Alan Strauber


April 2, 2006 

Prof. KC Johnson

Literature of American History II 

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York – Robert Caro 

     One Sunday afternoon, as Robert Caro relates, a young Robert Moses was ferrying  

across the Hudson River to picnic with a group of friends in New Jersey, a group of  

friends that included FDR’s future Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins. Moses, the young  

municipal staffer, proceeded to elaborate to Perkins about a vision that had occurred to  

him for the development of the Manhattan waterfront, which included a major highway  

that stretched up along the west side, a marina, parks, tennis courts and more. Perkins  

later remarked that the young man was talking about an integrated public works project  

on a scale that had little precedent in the cities of this period. It was an early glimpse of  

the kind of visionary imagination that burned inside the mind of Robert Moses. 

     The extent of Moses’ powers of vision were comparable to his ego and his arrogance.  

It was these qualities that made him comfortable confronting the likes of the Whitneys,  

Morgans, Vanderbilts and other old money landowners on Long Island – sending  

surveyors to their estates to mark the path of an imminent Northern State Parkway  

through their lands, sometimes marking a line directly through their luxurious homes.  

Moses spoke condescendingly to their lawyers, knowing that state law and Governor Al  

Smith were on his side, ready to support his efforts to appropriate the land necessary to  

realize his ambitious visions. Even the biblical nature of the name “Moses” holds an  

ironic significance given his mercurial personality and his visionary conception of public  

works projects and urban planning.  

     Robert Caro’s biography concentrates on Moses’ rise to political power – from an  

increasingly powerful aid riding the coattails of Governor Al Smith, to the Chairman of  

the autonomous State Parks Council with approval authority over all New York State  

parks project funding, to New York City Parks Commissioner in the LaGuardia  

administration, a position he stipulated would include “unified control of the whole  

metropolitan system of parks and parkway development” in the New York City area. Five  

separate borough park commissionerships were merged into one, under Moses’  

stewardship. And, naturally, in order to unify the public works of all the boroughs, he  

needed to control the Triborough Bridge Authority in order to regulate a bridge that  

joined three boroughs and provided links to highways that extended to the remaining  

two. And, as it turned out Moses did a bit more than control the Authority. He was the  

Triborough Bridge Authority, exercising his dominance over the other two  

commissioners. There were now a total of seven agencies in the New York metropolitan  

area that regulated major roads, parkways and all other major public works: the  

Triborough Bridge Authority, the New York City Park Department, the New York State  

Council of Parks, the Long Island State Park Commission, the Jones Beach State Park  

Authority, the Bethpage State Park Authority and the Marine Park Authority. By 1934  

they were all under the control of Robert Moses. 

     Moses turned his attention from Long Island, where his crowning achievement was  

Jones Beach, to projects for metropolitan New York City. He envisioned a network of  

roads, highways and bridges that would allow a motorist to travel from New England or  

the Bronx to the parks and beaches of Long Island without encountering a single traffic  

light or having to drive through Manhattan. Moses’ plan resulted in roads such as the  

Major Deegan Expressway, Long Island Expressway, and the Northern and Southern  

State Parkways as well as the completion of the Triborough Bridge along with the Bronx- 

Whitestone and, later, the Throgs Neck Bridge. 

     As Caro points out, the crucial factor in planning public works in Long Island was the  

abundance of space. In New York City, the most significant factor was a density of  

people and a lack of space. And yet, Caro suggests that Moses used the same kinds of  

broad strokes while implementing his projects in and around New York City that he did in  

Long Island. An example of this lack of sensitivity for the needs of people were Moses’  

playground designs. 

     In the 1930’s, Moses built 255 playgrounds throughout the city. He did not consult  

people in the neighborhoods, he did not consider or observe their needs or habits  

affecting the play spaces of their children. Caro contends that the designs were banal  

and felt unwelcoming to children. The playgrounds were subject to vandalism. To  

remedy the latter problem, Moses had high fences erected around them that could be  

locked at night, giving the playgrounds the look and feel of cages. 

     The parkway concept had also become suspect. By the middle of the twentieth  

century most people were more interested in getting to work on time than taking a  

leisurely drive with their families to admire the scenery at 8 AM on a Monday morning.  

The parkway idea became largely impractical for a modern society. 

