Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Power Broker

As we grow up, we collect habits and rituals to help us deal with the world around us. One of my later habits is when faced with the worst possible emotional stress, find a big book to escape into. When the surgeon told me that I was indeed going to have breast surgery (which turned up nothing malignant), it was immediately after 9.11, and I was living in Manhattan, smelling the smoke coming up from downtown every day. I thought I was going to lose my mind. But I didn’t- my business partner at the time lent me Jung Chang’s “Wild Swans” instead. I read that, and was completely absorbed by it.

The past few weeks saw the death of one of my closest friends (not the business partner; alas, she died four years ago). So when I’ve been able (even grief needs a break), I’ve been reading “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s 1974 epic on Robert Moses and how he changed (and in Caro’s and my opinion, severely damaged) New York, city and state. It is 1162 pages long, not counting the end notes. That said, it’s obvious why it won the Pulitzer that year. The writing is clear and lively; Caro writes incredibly well about emotion- not a trait you find in all historians. The editing is so good- I had forgotten how well books used to be edited, before publishers started merging.

I’ve read some New York City history, but there is plenty in “The Power Broker” that I didn’t know. For instance, Jones Beach was named for a Revolutionary War officer. Caro gives details about one of the elevated highways, the Gowanus, I see outside my kitchen window (the other, later one is the Prospect Avenue Expressway). If you’ve ever been on that road, or underneath it, you’ve never seen a highway quite like that: what it’s elevated by is odd looking, but also the way the lanes are set on it doesn’t seem quite right either. It turns out a four lane elevated highway was built on top of the supports of the Third Avenue El train, destroying a northern chunk of Sunset Park (then a working poor neighborhood full of Norwegians, Finns, Danes, Irish and Germans). It was opened November 1, 1941. Once the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel opened, the highway got congested fairly quickly, so Moses added a lane on each side, which gave it the overhang feeling it has now. The dripping water that runs down the supports on Third Avenue, over near Costco? That was happening in the 1940s as well; it’s condensation.

Because Moses was able to amass so much power because he was able to hold his offices for so long (Al Smith gave him his first Commissioner job in 1924), and act with so much autonomy (he had never been elected, and never had to worry about being re-elected) he changed the landscape of New York City, Long Island and New York state forever. He literally moved rivers. Moses not only had a hand in building all that public housing that lines the East River (using only the cheapest materials, and eschewing “luxuries,” in which he included toilet seat lids and closet doors), but nearly everything else you can think of built in that era: Stuyvesant Town, Peter Cooper Village, the newer part of Bellevue, NYU Hospital, the U.N., Rockefeller University and New York Hospital. And that’s just on the East River.
It’s a long book- it’ll take at least another blog.

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