What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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Coudal Partners

The Power Broker
by Robert A. Caro

Field-Tested by Tom Ziegler

in New York City, New York

I moved back to New York in the summer of 2003 after a personal sabbatical in Austin, Texas. I’d been gone just a year, but the city felt like it’d changed without me, so I needed to re-immerse. My boss told me to read The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s biography of New York’s most powerful urban planner ever, Robert Moses. “Is it good?” I asked. “It’s just the best fucking book written about New York, that’s all,” he scoffed. I bought it at the Strand that night.

For the next two months, I schlepped that 1,246-page tome to and from work, often missing my subway stop because it read more like a thriller than a history book. I bought a beach chair, installed it on my fire escape and developed a routine: pick up a couple beers at the corner bodega on my way home and read outside every evening until the sun set below the apartment building behind mine.

Robert Moses was never elected to public office, but for more than 40 years, I learned, no civic project happened in New York City without his nod, because no one knew how to work the system better than the man who created it. Without Moses, there would have been no Cross-Bronx Expressway, no Verrazano Narrows bridge, no Lincoln Center, no Jones Beach, no United Nations and no Triborough Bridge, where his office was located in its base. Legend had it that thousands of commuters’ nickels rolled straight down from the tollbooths to shower his desk each day.

But where Moses built, he destroyed, razing neighborhoods to cut the brutal swaths for his highways. His congestion-relieving arteries only multiplied cars. He hated public transportation, so over his scenic parkways, he built bridges that were too low for rabble-filled buses to fit under. And he forced upon the city its blocks of bleak public housing where he could have relocated the hundreds of thousands of people he displaced with his roads — but he didn’t.

And why? Not for money or fame, but power for its own sake. “The projects became not ends — but means — the means of obtaining more and more power,” Caro wrote.

Each night after I closed The Power Broker and crawled like a burglar back through my window, I’d wander through Manhattan’s summer night, silently noting the autocratic mark of Moses on every corner, every road, every park and waterfront. But it wasn’t Moses’ hand that led me through his legacy of hubris — it was Robert Caro’s meticulous, judicious and thoroughly entertaining voice that guided me on.

“It is impossible to say that New York would have been a better city if Robert Moses had never lived,” Caro wrote. “It is possible to say only that it would have been a different city.”

And if Robert Caro hadn’t written The Power Broker, New York would have been a much different city for me. Before I even finished it, I felt like I was home again.

Tom Ziegler is a former Chicagoan who’s lived in New York long enough to forget what it’s like to see snow on the ground in May. By day he’s an editor for CNNMoney.com, and by night he labors on a novel about his hometown. A lousy self-promoter, he has no website.

Buy The Power Broker