     Moses’ parks were constructed for sports activities on a mass scale or, as Caro  

curiously puts it, on a “Third Reich scale.” He argues that it is important for parks in a city  

to contain preserved wooded areas with trails conducive to solitary walking, as a refuge  

from hectic city life. According to Caro, natural elements in Moses designed parks  

remained undeveloped and neglected for these purposes. Furthermore, public  

transportation was banned from larger parks such as Jacob Riis and Alley Pond, located  

at the fringes of the city. This made access for blacks and other lower income minorities  

of the period who did not own automobiles difficult at best. Smaller parks located within  

the city were also designed for use by children of Moses’ own white, upper economic  

class. The portion of railroad tracks that extended along the west side of Manhattan  

were covered by roads and parkland as part of the West Side Improvement project, but  

only up to 125th Street, so that the white inhabitants of the city who lived below that point  

could benefit from the greenery and the muffled sounds of the railroad, while blacks  

living in Harlem were denied the added park land and bore the brunt of the noisy  

railroads. Moses spent millions on landfill to enlarge Riverside Park; below 125th Street,  

and also banned commercial businesses on the waterfront, but only below that  

demarcation line. Lower income minorities, who comprised an increasing portion of the  

city’s population, were not the people that Moses bore in mind when building his  


     Moses’ autonomous fiefdom, which grew into the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel  

Authority, was the agency by which he would finance and exert much of his power. The  

income of the Authority reached $75,000,000 annually with the opening of the  

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in 1967, with the Authority’s reported surplus amounting to as  

much as $30 million annually. Most of these funds were used with an astonishing  

secrecy. As of the writing of Caro’s book, noone knows what Moses did with the majority  

of the Authority’s earnings. One thing we do know, is that the money helped buy Moses  

influence when he needed favors to bring his projects to fruition. In Caro’s view, the  

wealth of this agency allowed Moses “to exert a power that few political bosses in the  

more conventional mold ever attain.”  

     Caro glorifies Moses as a larger than life character, grandiosely proclaiming that his  

subject “influenced the destiny of all of the cities of twentieth-century America.” Moses  

may have indeed had an enormous effect on urban and suburban planning for  

generations to come, and certainly effected the shape of the New York City area, but it  

may be an occupational hazard of some biographers to glorify their subjects while in the  

process of examining them. Examination can easily turn into magnification, making the  

subject larger than life in the process. It is a line that Caro often crosses. 

     At his best, Caro is an engaging story teller, relating compelling anecdotes and sub- 

plots, such as the incident over FDR’s order number 129 which, in effect, ordered Mayor  

Fiorello LaGuardia to fire Moses from his municipal positions or risk losing all federal  

financing for New York City public works projects. The episode highlights the animosity  

between FDR and Moses as well as the relationship between the latter and LaGuardia.  

FDR refused to compromise on his position until Senator Huey Long threatened to have  

Moses provide testimony concerning FDR’s edict on the floor of the United States  

Senate. At his weakest, Caro can resemble a tabloid journalist, as when he dwells  

on the tribulations of Moses’ older brother, Paul, and Robert Moses’ less than honorable  

treatment of him. At each end of the spectrum and areas in between, questions can  

certainly be raised concerning the reliability of Caro’s source material, often consisting of  

interviews conducted by Caro himself. Recollections derived from oral accounts can  

easily be tainted by the passage of time and the fallibility of memory or through personal  

bias for or against Moses. 

     Robert Moses cared about his highway, bridge, park and housing projects as  

extensions of his accumulated power at the expense of truly serving the needs of all  

New Yorkers regardless of economic class, race or ethnicity. While, undeniably, many of  

his public works projects were magnificent in design and scope, they were sometimes  

implemented at the high cost of displacing thousands of people and the destruction of  

their neighborhoods. “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs,” Moses once  

quipped as he spoke about opposition to his Long Island projects and their effects on  

inhabitants. Equally as significant, The Power Broker is a cautionary tale of political  

power gained by a single man whose sole decisions were uncontestable by a  

succession of governors, mayors, and even a president, until he met his match in the  

person of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who effectively brought Moses’ autonomous  

reign to an end. The electorate had not chosen Robert Moses to his position or  

bestowed on him his power. How Moses was able to reach such a degree of  

concentrated political influence, able to make decisions at a whim that affected millions  

of people for generations to come is certainly an area worthy of examination. It is no  

wonder that Caro felt it necessary to write such a large book in his treatment of Moses.  

In fact, this book could have been even larger or splintered into many books, covering in  

depth the wide range of public works and political activities that Robert Moses left his  

mark upon.