Robert Moses: the Power Broker Who Became New York’s Ultimate Pariah

One Liberty Plaza. Photo: Richard Schulman.

My New York has been like an urban safari for more than forty years. I have made photographs in every borough. I have journeyed through the grittiest and wealthiest of neighborhoods.

My travels have been navigated by the best and worst of films ever made. I am not a film critic, but I know my hippocampus and more stores thousands of cinematic fragments. It is quite scary to have a conversation with myself; Memories can be quite feverish. But my make up, they are.

When I first read Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, I thought about Moses as the darkness of evil personified. It seemed from Caro’s narrative as if Moses slinked through the night like the nocturnal bushmaster. The suggestion was that all New Yorkers should beware of his venom.

My mind travels quite easily towards the darkside: I wondered and wondered about Caro’s veracity not when he was putting pen to paper but in our future.

I have seen “Gangs of New York”. I have seen “Make Way for Tomorrow”. I have seen “The Fountainhead”. I have seen ”Do the Right Thing”. I can’t help thinking that Moses as corrupt and underhanded as Caro represents him has been somewhat wronged: New York doesn’t look any worse for wear.

When Robert Moses started his climb, I cannot think of a single significant metropolis in America that didn’t have have streets and closets lined with corrupt climbers and politicians. 

You could almost see hands out and pockets jiggling coins on every street corner. Objectively I know that corruption and selfish demeanors rule this country more than we know. How many shit eating grins have you witnessed at the most gracious and honest affairs in cities black tie events?

Hey, my friends know me as an idealist. I think we have the greatest country on the planet. I think our Constitution should provide goosebumps up and down every single spine in our nation. I am one of a few true believers in those written words.  In my mind the words democracy should be emblazoned across the skies and into far away galaxies. My heart rules!

Certainly there is the proverbial “but” in everyone’s vocabulary. It would be insidious to dredge up what some peoples call the evil Orangehead (Trump) as a contemporary analogy: Stealing in plain sight. Sometimes you have to explain things in black and white.

Con Edison Building. Photo: Richard Schulman.

When Robert Moses began making his move, it wasn’t as if the powers that be were blind: Al Smith the future governor and Fiorello H. La Guardia weren’t naive politicians. It wasn’t as if Moses was the quickest draw in town. Hands out should be the anthem of millions of politicians and contractors across metropolitan grids from New York to California.

Was Moses making himself so powerful that nobody could touch him? Maybe! But remember he was not an elected official, he could have been fired whenever it suited Smith and La Guardia. Only tainted hands would stop them.

Everyone pays a buck to make inroads in what people call ”getting ahead”. So imagine that the people whose hands got soiled in the wake of Moses were not just politicians, but business as usual Architects, Engineers, Developers and any one who saw a “sou”.

Certainly I am not saying anything new to the forum. But as you must know I can’t tangle or tango with a Pulitzer Prize recipient. Honestly I am not smart enough or internationally recognized. I mean, taking on Caro, would be like one of my favorite writers, Christopher Hitchens taking on God and Religion. Yes I know Hitchens’ title might be a bit misleading: He didn’t take on “God”. But anyone refuting anything Caro wrote about our Moses urban nightmare is a tough act to follow.

The most egregious words in The Power Broker are ‘Should’ve, Would’ve and Could’ve”.

It is not fair to address the dead. Yes, I know Caro invited Moses to an interview. But more than fifty years of history is called into question with the what if’s argument.

If Riverside Park had been moved to the river? If the residents of San Juan Hill had not been displaced? If Robert Moses had given those and other much more problematic decisions a wider concern for more efficient urbanization changes the city would have been better off?

If Robert Moses had addressed a community of urban planners to share a forum of ideas?

You see it is impossible to defend Robert Moses in the courts of opinions. Opinions that Caro suggests by committee would have certainly stifled the engine known as Moses’ progress. America was not and is not Copenhagen as Jane Jacobs argued for. Manhattan does not resemble Boulevard Haussmann in Paris.

Soho. Photo by Richard Schulman.

Hindsight is not twenty/twenty. So many roads, buildings and homes were eviscerated in the time it takes to follow a shooting star. People with megaphones led Miss Jacobs and more suggested we were robbed. We need to hang Moses. Still maybe that is true. And Moses biography doesn’t allow for any window of a Moses explanation, even if he had one.

I think I am blinded by my love for the city. I still put on my wears every day and head out on my urban safari. To this day I have not seen the diaspora that Caro alluded to being marched into undesirable neighborhoods of the Bronx and Harlem. I don’t see what happened as one might have after our wars with nations of Indians being displaced to anonymous reservations. I don’t see a thousand mile march across the Americas towards freedom. I don’t see seemingly nations of Africans marching towards a better life.

I see a possibly greedy reckless Robert Moses standing in front of his dresser mirror rubbing his hands like a modern Fagin.

We and Caro are still wrong about our Moses judgement. The rear view mirror can play tricks on our sensibilities. I see New York akin to Tennyson’s Ulysses: “And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now the strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”.

We New Yorkers have suffered a collection of fictional bombastic words from Charles Foster Kane and a thousand others. We have suffered thousands of indignities put upon us by our own governments and other powers from the dark.

Moses was not the worst person put upon us.

The world I see that I am tempted to believe is a striking metropolis that is best seen with eyes looking ahead and Ulysses in our hearts.

Richard Schulman is a photographer and writer. His books include Portraits of the New Architecture and Oxymoron & Pleonasmus. He lives in New York City.