175 of 176 people found the following review helpful
Everyone knows--or intuitively feels--that American cities had some great opportunities to become enjoyable, livable places during the course of the 20th Century but somehow blew the opportunity. This book explains a major component of why and how the betrayal occurred by focusing on the man who was both the cause and the victim of the betrayal, a powerful bureaucrat little known outside of metropolitan New York, Robert Moses.
The book details Moses' slow rise to power as an idealistic Wilsonian Democrat fighting the entrenched power of corrupt Tammany Hall politics, his novel approach to parks planning (he virtually invented the "parkway," for example), his massive public works (among them the Triborough Bridge and all of New York City's expressways), and his inevitable decline and fall after he refused to relinquish power in old age.
As time wore on Moses became less and less the man of the people and more and more the man of the system of his own creation, and that system was the toll-gathering mechanism of New York's bridges and tunnels. He invented that peculiar institution, the "authority" (as in Port "Authority" or Tennessee Valley "Authority") that is neither wholly governmental nor wholly private, and so lacks the restraints of either; Moses' cash cows kept him in power and gave him an antidemocratic arrogance that is truly breathtaking and, one hopes, will never be duplicated.
This book isn't just for New Yorkers or for those who wonder why New York's roadways are so confusingly laid out. America's other big cities are New York writ small--they went to New York at the height of Moses' power and emulated his methods! That helps us understand the mania for building our now hopelessly overcrowded expressways and devaluing public transportation, whose lack we are just now trying to address by building expensive light-rail and commuter-train systems that should have been in place for decades.
This is an extremely long book and extremely "wonky" in terms of policy discussion but gripping reading nonetheless. It also set the tone for further political biogaphy/psycho-biography, by both Caro and other writers. The depth of research in this book is simply amazing.
149 of 154 people found the following review helpful
on April 4, 2000
I first picked up The Power Broker when it was published 25 years ago. Since then I've re-read it three or four times over the years. It is a true monument to Caro that this book has remained in print in both hc and pb over these years.
This massive work is at the same time a biography of Robert Moses and the metropolitan New York City area. Moses, originally a reformer and a true public servant, somehow became tainted by the power entrusted to him. It was his way or no way -- and once he became firmly entrenched there was no "no way." A typical Moses tactic: design a great public work (bridge, for example) and underestimate the budget. A bargain sure to be approved and funded by the politicians! Then run out of money halfway through construction. The rest of the money will surely be forthcoming because no politician wants to be associated with a half-finished and very visibile "failure" -- it's much better to take credit for an "against the odds" success.
I grew up in NYC at the tail end of Moses' influence and I remember the 1964 Worlds Fair in NYC vividly, especially a "guidebook" that lionized Moses' construction prowess. In school, Moses' contribution was also taught (always positively) when we had units covering NYC history. If nothing else, Moses understood the power of good publicity, and used tactics later adopted by the current mayor (King Rudy) to control the press and public opinion. This book brings Moses back to human scale and deconstructs (no pun intended) his impact on the city.
The book is long, detailed, and compelling. Great beach reading -- especially at Jones Beach! Now that it is celebrating its 25th anniversary, a new retrospective afterword from the author would be appreciated (perhaps a reprint of the article he wrote for the New Yorker a few years ago on how he wrote the book).
An interesting counterpoint to this biography of Moses is The Great Bridge by David McCollough. This story of a great public works project is also a biography of the Roeblings, the family of engineers who designed and built it. They shared Moses' singlemindedness, but the methods and results had far less negative results.
91 of 95 people found the following review helpful
on October 18, 2000
This massive work, published in 1975, is unfortunately just as timely today as it was a quarter century ago. It is the story of Robert Moses, arguably one of the most important and influential men of the second half of the 20th century. He, for better or for worse, gave us our models for the modern highway transportation system and wielded enormous power in the city and state of New York -- without ever being elected to a single public office.
At 1,162 pages, Caro's work will undoubtedly always face the charge that it needed editing. But to address large themes, a writer needs to expand, and Caro does, brilliantly for the most part. "The Power Broker" takes on the question of whether democracy in America really works. Using Moses' life as a model, the answer is "no." Moses began as a passionate believer in reform, a man who wanted to end favoritism and corruption in New York. Yet early on he concluded that to "get things done," he needed to beat the power-wielders at their own game, and he did. He built an enormous network of influence that included politicians, unions, banks and big business. And he used that power to build the most enormous transportation system in the nation, often over the objections of elected officials.
