Zack Friedman

Power and Democracy in Urban Planning


This spring, the composer Judd Greenstein and director Joshua Frankel announced their plans to produce an opera based on the 1960s struggle between urban planner Robert Moses and writer and activist Jane Jacobs over the planned Lower Manhattan Expressway. The story, as it has come down to us, is certainly operatic – community activists’ heroic stand for cities on the human scale against arrogant, top-down planning that would bulldoze neighborhoods to build huge highways. A coalition of ordinary people taking on the tyrant – what could be more dramatic?

Yet Jacobs and the expressway fight are almost entirely absent from Robert Caro’s The Power Broker (1974), the 1200-page tome that turned Moses into the archvillain of American urban history. 1It was no group of scrappy underdogs that brought down Robert Moses. Instead, Caro emphasizes, what it took to oust Moses was the super-rich. The Rockefellers, whom he credits for bringing about the downfall of Moses, are hardly heroes. But the story of the end of the Moses era clues in readers of The Power Broker that between the lines there is an alternate account of New York’s troubles and triumphs beyond the traditional narrative of an opposition between Jacobs-style community urbanism and Moses as master builder and destroyer.

The story of Moses’ fall tends to slip past readers of The Power Broker, perhaps because it comes over a thousand pages in. Moses had insulated himself from democratic accountability through the legal structuring of his power base, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. Triborough and the many other public authorities Moses headed were structured to evade oversight and work around the restrictions on their power. Prior to Moses, there had been few “public authorities” – governmental organizations resembling corporations but exempt from many of the regulations on both private and public entities. Crucially, they functioned like state agencies, having the power of eminent domain and regulatory authority within their territory, but were able to issue their own debt, like a corporation, and unlike government bodies, their records were private. For a skilled bill-drafter like Moses, their powers could be extended through legislative sleight-of-hand: authorities building highways and parks were given the power to build “connecting” roads, to facilitate “the use of the project” – in short, Caro claims, Moses arrogated the authority “to build any type of public facility he chose anywhere.”

Moses, in Caro’s telling, had a gift for taking institutions that seemed weak and innocuous and finding ways to transform them into sources of power. The secret to his reign was public authorities’ financing. Such authorities typically had been formed to construct a single project, and once the bonds that had been issued to finance that project were paid off, the authority would go out of existence and turn over its work to the appropriate state agency. Moses, however, noticed that toll revenue on the bridges was producing unexpectedly high surpluses. If instead of letting his authorities sunset, he could keep the money and float more bonds to back more projects, he could keep building. Caro writes:

Moses had what amounted almost to a horror of ceasing to build; of finishing a bridge, say, and then having nothing to do thereafter but keep it clean and collect tolls on it, of being forced, as he put it, “to be a caretaker, to have nothing to do but sit around and collect nickels and dimes for the rest of my life.” If an authority ceased to build, it would die; if all it did was collect tolls, the tolls would pay off its bonds and when the bonds were paid off it would have no choice but to go out of existence. Only by continually embarking on new projects—which would require new bond issues—could an authority remain viable.

The money involved made Moses a “power broker,” able to throw his weight around in backroom dealing and make himself an indispensable part of any governing coalition. He entrenched himself and built support for his projects by giving powerful banks especially attractive bond offerings, putting weight behind his public authorities’ independence. The construction projects on which Moses embarked also provided thousands of dependable jobs, uniting labor and finance in support of building whatever he asked.

Furthermore, an authority’s contracts with bondholders were, legally speaking, sacred. The bill-drafting skill that went into the design of public authorities like Triborough, in Caro’s telling, let Moses reign unchecked. He rebuffed challenges from upstarts like Mayor John Lindsay through ironclad contracts with bondholders, as ideas like using Triborough revenue to subsidize public transportation could be held to violate the contracts. “Not one of the brigade of lawyers striding so confidently through the corridors of City Hall appeared ever to have heard of bond covenants,” Caro said of the Lindsay administration’s failed scheme to bail out the subway system. The attempt to pry Moses out of his perch by folding his fiefdom into a regional transportation agency seemed to have failed.

