Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Robert Caro and the Man/Monster Who Built New York

Walking uncertainly through the crowds on Oxford’s High Street is an elderly man in a blue jacket, light blue pullover and red and black tie. When he is yards away from me, I notice he is also wearing scholarly bifocals. “Robert,” I say.

“Broyan — oi wasn’t sure oi’d recognoise you.”

This is the first thing you need to know about Robert Caro: he has a New York accent so thick, you feel as if you’re in a Jimmy Cagney movie. The second thing you need to know is that he is one of the great reporters of our time — he smells of my trade: I am a sucker for that smell — and probably the greatest biographer.

He is also an extraordinary writer. After reading page 136 of his book The Power Broker, I gasped and read it again, then again. This, I thought, is how it should be done. Once we are seated, with coffee, I mention this page to him. Unexpectedly, he looks shocked and moved.

“You are the first person who has ever interviewed me who has picked out that page. You write something and you know it’s going to be in your mind for ever — and no one mentions it again for the rest of your life. I wrote that page over and over. I gotta tell you, Bryan, however your story comes out, you made my day. I’m going to tell Ina [his wife].”

When, as a young reporter, he started his book, he taught himself the craft of writing by reading Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Tolstoy’s War and Peace — one chapter of one, then one of the other. “I believe there’s something not understood enough about biography. If you want a work of history or biography to endure, the writing, the prose, the narrative, has to be at the same level as a work of fiction.”

Caro published The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York in 1974. It was garlanded with awards, including a Pulitzer, and the reviews were sensational. It was said to be one of the greatest nonfiction works ever written. But it is only now being published in the UK. Why? Well, because nobody here had heard of Moses — mind you, not many people in America had heard of him before Caro came along.

It is being published now because of the recent success of Caro’s second biography. This is, so far, a four-volume life of Lyndon Johnson (he is working on the fifth, while acknowledging that, being 79, he may not finish it). Every MP, wonk and would-be wonk in Westminster has read it, because they think it is the greatest insight into power ever written. They’re nearly right: it’s the second greatest after The Power Broker.

His first book happened because, great reporter that he is, he asked the right question and saw a truth invisible to others. The question was: how do cities decide to build bridges, roads and so on? He got plenty of answers, particularly when he took a break from his job to do a course in urban planning at Harvard for a year, but he didn’t believe any of them.

“These two guys had written a textbook on highway and land planning, and they explained it by mathematical equations. I’m sitting there, taking assiduous notes, and all of a sudden it came to me — this is all bullshit. OK, I know why highways get built. They get built because Robert Moses wants them built. They’re writing this book about power and didn’t understand where power comes from, and neither did anybody else.”

For half a century, Moses was the most powerful man in New York, outwitting and outlasting political masters including Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor, and President Franklin D Roosevelt. He was also the greatest builder the world has ever known. He constructed state parks, vast highways, expressways and parkways, the colossal Triborough, Verrazano and countless other bridges, Shea Stadium, the Lincoln Center, hundreds of playgrounds, tennis courts, swimming pools and baseball diamonds, the UN building, apartment complexes… In a nutshell, he built the New York you now know.

“Power reveals. One of the things people need to understand is that when a person is climbing to power, he has to conceal what he really is. But then maybe they recoil from what he is really like.”

Moses was arrogant beyond belief. Caro interviewed him several times (he died in 1981) until he asked a tricky question and was cut off. The man was a vicious racist and an intolerable snob. He built hundreds of playgrounds all over Manhattan, but only one in Harlem. He was convinced black people hated swimming in cold water, so a pool near Harlem was kept cold. And they stayed away, not because of the water, but because of the animosity of the guards. Ever wonder why those stone bridges over the parkways are so low? To keep buses containing black and poor people out. His “projects” — public housing complexes — were miserable buildings, designed to keep residents out of sight and out of mind.

“When you fly into JFK and look down, there’s this huge beach on the left, miles and miles long. It’s called the Rockaways, and there are rows and rows of 18-, 19-, 20-storey apartment houses, all for poor people, all low-income. When he got the power to build this stuff in Manhattan, he had to get rid of the people who lived there, so he hounded them out like cattle. He told everyone he was doing it humanely, but he just hounded them out with phoney eviction notices. He had embodied racism in concrete. He wanted to make people feel poor. He was very racist. This city is still divided by race and income because he believed in that.”

This was a man who started out as an idealist. Understanding how he became that monster and grabbed power — well, you’re going to read it, so that’s enough about Moses. What about Caro?

by Bryan Appleyard, Bryan Appleyard.com |  Read more:
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