But the book also makes clear the cost of power. For one thing, there were political losers. Moses was ruthless in his attacks on those who opposed him, often lowering himself to attacking character. Mass transportation was a loser during the time Moses wielded power. He considered the automobile the premier mode of transportation, and he steadfastly refused to accommodate plans for subway, bus, and train improvements. And the poor and working class were losers in Moses' power game. He had no respect for the poor, particularly those with dark skin, and he ruthlessly destroyed their neighborhoods in his grand building schemes.
In the end, we have all lost because of Moses' vision. His idea that we can solve transportation problems by building more and more roads, bridges and infrastructure to accommodate commuters who live farther and farther from the places they work has carried the day, and those of us who live in medium-sized and big cities continue to suffer for it with every minute we lose in traffic.
Tremendous book -- grand in its vision, grand in its documentation, grand in its achievement.
34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on December 17, 2000
As with his biographies of LBJ, Caro delivers a scathing critique of the means and purposes of a powerful man in 20th century American government. "Power at all costs" is the theme he applies to both subjects.
The amount of detailed research in the book is amazing. We are able to follow the character development of Moses from his days as an idealistic civic reformer through the transformation by which he became one the most shrewd, and venal, operators in the system he set out to reform. As the years go by, we learn that although Moses's energy and ambition do not wane, his ideas of urban infrastructure design are hopelessly out of date. Furthermore, his preference for glamorous bridges instead of more practical tunnels, and his stilting of the mass transit system in favor of more and more expressways results in censure from Caro. In he end, we are intended to believe that the work of Robert Moses has become a barrier to the development of the greatest American city.
In his judgement of Moses, however, Caro still brings out the genius of one of the most influential shapers of modern urban design of the last century. The genius was, unfortunately, corrupted by the trappings of absolute power in his field.
The book is worth reading as an insight into urban politics, as a history of the infrastructure of New York, as a character study of an amazing personality and as a well written narrative biography. Combined, these factors make the 1200 pages well worth plowing though. Several unexpected stories within the book could stand alone as great (but certainly not impartial) writing. The story of a Jewish neighborhood that was torn down to make room for a Moses expressway is perhaps the most powerful passage in the book.
One final point is that Caro tends to sensationalize the sins of Moses, while painting other characters in a more positive light. For example, very little of the political machinations of Fiorello LaGaurdia and Al Smith are discussed, making Moses look evil in comparison to the two. Caro does a similar thing with his portrayal of Coke Stevenson in the LBJ books. Caro definitely sets out to get Robert Moses, but he backs up his criticism with a brilliant book.
28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on May 2, 2001
Don't be daunted by the length of this book. Caro's exhaustive work about one of the most politically-powerful men in 20th Century New York (who was never elected to public office) is a page-turner and a classic story of a man acquiring power for power's sake.
Many readers and historians have used this book for a primer on how NOT to conduct urban planning. Moses' heavy hand, disdain for delays and love of the automobile in transit-centered New York City are really only a small part of this story. Like the title says, I think Caro really wrote a tale of a man whose official job titles were "only" the head of the Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority and the NY Parks system, but the power he wielded shook mayors, senators and even a president or two along the way. His power transcended political party and popular will, and only did late in his career, as he battled society women over expanding a parking lot in Central Park, did he begin to fall from his once-untouchable pedestal. Caro emphasizes that Moses never used power for financial wealth, and lived modestly his entire life.
Caro does a phenomenal job by describing how Moses' insistence on building the Cross-Bronx Expy through the heart of a thriving residential neighborhood led to the widescale decay of that neighborhood for generations to come. It was certainly the book's high point.
Historians today now look at Moses with a kinder light than Caro did in 1974, citing him for the quality and aesthetic touches he put into many of his highways and parks (remember, by 1974, "form follows function" reigned supreme, and all public buildings and projects were bland, faceless monoliths of concrete and cinderblocks). Even the oft-quoted statement that Moses deliberately designed his parkway bridges too low to accomodate buses has been discredited by Caro himself in later years.
Even if you have never ridden public transit or set foot in New York City, you will not be disappointed by this book. It is perhaps the best biography I have ever written and one of my favorite works of non-fiction.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on March 20, 2004
The Power Broker by Robert Caro deftly weaves together a myriad of stories, histories, biographies and sociological trends into a fascinating narrative on the development of New York City and the man who guided, controlled and ultimately placed an indelible stamp on the physical layout of modern world capital.
Robert Moses, a man of considerable intellectual capacity and enormous energy, demonstrates also an insatiable appetite for political power. His flaw is his fundamental dislike for the people he serves. The type of power he seeks is not that based in electoral competition and consent of the governed but that of bureaucratic power in the service of the most powerful segments of society. Having once attained power, he employs all of the tools at his disposal to become the indispensable man, repeatedly challenging his politically elected, nominal bosses to fire him. His ability to continue in office through repeated changes in leadership is a testament to his tenacity and ruthlessness. He then uses the appointed positions he has attained to acquire others.
