Robert Caro: Sees no reason to revise his view of Robert Moses

Historians in the News

THE question trails Robert Caro like a fly, buzzing in his ear. Over and over, at cocktail parties and museum receptions in the past few years, he hears variations on the same query.

“Doesn’t New York need a new master builder?” people ask. “Don’t we need a new Robert Moses?”

Mr. Caro, 71, sits in his spare writer’s aerie high in a Midtown office building, an owlish man with a faint smile. His answer has the virtue of concision:


Mr. Caro, a man of Ahab-like writerly obsessions, sees no need to rethink, redraw or revise his measure of Moses, despite the prominent critics now baying at him. His 1974 biography, “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” documented many of what he regards as Moses’ transgressions, like acres of sterile public housing towers, parks and playgrounds for the rich and comfortable, and highways that sundered working-class neighborhoods and dispossessed a quarter of a million people. Why say more, he asks; the book speaks for itself.

“We don’t need a new Robert Moses because he ignored the values of New York,” Mr. Caro says. “If anything, I see the city moving today to correct his ravages.”

Unusual in an age when sentence fragments on a blog pass for intellectual argument and “definitive” accounts have half-lives measured in months, Mr. Caro’s 1,246-page tome has for three decades dominated our understanding of modern New York. A tale of hubris and unchecked power, “The Power Broker” was more than a Pulitzer Prize-winning portrait of the man who shaped and misshaped New York. It offered a compelling narrative of the city’s rise and long slide toward the darkness of the 1970s.

Now a powerful revisionist tide is running in. New York has the feel of a boomtown — highways clogged, subways crowded, luxury condo towers rising — and an influential band of historians and planners have argued that Moses, who served as chief of public authorities and confidant to a half-century’s worth of New York’s mayors and governors, had much to do with the rise of the city and little to do with its (temporary) fall....

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