by Kate Soto
Event: Robert Caro: Reflections on Robert Moses
Location: The Museum of the City of New York, 02.11.07
Speaker: Robert Caro — author, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York
Organizers: The Museum of the City of New York
“Rome was power, Greece was glory, New York is home.”
— Robert Caro
Published in 1974, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York took seven years for Robert Caro to write. It grew from a straightforward biography into an investigation of urban political power and its function in cities. Though Robert Moses was arguably the most powerful figure in mid-century New York, he was essentially impervious to politics. Holding a litany of appointed titles during his career, he set the city’s priorities from 1945 forward, skewing spending away from social welfare programs and towards public works. He continually diverted funds from Mayor LaGuardia’s pet project — pre-natal care for poor families — towards development.
In a democracy, it is generally believed that power comes from being elected. Moses, one of New York’s most influential and controversial figures in the 20th Century, never held an elected office; but, in many ways he exercised more power over a 40-year span than the six governors and five mayors he served while working for New York. Caro became fascinated by this while writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Moses, Power Broker.
At least 500,000 people lost their homes to his projects, and 21 communities were affected — the famous dark side to Moses’s genius, discussed by Caro. After interviewing inhabitants displaced by the Cross-Bronx Expressway, Caro revealed the widespread blight of which Moses’s heavy-handed public works projects were capable. Ultimately, Caro left the audience with this query: How do we achieve a vision for the city’s future without disturbing the integrity of its past?
Robert Moses and the Modern City is a three-part exhibition currently on view at the Museum of the City of New York, Queens Museum of Art, and Columbia University Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery.
Kate Soto is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor.