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Robert Moses - The Most Important Person You've Never Heard Of

Article Table of Contents

Josh’s introduction to Robert Moses #

Robert Moses is massively important. You’ll understand ways that the world works, if you read The Power Broker, and you’ll understand why sometimes things seem so broken.

If you’re new here, read this other thing I wrote about Robert Moses first:

Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

A review of The Power Broker #

Next, please read the #1 GoodReads review of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

I will never be able to write as well as this reviewer, and I believe this is a criminally under-appreciated block of text, so I’m quoting it in full below: 1

[The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro] is definitely the greatest book that I have ever read.

Midway through adolescence, I began wondering a bit which life event would finally make me feel like an adult. Of course I had the usual teenaged hypotheses, and acted accordingly to test some of them out. Getting drunk? Having sex? Driving a car? Going to college? None of these things did make me feel grownup; in many instances, their effect was the opposite.

I had a brief thrilling moment of maturity when I voted for the first time at age eighteen, but election returns in the years since (in particular the 2004 presidential race) dulled the sophisticated glamour of the ballot box, forcing me to admit that an ability to vote does not indicate the presence of intellectual maturity…

The first time I got a job with benefits and sat through a presentation explaining the HMO plan, life insurance, and “401K,” I did feel old in a certain kind of way, but there was a sense of the absurd to it, as if I were in drag as an adult, staggering around in my mother’s too-big high heels and smudgy lipstick in a silly effort to look like a grown woman.

For the past few years I’ve had the sense of wearing an oversized grownup life that wasn’t actually mine, while that magical rite of passage into adulthood continued to elude me. Maybe when I have children things will click into place, I’ve mused, listening to Talking Heads with one ear and sort of doubting it…. Part of this might be generational; if thirty is the new twenty, it’s no wonder that I get that Lost Boys feeling, and shrug confusedly when overnight company makes fun of my teddy bear.

I’m pleased to announce that thanks to the glory of Robert Caro, this stage is basically behind me. Having finally finished The Power Broker, I feel much more like a grownup, and believe it or not, I’m pretty into that.

When I was a little kid, I felt that the adults around me had a thick, rich, complicated understanding of the way the world worked. They knew things – facts, history – and they understood processes and people and the way something like a bond measure or a public authority worked. It was this understanding – which they had, and I didn’t – that made me a child, and them adults. Grownups had an infrastructure of information, truth, and insight that I lacked.

As I grew older, I was dismayed to discover that grownups really didn’t know a fraction of what I gave them credit for, and that most of the people ostensibly running the world had no clue how it operated, and my intense disillusionment caused me to lose sight of that adulthood theory for awhile.

But reading this book made me feel like a grownup because it helped me to understand the way the world works as I never had before.

This book is about power. It is about politics. It is a history of New York City and New York State. It is an explanation of how public works projects are built. It is about money: public money, private money, and the vast and nasty grey areas where they overlap. This book is about democracy, and the lack thereof. It is about social policy, and economics, and our government, and the press. This book is about urban planning, housing, transportation, and about how a few individuals’ decisions can affect the lives of the masses. It helped explain traffic in the park, and the projects in Brownsville, and a billion other mysteries of New York City life that I’d wondered about.

The Power Broker is about ideals, talent, and institutional racism. It is about inequality. It is about genius. It is about hubris. It is the best goddamn book I have ever read in my entire life, hands down, seriously.

Please do not think that it took me five months to read this book because it was dense or slow! This was a savoring, rather than a trudging, situation. Robert Caro is an incredibly engaging writer. One thing that happened to me early on from reading this was that I lost my taste for trashy celebrity gossip. Who CARES about Britney’s breakdown or, for that matter, Spitzer’s prostitute peccadilloes when I could be reading about the shocking intricacies of Robert Moses’ 1925 legislative consolidation and reorganization of New York State’s administrative structure?

This book gave me chills – CHILLS! – on nearly every page with descriptions of arcane political maneuvering and fiscal policy so riveting that I lost my previous interest in reading about sex and drugs. Let’s face it: sex and drugs are pretty boring. Political graft, mechanics of influence, the workings of government: now that’s the hot stuff, when it’s presented in an accessible and digestible form. Nothing in the world is more fascinating than power, and Robert Caro writes about power better than anyone I’ve come across. There are no dry chapters in this book; there’s barely a dull page. It is infinitely more readable than Us Magazine, and not much more difficult.

