In a high school English class I was assigned a book to read that was so daunting I can remember today the feeling of shock as it was placed in my hands. It was huge! Growing up along the Jersey shore, I knew for a fact that a book this size could function as a great drag anchor for a small skiff or rowboat. It didn’t matter that the teacher was telling us we would use this book the entire semester, it was over 1000 pages, for God’s sake!
As it turned out, The Power Broker was a fantastic read, and served well as the basis for an equally wonderful course. I ended up reading farther each day and week than was assigned, and the emotional high and feeling of accomplishment as I read the last words were totally unexpected. First, I had tamed the beast. But more importantly, I had persevered to gain insight that even at the tender age of 16 I knew would be important to me for the rest of my life.
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
One of my first introductions to the power of good research. A fascinating look into the mind and life of a man who shaped the built environment of the state of New York like no other.
As the book description out on Goodreads tells us:
…winner of both the Pulitzer and the Francis Parkman prizes, The Power Broker tells the hidden story behind the shaping (and mis-shaping) of twentieth-century New York (city and state) and makes public what few have known: that Robert Moses was, for almost half a century, the single most powerful man of our time in New York, the shaper not only of the city’s politics but of its physical structure and the problems of urban decline that plague us today.
In revealing how Moses did it—how he developed his public authorities into a political machine that was virtually a fourth branch of government, one that could bring to their knees Governors and Mayors (from La Guardia to Lindsay) by mobilizing banks, contractors, labor unions, insurance firms, even the press and the Church, into an irresistible economic force—Robert Caro reveals how power works in all the cities of the United States. Moses built an empire and lived like an emperor. He personally conceived and completed public works costing 27 billion dollars—the greatest builder America (and probably the world) has ever known. Without ever having been elected to office, he dominated the men who were—even his most bitter enemy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, could not control him—until he finally encountered, in Nelson Rockefeller, the only man whose power (and ruthlessness in wielding it) equalled his own.
Robert Moses was clearly a brilliant man on a mission to create beautiful recreational shorelines, parks, pools, playgrounds, parkways and pathways in the City of New York and the counties that surrounded it. The fact that he knowingly abused the laws to make these dreams happen could be argued as criminal intent or political genius. Certainly the millions of people who have enjoyed Jones Beach or the Triborough Bridge would never have suspected that the mastermind behind them and so much more had a racist agenda and a near-pathological belief that he was right and no one was going to stop him.
But the life story of Robert Moses was not entirely about manipulation and devious intent. Looking back, I suspect that the strongest impact upon this reader was the remarkable discipline he exhibited every day. He always worked later than his engineers, then woke earlier to have a stack of paperwork and plans ready for his secretary, who would stop by his house on her way into the office. Then he would work in the car as his driver took him to work (he never had a driver’s license, never had a job—instead writing himself into law … you need to read this book!). And while I have taken a much different perspective on life since, this was formative in my mental image of the hard-working world changer I wanted to be.
Certainly NOT what I was thinking as the drag anchor was handed to me in high school!