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Robert Moses and the car steering his will
Devices and gadgets influence -- or even create -- the systems they require. Even someone like Robert Moses was steered by the mandates of the automobile.
Read time: about 10 minutes. A summer reading note and the beginning of fall semester class — this post relates Robert Moses, Long Island parks, and the system of the car. Next week, I read some 1950s articles from the Harvard Business Review and puzzle over the way automation interacts with work and skill.
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In the fall, I park a little over a mile from my classroom in a lot that is situated in between everything. It keeps me walking, too, since campus buses are usually full and don’t stop. “FULL PLS USE NEXT BUS” reads the banner above the windshield that normally reports the bus destination. Often, I’ll meet my campus guests from out-of-town in the parking lot, or I’ll fetch them from wherever. We walk to the seminar room together.
We reconnect and talk as we briskly walk.
A couple years ago on one of those walks, I learned of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker from my friend and long-ago student David Shaywitz. David got his appreciation of Caro’s books from Jeffrey Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, who happened to live in the same town as the Shaywitz family when they lived in California. Pfeffer, David reminded me in an email, “is known for his unvarnished application of hard-nosed social science research to the study of leadership and power” and teaches a popular course called “The Paths to Power” at Stanford. On one of our walks, David talked about power and its ambiguous character and how it was explored through Caro’s biography of Robert Moses (The Power Broker’s main focus) and Caro’s on-going five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. The book was already decades old, and it still hadn’t landed on my bedside table. So, I picked it up as August beach reading, and I’m working my way through it now, all 1,162 pages of narrative, not counting notes and other addenda.
Robert Moses builds parks on Long Island
Chapter nine of The Power Broker is called “A Dream” and revisits Robert Moses’ long-waiting dream of building parks on Long Island, east of New York City. His vision came into being after patience, conniving, manipulation, and of course, litigation. Caro opens the chapter not with Robert Moses but with the upheavals and transformations that American society, and New York City in particular, were undergoing. Many of these changes emanated from the invention that came to define the twentieth century: the automobile. The car remade industry, increased productivity, and whittled down the time that workers spent at their jobs. “Before World War I, a seventy-hour factory week had been common,” Caro reports; “in 1920, the average was sixty hours; in 1929, just before the Crash, it would be forty-eight.” Weekends were opening up. In large part the revolution of free time came from manufacturing practices developed by Henry Ford who even offered the unheard of benefit of annual vacations with pay.
Matching this expanding leisure time was the explosion of cars produced and bought in the early years of the century. Caro points out that the “number of automobile-owning families in the country in 1919 was less than seven million; by 1923, it would be twenty-three million.” Even with such explosive growth in a mere four years, I think Caro’s statistics still understate the transformation that was taking place. Consider this: In 1900, US factories produced a total of four thousand cars; in 1923, American factories produced 3.6 million cars. In 1909, with the introduction of Ford’s Model T and his use of the assembly line and mass-produced parts, production jumped and availability increased as prices dropped. In part as a result of increased competition with the new manufacturing innovations, the total number of American car manufacturers — 277 at their peak in 1909 — plummeted.
The situation in which Robert Moses began to fulfill his dream was simple: In the mid-1920s New Yorkers were all car’ed up with nowhere to go. Caro describes the situation quite concretely:
For millions of New York fathers, thanks to the machine parked near their door, no longer did a Sunday outing have to be to a Bowery beer garden or a hard-surfaced playground framed by grimy buildings that they saw every day. Suddenly it could be to grassy meadows beneath expanses of blue sky, perhaps even to white sand and sparkling surf.
But it was not to be. The car would remain parked. Or, if the family packed up and ventured out in search of picnicking and swimming on Long Island to the east, they would be met with frustration in unremitting dust and heat on the road. Roads didn’t lack, but they were unable to handle the traffic and they led to no actually accessible leisurely destinations.
And this was by design — embedded in laws and in constrained and largely unmaintained road infrastructure.
