In the Footsteps of
Roadtripping across the bridges, highways, and parks of America’s most controversial urban planner
“I anthropomorphize for living,” I sometimes say to strangers, with what I hope is the right amount of self-conscious humor. But there’s a grain of truth in every joke. Sometimes I suspect that even though I’m a designer and swear by my intentions to focus on people, my motives are not so clear. That my true allegiance sometimes runs retrograde, and in some of the many skirmishes between People and Machines I am secretly supporting the other side. I take photographs of old computers, joke about vacations in Detroit, give tours at the Computer History Museum, speak about technology pioneers, and annoy people with my stories about the rise and fall and rise of The High Line because I simply love technology. Everything else — my job title, my human-computer interaction degree, my everyday rants about badly kerned captions and awful smartphone interfaces — may be just an elaborate cover-up.
This is what was on my mind one chilly morning at the bank of Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island. I was standing close to the massive Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, admiring its gargantuan anchorages made out of 10 million cubic feet of concrete, its 700-foot towers shrouded in fog, and its curved decks shielding hundreds of thousands of vehicles a day from the frigid waters of the Narrows below.
To me, it wasn’t just a bridge. In the months before, I’d read about its beginnings, its history, its construction, and the people — the person — behind it.
Now I was there, watching the endless stream of cars headed towards and from Brooklyn in what to an outside observer would look exactly like awe. And maybe it was. It seems ridiculous to say something like this about an inanimate object, but I was glad, finally, to have met the bridge.
Damn. That didn’t take very long. This was the first stop of my little two-day road trip, and already I had joined the other side.
I will forever blame Amazon for never telling me about the book. Sure, the algorithm may have been corrupted by that one time a few years ago when my №1 recommended item was Girls gone wild on Blu-Ray — apparently just because I bought a few summer blockbusters in that format. That was not its crowning predictive moment. But this omission grated much more. After all, I had bought many other volumes about urban designers, New York history, city studies, people like Jane Jacobs fighting for cities to be more humane. And this was a book that’s been around for almost 40 years. A book that won a Pulitzer Prize. A book that felt like it was written for me.
But instead, I heard about it only earlier this year, on a random technology podcast. I ordered it straight away. At 1,200-plus pages it was a big commitment, but I was committed. I took that brick of a book — it was heavier than my laptop — all the way to Europe, angering TSA agents, turning pages in a cramped 737 as everyone else slept, eventually finishing it in a hotel room in the middle of the night, no matter the time, no matter the jet lag.
The book is called The Power Broker. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, and the first one that inspired a road trip. It’s a book about a guy named Robert Moses.
After the bridge, I headed East to Long Island via Belt Parkway (originally to be named Circumferential Parkway, until someone noticed that name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue) hugging Jamaica Bay, then took the scenic Southern State Parkway, winding through the island, eventually turning south towards the Wantagh State Parkway, and terminating at Jones Beach State Park.
Eighty years earlier, this park’s opening was Moses’ spectacular achievement and, at the onset of his career, it provided him with enough of the public’s goodwill to last until almost the end of his life.
It seemed deserved at the time. Robert Moses fought with the island’s robber barons who were controlling huge swaths of land and were unwilling to give any of it up. He was creative in his interpretation (and later, shaping) of various laws that allowed him to conceive of and build his impressive public works. He worked harder than anyone, and some of his methods from so many decades ago inspire even today. Among my favorite quotes from The Power Broker:
A third feature of Moses’ office was his desk. It wasn’t a desk but rather a large table. The reason was simple: Moses did not like to let problems pile up. If there was one on his desk, he wanted it disposed of immediately. Similarly, when he arrived at his desk in the morning, he disposed of the stacks, letter by letter, before he went on to anything else. Having a table instead of a desk was insurance that this procedure would be followed. Since a table has no drawers, there was no place to hide papers; there was no escape from a nagging problem or a difficult-to-answer letter except to get rid of it in one way or another. And there was another advantage: when your desk was a table, you could have conferences at it without even getting up.
This was during the dark years of the Depression, and Robert Moses not only got things done — he got them done quickly and he got them done well. He rose above politics, having only the public’s interest on his mind. But that wasn’t to last forever.
