A Brief Review of “The Power Broker”

Sometime in 2014, I was riding back from lunch with a friend from work and I asked rhetorically, “How does someone build a subway in New York City?” He fired off without hesitation, “There’s a book called The Power Broker that shows you how things like that get done.” I added the book to my list that day, began reading it in August of 2019, and finally finished in September of 2020.

The Power Broker is a book by Robert Caro on the career of Robert Moses, a man who spent his life dreaming and building on a scale so immense it almost can’t be fathomed. He literally shaped New York City, amassing near sovereign power to build through his various roles from the 1920s through the 60s.

By building at that time, when the automobile was taking root in the American imagination and daily life, and by building in that city, which is one of the most difficult places in the world to get something done, Robert Moses influenced the development of all major American cities. Even his worst critic said of him, “In the twentieth century, the influence of Robert Moses on the cities of America was greater than that of any other person.”

Not only is it fascinating to hear the stories of how RM orchestrated his plans and maneuvered his way through press and public and politicians to complete his projects, it’s fascinating to ponder why a person ever becomes so fixated on power in the first place. He was a dreamer whose mind was never satisfied.

What exactly did Robert Moses build? 

Major roads, including:

  • Major Deegan Expressway
  • Van Wyck Expressway
  • Sheridan Expressway
  • Bruckner Expressway
  • Gowanus Expressway
  • Prospect Expressway
  • Whitestone Expressway
  • Clearview Expressway
  • Throgs Neck Expressway
  • Brooklyn-Queens Expressway
  • Nassau Expressway
  • Staten Island Expressway
  • Long Island Expressway
  • Harlem River Drive
  • West Side Highway

Bridges, including:

  • Triborough Bridge (Robert F. Kennedy Bridge)
  • Verrazano Birdge
  • Throgs Neck Bridge
  • Marine Bridge
  • Henry Hudson Bridge
  • Cross Bay Bridge
  • Bronx-Whitestone Bridge

Some of these bridges have towers 70 stories high and used enough cable to wrap around the earth.

As the book states in its introduction:

“When Robert Moses began building playgrounds in New York City, there were 119. When he stopped, there were 777. Under his direction, an army of men that at times during the Depression included 84,000 laborers reshaped every park in the city and then filled the parks with zoos and skating rinks, boathouses and tennis houses, bridle paths and golf courses, 288 tennis courts and 673 baseball diamonds . . . Long strings of barges brought to the city white sand dredged from the ocean floor and the sand was piled on mud flats to create beaches.”

Yes, he made beaches. Not small private beaches, but waterfronts vast enough to accommodate the residents of the most populated city in the nation seeking leisure on the weekend. 

“For the seven years between 1946 and 1953, the seven years of plenty in public construction in the city, seven years marked by the most intensive such construction in its history, no public improvement of any type—not school or sewer, library or pier, hospital or catch basin—was built by any agency, even those which Robert Moses did not directly control, unless Robert Moses approved its design and location.

All this he built, and much more, in the hardest place in the world to get these things done. 

Because RM never held an elected office, he was able to push projects through that modernised the city and made way for future generations, even if it meant doing so at the expense of the living. If he needed to build a highway and destroy a neighborhood and evict 1,500 families, he could do so without losing any voters, because he didn’t need any voters. The book poignantly shows just how severe the cost of RM’s projects were, not just financially (they were that too; on a single bridge alone he unnecessarily paid $40,000,000 in interest), but in terms of human lives. 

“To build his highways, Moses threw out of their homes 250,000 persons—more people than lived in Albany or Chattanooga, or in Spokane, Tacoma, Duluth, Akron, Baton Rouge, Mobile, Nashville, or Sacramento. He tore out the hearts of a score of neighborhoods, communities the size of small cities themselves, communities that had been lively, friendly place to live, the vital parts of the city that made New York a home to its people.” 

The introduction, just as full of nuance and detail as the rest of the book, closes with the question:

“Would New York have been a better place to live if Robert Moses had never built anything? Would it have been a better city if the man who shaped it had never lived? . . . Moses himself, who feels his works will make him immortal, believes he will be justified by history, that his works will endure and be blessed by generations not yet born. Perhaps he is right. It is impossible to say that New York would have been a better city if Robert Moses had never lived. It is possible to say only that it would have been a different city.”

Robert Moses made himself an emperor, and the public at large in America didn’t even know his name. Most still don’t. The works he built were on such a mammoth scale that they can only be compared to eras of public works. Only dynasties were able to accomplish what he did, and even they were not remotely on the same scale.

The book is fascinating, not just because it details stories of the urban history of one my favorite cities, but because it is a grand tour of the life of a person gripped by power. Robert Caro, the author, has made writing about power the theme of his career, and it’s a worthwhile subject. 

As I read, I returned to one question over and over again: Why? What makes a person dream, plan, and amass power so intensely, and do whatever it takes to hold onto it? 

RM would work 18 hours a day, often going for a swim off of Jones Beach at midnight after work, swimming so far out that the aides with him would start to fear the worst. They would sometimes send a swimmer behind him as a precaution, but they couldn’t keep up and he would vanish ahead of them. And he would do this even in his 70s!

As you watch his power accumulate and his grip on it tighten, you see it affect him for the worse. It’s this human part that fascinates me so much. Caro didn’t—likely couldn’t—assess why a person yearns for power so completely. It must be something like worship.

Caro says this of the effect power had on RM:

“In the beginning—and for decades of his career—the power Robert Moses amassed was the servant of his dreams, amassed for their sake, so that his gigantic city-shaping visions could become reality. But power is not an instrument that its possessor can use with impunity. It is a drug that creates in the user a need for larger and larger dosages. And Moses was a user. At first, for a decade or more after his first real sip of power in 1924, he continued to seek it only for the sake of his dreams. But little by little there came a change. Slowly but inexorably, he began to seek power for its own sake. More and more, the criterion by which Moses selected which city-shaping public works would be built came to be not the needs of the city’s people, but the increment of power a project could give him.”

***

Reading this tome was a considerable task in itself,  and I would have never finished without listening on Audible. The print book is 1,162 pages long—dense pages with small type—and the audiobook is over 66 hours. I took several breaks from the book over the months and read others in between. I’m glad I finished.

Writing a book like this is as impressive an accomplishment as constructing a bridge or a tunnel across the East River. In the research phase, Caro conducted over 500 interviews and ended up with a manuscript of 1,050,000 words. As a reference, most non-fiction books published today are about 80,000 words. After his editor rejected this, he spent months cutting it down and ended up with the final 600,000 or so words. It won a Pulitzer Prize and shaped biography as a genre in modern America.

So if you’re ever curious about the history of the infrastructure in the most populated city in America, and if you ever want a book that demands so much of your attention and effort to finish that feels like a project of its own, and if you want to ponder the human experience and wonder what would drive a person to obsess over power—the kind of power that would slam the phone on governors and remain impenetrable even from the efforts of President FDR to dismantle it—then I would heartily recommend The Power Broker.

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