New York

Happy 40th Birthday to Robert Caro's The Power Broker


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In our August/September 2013 edition, Reason named the "45 Enemies of Freedom: People who have been trying to control your life since reason was founded in 1968." Included on that list of villains was Robert Moses, the shadowy government official who spent nearly half a century exercising unprecedented power over the city and state of New York. Here's why Moses made the cut:

The most authoritarian city planner in New York history, Moses wielded eminent domain and many other government powers, unleashing his bulldozers and wrecking balls on the homes, businesses, and churches of as many as half a million powerless citizens, many of them black, brown, or poor.

Forty years ago today, a young journalist named Robert Caro published The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Thanks to this extraordinary book, the world came to learn in detail about Moses and his many crimes. The book soon won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize and it still remains the definitive work on Moses and his legacy. In my own view, The Power Broker is one of the greatest cautionary tales about political power ever written.

At The Daily Beast, Scott Porch offers a detailed and fascinating account of how The Power Broker came to life. It was "a seven-year ordeal," Porch writes, "that took the book through three publishers and two editors and nearly bankrupted Caro." As for the book's enduring appeal, Porch rightly credits both Caro's masterful writing and the strength of his research:

One thing that had made a strong impression on [Caro] in the course of his research was the human cost of the massive construction that Robert Moses had wrought in and around New York City. Moses' major highway projects had destroyed entire neighborhoods and uprooted the lives of thousands of New Yorkers. For a chapter called "One Mile," Caro decided to trace the impact of a mile of one of Moses' expressways on hundreds of displaced families. "This is such a human tragedy, and no one writes about these things," Caro said, "and I want to show what one mile of a highway through a congested city can mean." That single chapter, the most visceral and moving part of The Power Broker, took Caro six months to research and write….

On August 26, 1974, three weeks before The Power Broker was published, Robert Moses, then 86 years old, released a 3,500-word rebuttal that said the book was "full of mistakes, unsupported charges, nasty, baseless personalities and random haymakers thrown at just about everybody in public life." But Moses had already lost. His reputation as a power-hungry bully preceded the book, and the rapturous reviews praised Caro's prodigious research and his fair treatment of Moses.

Read the whole story here.

Related: In 2011, Reason TV spoke with Robert Caro about "The Tragedy of Urban Renewal: The destruction and survival of a New York City neighborhood."

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  1. Progs always try to claim Moses wasn’t one of them. He was. He may not have been a “Prog”. I have no idea what his political views were. Moses was, however, the ultimate central planner. And for this reason the Progs own him. Moses was like one of Tom Friedman’s wet dreams come to life. Here was a man who had a vision about big thing and got things done. Moses was a real man of vision and someone who truly could make a plan work. Moses was everything Progs claim to want in a public official.

    Robert Moses reign of terror over New York is an example of successful progressive leadership. This is what happens when we get a smart one in power. When you get a dumb one, you end up with Detroit.

  2. And NYC learned from this! I mean look how carefully they managed the land acquisition for the new basketball arena….oh, wait.

    1. In fairness, they have improved. If Moses had been in charge, they would have leveled the entire neighborhood and built an 8 lane highway for access. Now they only steel and level part of the neighborhood. So they have gotten a little better.

  3. Moses wielded eminent domain and many other government powers, unleashing his bulldozers and wrecking balls on the homes, businesses, and churches of as many as half a million powerless citizens, many of them black, brown, or poor.

    They used to call urban renewal “Negro Removal” and that was exactly what it was. In fairness to Moses, he was just the biggest and most successful central planning tyrant. Nearly every big city in America had its own Moses or set of Moses. When they built the central artery in Boston, they destroyed an entire neighborhood. The government kicked people out of their homes and paid them virtually nothing figuring that the people were too poor to sue to get fair value and even if they did that would be years from now long after the people building the expressway were out of office.

    While they were doing that, the Boston city planners completely leveled the old west end and one of the oldest free black neighborhoods in America, evicted the residents and put up the worst set of Eastern Block high rises seen outside of Poland.

    1. Americans wanted roads and bridges to the suburbs and how else was that going to happen in pre-expressway cities other than rounding up all the poor people and putting them in public housing to make room for the roads.

      I abhor the destruction of most of our central cities that occurred in this manner but I can’t vilify Moses and his ilk as much as some people, because he was only giving America what it wanted.

      1. You are right. The country collectively went insane for a few years after the war.

  4. Caro’s books about Lyndon Johnson are fantastic as well.

  5. The War on Poverty: expropriate and give the lucrative contracts to cronies. I think I get it.

    1. If you just move all of the poor people out of sight, its like they don’t exist.

      1. The single biggest reduction of black poor people in the city of New York, brought about by the Democratic Party of New York! And people say their policies don’t work!

  6. What makes me sick about this is the people who support this very action, and support it to this very day are the most vociferous critics of any sort of ‘corporate power’.

    The disconnect is breathtaking.

  7. See also Scandal at the Oak Beach Inn by Robert Matherson.

  8. WHAT THE HELL WAS IT !? PLEASE give me a SPECIFIC reason for this atrocious omission of a carefully crafted response about your article about the MASTER BUILDER , don,t be NEBULOUS. BACK to DISNEYLAND.

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