It was a miracle that the Jones Beach State Park was even constructed. But in his ambitions, Moses aimed much higher. From its opening in 1929 up until today, Jones Beach has been hailed as one of the most beautiful and impressive public parks in the world.
Even though I visited the cold and empty park before the summer, it impressed me in both its scope and relentless attention to detail. During the beach’s construction, not only did the entire swampy area need to be elevated from two feet to seventeen, but also millions of clumps of beach grass had to be planted — all by hand — to keep the sand in place. There were parking lots there for tens of thousands of cars (the first this size in America), and trashcans that looked like steamship funnels. There was a huge theater to entertain people, and the restrooms (called “comfort stations”) with more delightful signage dotting the perimeter. There were two gigantic bath houses, each capable of holding thousands of people, put together from Ohio sandstone and Barbizon brick, both imported at a huge expense. And, at the park’s geographical center, a 230-foot Venice-inspired campanile ingeniously hiding the water tower inside it.
Moses built more parks. Many more. I visited some of them, too, beautiful even drenched in rain and in off-season desolation; awesome in their breadth and ambition. I saw Sunken Meadow State Park, with its unique grass expanse below the level of the beach. I saw Heckscher State Park, for which Moses secured a last-minute quarter-billion-dollar donation from multi-millionaire August Heckscher. And I couldn’t skip the Robert Moses State Park, at the southern tip of Fire Island, connected through the eponymous Causeway — stunning and forlorn, just 50 miles away from the middle of Manhattan, but feeling like the end of the universe.
The Long Island parks alone would be an achievement of a lifetime. But Moses also built new parks and rebuilt older ones in Manhattan proper, and followed that by opening new zoos, swimming pools, hundreds of playgrounds, and beaches capable of holding a quarter million people each. When he ran out of land, he created it. Caro:
In his various landfill projects, he rammed bulkheads into the water, he filled in the land behind them with rocks and with earth, and on top of the fill he built parkways and parks so that not only the earth and the rock of the shorelines are his but the steel and the concrete of the parkways of that shoreline are his, too. (…) All New York City is only 322 square miles. He made twenty-five of those miles.
At the plentiful playground openings, children have been seen shouting “Five, six, seven, eight. Who do we appreciate? Robert Moses!” But the outspoken, energetic, decisive Moses grabbed headlines and good graces of many New Yorkers — not just kids.
And then, something went wrong with Robert Moses. Or maybe something was wrong all along — except it took us all a while to see it.
There’s a detail that goes unnoticed as you drive through Northern and Southern State Parkways in Long Island, unless someone points it out. Of the many ornate stone overpasses eliminating zero-grade crossings and ensuring a smooth, uninterrupted ride, most of them are only seven, eight, nine feet above ground. The reason for this has nothing to do with safety requirements or engineering limitations. What seems to be the common explanation is much more simple and devilishy transparent: Robert Moses asked to have them built this way so that trucks and buses wouldn’t be able to travel on them. What’s wrong with buses? Poor people ride buses. And Moses didn’t want poor people to crowd his beautiful parks.
Somewhere, while on Northern State Parkway, I drove through a small segment crossing the land that once belonged to James Roth. Roth, not a man of means, purchased a 49-acre piece of land in 1922 and during the next few years, worked hard with his family to remove the rocks, clear the area, and prepare it for farming. But soon afterwards, in 1927, Moses decided to condemn the middle part of the parcel for the planned parkway’s right of way, and wouldn’t budge — even though moving it four hundred feet south was enough to spare the land. Bisected by the parkway, the farm never recovered, and neither did its owner.
That story repeated itself over and over again while building this and further parkways; Moses would never alter his plans for working men, although there are many examples of him doing so under pressure from wealthier landowners.
Or, if you were to visit some of Moses’ public swimming pools back then, you’d notice the water being unbearably cold. “Well, they don’t like cold water and we’ve found that that helps,” said Moses. The swimming pools in Manhattan had the water heated up to seventy degrees, but not those in Harlem — and it’s easy to understand who Moses meant by them. Along the same lines, out of the impressive 255 playgrounds built in the 1930s alone, only one was located in Harlem.
