The Power Broker (Modern Library Nonfiction #92)

(This is the ninth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The American Political Tradition.)

mlnf92Sunset Park is a cozy part of Brooklyn trilling with children making midday escapes from big brick schools, with a few old factories that wail great threnodies whenever the moon winks a ditty about displaced residents on a cloudy night. There are robust workers and tight-knit families and bahn mi bistros and bustling bakeries from which one can savor the tantalizing nectar of glorious Spanish gossip squeezing into the streets. If you are tipsy after too many pints at the Irish pubs lining the southwestern fringe, there are 24 hour donut shops serving as makeshift diners, with loquacious jacks cooking up chorizo hash for any hungry ghost in a fix.

This is the region, along with East New York and Flatlands and Bensonhurst, where Brooklyn’s true soul still shines. It remains insulated from the Williamsburg hipsters oblivious to the high rise monstrosities now being hoisted near the East River or the yuppies who cleave to Park Slope’s gluten-free stroller war zone like children keeping to the shallow end of the pool. But the motley banter rivals the bright babble bubbling five miles east in Ditmas Park and even the chatty ripples that percolate just two miles south in Bay Ridge. In Sunset Park, you can pluck the city’s most enormous plantains from bold bodega bins bulging with promise, talk to the last honest bartender at Brooklyn’s best bowling alley, or walk beneath a Buddhist temple for some of the finest vegetarian Chinese grub in the region. It is a place of repose. It is a place of fun. It is a place to live.

Yet as great and as welcoming and as improbably enduring as this part of Brooklyn is, it could have been bigger. And for a long time, it was. Until Robert Moses came along.

There are many grim tales contained within Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker — an alarmingly large and exquisitely gripping and undeniably great and insanely obsessive masterpiece of journalism documenting the most ruthless urban planner that New York, and possibly America, has ever known. If you love New York City even one tenth as much as I do, you will find many reasons to shout obscenities out your window after reading about what Robert Moses did to this mighty metropolis. It was Moses who killed off the free aquarium, open to all, that once stood in Battery Park. It was Moses who pitted reliable mass transit lines serving regular Janes and Joes against highways designed solely for those who had the shekels to buy and upkeep a car. It was Moses who believed African-Americans to be “dirty” and who, in building Riverside Park, stiffed the Harlem section of playgrounds (seventeen in the West Side; one in Harlem) and football fields (five to one). Moses was so casually racist that most of the parks he built, the parks that secured his popularity, served white middle-class New Yorkers. But working-class families needed these parks more and were often reduced to opening a fire hydrant in the streets and playing in the gutter during a hot summer.

Not a single person in power will ever change the Manhattan skyline in the irreversible way that Moses did. Robert Moses had massive ambition, savvy savagery, limitless arrogance and energy, improbably large coffers that he willed together through a bridge bond ploy, a panache for grabbing and holding onto power, and a sick talent for persuading some of the most powerful figures of the 20th century to sign crooked agreements and/or get steamrolled into deals that screwed them over in quite profound ways.


For me, one of the acts that sums Moses up is the way in which he ripped out a major part of Sunset Park’s soul by erecting the Gowanus Expressway above Third Avenue. This is a toxic concrete barrier that still remains as cold and as gray and as unwelcoming as the bleakest rainstorm in December. To this very day, you can still hear the Belt Parkway’s thundering traffic as far away as Sixth Avenue. During a recent walk along Third Avenue on a somewhat chilly afternoon, I surveyed Moses’s handiwork and was nearly mowed down by a minivan barreling out of Costco, its back bulging with wasteful mass-produced goods, as a mad staccato honk pierced my ears with a motive that felt vaguely murderous.

Robert Moses wanted to make New York a city for automobiles, even though he never learned how to drive. And in some of the neighborhoods where his blots against natural urban life remain, his dogged legacy against regular people still persists.