But when Governor Nelson Rockefeller, for whom “independently wealthy” would be an understatement, stepped in, he had an essential ally. His brother David Rockefeller was president of Chase Bank – the largest holder of Triborough bonds. Not only that, but Chase was controlled by the Rockefeller family, making the bank unusually unsusceptible to outside influence. The Rockefellers’ real estate interests by that point were at odds with Moses’ transportation policies. And so the threat of a lawsuit on behalf of Triborough bondholders against the merger of the authority into the MTA – a lawsuit that Caro claims was quite winnable, and that would have kept Moses in power – was mysteriously dropped. Caro writes:

What was necessary to remove Robert Moses from power was a unique, singular concatenation of circumstances: that the Governor of New York be the one man uniquely beyond the reach of normal political influences, and that the trustee for Triborough’s bonds be a bank run by the Governor’s brother.

It is a dispiriting conclusion for a book that has often been read as a companion to Jacobs’ call for cities on the human scale.

At the same time, the claim that Moses was brought down by backroom dealing in the secretive realm of the powerful is consistent with Caro’s view of the world. His great theme is power, Caro announces – it’s there in the title, and in the subtitles of his equally great Lyndon Johnson books, and then again, in long paragraphs on the nature of power and its effects on the human soul as in punchy, tabloidesque sentence-long summations. He is not subtle. But his conception of power, while lending itself to some magnificent writing, falls prey to its own literariness. Caro is captivated by great men selling their souls, Faustian bargains and the Mephistophelean scent of sulfur. But the mundane workings of power, as seen in Moses’ dealings with New York’s competing players, suggest that Moses’ career is better explained through interest group pluralism.

The Power Broker is both a portrait of New York and how it came to look the way it did in the grim year of 1974 and a character study of Robert Moses, the one man who, Caro claims with reason, did more than any other person to determine the way the city ended up. Its portraits of New York’s political elite are memorable. Al Smith practically gets a biography of his own. Mayors including the domineering La Guardia, the hapless Vincent Impellitteri, and naïve John Lindsay are powerfully sketched. Figures from President Roosevelt to Lillian Edelstein, an East Tremont woman driven into quixotic opposition to the Cross Bronx Expressway being rammed through her neighborhood, share space. But the profusion of personalities undermines Caro’s indictment of specific policies.

Moses, in Caro’s telling, began as an idealist committed to public service reform. Though the arrogance and disregard for others were always there—questionably linked to the haughty, imperious figures on the maternal line of the German-Jewish elite family tree—Moses applied himself to civic governance in line with progressive ideals of efficiency and professionalism. But ascent required compromise. As power fell into his hands, Moses darkened.

Much of The Power Broker is written with a sense of awe at Moses’ achievements. In particular, the early parks are unqualified masterworks. Building Riverside Park atop an ash heap of railroad tracks and refuse was a visionary success. The creation of Jones Beach and other public works astound Caro – more immense than any previous beach, yet in no way cookie-cutter, Jones Beach is studded with intricate, thematically linked designs amidst the monolithic structures, all personally driven by Moses. With Moses at the helm, New York outpaced the rest of the country in creating parks, from upstate preserves to urban playgrounds.

At the same time, Moses realized that parks – yes, parks – could be a source of power. The money dispensed to construct parks could be used to form alliances and patronage networks, all while being politically untouchable – after all, who could be against parks? Moses, with the help of a friendly press corps disinclined to look too closely at his methods, built up the image of himself as the incorruptible friend of mothers and children, the man who gave the people of New York parks. Moses became a conduit of federal funding during the New Deal and grew his empire to include many of the seemingly innocuous departments into which money flowed. He learned a few tricks: if you put shovels in the ground, even if not everything had been signed and it wasn’t strictly legal, it became awfully hard to halt a project’s momentum – “Once you sink that first stake, they’ll never make you pull it up.” His successes were self-reinforcing: he was consistently able to procure funding for projects he could present as shovel-ready whether or not they were because of his record. He cajoled and he bullied, comfortable posing as a champion of the people to dispossess farmers on Long Island while pioneering McCarthyesque smears on anyone in his way. And quickly people knew to get out of his way.