This was just the beginning. Take the story of the Brooklyn–Battery Bridge. If you’re from New York, maybe you just did a double take. No, you read it right, bridge. Moses never cared much for a Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel. It didn’t matter that the plans were already drawn. It didn’t matter that tunnels allow more cars through in inclement weather. Moses didn’t care that the massive anchorages and approach roads for his bridge would destroy the peaceful Battery Park, a little oasis right next the Wall Street’s forest of skyscrapers — and forever alter New York’s beautiful skyline. It also mattered little that the tunnel would have been cheaper. What was important was that Robert Moses, used to grand ribbon-cutting ceremonies, did not like unimpressive, utilitarian tunnels very much, and he was not known for changing his mind.
All the power and connections that Moses amassed over the previous decades allowed him to stubbornly ignore the vocal opposition, and arbitrarily decide that it was a bridge that was going to be built. And a bridge almost got built.
It was a testament to Moses’ power that what it took was, literally, the decision of the U.S. president himself to veto the project.
The tunnel opened in 1950, but the defeated Moses exacted his revenge: he not only closed off Battery Park for years (under the pretense of tunnel digging being dangerous for the public), but also destroyed the park’s beloved New York Aquarium.
Moses had many other grandiose plans in store for New York. Fifth Avenue was to extend through Washington Square Park. Parking lots were to cut into Central Park. There were plans for more bridges and more expressways. Among them, Cross–Brooklyn Expressway, bisecting a thriving neighborhood; the elevated Mid-Manhattan Expressway along 30th Street that would cut through skyscrapers (including the Empire State Building) — and have others demolished; and the monumental Lower Manhattan Expressway, dividing Greenwich Village and what is now known as SoHo, leveling parts of those neighborhoods, displacing thousands of families and hundreds of local businesses.
The projects were planned and presented as “improvements,” in perfectly manicured brochures that obscured the terrifying toll they would put on the fabric of the city.
Fortunately, in the end, all of the above projects were halted due to the increasing opposition, lack of funds, and Moses’ loss of power at the end of his career. But in the decades before, Moses became exceedingly great at getting things done, and financing them from lucrative bridge and tunnel tolls. Many of his other projects — at times no matter the cost, opposition, even common sense — got built.
Here’s one example. On my way to Long Island parks, I drove through Gowanus Expressway, an elevated road that in 1941 cut through a lively neighborhood and destroyed it forever, solely because Moses unilaterally declared it a “slum” not worth saving. Writes Caro:
The construction of the Gowanus Parkway, laying a concrete slab on top of lively, bustling Third Avenue, buried the avenue in shadow, and when the parkway was completed, the avenue was cast forever into darkness, and gloom, and its bustle and life were forever gone. And through that shadow, down on the ten-lane surface road beneath the parkway, rumbled (from before dawn until after dark after the opening of Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel flooded the area with freight traffic) regiments, brigades, divisions of huge tractor-trailer trucks, engines gunning and backfiring, horns blasting, brakes screeching, so that a tape recording of Third Avenue at midday could have been used as the soundtrack for a movie of a George Patton tank column. And from above, from the parkway itself, came the continual surging, dull, surf-like roar, punctuated, of coure, by more backfires and blasts and screeches, of the cars passing overhead. Once Third Avenue had been friendly. Now it was frightening. (…) Once the avenue had been a place for people; Robert Moses had made it a place for cars.
Gowanus required forced evictions of some 1,300 families. Another project, Cross–Bronx Expressway — a staggeringly difficult engineering challenge that involved crossing 120 streets opened for traffic; nine surface, subterranean and elevated rail tracks; and hundreds of active water, sewer, and utility lines — came with an even more astonishing sticker price. It wasn’t just hundreds of millions of 1950s dollars spent over more than a decade, but also the destruction of hundreds of buildings, homes to tens of thousands of people — poor people forcibly displaced into soulless housing projects, or sometimes just asked to find themselves a new home. And the result? A seven-mile-long trench dug through the middle of the neighborhood, separating South Bronx from the rest of the city and jumpstarting its decline, culminating in the widely known arsons of the 1970s.