(Source: The Gowanus Improvement: November 1, 1941 / The Triborough Bridge Authority)

Sunset Park’s residents had begged Moses to build the expressway over Second Avenue. This was closer to the water and the industrial din and might have preserved the many small businesses and happy homes that once punctuated Third Avenue’s happy line. But Moses, citing the recently opened subway that now serves the D, N, and R underneath Fourth Avenue and the available support beams from the soon-to-be-demolished El, was determined to raise a freeway on Third Avenue that he claimed was much cheaper, even though the engineers who weren’t on Moses’s payroll had observed that one mere mile of freeway looping back to the shore wouldn’t substantially reduce the cost. But Moses had fought barons before and had made a few curving compromises while constructing the Northern State Parkway. Armed with the power of eminent domain and a formidable administrative power in which bulldozers and blockades could be summoned against opponents almost as fast as a modern day Seamless delivery, Moses was not about to see his vision vitiated. And if that meant calling the good parts of Sunset Park a “slum,” which it wasn’t, or spouting off any number of lies or threats to destroy perfectly respectable working class neighborhoods, then he’d do it.

As documented by Caro, the Gowanus stretched a raised subway line’s harmless Venetian-blind shadow into a dirty expanse that was nearly two and a half times as wide, wider than a football field and twice as onyx. The traffic lights were so swiftly timed that one had to be a running back to sprint beneath the smog-choking blackness to the other side of the street. The condensation from the steel pillars created such a relentless dripping that it transformed this once sunny thoroughfare into a dirt-clogged river Styx for cars. The cost was seven movie theaters, dozens of restaurants, endless mom and pop stores, butcher shops that raffled Christmas turkeys, and tidy affordable apartments — all shuttered. Moses did not plan for the increased industrial traffic that sprinkled into Sunset Park’s streets, just as he hadn’t for his many other freeways and bridges. Garbage and rats accumulated in the surrounding lots. There was violence and drugs and gang wars. The traffic tightened and slowed to a crawl, demanding more roads, more buildings to gut, more more neighborhoods to disrupt for the worse.


Who was this man? And why was he so determined to assert his will? He fancied himself New York’s answer to Georges-Eugène Haussmann (even reusing a doughnut-shaped building for the 1964 World’s Fair that the Parisian planner himself had put together in 1867), yet didn’t begin to earn a dime for his tyranny until his forties. (He lived off his family’s money and secured early planning jobs by declining a salary.) He thought himself a poet (not an especially good one), but if he had any potential prose style, it turned sour and hard and technocratic by the time he hit Oxford and received his doctorate at Columbia. He worked seemingly every hour of the day and took endless walks, memorizing the precise points where he would later build big parks and tennis courts. And he loved to swim, taking broad strokes well beyond the shores in his sixties and seventies with an endurance and strength that crushed men who were two decades younger. Small wonder that Moses gave the city so many public pools.

After I finished reading The Power Broker, I wanted to know more. I found myself plunging into the collected works of Jane Jacobs (Jacobs’s successful battle to save Washington Square Park was left out by Caro due to the enormity of The Power Broker‘s original manuscript), as well as Anthony Flint’s excellent volume Wrestling with Moses (documenting the battles between Moses and Jacobs), an extremely useful volume edited by Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson called Robert Moses and the Modern City that may be the best overview of every Moses project (and attempts, not entirely successfully, to refute some of Caro’s claims), as well as a wonderful graphic novel from Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez (Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City) which I recommend for anyone who doesn’t have enough time to read Caro’s 1,200 page biography written in very small print (although you really should read it).

I wanted to know how a man like Moses could operate so long without too many challenging him. His behavior often resembled a spoiled infant braying for his binky. When faced by an authority figure, Moses would often threaten to resign from a position until he got his way. Moses used this tactic so frequently that Mayor La Guardia once sent him a note reading, “Enclosed are your last five or six resignations; I’m starting a new file,” followed by city corporation counsel Paul Windels creating a pad of forms reading “I, Robert Moses, do hereby resign as _______ effective __________,” which further infuriated Moses.

The answer, of course, was through money and influence that Moses had raised through a bridge bond scheme floated through the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, with Moses as Chairman:

Moses wanted banks to be so anxious to purchase Triborough bonds that they would use all of their immense power to force elected officials to give his public works proposals the approval that would result in their issuance. So although the safety of the banks’ money was already amply assured by Triborough’s current earnings (so great that each year the Authority collected far more money than it spent), by the irrevocable covenants guaranteeing that tolls could never be removed without the bondholders’ consent, and by Triborough’s monopoly, also irrevocable, that guaranteed them that if any future intracity water crossing were built, they would share in its tolls, too, Moses provided them with additional assurances. He maintained huge cash reserves — “Fantastic,” says Jackson Phillips, director of municipal research for Dun and Bradstreet; “the last time I looked they had ten years’ interest on reserve” — and when he floated the Verrazano bonds he agreed to lay aside — in addition to the existing reserves! — 15 percent ($45,000,000) of the cash he received for the new bond issue, and not touch it until the bridge was open and operating five years later. Purchasers of the Verrazano bonds could be all but certain that they could collect their interest every year even if the bridge never collected a single toll. Small wonder that Phillips says, “Triborough’s are just about the best bonds there are.” Wall Streeters may believe that “any investment is a bet,” but Robert Moses was certainly running the safest game in town.

