Dog Days Classics: Robert Caro’s Controversial Portrait of Robert Moses and New York

“Surely the greatest book ever written about a city.” – David Halberstam

Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, 1974

Since its initial 1974 publication, rarely has book dominated a subject the way Robert Caro’s The Power Broker has. Caro defined Moses as an overbearing, racist, once idealistic public servant who became an obsessed power mongering city planner single handedly undermining New York’s neighborhoods and communities through massive highway and public works projects. Under Caro’s watchful eye, Moses crafted cities much as Le Corbusier might have decades earlier, all flow and no people. Minority and low income communities found themselves at the mercy of the overly officious Moses who famously shrugged off criticism from Jane Jacobs and others in crafting the New York we know today.

Despite defining the discourse regarding New York’s urban renewal, Caro’s work has drawn a fair amount of criticism from academics. However, before one delves into its blindspots, the book’s strengths deserve some attention. First, Caro goes much further than simply providing a biography of the city’s most famous city planner. Instead, Caro produced a sprawling study of New York before and after World War II. In fact, one could argue the book succeeds in documenting the career of Al Smith and the political machine from whence he came equally as well as Moses. If one actually completes its 1000+ pages, he or she will know infinitely more about New York City than when they began. Second, Caro clearly illustrates how old New York, a city of neighborhoods and mass transit, became New New York, a debt ridden, seething cauldron of ethnic/racial tension that served as America’s urban boogeyman in the 1970s. Movies like Spike Lee’s solid (if 30 minutes too long) Son of Sam represent the state of the Big Apple circa the mid 1970s well. [Editors note: reader Suman Ganguli rightly points out that better representations of NYC in the 1970s would be the film Taxi Driver and the excellent book, The Bronx is Burning.]

Yet, no work gets everything right and after 36 years, it would be surprising if someone didn’t re-evaluate Caro’s work. In 2007, Three separate exhibits – “Remaking the Metropolis” at the Museum of New York, “The Road to Recreation” at the Queens Museum of Art, and “Slum Clearance and the Superblock Solution,” hosted at Columbia University’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery – attempted to re-evaluate Moses’ career. Published in conjunction with the three exhibitions, the Kenneth Jackson and Hilary Ballon-edited Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York juxtaposed handsomely crafted photographic images of Moses’s work around the five boroughs and Long Island with short essays on the meaning of them. In particular, Martha Biondi’s essay “Robert Moses, Race, and the Limits of the Activist State” made a critical observation about Moses’s contributions. Biondi acknowledged that it remained “troubling that the man who built so much of the New York metropolitan area’s infrastructure was influenced by the long arm of Jim Crow” (121). However, Biondi pointed out “the built environment is not forever bound by Moses’s vision.” Today, after the demographic changes of post war New York recreated and reorganized communities several times over, those very pools and parks built for middle and upper class whites now serve non-white patrons. Despite his racism, Moses ended up building for the very people he disdained. A delicious irony not lost on the book’s essayists. New populations absorbed Moses’s legacy for their own uses, their own lives, their own lived experiences. At least, Robert Moses built things.

Others, like Kenneth Jackson note that blaming Moses for declining demographics, problematic public spaces, and detoriating rapid transit missed the mark. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, Jackson praised Caro’s work but also noted that New York had done well.

The fact is, New York is doing very well. Its public housing is all standing; it is not being blown up like in other cities. New York has far and away the best transit system than anywhere. The question is, again, consider the larger context: If Robert Moses was out to destroy the transit system, he didn’t do a very good job.

For Jackson, though Moses made mistakes, without him “Gotham would have lacked the wherewithal to adjust to the demands of the modern world.”

More recent observers have come to similar conclusions. Writing in a recent issue of the Journal of Urban History, Senior Editor of Planning Press, Timothy Mennel acknowledged academia’s wider reservations regarding Moses: “[E]minent scholars and critics called it ‘clumsy’ and shallow, with many noting Caro’s Manicheanism, naivete, weak grasp of psychology, provincialism, use of anonymous sources, and poor historiography.” In regard to Jackson, Mennel credits the Columbia Professor for being “one of the foremost and persistent critics of Caro’s work and lazy thinking about urban renewal generally …” (Timothy Mennel, “A Fight to Forget: Urban Renewal, Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs and the Stories of Our Cities,” in Journal of Urban History 37 (4): 627-634).

To be fair, I first read (well really no one reads it twice – I mean, its over 1000 pages) The Power Broker for Professor Jackson’s class in urban history at Columbia. At the time, I worked during the day as a public high school teacher, instructing the cities’ students in History and English. Needless to say, like many public school teachers nearing their 30s, I wasn’t sure where I was going in life. Jackson’s class and specifically Caro’s book completely reoriented my direction. The majesty of Caro’s vision, even if flawed, deepened my relationship to New York as I began to view subway stops, public pools, parks, roads, and bridges with a historical intensity that seemed to be previously lacking. I knew what I wanted to do; now I just had to do it. Certainly, there were other important books in that class that piqued my obsession including Jackson’s own Crabgrass Frontier, but none careened through my imagination like Caro’s. I argued with friends who worked in city planning on the merits of renewal and gentrification, I debated the importance of mass transit, I forced my high school students (well ok, the one AP U.S. History class I taught, since my regular history classes were forced to focus tightly on state exams) to produce a magazine on American urbanity. In short, I dove into urban history and policy in a way I had never before.

With that said, Caro’s work suffers from other weaknesses not already discussed. Joel Schwartz’s The New York Approach: Robert Moses, Liberals, and Redevelopment of the Inner City (1993) pushed back against Caro’s depiction of Moses as an “Evil genius.”  Instead, Schwartz presented a more complicated picture. For Schwartz, Moses did not rule by fiat, rather, his successes came through careful negotiation and compromise. Moreover, Moses’ redevelopment only occurred because of the consent by the liberal establishment that Caro argues resisted Moses much of the way. Even worse, institutions like Columbia and NYU played critical roles in undermining the city’s geography. Caro paid scant attention to these actors or he positioned them much differently. Today, Schwartz’s work appears prophetic as NYU’s expansion seems to be one of the most inflammatory issues plaguing lower Manhattan. Mennel too points this out, lamenting that Schwartz’s work seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle do in great part to the fact that Schwartz rightly saw the complicity of the very liberal resistance that Caro mythologized.

Schwartz and others explicitly assess a fair share of the blame for urban renewal’s failures on the very protagonists of the heroic resistance narratives. The community groups and activists who are so often pitched as the bulwarks against Robert Moses and his minions were themselves some of the leading champions of urban renewal, housing reform, and specific now reviled projects that were built throughout the mid twentieth century. (628)

Without a doubt, Mennel, Jackson, and others are correct, yet, Caro captured something in The Power Broker few others have. Even with its weaknesses, Caro shaped how we speak about cities and urban renewal in ways that at least brought attention to the inequalities created. Moreover, it is hard to imagine works like the excellent, American Pharoah: Mayor Richard J. Daley – His Battle for Chicago and the Nation without Caro’s example. When we read The Power Broker for Jackson’s class, the Professor clearly pointed out the book’s mistakes. No one was mislead and still the book reverberated. If it made me a better teacher, scholar, or urban planner, even with its errors, shouldn’t that be enough?