Even the early, vaunted and praised West Side Improvement project (“the finest single piece of large-scale planning since the original development of Central Park,” said Lewis Mumford, who later on became one of Moses’ fiercest critics), finished in 1937, covering a previously gritty, industrial area with a scenic parkway offering magnificent views of the Palisades, came with an unnecessary sacrifice. Instead of snaking around it, the road cut straight through the middle of Inwood Hill Park, the last natural park in Manhattan. Many other park ecosystems, for that matter, were also forever altered by the massive parking lots built by Moses to accommodate people driving to them.
Pick your favorite quasi-dictator in whatever field you’re familiar with — Steve Jobs in computing, David Fincher in Hollywood — and in his ferocity, drive, the scope of his vision and a parallel disregard for anything else but blind adherence to it, Robert Moses might put them all to shame.
Moses’ first official post was as a Park Commissioner. At the peak of his power, he held more state and city jobs — eleven more — from Triborough Bridge Authority chairman to the all-encompassing City Construction Coordinator. Many of those posts he created himself. His visions had always been spectacular, and soon Moses had a career that allowed them to come to fruition.
But dividing attention between twelve jobs takes its toll. There’s no more time for focusing on the kinds of details that made Jones Beach so intricately beautiful, no time for thinking things through, no time for second opinions. (One of Moses’ famous sayings was “Those who can, build. Those who can’t, criticize.”)
“Now Moses seemed less interested in building for the public than in simply building,” wrote Ric Burns years later. Over time, Moses became obsessed with power for the sake of power. He built an empire of various authorities who were held responsible to no one, and a comprehensive archive of files on people who could oppose him. He boasted “nothing I have ever done has been tinged with legality.” When facing opposition, he oftentimes simply started building, with the assumption that it would be easy to justify finishing up with money already spent and quarter-complete concrete or steel structures already protruding from the ground. (Most of the time, that strategy worked.)
In perhaps the ultimate of ironies, the man who built the first elevated “high ways,” perfected parkways, and invented expressways, didn’t even have a driver’s license.
He always travelled in a comfortable limousine that he turned into yet another office, forever oblivious to the world of traffic jams and road rage. He never had to pay a toll, pull over for speeding, encounter TRAFFIC MOVING WELL TO EXIT 15, STAY IN LINE, and many other signs polluting his “ribbon parks” — not to mention cars doing that far more literally.
Moses’ understanding of cars was forever frozen in time. Up until his death, he thought of them as people did in the 1910s — a rare privilege for the upper class, a leisure pastime to be enjoyed during the weekends. He designed his cities for cars, not for people. The landscaped riverfront highways and miles of asphalt cutting through parks were meant for the drivers, rather than pedestrians, to enjoy.
Another of Moses’ repeated misunderstandings: the simplistic assumption that adding roads reduces traffic — hence, the second deck opened five years later at the Verrazano, and new miles of expressways built alongside not-even-that-old miles of parkways. And, worst of all, complete negligence of public transport, necessary to balance out a healthy traffic ecosystem in a city this size.
And not just this city. Because while Moses’ vast power was limited to New York and its state, his influence far outreached it.
If you’ve ever been to San Francisco, you might have visited the Embarcadero Boulevard, curved right alongside the city’s waterfront, counting off its many piers. Somewhere along the way, the Embarcadero meets the city’s main artery, Market Street, and presiding over that intersection is the Ferry Building.
The building hosts many local food merchants inside, and frequent farmers markets outside. The whole surrounding area is a vibrant place. It’s filled with bikers and runners dodging families and tourists, and surrounded by palm trees and magnificent views: the under-appreciated Bay Bridge workhorse; the fractured Yerba Buena Island abruptly shooting into the sky; the absolutely flat, man-made Treasure Island next to it. And, if you turn around, a warm skyline with Coit Tower capping one of the city’s dozens of hills.
