1974: The Power Broker

C.M. Stieglitz/Library of Congress

 

 

 


Robert Caro (Carnegie Fellow ’68)

Robert Caro (Carnegie Fellow ’68) wrote “The Power Broker,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of Robert Moses and the making of modern New York City, based on years of intensive research. It was selected by the Modern Library as one of the hundred greatest non-fiction books of the 20th century.

1971
“The Power Broker,” Introduction: Wait Until The Evening

By Robert Caro

Moses was able to shape a city and to build an empire because the supple mind that had conceived of a Minor Sports Association for Yale and innovations in the civil service system for New York City—and also of substantial portions of the New York State Constitution—had focused on the possibilities of an institution still in its infancy as an urban force when he came to it in 1934: the public authority. He raised this institution to a maturity in which it became the force through which he shaped New York and its suburbs in the image he personally conceived.

Operating through an authority, Moses could keep the public from finding out what he was doing, and this was an important consideration with him. If, throughout his half century and more in the public eye, he displayed an eagerness and a flair for publicizing certain aspects of his career and his life, he displayed an equal eagerness and flair for making sure that only those aspects—and no others—were known. There were, for example, men and women who knew Robert Moses for half a century who never knew that he had a brother, or that in the city in which Robert Moses lived in luxury, that brother spent the last thirty years of his life in a poverty so severe that he lived in a fifth-floor walkup flat in an old tenement huddled against the piers of South Ferry.

The official records of most public agencies are public records, but not those of public authorities, since courts have held that they may be regarded as the records of private corporations, closed to scrutiny by the interested citizen or reporter.

This was very important to Robert Moses. It was very important to him that no one be able to find out how it was that he was able to build.

Because what Robert Moses built on was a lie.

The lie had to do with the nature both of the man and of the public authority. Moses said that he was the antithesis of the politician. He never let political considerations influence any aspect of his projects—not the location of a highway or housing project not the award of a contact or an insurance commission, he said. He would never compromise, he said. He never had and he never would. That, he said, was the way politicians got things done, but he was no politician. He knew what should be done and he intended to do it the right way or not at all. He said this at the beginning of his career and he said it at the end; in 1961, at the trial of a borough president who had received favors from an urban renewal contractor, Moses, on the witness stand, was asked whether the contract had not been awarded as part of a “deal.” Moses’ face paled with rage. “In forty years of public life,” he said, “I have never made a deal.”

Public authorities are also outside and above politics, Moses said. Their decisions are made solely on the basis of the public welfare, he said. They have all the best features of private enterprise. They are businesslike—prudent, efficient, economical. And they are more. They are the very epitome of prudence, efficiency, economy. And they have another advantage over conventional governmental institutions as well. Since they finance their projects through the sale of revenue bonds to private investors, they therefore build these projects without using any public funds. Projects built by authorities, he said, cost the taxpayers nothing.

These statements were believed implicitly for almost forty years by the public to which they were made. And this is not surprising. For Robert Moses repeated his contentions a thousand times and for four decades they were repeated, amplified and embellished by a press that believed them, too.

Because of the forty years of adulation of the newspapers—and of the public that read the newspapers—for forty years nothing could stand in Moses’ way. No Mayor of Governor dared to try to breast the wave of public opinion in whose curl Moses rode. One President tried. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the most bitter enemy that Moses ever made in public life, attempted as President to exact vengeance for humiliations previously received at Moses’ hands. But although he made his move at the very zenith of his own popularity and prestige, the President found himself forced to retreat by a storm of acclaim for Moses that rolled not only through New York but across the country and that, ironically, left Moses embedded more firmly than ever in the public consciousness as the fearless defier of politicians. For forty years, in every fight, Robert Moses could count on having on his side the weight of public opinion.

The beliefs on which that opinion was based were never disproved or even seriously questioned, not even during the final, bitter decade of Moses’ career, a decade during which his policies were subjected to steadily increasing criticism. For even during that decade, the criticism was of Moses’ projects more than of the methods by which he accomplished those projects. The reason for this was simple. The vast majority of the public accepted the legend as fact. And even those skeptics who were disposed to test its truth had no facts with which to make the test, because the records of Triborough and the mouths of its ministers were so effectively sealed. If, however, they had been able to see the records and open the mouths, they would have learned that the legend was a gigantic hoax.

