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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

#1 and DONE!

It took longer than any other book I've ever read, I'm fairly sure of that. Longer than War and Peace. Longer than A Suitable Boy (still one of my favorites). Longer than anything by Proust. But I have finally finished Robert Caro's groundbreaking (and Pulitzer-winning) The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, all 1100+ pages of it.

One of the interesting things I learned from reading about the book is that it was originally one-third longer. Robert Gottlieb, Caro's editor, cut 300,000 words. I can't even imagine. As it was, reading the book was challenging, not so much because it demanded tremendous concentration (which it did), but because it was heavy--literally. Taking it with me to read on buses or subways was courting a hernia. Reading in bed was out. Try resting this book on your lap as you read and you'll end up in the ER with internal injuries. Reading in a chair was a challenge--you can't hold it up, and you have to put a pillow in your lap to rest the book on.

I read most of this book sitting at a table or counter, which is not the most comfortable reading spot. But I did it. And, thankfully, the book was fascinating. For anyone who loves New York City and its history, this book is an important read. Robert Moses held power in this city longer than pretty much anyone else in the 20th century, and he not only held it longer, he held more of it. He was the actual person running the city during the mayoral administrations of La Guardia, O'Dwyer, Impelliteri, and Wagner. He had the money, thanks to his control of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, which was rolling in surplus millions while the city and the state were bordering on bankruptcy, and he had, more importantly, the power. He controlled people, he controlled projects, and, most frighteningly, he controlled the future. He is far and away the person who has had the greatest impact on the city of today. The list of projects that he created and built is truly mind-boggling: pretty much every major parkway and expressway in the New York City area, from the LIE to the Southern and Northern States, the Saw Mill, the Major Deegan, the West Side Highway, the FDR, the Wantaugh, the Meadowbrook, the Cross-Bronx, the BQE...the list goes on and on. Massive public works like the United Nations, Lincoln Center, the Forham University campus, the World's Fair of 1964-65. Literally dozens of state parks from Jones Beach to Niagara. Most of the ways the city's boroughs link together, from the Triborough Bridge to the Verrazano, the Whitestone, the Throgs Neck, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the Henry Hudson Bridge... You can see why the book needed to be so long.

Moses was a fascinating man. In his youth, he was an idealistic reformer, a crusader, and a failure. His mother had to support him and his wife and children until he was 39 years old, because he couldn't seem to hold onto a paying job. But once he found his first real position, as Secretary of State  under his mentor and substitute father figure Governor Al Smith, he never looked back. He accumulated power more successfully than perhaps anyone in our history. And once he realized how to go about "getting things done" (his mantra), he was unstoppable. He grew into a monster, a man who would not brook even the slightest, mildest of questions. A man who squeezed, and controlled, and doled out favors and patronage, who lived like a royal, and expected royal treatment at all times. His hold on power seemed absolute--even Franklin Roosevelt, who despised him, had to defer to him--until someone came along who had enough smarts and power of his own to dethrone him. Want to know who? Read the book!

By then he had turned the city into his toy, and twisted and turned it the way he wanted. He built the city but he also corrupted it. He destroyed neighborhoods and people in the process of "getting things done." The amount of good he did and the amount of bad are both enormous, and one of the things I appreciated about the book is that it doesn't try to present a final tally. It simply shows us the story of what is, in the final analysis, the man who made New York.

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