But exit the Ferry Building towards Market Street, cross one lane of the boulevard, wave to the tourists passing by in the vintage trolleys, and then walk a little bit to your right, perhaps stopping for a minute to watch a street drummer. If you’re paying attention, you will notice something on the ground, something reminding you that not so long ago none of this existed.
Just twenty years ago, in the place you’re standing right now, there was the noisy, gritty, elevated Embarcadero Freeway, casting a long shadow and separating people from the beautiful bay that Gaspar de Portolà fell in love with two centuries before.
That portion of the freeway was built in 1959 and faced opposition from day one. But even though it was a blight, hated by many within the city, it was deemed necessary. Where would the cars go otherwise? How would the local roads deal with the traffic?
What it took to get rid of it was, ultimately, forces of nature. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the city’s worst since 1906, damaged the freeway enough to shut it down. The predicted traffic jams and gridlock never materialized — in the absence of a major vehicular artery, people decided instead to walk, hop on a bike, or use buses or trams. The elevated viaducts were torn down within two years, and the area redeveloped over the next few, turning a sore spot into the city’s point of pride.
It is an appalling vision, standing there today and watching the outlines of the supports for the Embarcadero Freeway drawn on the sidewalk, to imagine it still being there, a concrete shawl suffocating the city. It is infinitely more petrifying to realize that the Embarcadero was just one part of a bigger plan of criss-crossing the city with ten freeways, looming over houses and people, separating neighborhoods, creating noise and pollution.
To those familiar with the city’s layout, just reading through the proposed names and what they implied — Golden Gate Freeway, Panhandle Freeway, Park Presidio Freeway, Crosstown Freeway, Mission Freeway — might be enough to send shivers down their spine.
Not just freeways, either. Many engineering 1950–60s plans for San Francisco’s road infrastructure are terrifying exercises in solely throwing more concrete at traffic problems actual and imagined: one more deck on the Golden Gate Bridge; a second, parallel Bay Bridge; elevated and double-decked U.S. 101 throughout the entire Silicon Valley; Yerba Buena Island turned into a huge traffic rotary connecting no fewer than four bridges, and “superfreeways,” invasive incisions designed for an 80mph speed limit and interchanges only 5 to 10 miles apart.
Fortunately, none of those were ever constructed. Other cities, however — many cities — were less lucky. Among them, Seattle with its shore obscured by the Alaskan Way Viaduct, New Orleans’s Claiborne Avenue and its old oak trees ripped out and replaced by Interstate 10 overpass, Boston cursed with “the other Green Monster” (the elevated Central Artery highway cutting through the city, also nicknamed “the largest parking lot in the world”), Portland with most of its Old Town razed for Harbor Drive expressway, and Detroit’s core ultimately destroyed by the network of highways allowing the residents to escape en masse to suburbia.
Many of those plans and initiatives were inspired by Robert Moses; many of the city planners would flock to the master builder and ask for advice, or just try to mirror his expansive visions for New York. The Interstate Highway System which forever reshaped America was also heavily influenced by Moses’ work and his visions of cities of highways and towers, devoted to cars prior, people second.
During my trip, I added one car to those masses. I drove over a few of Moses’ other bridges — some truly helping in bringing people together and reducing travel time, others built in a futile attempt to offload traffic from earlier bridges in the area (what happened instead was the car load on the older bridge quickly rising back to the original levels, and soon both being jammed with traffic). The Verrazano was his last, most impressive one. At the time of its creation in 1964, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.
But other Moses initiatives of that era were unmitigated disasters.
The housing projects he led were mired in corruption and resulted in superblocks filled with copies and copies of bland, slab-like towers constructed in places formerly bristling with life and personality. Through his actions (and inactions), New York lost Giants to San Francisco, and Dodgers to Los Angeles. The brutalist, ill-fitting New York Coliseum was an eyesore and was torn down in 2000 to make room for more humane and respectful buildings at Columbus Circle.
And then, there was the World’s Fair of 1964. Seeking even more power, Moses agreed to supervise the project to reprise the 1939 World’s Fair in the same location — the Flushing Meadows Park — and once again celebrate “Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe.”