Of course The Power Broker is many things, among them a biography. While any one portrait of New York power icons from Al Smith to Nelson Rockefeller is more than worth the price of admission, this book is primarily about Robert Moses. Caro understands and explains the relationship between individual personalities and systems. One of his main theses is that Moses achieved the unchecked and unparalleled levels of power he did because he figured out how to reshape or create systems around himself. The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority would not have existed without Robert Moses, and Robert Moses would not have been what he was, or accomplished what he did, without the brilliance he had for shaping the very structure of government into conduits for his own purposes. To explain this, Caro needs to convey a profound understanding not only of how these systems worked, but of who this man was. He does so, and the result goes beyond Shakespearean: it is Epic. The Power Broker is the story George Lucas was trying to tell about Anakin Skywalker’s transformation to Darth Vader, only George Lucas is no Robert Caro, and The Power Broker succeeds wildly in the places where Star Wars was just a hack job (of course, Caro wasn’t handicapped by Hadyn Christensen, which does indirectly raise the burning question: WHO’S OPTIONED THIS???).

Robert Moses was an incredible genius. He was also an incredible asshole. Robert Moses was probably one of the biggest assholes who ever lived, or at least, who ever got free reign to redesign a major modern American city to his fancy. One of the innumerable triumphs of this book is that while it certainly does demonize Moses to a great extent, it doesn’t seem to do so unjustifiably, and it never strips him of his humanity. Caro conveys a deep respect and empathy for his brilliant subject, even as he also expresses horror, disgust, and rage as he describes Moses’ forty-four-year unelected reign of power.

I know it’s a mistake to do this review right after finishing, and I’m a bit grossed out that I could write something so gushingly uncritical; that’s unlike me, and it’s possible that later I’ll think of some complaints… I might not, though. I really do think that this is the best book I’ve ever read, and I wish there were some way that I could adopt Robert and Ina Caro as my grandparents, and that I could go over to their house for Sunday dinner and then take walks together in Central Park. Right at this moment I believe that Robert Caro is the smartest person in the world, and I’m not in the least bit resentful that I’m going to have to devote the rest of my life to reading his LBJ doorstoppers; in fact, I welcome it (though I’m not in a huge hurry to start).

Oh, I’m sure this book has flaws like any other. My main problem with it was that it was too short. Caro did not go into nearly enough detail about a large number of issues that I’d expected to learn about. For instance, there was little more than offhand mentions of Moses’ upstate projects; I was surprised that there was virtually nothing in here about Niagara Falls. There was also almost nothing on Shea Stadium, and while they did keep coming up, I never felt adequately informed about Moses’ plans for the three crosstown expressways, and the successful opposition to them. How real a prospect were these, and what did the public fight look like? I wasn’t so clear on that. While it’s possible that Caro had nothing interesting to say about these projects, it’s more likely that he had to draw the line somewhere, and 1162 pages was that place. I mean, otherwise he probably could’ve gone on forever…. There’s a lot to say.

I definitely recommend that anyone who reads this book do as I did, and divide it with an exacto knife into four duct-tape bound commuter volumes. It’s fun to draw your own Power Broker covers on your personalized editions, and a good excuse to pull out those crayons which, as a bona fide adult, you so rarely use!

It occurs to me that I’ve babbled on forever but still haven’t explained at all what this book is about. If you think you might want to read it but you’re not sure, check out this article by Robert Caro: It has those stupid New Yorker dots, which the book thankfully does not, but otherwise is kind of like a miniaturized version of The Power Broker and gives a much better sense than I just did of what it’s all about.

An Interview with Robert Caro #

Here’s a 1h45m Audible “short” with Robert Caro, the man who wrote The Power Broker

On Power, by Robert Caro (Audible)

Here’s the audible summary:

From two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and two-time National Book Award winner Robert A. Caro: a short, penetrating reflection on the evolution and workings of political power - for good and for ill.

In On Power, an Audible exclusive, the legendary historian Robert A. Caro reflects on what drew him as a young journalist to study political power and what his half century of reporting on New York City urban planner Robert Moses and President Lyndon Johnson has taught him about the inner workings of government and democracy.

Adapted by the author from two recent speeches and filled with thoughtful lessons and personal moments, On Power goes behind the scenes in the author’s decades-long quest to understand how power works, often in ways he could have never imagined.

Listening to On Power, narrated with emotion and humor by Caro in his unmistakable New York accent, is like having a private audience with the author often hailed as our greatest living historian. Longtime fans of Caro’s books, as well as those seeking a more personal introduction to his life and work, will be treated to his trademark wit and revelatory insight.

But more than anything, On Power is a timely reminder for those who want to better understand how power and government work.

In Caro’s words:

Why political power? Because it shapes all of our lives. It shapes your life in ways that you might never think about. Every time a young man goes to college on a federal education bill passed by Lyndon Johnson, that’s political power. And so is a young man dying in Vietnam. Every time an elderly person is able to afford an MRI, that’s Medicare. That’s political power. It affects your life in all sorts of ways. My books are an attempt to explain this power…. Because the more America understands about political power, the better informed our votes will be, and then, hopefully, the better our democracy should be.

A Sense of Scale - The Cross-Bronx Expressway #

What do you think of when someone says “The Bronx”?

Everything you think about The Bronx, and indeed New York City, and the weight NYC has had on global culture is shaped by Robert Moses.

From Robert Moses and the Cross-Bronx Expressway

Here’s the Cross-Bronx Expressway:


Another view of it: It crosses that elevated bridge on the right, and continues to the bottom left of the picture: what-he-did

What do you think it looked like to cleave such a deep cut through a heavily built-up area? what-he-did

Robert Moses was considered the most “powerful modern builder of all time”. He was know especially for the building of the Cross-Bronx Expressway.

This highway connected New Jersey, North Manhattan, South Bronx and ended up in in Long Island through wither either the Throgs-Neck Bridge or the Whitestone Bridge. The building of this new highway system meant that over 60,000 residents would have to be uprooted and relocated to new areas. Most of these people lived in South Bronx. Moses led the white exodus out of the Bronx. Most of the white residents moved to either Westchester or Northern Bronx areas and others moved to small suburban houses being built around the Cross Bronx Expressway in New Jersey.

The poorer residents who where given a meager $200 per room compensation were forced to move out and settle in new high-rise apartment buildings that were being built. These new behemoths had could include up to 1700 apartments per building.

As a result of this mass relocation the economy of the Bronx suffered immensely. The South Bronx area (mostly Black and Puerto Rican) lost over 600,000 manufacturing jobs. Youth unemployment rose to 40 percent and in some areas as high as 80 percent.

The most devastating affect of the Cross Bronx Expressway took place when the newly built apartment buildings passed into the hands of slumlords. These people used many different tactics such as demanding more money when they shut off heat and water supply to the tenants.

Another tactic that the slumlords used proved to be the most effective and profitable for them. They would find junkies and rent-a-thugs to set fire to abandoned apartments and then they would collect the insurance polices from the city. The slumlords profited greatly from this enterprise as they collected as much as 150,000 dollars per fire. The insurance companies didn’t really mind in the begging as they were leasing out many new insurance policies, but after a time even they realized that their costs were beginning to get to high.

In the end as insurance companies refused to provide insurance policies to cover certain buildings in South Bronx and the fires continued to spread, whole city blocks became completely abandoned and opened up a place for crime and gangs to fill the void.

he ruined lives

Excerpts from The Power Broker #

Chapter 34: Moses and The Mayors #

Note from Josh: The following is an excerpt of chapter 34 of the Power Broker, called “Moses and the Mayors”. The chapter is about Moses’ relationship with all of the mayors of NYC that overlapped with his “rule” over NYC.

This excerpt covers just one of the mayors’ overlap with Moses’ rule, but the way Moses wields his power over the mayor is absolute, and defies summarization.

The following is an 11-page excerpt from The Power Broker, pages 787-798.


All during August, Moses had been in South America, drawing up a Rockefeller-financed plan of improvements for São Paulo, utterly unaware of the events crushing in on O’Dwyer. But O’Dwyer’s resignation was to place the city in his power more completely than ever before.

By law, the successor to a retiring mayor is the President of the City Council. By fate, the Council presidency was held in 1950 by an individual who, during the entire forty-five utterly undistinguished years of his life prior to his nomination to that $25,000-per-year post, had never been deemed worthy of holding any job more responsible than that of secretary, at $6,500 per year, to a judge named Schmuck.

The nomination of this totally unknown minor Tammany ward heeler to the city’s second-highest elective office, the position of succession to the mayoralty, had “staggered,” in Warren Moscow’s words, “even the most imaginative among political reporters.” And so had the explanation of how he had obtained the nomination. At a last-minute reshuffling of the 1945 Democratic ticket, the leaders finally agreed on Lazarus Joseph for Comptroller, and then realized that since O’Dwyer was Irish and from Brooklyn, while Joseph was Jewish and from the Bronx, the slate could have ethnic and geographic balance only if its third member was an Italian from Manhattan-and were unable to think of a single Manhattan Italian official they could trust. After hours of impasse, one leader reasoned that since legal secretaryships to State Supreme Court justices carried a respectable salary for which little or no work was required, they would have been given oply “safest” of Democratic workers.

Pulling out a little “Green Book,” the official directory of city employees, he turned to the list of legal secretaries, ran his finger down it looking for a name that even the dumbest voter be able to tell was Italian-and came to Vincent R. Impellitteri, “No one knew who the hell he was,” Reuben Lazarus was to recall, but, looking up Impellitteri’s address, the leaders determined that he lived in Manhattan, telephoned his district leader and were assured: “You don’t have to worry about him. He’s a good boy.”

