Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize winning “The Power Broker” is a fascinating and incisive look into the life and work of Robert Moses, the nation’s foremost builder and the man most responsible for the modern face of New York. It is a biography that reads like a Greek tragedy: Moses gets his first taste of power achieving a purely public good, then finds himself incapable of relinquishing that power as the scope of his works and megalomania continue to grow. The joke of it all is that Moses started out as an idealistic champion of government reform.
Caro’s writing is thorough and fast paced, two descriptions that don’t often go together. The book is something like 1200 pages but its hard to put down. Caro certainly earned his Pulitzer, and the book is an amazing and relevant read even today as many of Moses projects stifle the city or begin to be replaced. His methods were openly classist and inherently racist, and the world he envisioned had no care for working people, future concerns, or anyone in his way. I don’t think there’s much of a way to examine or measure his impact on New York and the country, and it is even harder to speculate as to the damage he did with his open hostility to public transportation. At times, it is clear that Moses actually enjoyed destroying communities and anyone who got in his way. There are a lot of lessons in this book, but the central one is age old: power will undoubtedly corrupt even a simple park commissioner.
Defenders of Moses unfailingly return to the idea that if he didn’t do it, no one would have, and that because the city and state needed his public works projects and the jobs that came with them, all the terrible things that came with Moses must be swallowed. This is ridiculous on two main fronts. First, if New York needed infrastructure that badly, it would have been built. Paris and London built public works without jettisoning the democratic process. Moverover, there were some things he built that were vital, and many others that consumed money better spent on hospitals and schools. There is no doubt that a more democratic process would have resulted in far better transportation works, anyways. Last, it is possible for a man with great power to also be a good person, and Moses had it within his means to achieve just as much with half the damage.
That he revelled in the misery of others while building public monuments to himself can be best understood while in the midst of traffic lines on any of his most famous works.