In other words, Moses pulled off one of the most sinister financial games in New York history. The Triborough Authority could not only collect tolls on its bridges and capitalize on these receipts by issuing revenue bonds, which would in turn generate considerable income for Moses to fund his many public works projects, but it was capable of spending more money than the City of New York. Which meant that the city often had to come crawling back to Moses. And if the city or the state wanted to audit the Triborough Authority, this operation was so incredibly complicated that it would require at least fifty accountants working full-time for a year in order to comprehend it. Government did not have this kind of money to place safeguards against Moses. Moreover, it needed Moses’s financial assistance in order to provide for the commonweal.

It wasn’t until 1968, when Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay put an end to these remarkable shenanigans by siphoning tolls into the newly created Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The bondholders might have sued over this. It was, after all, unconstitutional to uproot existing contractual obligations. But Rockefeller’s brother David happened to be the head of Chase Manhattan Bank. And Chase was the largest TBTA bondholder. In a glaring case of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” the Triborough Authority as puppet organization for Moses was finished. Moses was forced to abandon his role. And the man’s political hold on New York was effectively finished after four decades of relentless building and endless resignation threats.

It seemed a fitting end for a man who had maintained such a stranglehold over such a large area. Six years later, Robert Caro’s biography appeared. Moses wrote a 23 page response shortly after the book’s publication. Caro’s rebuttal was five paragraphs, concluding with this one:

It is slightly absurd (but typical of Robert Moses) to label as without documentation a book that has 83 solid pages of single-spaced, small-type notes and that is based on seven years of research, including 522 separate interviews.

Next Up: Ralph Ellison’s Shadow and Act!

The Great Urban Legacy of Jane Jacobs

by Peter L. Laurence
(University of Pennsylvania Press, 376 pages)

Washington Square, which was David Bowie’s favorite place in New York, remains one of the most peaceful congregation points in the city, open to all souls and hospitable to all classes. Its great marble arch spills a lambent glow on the many students, lovers, and artists who talk and love and perform beneath the leafy shadows. Skateboarders ollie around the magnificent fountain. Kids stage epic pillow fights and participate in vivacious lightsaber battles. Stanley Kubrick once played chess here. You will find a slightly grumpy musician hauling out his massive piano on the weekends, dutifully educating any and all receptive ears on classical music. Protesters have gathered here to redress this nation’s many ills. Beatniks (including future mayor Ed Koch) have played their guitars here, fighting valiantly through the ages against ignoble police crackdowns. The park is so naturally welcoming of outliers and oddballs that I have read aloud some of my strangest prose here many times, only to have smiling strangers accost me. “That’s the craziest shit I’ve ever heard,” said one man who gave me a five dollar bill last autumn. “Keep it up.”

Had it not been for Jane Jacobs, this magnificent monument to motley promise might have become just another concrete eyesore.

washingtonsquare plan

In 1952, the tyrannical urban planner Robert Moses hoped to bifurcate the park with a loud road carrying the bestial name of Lomex (short for the “Lower Manhattan Expressway”), operating under the theory that automobile traffic should not be impeded by anything so fanciful as regular people chilling out on a Saturday afternoon. Moses, as documented with extraordinary detail in Robert A. Caro’s excellent biography The Power Broker, believed that New York City should belong to the cars. He was one of the most feared and inflexible city administrators that New York has ever known. But Moses met his match on the Washington Square fight.1

A brave woman by the name of Shirley Hayes, whose great efforts have often been overlooked by some historians, created the Committee to Save Washington Square Park. Jacobs, who was busy raising a family and writing articles for Architectural Forum, received one of Hayes’s flyers and, immediately recognizing the threat to city life, joined Hayes’s committee, wrote to Mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri and Manhattan Borough President Robert Wagner, and vowed to do anything necessary to fight Moses. The two women bonded over their love of Greenwich Village. Jacobs was greatly impressed by Hayes’s refusal to compromise for a less obstructive roadway. Jacobs began talking with local shopkeepers and started to attend city meetings. And it soon became apparent that the only surefire way to save the park was to make the fight a full-time job.