IF THE FAMILY PACKED UP AND VENTURED OUT IN SEARCH OF PICNICKING AND SWIMMING ON LONG ISLAND TO THE EAST, THEY WOULD BE MET WITH FRUSTRATION IN UNREMITTING DUST AND HEAT ON THE ROAD
Long Island townships might have parks — but only for the locals. New Yorkers who wandered in were chased off by policemen who shouted that open parks were “farther along” — which was a lie. The nation’s wealthiest, whom the beauty and isolation of the place had attracted, were in no mood to share the scenery, either, and marked their properties “PRIVATE.” Caro writes that the “barons” of the age, who had ensconced themselves in six hundred estates in the most scenic areas of Long Island, had even acquired the right “to incorporate their estates into self-governing ‘villages’ so that the measures necessary to keep out the city hordes could be legitimatized … and enforced by ‘village police forces’ which before incorporation had been their privately employed guards.”
Getting to the restricted parks and properties was another thing altogether for New York families in their Fords:
If they were heading for the North Shore on Northern Boulevard, 160 feet of smooth macadam1 shrank to eighteen at the city line. The cars heading east had to cram into single file. As they crept along, the paving of the boulevard deteriorated, so that each family had to watch the cars ahead jounce, one after the other, into gaping potholes, and then wait for the jolts themselves.
Bad roads were part of the scheme to keep the city folks in the city, away from the inaccessible shores of Long Island.
Such is the context Robert Caro’s story of Robert Moses’ rise to power. Caro carefully lays out the circumstances that Moses fell into, and for me, that background of Moses’ life stands out — I think more starkly for me than for other readers because I’ve obsessed about cars so much. As I read Caro’s account of Moses’ dreams of parks and parkways, the story I perceived shifted from Moses the man to Moses in his milieu, and the power he “brokered” became a dance of circumstance and his will. In his conquest of Long Island (and the term conquest applies) I see Moses as a human instrument laying out part of the mammoth technological system of the automobile. He is a talented and treacherously scheming human under command of the car and its irrepressible system.
New Yorkers had cars with few places to go. Long Island lay to the east, with particular promise and, amazingly, empty lands that the city had claim to for water rights. But the car — the technology that effectively pressurized the city’s space — added volatility to the circumstances of New York in the 1920s. The populace could move more or less effortlessly wherever roads led. Robert Moses was interested in parks and building roads.
The cars required a technological system of infrastructure in order to be, well, automobiles, and that meant roads, destinations, and support.
A will bounded. Not a puppet on strings
The story that Caro tells of Robert Moses rise and fall depicts the accumulation and the exercise of power. When I describe Moses as an “instrument” of the technology of the automobile, I do not diminish the power that Moses acquired and applied — which was considerable and, as readers come to understand, not exactly wielded with charity, patience, and benevolence. (Caro’s depiction shows a man obsessed with the accumulation and ruthless exercise of power, even for the sake of simply exerting power.) It is, however, worth teasing out pressures that Moses channeled. In the case of his work to establish parks on Long Island, these pressures accumulated around the automobile and the powers that its technology promised. The pressures implied a system — manifest most clearly in the story of Moses’ Long Island projects in a system of access and the creation of destinations, in this case for entertainment and recreation. The story of Long Island’s projects ends up triumphantly — actually amazingly, since Moses and his teams of engineers, draftsmen, surveyors, and workers of all sorts pulled together to open parks and parkways in short order.
With the Long Island parks, Moses chose and used his power in certain ways to fulfill his dream, doing so within the logic and the systems within automobile technology. The car, of course did not dictate his dream in detail, but Moses fulfilled it within constraints that were implicit in the technology of the car and, maybe even secondary to that, within the context of human desires — for freedom of movement, for surf and sun, for respite from the city — that the automobile awakened in New York’s fast-growing population.
That Long Island park episode of Moses’ life closes with his fall to the darker — one could say mean-spirited or even evil — seductions of power.
Caro ends the introduction to his book this way: “It is impossible to say that New York would have been a better city if Robert Moses had never existed. It is possible to say only that it would have been a different city.” Yes, Robert Moses exerted his power ruthlessly to create a New York City that largely persists today. Possible variations were, however, outlined by the city’s and the nation’s circumstances, and among the strongest of these was the emerging technological system of the automobile.
