New York

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

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Public Domain

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."