Prudent, efficient, economical? So incredibly wasteful was Moses of the money he tolled from the public in quarters and dimes that on a single bridge alone he paid $40,000,000 more in interest than he had to. Authority projects cost the taxpayers nothing? Covert “loans” made to authorities by the state—loans designed never to be repaid—ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars. The cost of city-purchased land on which authority facilities were built ran into the hundreds of millions. The cost of taxpayer-financed toll roads leading to authority facilities ran into the billions. And the loss in tax revenue because authority-controlled land was removed from the tax rolls drained the city year after year.

Most important, had the records of the authorities been open, they would have disproved another aspect of the lie: the legend that Robert Moses was no “politician,” that he operated at a higher level than that implied in the derogatory connotations attached to that noun, that he managed to create his public works at a remove from politics. Actually, as these records prove, Robert Moses’ authorities were a political machine oiled by the lubricant of political machines: money. Their wealth enabled Moses to make himself not only a political boss who in his particular bailiwick—public works—was able to exert a power that few political bosses in the more conventional mold ever attain.

Even had the records been available, of course, the public might not have understood their significance. For Moses was a political boss with a difference. He was not the stereotype with which Americans were familiar. His constituency was not the public but some of the most powerful men in the city and state, and he kept these men in line by doling out to them, as Tammany ward bosses once handed out turkeys to the poor at Thanksgiving, the goodies in which such men were interested, the sugar plums of public relations retainers, insurance commissions and legal fees. This man, personally honest in matters of money, became the locus of corruption in New York City. Robert Moses made himself the ward boss of the inner circle, the bankroller of the Four Hundred of politics. Far from being above the seamier aspects of politics, he was,–for decades—the central figure about whom revolved much of the back-stage maneuvering of New York City politics. Triborough’s public relations retainers ran to a quarter of a million dollars a year, its legal fees to a quarter million, its insurance commissions to half a million—a total of a million dollars a year. Moses parceled out retainers, fees and commissions to city and state political leaders on the basis of a very exact appraisal of their place in the political pecking order. And an examination of the records of the recipients leads to the conclusion that, year after year, it was the men who received Moses’ turkey baskets who fought against any diminution in Moses’ power—and for whatever public works project he was pushing at the moment.

Beyond graft and patronage, moreover, Moses also displayed a genius for using the wealth of his public authorities to unite behind his aims banks, labor unions, contractors, bond underwriters, insurance firms, the great retail stores, real estate manipulators—all the forces which enjoy immense behind-the-scenes political influence in New York. He succeeded in mobilizing behind his banner economic forces with sufficient weight to bend to his aims the apparatus so carefully established in City Charter and State Constitution to insure that, in deciding on such projects, the decisive voice would be that of the people. He used economic power for political ends—so successfully that in the fields he carved out for his own, fields in which decisions would shape the city’s future for generations if not for centuries, he made economic, not democratic, forces the forces that counted in New York. And because he spoke for such forces, it was his voice that counted most of all.

“He gave everybody involved in the political setup in this city whatever it was that they wanted,” one official recalls. “Therefore they all had their own interest in seeing him succeed. The pressure that this interest all added up to was a pressure that no one in the system could stand up against, because it came from the system itself.” And since the mayor’s power and career rested on this system, he was as helpless to stand against the pressure Moses could exert as was anyone else. When Robert Moses walked into Wagner’s office on that Inauguration Day in City Hall and shoved the appointment blank across Wagner’s desk, Wagner had no choice but to sign it. Given the circumstances of the Democratic Party in New York City, he couldn’t let Robert Moses resign. What Moses had succeeded in doing, really, was to replace graft with benefits that could be derived with legality from a public works project. He had succeeded in centralizing in his projects—and to a remarkable extent in his own person—all those forces which are not in theory supposed to, but which in practice do, play a decisive role in political decisions.

Corruption before Moses had been unorganized, based on a multitude of selfish, private ends. Moses’ genius for organizing it and focusing it at a central source gave it a new force, a force so powerful that it bent the entire city government off the democratic bias. He had used the power of money to undermine the democratic processes of the largest city in the world, to plan and build its parks, bridges, highways and housing projects on the basis of his whim alone.

 

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 sip of real 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. Increasingly, the projects became not ends but means—the means of obtaining more and more power.