Although attested to privately by members of Tammany’s hierarchy (and by Moses, whose presence at the crucial ticket-making session - he was the only “outsider” there - reveals his standing with that hierarchy), this explanation seemed almost unbelievable - until one met Impellitteri.

If he had a single qualification for the job other than the length of his name and the fact that it ended in a vowel, he kept it carefully hidden during his five-year tenure (he was re-elected with O’Dwyer in 1949) as Council President. “The perfect Throttlebottom,” Moscow called him. “He voted as the mayor told him to, on matters he did not necessarily understand, and spent most of his waking hours shaking hands at public dinners, political clambakes, and cornerstone layings too unimportant to merit the mayor’s presence.”

Amiable but slow-witted, he was a joke among political insiders. But now he was mayor - and the joke was on the city.

Impellitteri’s wits may have been slow, but he had two fast wits - ex-O’Dwyer aide Bill Donoghue and a young sharpie named Sydney S. Baron - as PR men.

Impellitteri had to run in a special election in November if he wanted to hold the office he had fallen into, which meant that he had less than ten weeks in which to create an image and a record, and his PR men quickly hit on two ways to do it:

  • first, take advantage of the fact that no one knew him, that he was therefore not identified with any political bosses, that his opponent, Ferdinand Pecora, was backed by Tammany boss DeSapio and that unable to get Impellitteri the Democratic nomination, the clique in Tammany that pulled his strings had him running as an independent, and portray him as the “anti-boss,” “anti-politician,” “anti-corrupttion” candidate (one of Baron’s better lines: “If Pecora is elected, Frank Costello will be your mayor. But the voice will be that of Pecora”);
  • second, identify him with Robert Moses.

The price of that identification came high, both in specifics - Moses made Impellitteri pledge publicly that if he was elected, he would not re-appoint Finkelstein - and in generalities: Impellitteri privately promised Moses even more of a free hand than he had enjoyed under O’Dwyer in setting all city construction policies. But Impellitteri paid it. He got full value in return. Refusing an offer of the Republican nomination (time had dimmed at least some GOP leaders’ memories of 1934), Moses gave him his endorsement. “Even I, who thought that by this time I knew Bob and the lengths to which he would go, never thought he would go that far,” says Lazarus. Remonstrating, he said, “But, Bob, he hasn’t any capacity for the job at all!”

Moses’ response? “He laughed at that.”

Publicly, the Coordinator declared that Impellitteri “has shown extraordinary courage and independence.” And, as always, a Moses endorsement made almost #


More to come

Chapter 36: The Meat Ax #

I’m copy/pasting the summary of Chapter 36: The Meat Ax from somuchtoread. That website doesn’t have deep-linking to the page, so it’s easier to stash notes here:

Chapter 36: The Meat Ax

Caro is firing on all cylinders now, and it turns out that “The Meat Ax” is how he describes Moses’ approach to building roads. In a way, this chapter is an introduction to the following two brilliant chapters, “One Mile” and “One Mile: Afterward.” The title of the chapter is referring to how Moses once described the challenge of building in “an overbuilt metropolis,” noting the only way to achieve success is to “hack your way with a meat ax.” This is horrifying language to Caro and he intends to show how Moses’ meat ax destroyed homes and families and neighborhoods.

Caro writes that “it is no accident that most of the world’s great roads–ancient and modern alike–had been associated with totalitarian regimes.” The reference is obvious to anyone who has read 846 pages of this book. Moses, “had a dictator’s powers”, and was able to cut and carve up communities to work his will on the people because of his power. He, like others in command of a totalitarian regime, was able to make a decision because his mind, and his mind alone, had been persuaded.

The title of this section of the book is “The Lust for Power,” and this chapter fits nicely into that theme. Caro points out that Moses enjoyed working his will on a neighborhood–“he loved to swing [the meat ax].” It’s a damning charge: Moses isn’t someone who wants to build a project because the project itself is good, he wants to build the project because it strengthens his own power and feeds his own ego.

At times, I’m still in awe of Moses. Believe me, Caro makes it tough to like the guy. But he is pressing forward and paying attention to infrastructure. Neighborhood groups be damned. In the Cincinnati bridge example we’ve already considered, a true Moses-like figure would run roughshod over the buildings and houses in Covington that are adding money and time and opposition to the project. Our inability to be like Moses is delaying by years a bridge that is imperative. Moses always claimed that “succeeding generations would be grateful.” What are we going to say generations from now if we never build that bridge because we’re worried about a few houses? Wouldn’t we be grateful if we had our Moses once in a while?

I guess it depends on whether you live in those houses or not. So much to think about with this book.

Resources #

  1. With a few added line-breaks, and I’ve emphasized bits and pieces of the text