One of his early positions is as an aide to Al Smith in the New York Legislature. Here he learns to write laws and, using his considerable talents masters the arcane art of drafting legislation. This serves him well in later years as he cajoles and bullies legislators to create special districts, which have as the head of the district whoever is currently the head of the Long Island State Parks Commission. Who might that be? You guessed it.
His power continues to grow through the century and his influence on the growth of New York is inescapable. That he may have done a lot of good is a question open for debate. Are the results of an undemocratic and in many ways authoritarian process good? Do the ends justify the means? He may have been able to "get the job done" and "he made the vaunted bureaucracy of city hall bend to his wishes" but he did so in highly disagreeable and bullying way. It is also a testament to his personality that Robert Moses continually went out of his way to sabotage the career of his brother and to the day he died, his only brother hated him.
It is only when he runs up against Nelson Rockefeller that he meets his match. Here Moses has an adversary with equally developed ego and with enormous resources to take him on. Indeed, the bonded funding for much of Moses' projects came from the Rockefeller controlled Chase Manhattan Bank. It is this leverage that Rockefeller use to finally push Moses out of power.
An incredibly well written book. Highly detailed and long with a densely layered structure.. This is one long book that I did not want to end.
John C. McKee
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on August 4, 2002
Perhaps the best way for me to recommend this book is to say that I had bought this 1100+-page book thinking that it would be my reading project for the next 6 months, and yet I finished it in about a month. The pages fly by due to how interesting Caro's subject is, Caro's obviously thorough research and his great writing style--the combination of a journalist's ability to make one see events and a suspense writer's flare for the dramatic. I was born and bred in Manhattan and Brooklyn, so it is possible that it's not be as easy a read for a non-native New Yorker, but I suspect that it would be.
The Power Broker is Robert Caro's opus about Robert Moses, New York City and its eastern suburbs on Long Island and, to a lesser degree, about New York State. To call it a biography would not fully capture it. One should pay attention to the second half subtitle explaining that the book is also about New York. Caro diverges from his subject to spend chapters or parts thereof on other important figures to New York and Robert Moses, such as former New York governor and presidential candidate Al Smith or to the workings of New York City and State's government before Moses came to power.
Caro gives the reader an amazing sense of what life was like in New York throughout the first two-thirds of the Twentieth Century and how Robert Moses changed and shaped the life of New Yorkers. You will picture great public works such as parks, bridges, beaches and highways spring into being, you will feel the pain of people kicked out of their homes to make way for these edifices. You will peek into legislatures and governor's mansions to see how they were delayed or speeded up, you will imagine the smoke-filled rooms of Tammany Hall where taxpayer money was passed between corrupt politicians with Robert Moses' help to make these works come to life. And, of course, most of all, you will picture Moses striving to make all this happen and grasping for power.
I wish that this review could be completely positive. I believe that Caro's writing style, research and his ability to translate the research into words deserves the 5 stars I gave this book, but I must say that I found some flaws in this book.
First, Caro paints Moses as a caricature. That is not to say that Caro paints Moses as all evil or all good. He explains several times that Moses did many great things for New York and many terrible things to it. He also says that it is impossible to know whether New York would be better or worse without Moses.
However, the picture of Moses Caro gives us is one-dimensional. He gives him three motivations for all his actions: a love to build, a love of power and an arrogant intelligence. With all due respect to Caro's thorough research, I can't believe that this is true. Moses, like all of us, must have been motivated by many different things. And yet, Caro hits us over the head with the same motivations over and over again in every chapter.
My second complaint is that, it seems to me that he ascribes much too much effect to Moses' causes. In one of Caro's greatest chapters, he describes Moses' tearing the heart out of East Tremont in the Bronx, NY to build the Cross-Bronx Expressway. He explains how Moses ruined the neighborhood without thought to its residents even though he could have built the highway in a much better location with almost no dislocation.
However, Caro goes too far and says that the neighborhood would have remained stable for the foreseeable future without Moses. Caro tries to explain why he believes that East Tremont would have survived. But his explanation is weak. It is probably impossible for him to explain how East Tremont, unlike its surrounding neighborhoods in the Bronx and unlike every other urban neighborhood of all ethnicities and all political stripes would not have succumbed to "white flight" as more Latinos and Blacks moved in. Caro could have said, as he did, that Moses destroyed a neighborhood and left people homeless without trying to argue, unsuccessfully, that the neighborhood would have been fine without Robert Moses.
