Monday, May 01, 2017

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

I had always thought of Robert Moses as the evil dictator of New York highways. I had envisioned him as somebody that wanted to destroy Manhattan and transform it into a car-friendly suburban city. He seemed to be someone who wanted cars and highways and did not care about anything else. After reading Caro's Power Broker, I found myself even more disgusted with his life. I couldn't help but feeling how much better the world would have been had this one person been knocked out of commission.

The book did provide insight into the greater complexity of Moses's life. There was still a great degree of racist, classist and "carist" behavior in his actions. However, he had to work to accumulate the power first. He worked hard and got things done. He did create a large number of parks in the city. He would use the plight of the "common tenement dweller" in order to get his parks built. (But then he would turn around and limit their access to parks, by making them remote and easily accessible only by car.) He would fight against rich landowners when he wanted a park built, but would ally with them to get park donations, and willingly move parkways to avoid their land - even at the expense of ruining viable farmland.)

He started his career as a young idealist, eager to reform the corruption in New York City politics. His civil service reforms were beaten down and he was chased out of the city. When he later returned, his focus was on accumulating power. He initially started with parks and the parkways to get people there. Building in long island he was able to be close enough to the city, but far enough away to carve out his own space. Parks were also a valuable public resource that people could not easily fight against. He became the expert and the "parks guy". He knew how to get things done. He would wine and dine those in power, give jobs and lucrative contracts to the right people, and get the press to play into his hand. Initial cost estimates would always be significantly less than the final cost, but with the project in progress, who could refuse the extra allocation to finish it? If somebody didn't want him to build somewhere, he would simply jump start the project to have it in the works before they could complain.

He had a stellar reputation with the prewar press and public and would use it to accumulate more power. He would write the laws to benefit him and his power and gradually held more and more offices in the city and state government. His parkways were an extension of his "park" responsibilities. (And to ensure there would be no rif-raf at his parks, they were built with bridges too low for buses.) Since he was an expert at parkways, bridges and other highways also became his domain. He created a public authority to manage toll bridges such as the triburough bridge. This was a stroke of genius as it allowed him access to some public funds and bonding without public scrutiny. More importantly, it provided a continuing source of revenue that allowed him to further extend his power. He had plans drawn up for other highways. He had the funds and the plans. Even if small changes would save neighborhoods, he could refuse to allow them because the cost for the city to do it on their own was beyond the ability to manage.

Moses destroyed housing in multiple ways. As a housing commissioner, he was responsible for slum clearance. However, what typically happened was that slums were merely turned over to well-connected people who made them even worse while fleecing the residents. As a highway boss, he ripped apart neighborhoods and destroyed housing by adding freeways. He also failed to provide for public transportation, thus justify construction of more freeways in a never-ending feedback loop.

Parks also did not fair well under Moses's watch. While he did build many parks, he also paved over natural areas to provide his parkways. He "improved" parks his way, which may mean more pavement and a park that is less usable for the community.

How did things go so wrong? Robert Moses had power and surrounded himself with yes men. He didn't listen to the public he was serving. In spite of being the foremost highway builder, he didn't drive himself, and would usually work in the back of his car as he was driven around. He was smart and believed he was right. He was also always on the lookout for more power. Providing contracts and construction jobs for the well connected helped him increase his power. Building infrastructure for the well-to-do helped him consolidate his power. More people in cars meant more money and power.

Today, the United States is still suffering from Moses's Power. His model of highway building helped serve as the base for the Interstate Highway system. Vast swaths of cities became inefficiently dedicated to cars. Planners attempted to reduce congestion on roads by building more roads - only to see congestion increase. Public transportation was ripped out in favor of highway building. Only after sprawling suburbs were developed were attempts made to add transit back in (in the name of reducing highway congestion!). By then it was too late. Suburbs were not developed with a transit hub and were thus not efficiently served by transit. While transit was once run profitably by private entities, it is now subsidized by the public. Highways also continue to be publicly subsidized, leaving us with huge transportation outlays, while we still suffer from congestion.

Perhaps if New York would have let Moses's civil service reforms go through, he would not have become the power hungry maniac. Perhaps if the public appropriately limited his power early on (and had him adhere to the "one-office" rules), he would have not been able to destroy so much. If he would have just listened and used his brains to support public transportation, there would have not been a need for so many highways. He could have used the ability to get things done to make the world a better place for people. Alas, he did not, and in a quest to make things better for cars, he made the New York worse for everybody.

Alas, Moses remained in his cocoon. He was able to get things done. Just not the right things. He was regularly threatening to quit his posts. It finally took a Rockefeller to have the courage to let him do it. The governor had enough power and wealth to but Moses in his place. The public had also began to see the full extent of his power and did not have the rose colored lenses they once had. Even the media began to see through the facade. However, even with his resigning his posts, he still had triborough. Here, it required some double-crossing actions to finally get him out. He was enlisted to support the merger into MTA by the promise of a "key role" in the new organization. After the election passed, his key role ended up being as a consultant with no real authority. He was finally out of power, with his last bit of destruction being the cronyism in the World's Fair. At last he was out! He still tried to piece together additional bits of power, but he was through destroying the city. If only somebody had the guts to stop him earlier.

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