Prospectus - Issue No. 4 - Summer 2018 / Robert Caro's The Power Broker, and Robert Moses Dream of the Great Highway that went up along the water.
Isaac Myers III
Issue No. 4 - Summer 2018
In order to understand anyone it helps to know what he dreams about. Robert Moses is no exception. The fifth section (“The Love of Power”) and twenty-fifth chapter (“Changing”) of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker – Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974) states, without any hedging, that the West Side Improvement was more than just another construction project for Moses.
"Of all the hundreds of public works that Robert Moses was building in New York City during the 1930's, the one whose creation most clearly manifested the same extraordinary capacities he had displayed on Long Island was the project that arose from the first and longest-held of his dreams, the dream of the 'great highway that went uptown along the water' and of the great park alongside that had made him explain to Francis Perkins in 1914, staring from the roof deck of a Hudson River ferryboat at the muddy wasteland below Riverside Drive: 'Couldn't this waterfront be the most beautiful thing in the world?'"
The subtitle of The Power Broker, “The Fall of New York,” clearly depicts the lens through which Caro wrote the book. The Power Broker isn’t celebrating Moses’ work ––– the highways and expressways and parkways and housing projects; however, it’s not condemning his work either. Within the book’s introduction, “Wait Until the Evening,” Caro proposes what could be described as the central question of The Power Broker: “Would New York have been a better place to live if Robert Moses had never built anything? Would it have been better if the man who shaped it had never lived?”
More specifically, in detailing Moses’ impact in over forty years of being in power ––– most notably as New York City’s Parks Commissioner for twenty-six years (January of 1934 through May of 1960), but also holding positions as the head of the State Parks Council, head of State Power Commission, and Chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority –––– Caro’s introduction to The Power Broker states:
"'One must wait until the evening . . . [To see how splendid the day has been.]' [Sophocles] In the evening of Robert Moses' forty-four years of power, New York, so bright with promise forty-four years before, was a city in chaos and despair. His highways and bridges and tunnels were awesome ––– taken as a whole the most awesome urban improvement in the history of mankind ––– but no aspect of those highways and bridges and tunnels was as awesome as the congestion on them.
He had built more housing than any public official in history, but the city was starved for housing, more starved, if possible, than when he had started building, and the people who lived in that housing hated it ––– hated it. James Baldwin could write, 'almost as much as policeman, and this is saying a great deal.' He had built great monuments and great parks, but people were afraid to travel to or walk around them."
For all these reasons, this book attempts to tell two stories at once: how New York, forty years ago a very different city from the city it is today [in 1974], became what it has become; and how the idealistic Robert Moses became what he has become. It must be a book about what happened to the city and what happened to the man. For, to an extent few people have really understood, these two stories are one story.”
With this weight and impact in mind, on the last Sunday of summer, September 26th, 2018, at the intersection of Seventy-second street and Riverside Drive, I started my walk. Yet as I prepared for the walk, and had already been reading Caro’s description of what it took in order for Moses to created the West Side Improvement, the lens through which I looked at the steps that I was about to take was slightly filtered. The dream that Moses had for the Upper West Side and his dream of the “'great highway that went uptown along the water' and of the great park alongside,’ had become a reality for the city and its people, and had been for over a half century.
And so as I began moving down toward the Hudson and also north, toward the Seventy-ninth Street Boat Basin, I thought of a specific passage within The Power Broker, concerning the source of Moses’ dream.
“What lay between the two young reformers [Bill Exton and Bob Weinberg who opposed Moses’ plans for the West Side Improvement] and Moses was a partly a question of values.
Moses’ had been formed in a different age, the age, twenty years and more in the past, when he had been a young reformer. To understand his dream for the West Side Improvement, one had to understand the age in which he dreamed it.
In that age, parks had been for the upper and ‘comfortable middle’ classes and one of the things those classes wanted to do in parks was to drive through them ––– at the slow, leisurely speed of the era ––– and enjoy their scenery. In that age, therefor, it made sense for a road through a park to be placed at its most scenic location ––– in the case of Riverside Park, at the river’s edge.
But things had changed. There had been 125,101 motor vehicles in New York City in 1914; there were 804,620 in New York City in 1934.
Heavy traffic on Moses’ Long Island Parkways was already beginning to make driving on them less and less a source of pleasure and more and more a source of pain ––– or at least irritation; their value as a source of beauty and pleasure in themselves was already clearly diminishing.
With this idea in mind, I thought of a film that I first watched nearly eight years ago, when I hadn’t moved to New York, and was only dreaming about what it would feel like, to at last move here, and live here: Manhattan (1979). In Woody’s Allen’s film, this dream of driving along a “great highway [that goes] uptown along the water” is brought to life, wherein, a little over the halfway point in the film, two members of the ‘comfortable middle class’ that Caro describes return to New York after a weekend away, as the screenplay states:
The screen abruptly leaves the dark stars of the planetarium and cuts to an off-ramp of the George Washington Bridge. Yale and Emily are driving down the Henry Hudson Parkway, the back of Yale’s convertible to the camera.
Yale (laughing) Well, your parents were in a good mood. I almost had a good time.
Emily: (laughing) Who was that you called after dinner?
Yale: Oh, uh, uh, Da-David Cohen. He wants me to review the new book on Virginia Wolf. He’s written another one. Can you believe it?
Emily: Are you okay?
Yale: Yeah, I’m fine. What do you mean?
Emily: Well, you seem sort of nervous.
Yale: Nah, I’m not. I feel good. I was gonna . . . ask you–-
Emily: (interrupting) No, I’m okay.
Yale: -how you felt. You seemed a little strange at dinner.
Emily: Well, I just . . . more thoughts about kids.
Of course the drive, as depicted on film, looks grand, and has a certain way of capturing the imagination, and of course, it wasn’t David Cohen who Yale called during dinner; but the woman who he was having an affair, and as he and his wife, Emily, were driving back to New York, he had to make up something on the spot in order to explain the mysterious phone call.
Looking at the Henry Hudson Parkway, and Riverside Park, and the West Side Improvement from Seventy-second Street to One-hundred-and-tenth Street objectively, as Caro does within the Power Broker, it’s difficult to deny that taking the Henry Hudson Parkway into the city created and still creates a certain drama, beauty, and dignity. Caro describes the Henry Hudson Parkway through the lens of the reporters who were tasked with writing about the project upon its completion.
“First there was a steelwork and concrete in the sky, immense towers, thick cables, a roadbed above the water ––– the George Washington Bridge, looming about the leaves, casting a dark shadow over the parkway so that the reporters’ limousine rolled across it as if it were a gigantic welcome mat to a gigantic city. Then, above the parkway to the left, there were apartment houses behind the leaves. And suddenly the city was beside the reporters, looming over them; atop the great cliffs of rock were cliffs of brick, the massed apartment houses of Riverside Drive.
Far away to the left, there were the spires of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, their very visibility at such a distance an evocation of the immensity of the canyons of skyscrapers toward which the limousine was headed. Ahead of the reporters was the panorama of the harbor, serene water turned busy, churned by the giant screws of giant ships, dented by piers jutting out from shore.”
This was the dramatic and grand entrance to New York City that Moses had dreamt of. So when I decided to walk down toward the river, and north toward the Seventy-ninth Street Boat Basin, I couldn’t help but feel slightly out of my depths. I was a pedestrian. This was a walk, and not a drive. There would be no grand entrance or dramatic views, but even so, I knew that still there would be something, and ideally, some beauty and enjoyment, to experience.