It is something of a mystery why the Bodley Head has decided to publish Robert Caro’s The Power Broker in Britain more than 40 years after the initial appearance in the US of this classic work — but better late than never. Caro’s remarkable portrait of New York City’s master planner Robert Moses merits publication in any language, at any moment in time. For its scope extends beyond Moses, fascinating though he was as a person, builder, wrecker, and manipulator of men and money.
Caro’s ambition — in a journalistic sense equal to Moses’s ambition in architecture, park creation, and road and bridge construction — is greater than conventional biography. Over 1,200-odd pages, with immense precision and considerable verve, Caro aims to describe the essence and pathology of Moses’s political power, not just the uses to which he put it or how he got away with the worst of his bulldozing, both physical and political. So we learn as much about the intoxication and addiction of power as we do about the bureaucratic titan whose imprint on New York bears comparison with his only modern equivalent, the smasher and rebuilder of Paris, Baron Haussmann.
Unfortunately, New York today remains ugly, congested, and harsh compared with Paris, and the tactics Moses employed to transform the city, adjacent Long Island, and upstate New York to suit his tastes were uglier still. Thus any assessment of Moses’s legacy, or potential revision of Caro’s devastating critique, must include the question: did Robert Moses make New York a better or a worse place to live?
Caro demonstrates that he made the city and the surrounding state much worse (the book’s subtitle is ‘Robert Moses and the Fall of New York’), though he can’t help acknowledging successes like Jones Beach State Park, Moses’s first big public-works project, which was constructed in the late 1920s on the South Shore of Long Island.
This vast refuge for the sweltering masses exists, in part, because the Yale and Oxford-educated Moses began his career as an earnest, idealistic reformer, very much in the mainstream of Progressive Era thinking.