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The Power Broker

Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

Robert A Caro

For some people, the American biographer Robert A Caro is little short of a god. On both sides of the Atlantic, his gigantic unfinished life of President Lyndon Johnson, which stretches to four volumes and more than 3,000 pages, is often described as one of the great literary and historical endeavours of our age. His extraordinary style, piling up detail after detail to create a completely immersive portrait of the man and his times, has been often imitated but never equalled. Many of Caro's most ardent fans are themselves politicians: when his most recent volume appeared in 2012, William Hague called it 'the best biography, of any kind that [he] had ever read', while Johnson's latest successor, Barack Obama, has simply written that Caro's books 'helped to shape how I think about politics'.

The book that most influenced Obama, though, was not Caro's life of Johnson, but his first biography, a colossal life of the New York City planner Robert Moses, which is now being published in Britain for the first time. On the face of it, Moses makes a singularly unprepossessing subject, since urban planners are rarely terribly exciting figures. But when Caro's book appeared in 1974, it was a sensation, winning a host of awards, including the Pulitzer prize. The title of the book says it all, for there has probably never been a better dissection of political power: how to get it, what to do with it and what it does to you. Caro's first reviewers often compared the book to a great Russian novel. For my money, it is simply one of the best non-fiction books in English of the past 40 years.

Although most British readers will never have heard of Moses, they probably should have done. He was, writes Caro in his opening chapter, 'America's greatest builder. He was the shaper of the greatest city in the New World.'

As the man who effectively designed the landscape of modern New York, Moses was responsible for parks and bridges, highways and flyovers, swimming pools and playgrounds, on an almost mind-boggling scale. Between the 1920s and the 1970s, he turned New York into a crucible of architectural modernity, a temple to mass consumerism and the cult of the car, from Shea Stadium to the Lincoln Center. Even today, the city is largely his creation. Nobody ever voted for him. But thanks to his power over the city's public-housing projects, as well as his command of the vast revenues from its gigantic toll bridges and tunnels, Moses was virtually untouchable. Mayors, governors and presidents came and went, but he remained. 'To compare the works of Robert Moses to the works of man,' writes Caro, 'one has to compare them not to the works of individual men but to the combined total work of an era.'

Caro was barely 30 when he started work on The Power Broker, and had never before written a book. At first he thought it would take him nine months; in fact, it took seven years. From the first page, however, you know that you are in the hands of a master. Caro is outstanding not merely at conveying the life and look of New York in the 1940s and 1950s, but at getting under the skin of his subject, who was still alive at the time, gave him a handful of interviews, but abruptly severed relations when he realised where the book was going.

Moses was born in 1888 to a German-Jewish family in Connecticut. Like many ambitious, driven politicians, he had an extraordinarily close relationship with his mother, Bella, an idealistic social reformer who was particularly interested in housing. It was Bella who gave young Robert not just his fascination with the built environment, but his distinctive personal style, which Caro describes as a mixture of 'outspokenness, stubbornness, aggressiveness and arrogance'. And it was these qualities that Moses, having studied at Yale, Oxford and Columbia, brought to New York politics in the 1920s.

One of Caro's great skills is his effortless interweaving of the private and the political, showing how one man's prejudices had seismic consequences for hundreds of thousands of his fellow New Yorkers. Moses was an obsessive swimmer, often rising at six in the morning to plough through length after length. During the Depression he built 10 colossal public swimming pools that could accommodate a vast number of people. By contrast, he never drove and was ferried everywhere by limousine. His vast urban expressways represented the greatest construction feat on the planet, yet he never understood what it was like to use them, and never appreciated that his contemptuous neglect of public transport would lead to appalling congestion.

Sealed off by wealth and power from the rest of the city, writes Caro, Moses saw 'people in the mass', never focusing on 'the individual wandering alone through a forest or on the family sprawling in solitude on a meadow'. He disliked blacks and immigrants, corralling them in gigantic high-rise projects, but had equally little time for environmentalists, conservatives and middle-class mothers, infamously trying to demolish a Central Park playground to make room for a fancy restaurant's car park. Nothing captures his vision better than Caro's illustrations, captioned 'Landscapes by Moses': grey soaring highways, ribbons of concrete slashing through the city, photographed from above with individual cars and people all but invisible.

Despite its virtues, Caro's book is not perfect. No book is. It is too long, for one thing (the same could be said of his life of Johnson), and the sheer weight of detail can occasionally feel overwhelming. Yet what makes it stand out is his riveting description of power itself, which he defines at one point as 'being able to laugh at people who oppose you and to laugh at them with impunity, to antagonise them without fear of reprisal'. He is superb, for example, at showing how Moses used hospitality for his own ends, with one majestic chapter devoted entirely to his summer home, his private beach, his theatre boxes and his chauffeured limousines. And he is equally good at showing how New York's great empire-builder lost his way, his political capital slowly seeping away as the mood changed, the money began to run out and concrete brutalism fell from favour in the 1960s and 1970s.

The result is not just a stunning portrait of perhaps the most influential builder in world history, whose legacy has survived remarkably unscathed since his death in 1981, but an object lesson in the dangers of power. Every politician should read it.

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