Moses spent an astonishing four decades at the hub of New York’s hierarchies. He lost a few more battles than historical memory usually admits – in a premonition of his eventual downfall, it took a wartime order from President Roosevelt that concocted a fantastical threat to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to halt what would have likely been a disastrous, waterfront-destroying Brooklyn-Battery Bridge in favor of the tunnel. But even when he lost, he got his revenge. The men who got Roosevelt’s ear to prevent the bridge’s construction did so out of a mix of sentimental and practical reasons, both an attachment to the old New York of the Battery and the harbor and the value of Lower Manhattan real estate. To the “reformer-aristocrats” who sought to preserve the Manhattan of Hamilton and Melville, Castle Clinton, once a fort against British invasion and then the home of the New York Aquarium, had to be saved. But when they defeated the bridge, Moses, in a fit of pique, tried to knock down the fort, and when that was stopped, had the aquarium trucked off to Coney Island.

Caro depicts Moses as a Faustian figure. No, he is Faust: once idealistic, yet thwarted in any attempt to bring about reform, Moses makes a series of Mephistophelian compromises to attain power.2 In Caro’s telling, power is a highly addictive drug, and Moses entrenched himself deeper and deeper in the structures of governance to ensure his access to ever-higher quantities of it. Unable to rest even for a moment, for decades Moses reshaped the built environment of New York City and Long Island, building parks, pools, highways, and housing. His path was strewn with countless Baucises and Philemons—Caro says a conservative estimate shows that over 250,000 people, predominantly poor and of color, were displaced so Moses could build. He lost sight of the people for whom he supposedly built, constructing titanic concrete atrocities that carved up the city, replacing neighborhoods with endlessly jammed traffic.

Caro’s narrative succumbs to the temptation that befell Moses: The Power Broker wants to be a book that rivals the ambitions of Moses himself. Just as Moses plopped down monoliths, Caro builds up a behemoth. The book’s encyclopedic quality feels necessary to the scope of the charges, as if by its length it can do what a pamphlet or monograph could not. Only an unfinishable book could be commensurate with the damage Moses dealt, like a Book of Life in which everything of New York that Moses destroyed is inscribed. Moses’ Faustian ambitions could only be chronicled and damned on the epic scale. 2 Moses could not stop building, and Caro could not stop writing.

But Caro is also to blame for the mythic aura around Moses. The Power Broker is both a biography of one man and a book about urban planning, as seen in its accusatory subtitle, “Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.” Yet these two aspects hang together uncomfortably for one simple reason: while the shape of Moses’ career, his longevity and the number of offices he held, was unusual, his policies were not. Favoring the automobile, building monolithic parks and housing complexes—all were conventional wisdom. In fact, groups like the Regional Plan Association, which comes off fairly well in Caro’s account, proposed arterial highway networks that resembled the ones Moses built, as well as the ones he was stopped from building.

Caro’s fascination with Moses’ personality and methods obscures the fact that his goals were widely shared. For Caro, Moses’ highways were catastrophes both because of the undemocratic methods used to build them and their failure to efficiently solve the problems of transportation in New York. Caro would not concede that the ends could ever justify the means, but surely part of the problem was that by the drawing lines on a map era the ends he sought were of such limited value compared to the means used to attain them. Would Caro have written the book he did if Moses had put his talents toward fixing and expanding the subway system? For instance, to build the IRT 7th Avenue Line (today’s 1, 2, and 3 trains) and the southern extension of Seventh Avenue below 14th Street, the city appropriated and demolished a significant number of buildings in Jacobs’ beloved Greenwich Village. Obviously, the 1, 2, and 3 are worth a lot more to New York than the Sheridan expressway. And although Second Avenue might be a mess now, once the subway opens it will be better than ever, unlike Brooklyn’s permanently blighted Third Avenue beneath the Gowanus Expressway. But of course, nowhere in the country was mass transit a priority compared to highways in this period, and it might have taken a visionary greater than the one who imagined Riverside Park to make it one.

