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Chris Jones

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

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

By Robert A. Caro
Originally published in 1974 by Vintage

Quote:

He did not give the slightest indication of understanding that his transportation policies were doomed to failure.

Review:

The Power Broker is both a heavy, deeply researched volume on the disastrous city planning of New York City in the first half of the twentieth century, and a biography of the man responsible for it. It’s also so much more than that. It’s a story of dreams, arrogance, and evil. A story of what power does to a man who lives and breathes it. Power was not only blood to Robert Moses, it was his oxygen, his food and drink, his reason for existing.

Robert Moses would tell you and everyone else he was a man who got things done, and that’s that. He wanted to leave a legacy of greatness that no one could question, a legacy to be studied and admired not for a lifetime or a century but forever. When scholars talk of the Roman Empire he wanted them to also talk of the Moses Empire. But to get things done you need astonishing levels of power, and to amass the power needed to transform one of the greatest city on earth you need to be ruthless. You need to lie, and manipulate, and cheat and keep secrets. You have to be in charge of everything. You have to look straight into the eyes of the tens-of-thousands of people whose lives you are about to destroy and tell them it’s for the best.

There are many, many raving reviews about this book and I believe it certainly deserved the Pulitzer Prize. I honestly didn’t think I would get through it but the way in which the author laid out five decades of the life of Robert Moses transfixed me. It’s certainly not for everyone, I’m sure the examination of the subject’s family and the repetitive descriptions of his actions would tire many people out to the point of putting the book down and never picking it up again. Why can’t anyone see what he’s doing? But as I got deeper into the book I felt like every word and sentence belonged. I can’t imagine what the original manuscript looked like and what was edited out, but what remains is incredible.

Moses’ single-minded devotion to his vision is breathtaking and the length of the book is like a hammer, beating it into the reader. Moses was deeply racist, sexist, and classist. His arrogance astounding. But that’s not surprising is it? He just went about his days, months and years like his path was the only path, everyone’s path. To destroy the lives of so many people requires a depravity that is hard to come by. He believed everything he thought and everything he did was right. He was addicted to power and his transformation from young idealist to middle-aged power hungry sociopath is incredible to follow. It’s sort of like reading the origin story of a comic book villain. But he got things done and made a lot of people rich, and to him, that’s what counted. In a hundred years, no one would care about the tens-of-thousands of poor people he bulldozed to build another road. In a hundred years people would still be using that road to get around and that’s what mattered.

Other than the almost unbelievable actions of Robert Moses over decades, what was most surprising was how complicit the press was in those actions. The papers of New York did nothing, said nothing until it was too late. A free press is a press that questions, digs, investigates. But the press of New York wasn’t free, it was under the thumb of Robert Moses. They printed his columns as if he was staff. They reprinted his press releases word-for-word, never questioning his figures or motivation. The press repeated his lies and became complicit in his destruction of the city. The behaviour of newspapers like The New York Times will make your blood boil. Not only does The Power Broker educate us on ego and arrogance gone wild, it also shows us how incredibly important a free press is.

It’s a book that gives the reader insight into power and how its abused, makes them laugh and shake their head. Overall though it’s a book that will leave the reader angry.