Moses cared less about the fair and more about the park that could be improved as a result — he envisioned that “Central Park and a half” in Queens, a former garbage dump, to be his crowning achievement, his ultimate legacy, perhaps even bearing his name. But in his brusque, impertinent, megalomaniacal approach to managing the project, Moses alienated Bureau of International Expositions, many prospective countries, the press, and even the visitors, by refusing to build a midway with what he perceived to be games unworthy of the stature of the fair.
The result? The fair attracted only 70 percent of the expected crowds, and failed to earn enough money to repay its creditors. The Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, left rough and largely undeveloped, became just a pale shadow of Moses’ grandiose plans. Today, the iconic Unisphere with orbits of early NASA satellites, the rusting structures of the New York State Pavilion — all immortalized by Men in Black in 1997 — the hideous Terrace on the Park restaurant (a former heliport), and the names of the paths in the park remind of an outdated vision of the future, and of Moses’ most monumental failure.
Flushing Meadows was where I ended my first day. I decided to wrap the second one at Randall’s Island, a small body of land in between Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens. This provided a fitting, if depressing coda to my little adventure, and perhaps the best testament to the flaws of Moses’ vision for the city.
Randall’s Island (and its conjoined sibling, Ward Island) might be among the most intriguing of islands in the area full of intriguing islands. Once used for farming, throughout the 19th century it found its purpose in providing services for poor and troubled — at various times, it hosted an orphanage, a burial ground, an asylum, a hospital, a reform school, and a psychiatric center. Robert Moses, however, decided to turn it over to technology, and today Randall’s Island is not much more than a glorified foundation under the massive Triborough Bridge.
The bridge — or, actually, three bridges linked together with miles of elevated highways — was at its opening in 1936 a wholly astonishing feat of engineering, and one of the most impressive of Moses works. It linked the three boroughs using a giant “traffic machine” with an ingenious system of connections allowing the driver to go from any destination to another, the only stop being the toll booth in the middle.
But the beautiful, inspiring details of Moses’ early projects were never employed here. I found the bridges utilitarian, their design — please excuse the pun — pedestrian, and though the island had many playgrounds and sport fields, the massive concrete structures of inhumane scale were always around me. Even if I ran away from the shadows of bridge supports and shook off the claustrophobia of the bridges themselves, I could never escape the threatening noise of traffic, invisible and constant somewhere above me.
Of a few places in the world I’ve visited that felt uninviting — Los Angeles’s downtown, Pudong in China — this might have been the most alien. Through the Triborough Bridge, the island ceased to exist as a place for people, instead being assimilated into New York’s infrastructure. Even as my two-day solitary trip was nearing its end, after 36-odd hours of barely speaking to anyone and with the trusty camera, the rented Zipcar, and the GPS-equipped iPhone my only companions; even given my now decades of being obsessed with technology, I knew this was too steep a price.
And yet, I still envied Moses. Not his fame, recognition, or power; never elected by anyone, he held onto them for forty-four years, surviving in his office through five presidents, six governors, and five mayors—all in a democracy where the usual life-span of a public post is four, maybe eight years. (He was ousted from the last of his many jobs in 1968, finally outmaneuvered by governor Nelson Rockefeller — and died in 1981 at the age of 92.)
What I envied was the permanence of Moses’ creations. My work is, ultimately, rearranging little dots on computer screens — dots that technically don’t even exist. Moses’ structures, made of concrete, counted in thousands of tons and hundreds of miles, outlived him. And most of them will outlive all of us.
Even those most flawed, oppressive, and brutal still inspire awe individually and even more so as a complete system. They forever reshaped New York, Long Island, and many other places in America.
I stayed on Randall’s Island long after the sun set, thinking about it all, and eventually found some beauty in this desolate, inhumane place. I grabbed my tripod, pointed my camera to Manhattan, and with the shutter asked to take it easy, this is what we both saw:
Just like many of the engineering plans and brochures, the beauty of the photo was, however, an illusion. It didn’t capture the constant noise of traffic that enshrouded me. The magnificently lit buildings on the right side were nothing more than housing projects. The lens didn’t reach far enough to see East River Drive, another loud expressway separating people from water. (I used it to go back to the hotel; it was the most scary and unpleasant driving experience in Manhattan.) And I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was an accident, an omission; that if Robert Moses were around, he would find a way to turn it all into yet another bridge, or freeway, or a parking lot.
