So You Want to Fix Your City

A contemporary review of The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s biographical masterpiece.

Big City, USA, in 2019—where the traffic doesn’t move at rush hour, the roads are full of potholes, the mass transit is useless, and the schools and parks are overcrowded and falling apart—and despite all of that, the rent is still too damn high.

Some say the modern American city increasingly resembles one of those generic science-fiction dystopias, neatly divided into the privileged and the underclass, beholden to the whims of Amazon and Alphabet and other such faceless corporations. Well, screw that. It’s about time we fixed our cities so they started to work for us again. All we have to do is agree on our diagnosis and its proper cure—easy peasy, right?

I’ve heard a lot of ideas on how to give our cities a good government kick, ideas from property tax reform to zoning reform to congestion pricing to privatization. Most of them are just plain stupid, but a handful sound like they might work. You probably have a few ideas yourself (don’t worry, they’re some of the good ones—I promise.) That’s great, because we need more interested citizens like you. But before you rush off to moonlight as a civic activist, I’d like you to meet this interesting figure, a reformer who worked in New York City throughout much of the twentieth century.

His name is Robert Moses, and he will teach you some valuable lessons about how cities work.

I can picture you recoiling in horror. In today’s discourse, Robert Moses’ name is synonymous with everything wrong with the pre-Millennial city—freeways, car culture, urban renewal, Brutalism—akin to Exxon or Comcast, something we can all agree is bad. What is interesting about the Moses story, however, is that he didn’t start out that way.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Moses—fresh out of Oxford with a PhD in civil service—returned to a New York that was paralyzed and corrupt beyond belief, firmly under the thumb of greedy political machines like Tammany Hall. An idealistic young reformer and a hard worker, Moses wasn’t to be deterred by the scale of the problem. He joined a good government organization and set about fixing New York using the principles of civil service he learned at Oxford. First, Moses proposed consolidating the state’s various agencies into a handful of departments that would answer directly to the governor, which would give the executive branch the powers necessary to address modern social challenges such as immigration, poverty, and education.

But if you want to fix your city, it isn’t enough that your ideas are technically sound, backed up by science and facts. You can dream up as many arguments and plans as you fancy, but you need political power to accomplish real change. In a democracy, politicking is a far more potent weapon than merit.

Moses was certain that because his plan was scientific; proper; the “right thing” to do—that it would be speedily adopted and go on to become one of his crowning achievements. What actually happened is that the Albany political scene laughed off Moses’ civil service reforms, stymied his proposals, and crushed him like the powerless ant he was. Soon, the reform coalition was voted out of power, and Moses was out of a job.

If you want to fix your city, you will probably need to make deals; you will probably need to play games.

Moses swore to himself that the next time would be different. And it was. When he came to power again under Al Smith’s governorship, Moses began to modify his methods for politically expedient purposes—giving away patronage jobs here, engaging in quid pro quo there, writing some slanted editorials over there—and suddenly, Moses was able to make things happen. New York State was reorganized (mostly) along Moses’ lines, much to the delight of governor Smith, who was finally able to push through his new policies that would benefit the urban poor.

If you want to fix your city, you will sometimes be able to accomplish great things.

Once he had learned to acquire and use power, Moses turned his attention to New York City. He started with the parks. New York’s urban masses were starving for green space, for places to play; on weekends, the roads to the few public beaches on Long Island were jammed with families trying to make day trips. So, Moses dreamed up a grand solution: public beaches of immense scale, complete with parking lots and “parkways”—highways with landscaping and styled overpasses, a massive upgrade over the dirt roads that preceded them—that would allow thousands of New Yorkers to make weekend excursions. But Moses needed money and land—lots of money and land—and both were difficult to come by in a state dominated by stingy upstate Republicans and landed Long Island robber barons.

So, Moses applied lessons he learned from state politics: to get anything done, he needed power and leverage, and then he needed to use it. First, Moses invented the practice of “stake-driving,” intentionally low-balling the cost estimates he gave to legislators and brazenly building on private land before he had the rights to it. Once he had gotten construction started, gotten the “first stake” driven into the ground—no politician or judge dared to call off the entire project by refusing more funds or legal authority. Moses also brokered backroom deals with local jurisdictions, political bosses, and influential landowners to make sure they wouldn’t oppose his new parks.

If you want to fix your city, those great things will come at a price.

Moses got his beaches built, and the New York public and press cheered—but politics had wrung from Moses his pound of flesh. The parkways he built were not straight and direct, as he had imagined them years before, but curved—curved precisely in such a way as to avoid the properties of influential landowners, which necessitated many more miles of additional highway and nearly an hour of additional driving time. To this day, you can still see the “great bend” in the Northern State Parkway if you examine a Long Island road map.

If you want to fix your city, strive to be more enlightened than Moses. Listen to other perspectives. Realize that you may not have all the answers, and take heed when circumstances change.

By the time Moses turned his attention to housing and transportation, he was out of touch with the needs of a changing New York. For example, his “parkways” concept—envisioned in the ’20s, when automobiles were few and far between—assumed that motorists would mostly use the roads for leisure, to go sightseeing and to take the family out on trips. But that hadn’t been the primary purpose of the automobile for a very long time. With the automobile age in full swing, Americans were using cars to conduct just about every aspect of their lives—commuting; shopping; going to school; running errands. Hordes of drivers jammed Moses’ new parkways and expressways just as quickly as he could open them up.

