Sometime last fall, the biographer Robert Caro got a phone call from Roger Hertog, then vice chairman of AllianceBernstein and a rich and powerful New York City history buff. Columbia was planning a big exhibit on Robert Moses, New York’s master builder from the mid-20th century, and he wanted to know if Mr. Caro would give a lecture as part of it.
It was the first time, Mr. Caro said, that he had heard from anyone connected to the massive three-part exhibit opening next week, “Robert Moses and the Modern City,” which includes among its backers noted historian Kenneth T. Jackson.
And yet Mr. Caro had written the book on Moses, hadn’t he? Since its publication in 1974, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York has sold 315,000 copies through its 30 printings (and counting), and can be found on the bookshelf of every self-professed New York–ophile the world over.
So deep is Mr. Caro’s influence—only one book has even attempted to approach the subject since then, and it is out of print—that anything written on the subject of Robert Moses, who died in 1981, must struggle to do anything else besides affirm, sidestep, build upon, fill in the holes left by, question or rebut the 700,000 or so words that Mr. Caro has already written. In other words, everything comes back to Mr. Caro’s Moses.
A Moses who, Mr. Caro wrote “built parks and playgrounds with a lavish hand, but they were parks and playgrounds for the rich and the comfortable.”
A Moses who “tore out the hearts of a score of neighborhoods, communities the size of small cities themselves, communities that had been lively, friendly places to live.”
A Moses who “practiced McCarthyism long before there was a McCarthy.”
Yes, Mr. Caro told Mr. Hertog, he would speak at the Museum of the City of New York’s part of the exhibit. But he’s since been wondering why he wasn’t invited earlier; why he wasn’t invited to submit a paper to a conference that Columbia will hold in March; why he wasn’t even told about the exhibit by one of its organizers, but instead by one of its sponsors, Mr. Hertog.
Mr. Hertog told The Observer that he suggested inviting Mr. Caro because he could no more imagine an examination of Robert Moses without his input than he could the City of New York itself without Robert Moses.
Last week, Vintage sent out paperback copies of The Power Broker—all 1,246 pages (and three pounds, nine and a half ounces) of it—to newspaper editors, inviting select interviews with its author.
Within a day, Mr. Caro interrupted himself in the middle of writing a scene about the Cuban missile crisis—he’s working on the fourth of four volumes on Lyndon B. Johnson—to tend to a more personal crisis.
“It’s always useful—and, in fact, inevitable—to re-evaluate a major historical figure,” Mr. Caro said in his spare West 57th Street office, dressed in a brown sweater with a burgundy tie peeping out at the bottom. “But I would be more hopeful about this exhibit being a disinterested historical re-evaluation if they had shown any interest in asking someone they had disagreed with to participate in a serious discussion.”
With the exhibit (which is to be staged at the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum of Art, and Columbia University) still not open, and with the academic conference weeks away, Mr. Caro gleaned what he could about the whole undertaking—especially the sort of re-evaluation of Moses’ life (and therefore his book) that the exhibit would prompt—by studying its 336-page catalog.
In particular, there were four pages written by Mr. Jackson, another great narrator of the saga of New York, that had gotten Mr. Caro’s attention—four critical pages that made him wonder whether this exhibit was going to be an attack on The Power Broker.
MR. CARO’S EDITOR, ROBERT GOTTLIEB, who also read the four pages, told The Observer: “I got this impression that Mr. Jackson, even if he didn’t have a direct animus toward Caro, was suffering from some kind of Moses envy, as if he wanted to own Moses himself.”
Mr. Jackson’s essay calls The Power Broker “extraordinary in conception and execution,” but also asserts it “exaggerates Moses’s influence on American life and makes him too much of an evil genius.”
The Power Broker, he writes, “ignores Los Angeles’s construction of nine hundred miles of highways and twenty-one thousand miles of paved streets in the twentieth century, both totals substantially eclipsing those of New York.”
Far from contributing or causing “the Fall of New York”—as Mr. Caro’s subtitle, written the year before the city’s fiscal crisis, suggests—Mr. Jackson argues that Moses made the city’s renaissance since then possible. “Had he not lived … Gotham would have lacked the wherewithal to adjust to the demands of the modern world.”
If this face-off between two great chroniclers of New York is about two clashing egos, it is also about two perspectives on history.
In one corner stands Mr. Caro, an adherent of the “great man” theory of history, who in The Power Broker (“Surely the greatest book ever written about a city”—David Halberstam) delved into the psyche of an idealistic civic reformer who started his city career by assembling unused city-property parcels into parks; lavished millions of dollars on state-of-the-art public bathhouses; and then, once he had mastered the manipulation of power, turned his considerable influence to building highways that destroyed neighborhoods. Moses, according to Mr. Caro, not only abandoned his idealism, but was powerful enough to impose that lack of idealism on the city.
In the other corner stands Mr. Jackson, the editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City (“Excellent, and as the only reference work of its kind, invaluable”—Alfred Kazin) and the author of Crabgrass Frontiers: The Suburbanization of the United States, a standard entry on university urban-planning reading lists.
A popular professor who leads students on all-night bike tours of the city, Mr. Jackson—just a few years younger than Mr. Caro, who is 71—posits the more Hegelian notion that Robert Moses was just a product of the same zeitgeist that propelled cars to the top of the policy agenda everywhere in the United States. And yet, Mr. Jackson writes, “despite the many miles of roadway attributed to Moses, New York never became as hospitable to the motorcar as other American cities.”