As the idealism faded and disappeared, its handmaidens drifted away. The principles of the Good Government reform movement which Moses had once espoused became principles to be ignored. The brilliance that had invented a civil service system was applied to the task of circumventing civil service requirements. The insistence on truth and logic was replaced by a sophistry that twisted every fact to conclusions not merely preconceived but preconceived decades earlier.

 

Robert Moses was America’s greatest builder. He was the shaper of the greatest city in the New World.

But what did he build? What was the shape into which he pounded the city?

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 places to live, the vital parts of the city that made New York a home to its people.

By building his highways, Moses flooded the city with cars. By systematically starving the subways and the suburban commuter railroads, he swelled that flood to city-destroying dimensions. By making sure that the vast suburbs, rural and empty when he came to power, were filled on a sprawling, low-density development pattern relying primarily on roads instead of mass transportation, he insured that that flood would continue for generations if not centuries, that the New York metropolitan area would be—perhaps forever—an area in which transportation—getting from one place to another—would be an irritating, life-consuming concern for its 14,000,000 residents.

For highways, Moses dispossessed 250,000 persons. For his other projects—Lincoln Center, the United Nations, the Fordham, Pratt and Long Island University campuses, a dozen mammoth urban renewal projects—he dispossessed tens of thousands more; there are available no accurate figures on the total number of people evicted from their homes for all Robert Moses public works, but the figure is almost certainly close to half a million the one detailed study by an outside agency shows that in a ten-year period, 1946 to 1956, the number was 320,000. More significant even than the number of the dispossessed were their characteristics: a disproportionate share of them were black, Puerto Rican—and poor. He evicted tens of thousands of poor, nonwhite persons for urban renewal projects, and the housing he built to replace the housing he tore down was, to an overwhelming extent, not housing for the poor, but for the rich. The dispossessed, barred from many areas of the city by their color and their poverty, had no place to go but into the already overcrowded slums—or into “soft” borderline areas that then became slums, so that his “slum clearance programs” created new slums as fast as they were clearing the old.

When he built housing for poor people, he built housing bleak, sterile, cheap—expressive of patronizing condescension in every line. And he built it in locations that contributed to the ghettoization of the city, dividing up the city by color and income. And by skewing city expenditures toward revenue-producing services, he prevented the city from reaching out toward its poor and assimilating them, and teaching them how to live in such housing—and the very people for whom he built it reacted with rage and bitterness and ignorance, and defaced it.

He built parks and playgrounds with a lavish hand, but they were parks and playgrounds for the rich and the comfortable. Recreational facilities for the poor he doled out like a miser.

For decades, to advance his own purposes, he systematically defeated every attempt to create the master plan that might have enabled the city to develop on a rational, logical, unified pattern—defeated it until, when it was finally adopted, it was too late for it to do much good.

“One must wait until the evening…” In the evening of Robert Moses’ forty-four years of power, New York, so bright with promise forty-four years before, was a city in chaos and despair. His highways and bridges and tunnels were awesome—taken as a whole the most awesome urban improvement in the history of mankind—but no aspect of those highways and bridges and tunnels was as awesome as the congestion on them. He had built more housing than any public official in history, but the city was starved for housing, more starved, if possible, than when he had started building, and the people who lived in that housing hated it—hated it, James Baldwin could write, “almost as much as the policemen, and this is saying a great deal.” He had built great monuments and great parks, but people were afraid to travel to or walk around them.

 

For all these reasons, this book attempts to tell two stories at once: how New York, forty years ago a very different city from the city it is today, became what it has become; and how the idealistic Robert Moses became what he has become. It must try to be a book about what happened to the city and what happened to the man. For, to an extent few people have really understood, these two stories are one story. 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? Any critic who says so ignores the fact that both before and after Robert Moses—both under “reform” mayors such as John Purroy Mitchel and John V. Lindsay and under Tammany mayors such as Red Mike Hylan and Jimmy Walker—the city was utterly unable to meet the needs of its people in areas requiring physical construction. Robert Moses may have bent the democratic processes of the city to his own ends to build public works; left to themselves, these processes proved unequal to the building required. The problem of constructing large-scale public works in a crowded urban setting, where such works impinge on the lives of or displace thousands of voters, is one which democracy has not yet solved.

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.

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