“But Robert Moses Shaped New York.”

My friend David Kanzeg recommended years ago that I read The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro.  I wish to God that I’d started it the day he recommended it.  This is from the introduction, and it had me first in goosebumps, then getting misty-eyed at the power of both the man and the writing.

The city in which the shaping by his hand is most evident is New York, Titan of cities, colossal synthesis of urban hope and urban despair.  It had become a cliche by the mid-twentieth century to say that New York was “ungovernable,” and this meant, since the powers of government in the city had largely devolved on its mayor, that no mayor could govern it, could hope to do more than merely stay afloat in the maelstrom that had engulfed the vast metropolis.  In such a context, the cliche was valid.  No mayor shaped New York; no mayor – not even La Guardia – left upon its roiling surface more than the faintest of lasting imprints.

But Robert Moses shaped New York.

Physically, any map of the city proves it.  The very shoreline of metropolis was different before Robert Moses came to power.  He rammed bulkheads of steel deep into the muck beneath rivers and harbors and crammed into the space beneath bulkheads and shore immensities of earth and stone, shale and cement, that hardened into fifteen thousand acres of new land and thus altered the physical boundaries of the city.

Standing out from the map’s delicate tracery of gridirons representing streets are heavy lines, lines girdling the city or slashing across its expanses.  These lines denote the major roads on which automobiles and trucks move, roads whose very location, moreover, does as much as any single factor to determine where and how a city’s people live and work.  With a single exception, the East River Drive, Robert Moses built every one of those roads.  He built the Major Deegan Expressway, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Sheridan Expressway and the Bruckner Expressway.  He built the Gowanus Expressway, the Prospect Expressway, the Whitestone Expressway, the Clearview Expressway and the Throgs Neck Expressway.  He built the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Nassau Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway and the Long Island Expressway.  He built the Harlem River Drive and the West Side Highway.

Only one borough of New York City – the Bronx – is on the mainland of the United States, and bridges link the island boroughs that form metropolis.  Since 1931, seven such bridges were built, immense structures, some of them anchored by towers as tall as seventy-story buildings, supported by cables made up of enough wire to drop a noose around the earth.  Those bridges are the Triborough, the Verrazano, the Throgs Neck, the Marine, the Henry Hudson, the Cross Bay and the Bronx-Whitestone.  Robert Moses built every one of those bridges.

How could you not be fascinated by such a story?  The writing is crisp, clean, and perfect; I’ve already read one volume of Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, and I’m looking forward to reading every word he’s ever published.

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