March 15, 2016


Capitalism's Capital : a review of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro  (Jackson Lears, London Review of Books)

While Moses's utopia was crashing and burning, Robert Caro was writing The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. It was first published in 1974. New York City was on the brink of bankruptcy, social breakdown seemed imminent. Elite institutions manifested a siege mentality: on a visit to Columbia University's Butler Library in the early 1970s, I remember noticing that the floor lamps were chained to the radiators; anything not secured, it seemed, was liable to be carried off. No wonder Caro connected Moses with 'the fall of New York'. The master builder had become the architect of urban collapse. The Power Broker showed, in overwhelming detail, how Moses's overreach led to disaster. In the dark days of the 1970s, the book was celebrated as a shrewd diagnosis of the city's ills; now, when the city is leaking capital out of every pore, New York triumphalists have taken to questioning Caro's critique, claiming it's time to revisit Moses's work. But in the end the revisiting does little to alter the critique.

Caro's epigraph is from Sophocles: 'One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been.' Or, in Moses's case, Caro implies, to see how hollow the splendour has been. Moses spent most of his career awash in adulation. For nearly four decades, every print medium from the Times to the tabloids, from Fortune to Architecture Forum, agreed that he was a preternaturally gifted and dedicated public servant, a man above politics, above graft and greed, committed to Getting Things Done quickly and efficiently. And the things themselves - the parks, playgrounds and beaches, the bridges and parkways and expressways - either epitomised the grandeur of American aspiration, or enhanced the innocent pleasure of the American people at play, or both. Who could not admire such a man, working for peanuts or sometimes for nothing at all, transforming the city into a fitting capital for the richest and most powerful nation on earth? What's not to like?

Caro spends 1200 pages answering that question in detail. The legend of Robert Moses the disinterested public servant was always 'a gigantic hoax', he writes. Moses knew how to manipulate the local and national media, but he was as dependent on graft and patronage as any old pol from Tammany Hall, for decades the home of the Democratic Party machine. Though he didn't sup directly at the public trough, he had no scruples about ignoring or stretching the law to advance his agenda, creating no-show jobs for friends who could do him favours and no-bid contracts for compliant contractors, courting politicians with lavish entertainment at public expense - providing, on many such occasions at Jones Beach, martinis from one fountain, Manhattans from another, and music from Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, the maestros of cheesy white pop. For the first decade or so of his career, Moses preserved his youthful attachment to the ideals of the Progressive movement - parks for the people, clean government by the competent - and pursued power for the sake of those ideals. But from 1934 on, after he was appointed parks commissioner by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, he pursued power for the sake of more power.

Posted by at March 15, 2016 5:42 AM