Just as with prior hopeful Moses biographers, Robert Caro found a lot of opposition in writing his book. He spent seven years researching The Power Broker, starting with people farther away from Moses’ circles, and slowly zeroing in on that tragic power figure. Eventually, he got to interview the master builder himself during the last year of his waning power. Moses greeted Caro with, “So you’re the young fellow who thinks he’s going to write a book about me,” and their consequent few shared moments are all similarly lopsided and similarly fascinating:
[Moses] walked out onto the deck facing the park and Fire Island, gesturing to me to come with him, and, standing there, pointing at Fire Island, he began to explain that the twenty miles of road on Fire Island was an integral part of something much bigger: a great Shorefront Drive, all the way from Staten Island to Montauk Point — a distance of a hundred and sixty miles — which he had planned in 1924. Parts of that drive — expressways on Staten Island, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the Belt Parkway, in Brooklyn, the Ocean Parkway along Jones Beach — were already built, but there were still gaps, including that gap on Fire Island.
And then Robert Moses saw that I still wasn’t agreeing, and he whirled on me. Suddenly you forgot the paunch and the liver spots. All you could see were those eyes. He grabbed my right arm above the elbow. To this day, I can feel the grip of those fingers as Robert Moses, shoving his face close to mine and glaring at me, said, “Can’t you see there ought to be a road there?” Driving home that night, I realized that when Robert Moses was looking out the window at the bridge and the park he hadn’t been thinking about them — about the things he had built.
He had been thinking about the things he hadn’t built.
“Life writes the best stories,” it’s been said many times before, and Moses’ life is a gripping tale of dreams, ambition, achievement, and corruption. But the saying would deny Caro the bulk of his own achievement — only the sliver of that tale was there to be picked up, and there were many ways to tell it.
The research in The Power Broker is meticulous, and the page count rivaling the scope of Moses’ plans (even with its final 1,200 pages, the book was cut for publication; the original weighed in at about one million words, but only 700,000 survived the editing process). And yet, the volume is the opposite of dry. It’s a read at times painfully riveting, epic in scope, filled with many human stories of most fascinating characters and their most fascinating creations in the most fascinating of cities; a tight, book-spanning arc holding everything together; a mournful, sad ending; all told in sublime, graceful prose.
The very moment Caro started asking hard questions, Moses withdrew and cancelled all future interviews. But, as befits great biographers, they weren’t necessary; Caro in the end still shed a lot of light on Moses’ personality and motivations, understanding the master builder much better than he understood himself. And he breathed life into some of New York’s objects and structures I have known for a long time, and some others I now want to get to know as soon as possible.
Among my favorite passages is this one, talking about Battery Park, an immediate throwback to New York circa 1939:
Step into Battery Park and suddenly — remarkably suddenly — the city was all behind you. Walk down one of its winding paths (for its paths were winding then) under the leaves of the big old trees that lined them (for they were lined with big old trees then) and the clamor of the traffic-jammed streets of Lower Manhattan faded away so quickly that within a hundred paces only an occasional particularly strident car horn remained as a reminder of what you had just escaped.
Sit down on one of the benches under the trees and what you heard first was mostly quiet, as if your ears had become so attuned to the din you had left that for a minute or two they couldn’t register more subtle sounds. But then you began to hear the sparrows and the orioles, and the harsh faraway scream of some sea bird. You began to notice the flutter of a waxwing from tree to tree, the soft swoop swoop of gulls across the high sky.
If, sitting there, you looked back at the tall buildings behind you, you saw them through leaves, and they didn’t look so tall. They seemed, in fact, rather far away. Only a few steps out of the sunless streets, you had found sunlight. Only a few steps out of their colorless walls, you had found green lawns. Only a few steps out of their tumult, you had found peace.