Everything said though, this is a great book that will give you insight into a man, a city, public works and the actions of powerful people.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on June 5, 2009
It is hard to describe how great this book is. Let this stand for all the rest: there are not many 1200 page books that keep you reading eagerly the whole way through and then make you wish there was more.
Caro is a brilliant writer. His sentences flow in a way that makes the book impossible to put down. But more than that, he is a dogged investigator. He spent seven years on this book, giving up his house and spending all his savings. The result is one of the greatest books of all time, perhaps _the_ greatest nonfiction book.
For nearly forty years, Robert Moses controlled New York. Controlled it almost absolutely, overruling every mayor, governor, president, and public pressure group. He did it all without anyone ever knowing: the press, when it did cover him, covered him only in the most glowing, reverent terms. He did it all without winning a single election: the two times he did dare run for office, he was defeated so soundly as to become a joke.
_The Power Broker_ is the story of how our "democracy" really works. How men gain power and how it corrupts them. How cities get built and how real people suffer for it. How we became a nation desperately dependent on the car.
It is the most amazing story you will ever read. The characters so vivid, their feats so incredible, their accomplishments so tragic. There is money and sex and power and intrigue on a scale more vast than most novelists dare attempt. And it is all completely true.
Do yourself a favor: read this book.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on March 17, 1999
I first read "The Power Broker" as a student at Fordham University in the '70s. Of course, Fordham/Lincoln Center is part of Moses' legacy, as represented in the book. As part of our honors course, Moses was invited to speak to our class, but canceled when he heard we had read Caro's book. Then, he was convinced to speak if we promised to be respectful. Moses even submitted "acceptable questions" to us, and the students wanted to cancel at this point! In the end, he spoke. Caro's portrayal of this titanic intellect was completely accurate. Even at his advanced age, he way dynamic. As an aspriring Caro myself, I thought, 'How do you encapsulate such a book into a simple, yet probative and respectful, question?' So, quite nervously, I asked the first question, "What obligation does an urban planner owe to the future?" Moses' answer, totally consistent with Caro's penetrating view of this extraordinary man, was: "None." If you have ANY interest in politics, power or the REAL things that affect people's lives, read this book. If I had Spielberg's money, I'd get George C. Scott and make the movie. Together with Caro's second work on Lyndon Johnson (I'm eagerly awaiting the third volume), also in my personal Top Five, READ THIS BOOK!
40 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on December 26, 2005
Robert Caro does an excellent job detailing the life and work of Robert Moses. He gives the reader such a detailed account of the impact Robert Moses had on the New York metropolitan area that one actually is introduced to dozens of worthwhile "mini-biographies" within this book of 1162 pages. He gives an excellent description of a multitude of mayors, governors and other politicians, statesmen, and businessmen that Caro's description of these individuals are sometimes more comprehensive than their own biographies.
Caro is comprehensive without resorting to gossip, inuendo and unsubstantiated claims. The Power Broker chronicles Moses'early life as an idealistic but abrasive reformer who is brought under the wing of Governor Al Smith and staff. A significant part of his rise to power should be credited to Governor Smith who has complete trust in Moses and other aides regardless of public criticisms affecting his administration. Smith was absolutely loyal to Moses and supported his endeavors as it related to the fruition of his dreams involving building parks and highways.
Moses gained a great deal of power as the years progressed and became less of an idealist and more of a pragmatic politician who as the steward millions of dollars in city, state, and federal funds for housing, parks, highways, and bridges created a system by which many sectors of society depended on him for jobs, contracts, and political patronage. Unions, politicians, contractors, developers all benefited from Robert Moses.
When picking up this book, I asked myself why the " Fall of NY" portion of the title. If you read the book you will understand that contrary to modern day urban planning, many of Moses' projects were more about his accomplishments than the people adversely affected by the projects. Whether it is the construction of Lincoln Center, the Cross Bronx Expressway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the reader will see that no mechanism existed to balance the needs of building with the long term social ills that massive construction projects can create.
For anyone who has spent any amount of time in New York City or its surrounding suburbs, many questions are answered by reading this book. Many of these questions have to do with transportation and urban/suburban planning. Caro is highly critical of Moses as were many people during the end of his reign in the late 1960's, but he manages to be objective enough to give credit where credit is due. A book of this magnitude can only reach 1162 pages by being objective .
I higly recommend this book, it is by far the best biography I have read thus far and is told in its proper historical context. Rober Caro did an admirable job in telling the story of a giant of a man who was vehemently loved and vehemently hated by many.