pull it up.”

pg. 273

On Moses' relationship with his staff in the 1920s:

“And the most valued reward–the thread that bound his men most closely to him–was still more intangible. “We were caught up in his sense of purpose,” Latham explained. “He made you feel that what we were doing together was tremendously important for the public, for the welfare of people.” The purposes were, after all, the purposes for which they had been trained. They were engineers and architects; engineers and architects want to build, and all Moses' efforts aimed at building. Men who worked for him had the satisfaction not only of seeing their plans turned into steel and concrete, but also of seeing the transformation take place so rapidly that the fulfillment was all the more satisfying. Moses' men feared him, but they also admired and respected him–many of them seemed to love him.”

pg. 479

On Moses' treatment of New York City in the same way as Long Island, despite significant differences between the two areas:

“A public work in the city might in terms of itself–Moses' terms–be an excellent public work while in broader terms being a poor public work: a highway, for example, that, however magnificently designed, was damaging either to the adjacent neighborhood–shattering its essential unity, cutting its homes off from its playground or from its churches and shopping areas, filling its quiet residential areas with noise and gasoline fumes that made them no longer nice places to live and to bring up children–or to the city as a whole: a highway, for example, through a hitherto sparsely inhabited area that initiated a sudden influx of subdivisions and apartment houses, loading it with people, before the city had provided the sewers and subways and schools those people needed, and that by boosting land costs made it immensely difficult for a financially hard-pressed city to provide such services–services which would, if installed before the highway was built, have been installed at a price within the city’s means. If one tried to plan public works in New York City by the same simplistic formula by which the public works of Long Island had been planned, the public works thus created might well destroy what was good in New York even while it was supposed to be improving the city.”

pg. 515

On induced demand in transportation:

“Some city planners noticed [in 1936] that the traffic pattern on Long Island had fallen into a set pattern: every time a new parkway was built, it quickly became jammed with traffic, but the load on the old parkways was not significantly relieved. If this had been the pattern for the first hundred miles of parkways, they wondered, might it not be the pattern for the next forty-five also? Perhaps consideration should be given to trying to ease Long Island’s traffic problem by other means, specifically the improved mass transit that the Regional Plan Association and other reformer-backed groups had been proposing for a decade. […] But their voices were drowned out by a flood of praise for Moses' idea [to build yet more parkways].”

pg. 760

On Moses' aversion to the poor: Moses proposed (and succeeded) to make the subway system self-liquidating, releasing it from the city’s debt service by increasing fares, so that he could borrow more money (through the city) to spend on highway construction.

“[W]ho would benefit from highways, throughways and bridges? The same upper and middle classes–suburbanites, and the two thirds of a city that could afford to own an automobile–the same classes which, under Moses' proposal, would be freed from supporting the subways through their real estate taxes. The city’s wealthier classes–its car-owning classes–would be subsidized at the expense of the poorer classes. If you insisted on increasing subway fare, at least spend the money from the increase on subways. With $425,000,000 you could, in 1946, have modernized all moving equipment on New York’s subways and made possible the construction of comfortable, modern stations–and could, in addition, have sufficient left over to build the more urgently needed new lines. Spending the money from the subway fare on highways would compound the inequities already existing in the city’s transportation setup. It was neither fair nor just.”

pg. 836

On Moses' disconnection from the actual effects of his transportation policies:

“It was in transportation, the area in which Robert Moses was most active after the war [WWII], that his isolation from reality was most complete: because he never participated in the activity for which he was creating his highways–driving–at all. Insulated in the comfortable rear seat of his limousine, unable to experience even once the frustration of a traffic jam, […] Robert Moses did not know what driving in the modern era was. […] He was making transportation plans based on beliefs that were not true any more. He was making plans that had no basis in reality. But because of the enormous power he controlled, power that was close to absolute in the fields he had carved out for his own, such as transportation, he could impose these plans on the metropolitan region, and on its 12,000,000 residents.”

pg. 897

More on induced demand:

“Watching Moses open the Triborough Bridge to ease congestion on the Queensborough Bridge, open the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge to ease congestion on the Triborough Bridge, and then watching traffic counts on all three bridges mount until all three were as congested as one had been before [in a short amount of time], planners could hardly avoid the conclusion that “traffic generation” was no longer a theory but a proven fact: the more highways were built to alleviate congestion, the more automobiles would pour onto them and congest them and thus force the building of more highways–which would generate more traffic and become congested in their turn in an inexorably widening spiral that contained the most awesome implications for the future of New York and of all urban areas. The only remedy that could check that vicious spiral was the coordination of new highways with new mass transit facilities–and not only was New York’s Coordinator [Moses] not planning any such facilities himself; his monopolization of construction funds and his hold over the city’s government were making it impossible for anyone else to plan them either. He was, in fact, destroying some of the old facilities […]. And tearing them down was only one method of destroying mass transportation facilities. Moses–whether by design or out of ignorance of the effect of his policies–was employing other methods with equal effect.”

(Essentially, by only investing in highways, Moses encouraged more people to choose those facilities, which are newer and better, over the mass transit lines, which then would lose money and enter another vicious spiral of decreasing revenues and dis-investment, losing more customers, and so on.)

pg. 898

On drawbacks to his highway program, recognized even at the time:

“No crystal ball was needed, therefore, to foretell the end result of Moses' immense new highway construction proposal [since planners already saw this happening in the 1920s-30s], coupled as it was with lack of any provision whatsoever for mass transit: it could not possibly accomplish its aim, the alleviation of congestion. It could only make congestion, already intolerable, progressively worse. His program was self-defeating. It was doomed to failure before it began. It just didn’t make sense.”

(This pattern of highway development without transit also opened up areas to suburbanization, as opposed to true urbanization, encouraging large, spread-out lots reachable only by car. Moses' parkways were closed to commercial traffic, so jobs did not spread to the suburbs, and everyone had to commute back to the city to work, ensuring continued traffic congestion. And finally, this suburban pattern meant that these newly-developed areas would never be dense enough to support future mass transit, since they were developed with such low densities. Each problem compounds with the others.)

pg. 901-902

On the need for mass transit:

“The answer to all the questions raised [in the 1940s] about Moses' transportation policies was, of course, mass transportation. […] Mass transportation was, moreover, the only answer. […] If residents of the region, particularly commuters, did not have a choice, if they were forced by the inefficiencies, inadequacies of service and high fares of mass transit to use highways whether they wanted to use them or not, the highways would never be able to fulfill their function. Build railroads at the same time that you were building roads, and solving the metropolitan transportation problem would be greatly simplified. Pour all available funds into roads without building railroads, and that problem would never be solved. Public exposure to this point of view was limited.” (Although letters to the editor, writes Caro, picked up this theme throughout the 1940s, the editorial pages continued to praise the road-building projects.)