(Not that Moses could have known. Instead of a driver’s license, he had a chauffeur, who drove him around in a soundproof, windowless limousine that doubled as an office.)

Regional planners urged Moses to try a different approach, to make some provisions for subway and commuter rail lines in the midst of his bridge and highway building spree. But Moses was holding all of the reins. He bullied and blacklisted his critics until they stopped criticizing him in public. He thought he had all the answers, and he wasn’t listening to what anybody else had to say.

If you want to fix your city, beware of being blinded by your success.

Moses had a strict definition of “the public,” one that did not include people of color or people of limited means. He may have moved his parkways many miles to preserve the privacy of Long Island’s robber barons, but he refused to move them a single mile to save the family farms his parkways did end up destroying. And most infamously, he intentionally built the bridges on his parkways too low for buses so that public transportation could not use them to reach his beaches.

Moses spited the poor for the rest of his career. He showered parks and playgrounds on the entirety of New York City—everywhere except Harlem, to which he doled out very few, all of them crappy. He built housing and public works for the middle class and the rich, but he showed no concern for the powerless people he was displacing, whom he hounded out of their homes with baseless eviction notices. Then he leveled neighborhoods to build freeways and left New York’s subways and commuter trains to rot, condemning the entire region to perpetual traffic congestion.

By the ’60s, the human costs of Moses’ projects were becoming increasingly clear, and much public backlash was brewing. Having lost his reputation as a miracle-working public servant, Moses was finally fired by New York’s elected representatives. But if Robert Moses ended his career as a villain, he didn’t see exactly himself that way—having built so many parks, monuments, bridges, housing projects, and highways, Moses was incredulous that New York wasn’t worshiping the very ground he walked on.

Up until the very end, Moses believed that if he had had the chance to build a few more suspension bridges; a few more expressways; a few more urban renewal projects—that he would have solved the traffic and housing problems that were still plaguing the city. He had spent a mind-boggling amount of city, state, and federal resources on his failed housing and transportation policies, but his answer to any and all criticism was to—damn it—just build more.

Our cities have changed considerably since 1974, the year Robert Caro published The Power Broker. The “inner city” back then? White flight; crime and chaos; a New York teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. The inner city now? The return to the city; the creative class; smart growth planning—and gentrification and displacement. “Inner city” has become a synonym for “cool.” Ghettos begat rap which begat yuppies which begat condos.

We’ve learned from the Moses-esque planning tragedies of the past, or so we like to assure ourselves. After all, in the year 2019, cities aren’t tearing down homes to build freeways anymore (not most cities, anyway). We say that our cities are nicer and more humane now, because we’ve swapped elevated highways, Levittown, and Le Corbusier for streetcars, painted bike lanes, and accessory dwelling units. Metropolis has been saved; Superman can go home and rest easy—right, gang?

Actually, the lesson to be learned from The Power Broker is not so much that Moses’ freeways and suburbs make bad architecture, or that Jane Jacobs was a hero for stopping Moses’ Lower Manhattan Expressway (Robert Caro cut a chapter about her, much to the chagrin of his city-loving critics—but in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t really necessary). Interpreting The Power Broker as an argument for New Urbanism would miss the point entirely. The book is about Moses’ means, not his ends. It is, in Caro’s own words, a “study of power in cities.”

Cities are not systems you can engineer according to a precise set of principles, but spontaneous agglomerations of people, and people can be shockingly selfish and power-hungry bastards. The New York that Caro portrays is unbelievably complex. It is a city full of ambitious, self-interested politicians; of ambitious, self-interested public authorities; of frauds and patronage hires; of sycophants and ideologues; of power brokers (not just Moses) who bent others to their wills; of honest reformers who either got something done or got hoodwinked. It is also a city shaped by the shifting winds of state, national, and even international politics; it was the Moses-backed Interstate Highway Act that funded the expressways, the United Nations that brokered a backroom deal for its headquarters. Once again, conditions change; power trumps policy—a fine argument for a sort of urban policy relativism if I’ve ever heard one.

You can’t help but wonder who holds power in our cities today. Is it power brokers like Moses, or a new kind of crowd? Is it tax-capped property owners and baby-boomer landlords, or corporate developers and tech conglomerates? Has city governance really improved with our urban architecture, or are the poor and powerless still getting screwed? After all, the post-Moses urban renaissance hasn’t exactly turned out to be the rising tide that lifts all boats.

I’ll venture a bit further. Can you think of another urban reform movement that has failed utterly in solving the challenges it aims to address; that insulates itself from criticism with the mantra of “build, baby, build”; that sees cities as neat and tidy equations to solve, as uniform canvases to draw dreams on top of; that overlooks the power of—well, power—and larger, structural forces at play?

Okay, I’ll stop there, lest this review ramble on for too long.

What are we to conclude from Caro’s horrifying, shocking, awe-inspiring look inside the machinations of urban politics? That all reformers are doomed to betray their younger, purer selves by walking a path of “getting things done” that leads inexorably to arrogance and corruption? Perhaps so, but it would be remiss of me to summarize The Power Broker without mentioning the many people who did dare to defy Moses, reformers who—had they been in a better position to challenge Moses’ power—could have brightened some of the darker chapters of New York’s twentieth century history.

Caro’s masterpiece invites us to look at the problem of governing a city—clear away the subterfuge, the drama, and the pretentiousness of “objective” policy—and reduce the impossibly complex task to the time-honored push and pull of political movements and counter-movements. Who is to say which one of us will topple the Moseses of today, tomorrow? The conversation continues.