“In Caro’s book, what you need to explain is what went wrong in New York,” Mr. Jackson told The Observer. “The fact is, New York is doing very well. Its public housing is all standing; it is not being blown up like in other cities. New York has far and away the best transit system than anywhere. The question is, again, consider the larger context: If Robert Moses was out to destroy the transit system, he didn’t do a very good job.”
Mr. Jackson, a transit advocate (his next book is called The Road to Hell: Transportation Policy and the Decline of the United States), adds that he wishes that Moses had been in charge of the subways instead of the highways; but, he says, the couple of proposed transit improvements that Moses refused to incorporate into his projects—like running light rail down the center of the Long Island Expressway—would hardly have made a difference over time.
“In the 1940’s, people were leaving New York City as soon as they had enough money,” Mr. Jackson elaborated. “The real question is, did Robert Moses cause the first exodus? No, because it happened almost everywhere in the United States.”
Mr. Caro responded that such a line of reasoning ignores the starting point at which New York began.
“What was New York like before Robert Moses?” Mr. Caro asked. “When he came to power, we had a rapid-transit system, a modern rapid-transit system on which the city relied, and plans to extend that system into new areas that were being developed. You had a commuter railroad that was in relatively good shape. For 40 years, he systematically starved the subway and the commuter railroads.”
Plus, Mr. Caro said, Moses diverted money that would have improved the city’s quality of life in other ways.
“In the era right following the war,” he said, “when there was a particularly large immigration of blacks from the rural South and of Puerto Ricans, there was a sense that the city had to reach out to these people, that it wasn’t the same as the Irish, the Jews, and the Italians, that these were not urban dwellers, that the city had to make an extra effort to reach out to these people and to devote to them a heavy share of the city’s revenue. Time and time again, as The Power Broker documents, Robert Moses intervened against that impulse, that humanitarian impulse, and got these funds instead for a share of his huge construction projects.”
Criticizing Mr. Caro must make students of New York history feel like Oedipus killing his father: The Power Broker is where they all learned about Moses in the first place.
“I wish it had my name on it rather than his,” Mr. Jackson said.
Hilary Ballon, a Columbia professor trained in the history of classical French architecture, said it was reading The Power Broker that led her to organize and to curate the exhibit. “It whet my appetite … It is such a dominant work that it controls the subject,” she said. “That is a tribute to Caro, but what it means is that every generation of writers that comes along must somehow contend with its enormous influence.”
The exhibit catalog, published by Norton, shows the apparent contradictions that scholars must face when trying to outdo, or even augment, a seven-year labor of obsession that is based on 522 interviews and countless documents dug out of the darkest corners of municipal life.
How do you declare that Moses was the single most important figure in shaping the New York region, and yet also a mere mortal who butted heads with other powerful figures? How do you exonerate him for engaging in destructive highway-building, saying it was just a product of federal funding, and then praise him for forcing other federal programs toward productive ends, like building Lincoln Center?
The catalog’s contributors strive to put Moses into a broader context and, at times, succeed.
One chapter, by Barnard College professor Owen D. Gutfreund, reproduces a 1928 map by the Regional Plan Association showing a large network of regional highways not unlike what Moses ended up building, persuasively arguing that his vision of highways was, if not inspired by the powerful R.P.A., at least shared with it. And other contributors examine stories that Mr. Caro left pretty much untouched, like the battle for Washington Square, or the role that Moses played in keeping African-Americans out of Stuyvesant Town.
In one case, a contributor went to great—but inconclusive—lengths to find one small detail where she could differ from Mr. Caro.
Investigating whether Moses was racist, City University of New York professor Marta Gutman inspected construction diagrams and determined that an East Harlem pool could have been heated if Moses had wanted. Mr. Caro wrote that Moses kept the pool cold under the outrageous assumption that African-Americans would not tolerate cold
In the end, Ms. Gutman almost bolsters Mr. Caro’s contention that Moses was racist: She cites a former Brownsville resident who said he saw parks-department employees—Moses was Parks Commissioner, among many other things—enforcing a whites-only policy at swimming pools.
Mr. Caro, then, remains impossible to get away from. The question of just how much deference scholars should treat a living interpreter of the subject they are revisiting is not clear, if only because there are few subjects that one person dominates the way that Mr. Caro dominates the life and works of Robert Moses.
“There was no intention on my part or by any of the sponsors to not include him,” Ms. Ballon said. “I have been very concerned that this project not be taken as a critique of what he did. The exhibit raises a different set of questions about Moses’ impact on the physical character of New York City. I’m really interested in what got built.”
Mr. Jackson, who co-edited the catalog with Ms. Ballon and is co-organizing the academic conference, said that he hadn’t thought that Mr. Caro would be interested in the conference, which won’t pay its participants and will probably have a smaller audience than the museum event. Ms. Ballon said that Mr. Caro was the first person to be invited to the public portion of the exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York.
“I understand his speaking fee is pretty large,” Mr. Jackson said.
As it turns out, Mr. Caro isn’t getting a fee to speak at the Museum of the City of New York on Feb. 11. He wouldn’t want to pass up a chance to give his side of the story.