Published in 1974 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, The Power Broker traces the impact of planner Robert Moses and his relentless forty-year pursuit of building projects on New York City and Long Island. David Halberstam said it was, “Surely the greatest book ever written about a city.”
[And surely, one of the biggest books ever written about a city or anything else. So big that I sliced it into three “volumes” so I wouldn’t have to carry the whole thing on the bus for the months it took me to read it (see photo).]
The map of New York is covered with Moses’s parks, highways, bridges, civic centers and housing complexes. The nobility of Moses’s work was rarely questioned—and never successfully during most of his career—but his legacy began decaying even during his lifetime. He came to be disparaged by some as “a stubborn old man whose dreams turn out to be nightmares for the city” for his ruthless treatment of those who stood in his way—literally or on principle—and for his blind accommodation of the wealthy and their automobiles at the expense of public transportation and neighborhoods.
As the title indicates, author Robert Caro’s epic account characterizes the story as Moses’s use of, and love/lust for, power. According to The New York Times, Caro portrayed Moses as “compelled by his genes to become the most powerful non-elected public official in American history.” The Times said Caro believed that Moses “ruined New York City, perhaps for all time, by turning it into a traffic jam.” But the venerated paper, which Caro considered to be completely under Moses’s influence, also insisted, “If Robert Moses really is the root cause of our problems that Mr. Caro has made him appear to be, then by the very definition of this great-man theory of history, what we need now to straighten us out is another Robert Moses.”
Few figures created an infrastructure rèsumé as long as Robert Moses’s, but surely the work of a lifetime should be measured in terms of its human impact, not just its grandiosity.