Moses countered with a submerged four-lane roadway alternative, but the neighborhood had caught on quick to Moses’s wily ways. Hayes, Jacobs, and an activist named Edith Lyons were, by this time, bombarding City Hall with thousands of letters opposing this wanton destruction of a major public center. Using her connections, Jacobs persuaded Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead, Lewis Mumford, Charles Abrams, and William Whyte to join the cause. And because Jacobs was as masterful in administrative acumen as Moses, she broke down the efforts of saving Washington Square into manageable tasks, reminding all in the neighborhood that they must not give into Moses’s efforts to buy them out or compromise. She was also shrewd in humanizing the battle. She often brought her three children with her when persuading the locals to sign the petition.

desapioBy 1958, Moses’s narrower road proposal was being seriously considered by the City Planning Commission. The committee appealed to Carmine De Sapio, a slick Tammany Hall man who never seemed to leave home without his sunglasses. De Sapio was then serving as New York Secretary of State. He believed himself to be a soigné sophisticate, but he was on the downslide due to his mob connections, the city’s growing exhaustion with corruption, and his inveterate tendency to sell out judicial nominations. Nevertheless, this somewhat crooked politico was a man of the Village and was one of the rare people who could smoothly resist Moses’s manipulation. (As documented by Caro, De Sapio once turned down an offer from Moses to place all of the Triborough Authority’s insurance money with one of the firms that Mr. Sunglasses was associated with.) And De Sapio, for all of his faults, did feel very passionately about the park. He couldn’t say no to the activists standing outside City Hall with their twirling pink parasols reading PARKS ARE FOR PEOPLE.

Jacobs and the Committee celebrated their triumph. Moses, never a man to accept defeat without imperious implosion and aggressive paperwork, made a last-ditch effort to widen the streets around Washington Square Park. But by this time, the city had tired of the squabble and hoped to move forward. Moses resigned as parks commissioner, effectively scampering away after Jacobs and Hayes won what had seemed to be an unwinnable fight.

Jacobs’s work in preserving the park gave her the confidence she needed. In 1961, she published her tremendously influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Many of the conversations she had with Village residents, along with the information she soaked up while organizing the battle, led to invaluable observations about sidewalks, public life, city grids, the need for neighborhood diversity, and faith in everyday people to forge and evolve great cities. But Moses’s Lomex scheming was from over. In the 1960s, his plans to raze neighborhoods for massive expressways resurfaced. Jacobs would fight these efforts too, this time operating with a working treatise on how to keep cities fun and vivacious. She even wrote a protest song with Bob Dylan and got arrested in 1968 during a meeting.

* * *

One hundred years ago, Jane Butzner was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Very little is known about her early life. Despite becoming a highly visible figure who went out of her way to speak with the people who created a neighborhood, she was fiercely protective of her private life and was often baffled by anyone who was interested in it. What we do know is that her parents believed that cities were the center of human life. This likely set off Jacobs’s lifetime preoccupation with the effect that cities had on human life, which extended even to the ways in which cities imported and exported products (The Economy of Cities) and even their impact upon nearly all economic activity (Cities and the Wealth of Nations, a smart and often needlessly ignored rebuttal to Adam Smith).

Jacobs wanted to be a writer from a very young age and had pieces published in the Girl Scouts magazine, American Girl, in 1927. She read poetry when she was eleven and continued to write verse well into the mid-1950s, a creative approach that would later be seen in the fictitious city considered in The Economy of Cities, the dialogue drive of The Nature of Economies, and even a children’s book published in 1990 called The Girl in the Hat.

Jacobs long presented herself as a humble woman who just happened to get involved in a major metropolitan scuffle. But a new biography by Peter Laurence, Becoming Jane Jacobs, has cogently argued that Jacobs spent many of her early years honing her knowledge about cities. As a reporter at Amerika, she was nimble in her supervising and editing and quickly worked her way up to publications editor, free to write articles on any subject she learned. At Architectural Forum, she studied urban blight quite closely and proved to be as divergent in her views as her editor Douglas Haskell. Jacobs and Haskell forged a working relationship that was predicated on exploring the social consequences of building. Both were determined to fix problems fast rather than wait around for some shining idealistic model to shimmer into being. Laurence points to the remarkable environment of architectural criticism at the time. Architects regularly threatened any critic with libel. And this resulted in many writers pulling their punches. But Haskell, a quiet firebrand who coined the term “Googie architecture” and who had just received the okay to be more bold and outspoken from the lawyers, told Jacobs that it was okay to throw a few stones.

