On Reading “The Power Broker,” Part 6

The Lust for Power

It took me months to read this 330+ page section — the size of a small book. The size, however, was not the problem. The trouble was the dismay, anger and sadness I felt, page after page, as Moses — seemingly all powerful — plundered New York and pushed through project after project that would forever change the face of the city — and shatter the lives of millions.

The Destruction that Led to the Creation of the Cross-Bronx Expressway. See Chapter 36–38 below.

Up to this point in my writing on “The Power Broker,” I have provided a chapter by chapter review. It would actually be too painful (and exhausting) to revisit the 11 chapters in such detail. I will try to render the despair of each chapter in sparing detail:

29, “And When the Last Law Was Down”: Only the intercession of the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, after a bruising city battle, was able to stop Moses from destroying historic Battery Park for a Battery Bridge (instead of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel).

30. Revenge: The chapter begins, “In victory, Robert Moses had proved himself savage. In defeat, he was to prove himself more savage still” (678). Reformers had succeeded in preserving Battery Park. Moses response was to tear down the Battery fort and aquarium that reformers had held dear.

31. Monopoly: Moses secured powers over the Tunnel Authority, further adding to the riches and power of the Triborough Authority.

32. Quid Pro Quo: This brief chapter recounts the death of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia from cancer. The popular mayor, the “Little Flower,” knew that the city would now be in the hands of Moses. “I could control him,” La Guardia said, “Now no one will be able to control him” (702).

33. Leading Out the Regiment: With World War II coming to an end, the federal government was investing billions of dollars in cities. Too, with the war over, men back to work and the era of the automobile rising, Moses’ authorities gathered more money and power than ever before. The chapter ends: “He was the supreme power broker” (754).

34. Moses and the Mayors: New York has a long history of mayors, famous and infamous. After La Guardia, the city elected William O’Dwyer, Vincent Impellitteri and Robert Wagner. The chapter concludes: “Under Wagner, as under O’Dwyer and Impellitteri, not the Mayor but Moses shaped the city” (806).

35. “RM”: Caro describes the physical vitality, driven personality, egotism and pure power of the man who was 60 years old in 1948 and still going strong years later. Moses enjoyed showcasing his power. He entertained lavishly at Triborough’s headquarters on Randall’s Island and Jones Beach. Everyone could have a chauffeur. Everyone could eat and drink the best available. Pampered and insulated from everyday life, Moses made decisions that affected people who actually lived everyday life.

36. The Meat Ax: Moses had circled New York City with highways and bridges. He began now to cut roads through the city. Moses spent billions of dollars and ruined hundreds of thousands of lives with 13 expressways, including the Cross-Bronx Expressway, “rammed across New York City” (843). The scale, the power and the indifference to the suffering of others are staggering. Says Caro: “He didn’t just feel that he had to swing a meat ax. He loved to swing it” (849).

37. One Mile: Caro devotes one chapter to the huge, social, personal and economic disruptions of one mile of the Cross-Bronx Expressway. No mayor, no community organization, no protests could deter Moses. “The only consideration that mattered was Robert Moses’ will. He had the power to impose it on New York” (878).

38. One Mile (Afterward): The people “who had found in that neighborhood security, roots, friendship, a community that provided an anchor” — had their lives ruined so Moses’ project could proceed.

39. The Highwayman: Inevitably, the highways that Moses built became jammed with cars. City planners called for mass transit. Moses called for more highways — and Moses had the power. Current highways would be expanded. New “expressways” were proposed. No light rail was funded.

40. Point of No Return: Caro describes the growth of Long Island (where I grew up). People had high-paying jobs in New York City and beautiful homes on Long Island. But their lives were marked by hellish commutes — by car or antiquated trains. Caro notes, “Just laying two rapid transit tracks down the expressway’s center mall would have done the job” (941). RM made no money from, had no interest in and would not allow light transit.

The huge section ends on that note. Only the facing page gives the reader hope: Section VII: The Loss of Power. I was to read this section hungrily.

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