Reading passages like this was what made me want to experience some of those places myself. No matter how much I’d want to anthropomorphize them, neither Battery Park nor the Verrazano — nor, for that matter, Throgs Neck Bridge, Meadowbrook State Parkway, Atlantic Avenue, West Street, or any other place and structure I’ve visited during those two days — could ever talk to me and answer my questions. But from the book, and from random on-the-go searches (I can see how people travelled before Google Maps; I don’t understand how people travelled before Wikipedia), I learned some of their intimate secrets. I knew what they could have been. I remembered how they were originally named. I knew how they came to be and what they cost. I saw their current utility, but also imagined the city and the state without them: water passages uncrossed, meadows unpaved, communities undivided.
And I knew who stood behind them all. I got to meet Robert Moses at his best, using his hard-earned power to carve out large parts of Long Island to hand it off to millions of New Yorkers to enjoy forever. And I got to see Moses at his worst, evicting tens of thousands of impoverished families just to build one more expressway through a street, a neighborhood, a city whose need for more roads was never a necessity — just an exaggerated, self-fulfilling illusion.
My own legacy will never be so vast, so influential, so long-lasting, but also never as hard to undo as Moses’ bridges and expressways. Today, we’re still fighting over his output. The numbers and statistics are easy to come by and thoroughly impressive: 627 miles of arterial highways, 2.5 millions of acres of parks, 17 miles of beaches, twelve bridges, 658 playgrounds, 140 billions in today’s dollars spent on steel and concrete, zero investment in public transport, 170,000 estimated evictions — but it’s their real meaning that makes us pause.
There was no single bridge, and scant few miles of roads built in New York since Moses lost his power in 1968. Were those that he built necessary? (The first ever highway, at New York’s West Side, met a poetic end — part of it collapsed in 1973 under the weight of a… truck transporting cement to fix the West Side Highway itself. The elevated structure was eventually torn down.) Or would the city break down in the years to come without the infrastructure Moses put in place? What would happen if he built everything he wanted to? Today, New York is thinking of turning Gowanus Expressway into a tunnel and opening up the waterfront to Brooklynites, the same way Boston got rid of its elevated freeway with the interminable Big Dig project — but can you imagine the gridlocked, asphyxiated Manhattan without the Triborough Bridge or the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel?
Somewhere within the pages of The Power Broker, within the concrete anchorages of the Verrazano I admired that first morning, within the traffic jams on Long Island Expressway I drove into on purpose, within every mile of San Francisco’s Embarcadero I bike every weekend, within every hour spent in a café on Octavia Boulevard, now free of the shadow of the Central Freeway, lies the entire story of our understanding and misunderstanding of cities, of the way we shaped them and they shaped us, and of our complicated and evolving relationship with automobiles. Somewhere, too, there are enthralling or terrifying alternate histories of thriving Detroits never selling their souls to the car industry — and dying New Yorks and San Franciscos having done so, deserted by people, gutted by miles and miles of widened roads, elevated highways, and the unluckiest cloverleaves made of out concrete.
Only a fraction of Moses’ vision for New York and cities in general materialized. Perhaps a fraction was all that we needed.
Fortunately for us, our future and Moses’ ideas diverged; we no longer believe that “cities are created by and for traffic.” Unfortunately, some cities had to be created by and for traffic in order for us to understand that. The fact that New York and San Francisco — perhaps my favorite two in the world — escaped that destiny, I count as my personal blessing.
During those two days in May, I photographed many of the bridges — sometimes while parked, let’s just say, slightly less than legally. I trespassed at Fort Wadsworth with a suspiciously large lens, just to get a better view of the Verrazano. I drove, very briefly, 140 miles per hour through the empty Ocean Parkway to see if I could enjoy driving the way Moses must have imagined people enjoying driving (those were, of course, the only “footsteps” of Moses that there were to follow).
I never got into any trouble.
It was only when I tried, during that last hour of my trip, to take a photo of the Triborough Bridge Authority on Randall’s Island — the little, unimpressive, art deco office building where Robert Moses spent most of his time — that I was approached by the security guard, asking me to stop and leave immediately.
It was as if Moses was still there, standing in front of a map, pencil in his hand, the city his canvas, planning his next ambitious project.
Written in New York and San Francisco, June–September 2012.