Moses is surely to blame for many things. Yet what city in America did not build highways at the expense of public transportation? Where were urban freeways not rammed through poor neighborhoods in the name of traffic flow and slum clearance? Maybe other cities lacked an eminence grise of Moses’ powers, but they did not fail to clog up their streets with traffic or re-segregate their black and Hispanic populations. For all Moses’ ingenuity in establishing public authorities and his many other manipulations, what happened in mid-century New York was ultimately unexceptional. Moses deserves condemnation for his treatment of East Tremont, but if a miracle had happened and Lillian Edelstein had moved the expressway a few blocks, it’s hard to imagine the area wouldn’t have gone the way of the other lower middle-class Jewish neighborhoods of the Bronx. If anything, compared to most other American cities, New York likely got off easy in terms of destructive mid-century redevelopment schemes. In 1974, New York was plummeting into an era of disinvestment and panic over crime that at the time seemed to verge on the apocalypse. Now its biggest problem is the domination of the rich. It’s worth noting that most of those articles about how Jane Jacobs stopped the expressway mention what real estate goes for in SoHo these days. If what Jacobs taught New York to save wasn’t thriving communities but property values, her legacy looks a lot more ambiguous.

In recent years, as it’s come to seem harder and harder to get anything built in New York other than glassy office towers and giveaways to plutocrats, there has emerged a strain of Moses revisionism, even Mosesophilia.4 The endless sources of delays, from lengthy environmental reviews to community boards whose biggest concern is free parking, can make an urbanist long for someone who Gets Things Done. A spate of articles in 2007, prompted by a Museum of the City of New York retrospective, at least toyed with this. The New Yorker reached the banal conclusion that “But there is a price to pay for thinking small, just as there is for thinking big. Thirty years later, we are still trying to find the balance.” For anyone tempted to reevaluate Moses the man, the haughty, sneering response he wrote to The Power Broker does more than enough to confirm Caro’s depiction of him. The city’s revival, though, is not because of Moses, but in spite of him. Contrary to the opinions of some revisionists, Moses does not deserve credit for the city’s resilience—many of its advantages, such as its extensive transit system and dense housing, predate him, and its cultural status, not to mention being the capital of capital, distinguished it then and now. New York needs a few builders, and it certainly could do better with making the trains run on time. It might lack for leadership: one could cast Bill de Blasio in John Lindsay’s role as the naïf who thought wishing could make it so, and imagine Moses chewing through the preening fool Andrew Cuomo. But cities are better off when they aren’t dependent on the stars aligning with Rockefellers to work. If we put Robert Moses back into his zeitgeist, as part of an era of misguided urban renewal and infatuation with cars rather than a demon who swallowed up New York, it might be easier to find a cure for what ails the city now.

The Power Broker hints that contrary to its author, the answer to how power works is, instead, interest-group pluralism. Moses controlled New York because he cozied up to finance, paid off the construction unions, won over the liberals with parks, and on and on down the list. And he got brought down because one of the interests involved (finance) dropped him. The Jacobs fantasy of pure community is tempting. But then and now, the problems are best understood in terms of interest groups. Moses didn’t pull the groups that backed him out of thin air. A politics capable of forming coalitions to duplicate the successes of the past without repeating Moses’ abuses, better approximating the public interest without breaking too many eggs, isn’t impossible. Let’s hope Robert Caro lives to see it.

1A chapter on Jacobs was cut, along with 350,000 to 400,000 other words: “There are two entire chapters that were cut out that I'm sorry about,” Caro said. “One was on Jane Jacobs stopping the Lower Manhattan Expressway. And one was why the New York City Planning Commission has no power so that someone like Robert Moses could run over the Planning Commission. Those are very significant things. Today I get asked a lot about both those subjects, and then I always have a pang of regret that they’re not in The Power Broker.

2In All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Marshall Berman makes the parallel explicit. For Berman, a Bronx native who saw his neighborhood leveled, Moses was emblematic of modernity, exemplifying the simultaneously creative and destructive tendency to remake the world. Berman, Caro, and others discuss the Cross-Bronx Expressway here.

3His style could be called tabloid epic. In the New York Times, Charles McGrath wrote “it owes something to old-fashioned historians like Gibbon and Macaulay, even to Homer and Milton, and something to hard-hitting newspaperese. He loves epic catalogs (at the beginning of “The Power Broker” there is a long list of expressways that would not be out of place in the “Iliad” if only the Greeks and Trojans knew how to drive).”

4Kenneth Jackson, author of Crabgrass Frontier, one of the classic histories of suburbanization, wrote the most worthwhile:

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