Some comments on The Power Broker so far
I mentioned that I was finally reading The Power Broker to a fellow Substack writer who I knew was reading the book, too. He was farther along — a “few hundred pages” — and commented, “It’s well written but it illuminates some of the horrible spots of human character and that gets hard to read, for me at least.” And he’s right. David Shaywitz pointed out the same thing to me as we walked across campus a couple years ago. The story that’s unfolded in the three hundred pages I’ve read shows the fall of Robert Moses from idealistic youth to rank opportunist, conniving and even petty. David was disturbed by what he saw as the inevitability of human’s fundamental will to power and its driving influence on human behavior. The notion has some philosophical history, of course.
I recall back in the days of the ’demic that The Power Broker became something of a prop on bookshelves behind people doing Zoom interviews. The book made cameo appearances frequently enough that the New York Times took note. Times correspondent Dana Rubinstein contacted Caro about it, and he said, “It sort of makes you feel optimistic. I always felt, people reading it are reading it because they want to know how political power really works.”
Though its picture of power indeed shines light on “the horrible spots of human character,” Caro’s book has made me wonder if he thought that knowledge about power might humanize it or keep it in check. I don’t think Caro liked Moses much, and so he must have fortitude to have completed this massive biography.
The story of Robert Moses and the car relates to initial discussions in my fall seminar on “our complex relationships with technology.” We’re exploring unintended consequences and how technologies imply systems that we may not immediately recognize but have to deal with nonetheless. The system of automobility is one of them.
Got a comment?
Tags: power, robert caro, robert moses, new york, politics, state park, highway, road, building, corruption, technology, freedom, control, technological system, automobile, car, unintended
Links, cited and not, some just interesting
It’s noteworthy that Robert Caro hasn’t agreed to have his book appear in electronic format. You gotta read it on paper. Maybe that’s an example to follow? Caro, Robert A. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York: Vintage Books, 1975. (Alibris | Bookshop.org)
A trip to New York in type starting from an airplane landing. Inventive web entertainment via the keyboard. All you need to do is scrollscrollscroll down. GROZNOV. “I TYPE NY.” I TYPE NY. Accessed August 18, 2023. http://i-type-ny.groznov.co/
Yes, books do furnish a room. Especially during a pandemic. Rubinstein, Dana. “Lights. Camera. Makeup. And a Carefully Placed 1,246-Page Book.” The New York Times, May 28, 2020, sec. New York. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/28/nyregion/power-broker-tv.html.
Finding a way in early car industry: Devanatha Pillai, Sandeep, Brent D. Goldfarb, and David Kirsch. “When Does Economic Experimentation Matter? Finding the Pivot in the Early History of the Automobile Industry.” SSRN Scholarly Paper. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, June 12, 2018. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3199544.
This park is only 875 acres, but the beaches extend for miles. Given Moses’ nastiness, there’s a movement to change the name of the park, and legislation to do that has been proposed in the New York State Assembly. No new name has been proposed. Robert Moses State Park (https://parks.ny.gov/parks/7/)
As I’ve been reading Caro’s The Power Broker, I’ve recalled a post byabout Caro’s “cork-board.” Jillian wrote it when her award-winning Substack was just a month old. The Power Broker is dense with facts, and I can see how Caro’s meticulous planning and research distilled into the prose of the book. I can almost see the cork board’s notations as I go through a chapter.
David’s most recent book review was published a couple weeks ago. It’s on “synthetic biology.” Shaywitz, David A. “‘Programmable Planet’ Review: Biology’s Big Bonus.” Wall Street Journal, August 20, 2023, sec. Arts. https://www.wsj.com/arts-culture/books/programmable-planet-review-biologys-big-bonus-2a9029e5.
Yes, macadam was a new word for me, too. It’s a kind of paving that uses crushed rock that is laid and then coated with a “binding layer” of tar or cement. Wikipedia has a good article. Macadam is still around, even though the Wikipedia article suggests it’s only preserved as a historical remnant in historic parkways. Not far from my home in the Piedmont of North Carolina, there are miles of macadam-paved roads.