This won’t be a review. Reviewing The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York would be superfluous; Robert Caro won the freakin’ Pulitzer Prize for it, for crying out loud.
These are a few random thoughts:
1. The Power Broker deserves all the acclaim it has gotten. Caro’s a great writer, and the story of the rise (and eventual fall) of Robert Moses is a compelling one. I kind of expected it to be slow moving and a little dull; how do you make urban planning interesting? But Caro found a way to do that. I got caught up in the sweep of the book, and found myself wanting to read more about Al Smith and La Guardia and other background characters.
There are a few places where I have reservations about Caro’s conclusions. The largest reservation I have is Caro’s emphasis on mass transit, and Moses’ failures in that regard. I’m not as much of a believer in mass transit as Caro seems to be, but I’m willing to concede Caro might be right. Given the population density (both at the time and projected for the future) mass transit may have been the only workable alternative for NYC’s traffic problems.
2. I haven’t read Caro’s LBJ books. I’m waiting for the series to be completed before I start on them. (I have read excerpts from them in other places.) But I wonder if Caro is drawn to people who were, in some way, corrupted by power. I have the impression that this is a theme in the LBJ books. And as for The Power Broker…
3. You know that quote attributed to Dave Barry? “Someone who is nice to you, but rude to the waitress, is not a nice person?” Robert Moses was a walking example of that. He was an elitist who believed that he and people like him – rich, Ivy League educated – were the only ones who were fit to govern, and everyone else should just get out of the way. He was a racist – he didn’t want the “lower classes” (read: blacks and the poor) using his parks, pools and playgrounds. He treated anyone he considered an inferior like dirt. As for the powerful, his main interest in them was how he could use them to enhance his own power. He destroyed vital and interesting neighborhoods for the sake of new roads, even though those neighborhoods could have been saved by small changes in routes (but those changes would have inconvenienced politicians who were important to Moses). And the new roads and bridges he built were full as soon as they were completed, which Moses saw as a reason to build more. Lather, rinse, repeat. We’re too close to Easter for me to say what I’m really thinking, but you can probably guess.
4. This shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did: there was (is?) a recent Robert Moses revisionist movement. The central thesis seems to be: yes, he was every bit as big a you-know-what as Caro portrayed him. But. He. Got. Things. Done. And “If the ends don’t justify the means, what does?“