Jacobs began to critique schools, hospitals, and housing projects in 1952. Laurence, who scoured through the Haskell Papers at Columbia, reveals that Jacobs was not only exceptionally enthusiastic about her work, but determined to publish project reviews before anyone else:

I have a plot to try to get him to change his mind, which I hope works, and it would probably help if he got a note expressing interest in these other things — especially Trenton which we ought to get our hooks into soon if we want it.

pruitigoeLaurence also points to early conceptual kernels that later grow into promising husks for Death and Life‘s wide-ranging fields, such as Jacobs suggesting that a college library build a transparent ramp to create “eyes on the street” (echoing her call for street watchers and good lighting on sidewalks). Yet Jacobs also had to live with Forum‘s misguided legacy, such as an egregious 1951 article (“Slum Surgery in St. Louis,” written by another author) that praised the troubled Pruit-Igoe project. Jacobs never named the source of the article even as she railed against Le Corbusier’s tower-centric excess in her most celebrated book. Yet in these early days, Jacobs was not immune from casting aspersions about urban blight. Her March 1953 essay “New Thinking on Shopping Centers,” which Jacobs later regretted, dispensed platitudes about creating “blightproof neighborhoods” and “higher land values.” In 1955, Jacobs also viewed a Philadelphia redevelopment project steered by Louis Kahn as a ripe opportunity for unslumming.

Laurence’s invaluable excavation into Jacobs’s early thinking not only allows us to see a prototype for the clear urban models she was to develop through her activism and her writing, but, as we see Jacobs shed some of her less inclusive views about communities, the early thinking serves as a rebuttal to the kind of wildly misinterpreted absolutism spouted by hacky gasbags at Slate. It is certainly true that the New Urbanists who have followed Jacobs have often been white and affluent. Even as a young man walking around the Marina District of San Francisco, which was in the early noughties nowhere nearly as affluent as it is now, I felt deeply annoyed at how gentrification had aligned itself so neatly with many of Jacobs’s enticing ideas. But anyone who has actually studied Jacobs closely knows that she clearly wanted to plan a city for everyone:

In our American cities, we need all kinds of diversity, intricately mingled in mutual support. We need this so city life can work decently and constructively, and so the people of cities can sustain (and further develop) their society and civilization. Public and quasi-public bodies are responsible for some of the enterprises that make up city diversity — for instance, parks, museums, schools, most auditoriums, hospitals, some offices, some dwellings. However, most city diversity is the creation of incredible numbers of different people and different private organizations, with vastly differing ideas and purposes, planning and contriving outside the formal framework of public action. The main responsibility of city planning and design should be to develop — insofar as public policy and action can do — cities that are congenial places for this great range of unofficial plans, ideas and opportunities to flourish, along with the flourishing of the public enterprises. City districts will be economically and socially congenial places for diversity to generate itself and reach its best potential if the districts possess good mixtures of primary uses, frequent streets, a close-grained mingling of different ages in their buildings, and a high concentration of people.

And because Jacobs was more of a pragmatist than an idealist, Jacobs immediately followed up this passage from The Death and Life of Great American Cities with astute warnings on how diversity is prone to self-destruction (for any dimwitted skimmers banging out malarkey for Slate, that would mean gentrification), prescient caution about how the pursuit of profit for hot nightclubs and tourists “[undermined] the base of its own attraction, as disproportionate duplication and exaggeration of some single use always does in certain cities,” and a deep concern with the way building deprived localities of their diversity. Jacobs was well aware that sustaining a city required constant attention to these details, which was precisely the whole purpose of her final book Dark Age Ahead.

Jacobs’s Washington Square victory was a fight for one component of a neighborhood, not its entirety. And as we celebrate the one hundredth year of her great urban legacy — in an age when Uber and AirBnB have worked very hard to erode the very diversity that Jacobs was championing — her work is a vital reminder to be a part of our community in all its many forms. Our singular perspective is far from the only one.