Readings — From the December 2014 issue

Carbon Footprint

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From a conversation between Robert Caro and John R. MacArthur, marking the fortieth anniversary of the publication of The Power Broker, Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Caro is also the author of the multivolume biography The Years of Lyndon Johnson. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper’s Magazine. A first edition of The Power Broker, annotated by Caro, will be included in PEN America’s First Editions/Second Thoughts auction on December 2.

robert caro: By the time I started the book, Robert Moses had been in power for almost half a century. Moses’s people said to me: “He’ll never talk to you. His family will never talk to you. His friends will never talk to you. Anyone who ever wants a contract from this city or state will never talk to you.”

Worse, they said I could never see any of his papers. Moses had seen to it that they had been closed to the public and the press for forty years. So I was never going to get to see them. This was an even bigger handicap. It’s hard to do the kind of book I wanted to do — a book that would explain Moses’s methods of getting and using power — without written documentation.

One day I got a call from a wonderful journalist named Mary Perot Nichols, who had been an editor at the Village Voice and was then the director of communications for Thomas Hoving, one of Moses’s successors as parks commissioner. She called me out of nowhere. We’d met maybe two or three times, when we were both covering the New York World’s Fair in 1964–65. But apparently — she told me this later — she’d been watching my work at Newsday.

“I hear you’re doing a book on Robert Moses,” she said. “And I hear you can’t see his papers.” I told her that was right. She said, “Well, he forgot about the carbon copies.”

Moses had been parks commissioner for almost thirty years. The commissioner’s office is at the Arsenal in Central Park, but Moses hated to go there because there was no private entrance. When he was going upstairs to his office, the other employees could talk to him, and he really didn’t like people talking to him. So he ran the Parks Department from his real office, which was on Randall’s Island. There’s a building underneath the toll plaza of the Triborough Bridge, and that was his headquarters. No one could talk to him there unless he wanted to talk to them.

He ran the Parks Department by communiqué, and he would send carbon copies of the communiqués to the Arsenal. He went to a lot of trouble to make sure other caches of his papers were brought to Randall’s Island, but he forgot about the carbon copies. Mary said, “I know where they are, and I can get you a key.”

If you go to the 79th Street Boat Basin — I think it’s two levels down, but I haven’t been there in so long — there is an area that had been designed as a parking garage. As I remember it, it was a huge empty white space. When I went there the first time, I turned the key and tugged the door open, and it’s a huge garage. But there are no trucks. I turned on the light — they had just a couple of bare bulbs — and there against the far wall was this entire row of four-drawer file cabinets containing not just carbons but thirty years of memos, orders, and directives from Robert Moses to the Parks Department.

Ina [Caro’s wife and his only researcher on the book] and I spent several months going through those papers. This was the era before Xerox. We had a primitive copying machine. It was heavy. So Ina and I would park in a lot by the river, and we’d go down to this garage every day carrying this copying machine together. I would take notes, and when I wanted something copied, Ina and I would copy it.

Now, the parkies — these guys in their green Parks Department uniforms, we called them parkies then — they didn’t know what I was doing there, exactly, but they vaguely knew it was something that the commissioner, as they all still referred to him, wouldn’t like. So whenever we went out — if we went for lunch, or if we both went out to the bathroom or something — they would unscrew the lightbulbs. It would be pitch-black when we got back. After a while Ina and I would arrive in the morning, and I’d have a packet of four light bulbs in my attaché case.

john r. macarthur: Imagine trying to do the book without those carbons.

caro: It wasn’t only those papers. There are other collections of papers. I found a memo that showed how Moses used public works to create and wield power. To us, a public work — a bridge, let’s say — is a transportation device. To Robert Moses, a bridge was also a source of power. Every aspect of it was a source of power. For example, there was no terrorism then; the Triborough Bridge was not going to fall down. There’s no risk. Whoever got to write the insurance policies on the structure would make a lot of money. So Moses would parcel out the policies to politicians who were insurance brokers on the basis of how many votes they controlled in Albany. I found memos in the Moses file that said just that: Jim Roe [a Democratic boss in Queens] has twelve votes in Albany. Give him 18 percent of the insurance premiums. So-and-so controls three votes. Give him 4 percent of the premiums. That sort of thing.

macarthur: And you couldn’t have written that without those memos?

caro: I’d been told about his method of using every aspect of a public works for power. But it would have been very hard to prove. I wouldn’t have used it in the book unless I had something in writing. People ask why these books take so long. Over and over you hear about some collection of written documents, and you have to try to find them. You know, you put it together from so many different places. But you always needed something in writing.

In the latter chapters of the book, I write about how Moses threw people out of their homes to build his highways. I was able to get a pretty good conservative figure: about 250,000 people. He threw out about the same number for his “urban renewal” slum-clearance projects. So he threw about half a million people out of their homes. But it was hard to document. It wasn’t so hard to document for the highways, because the federal government required some sort of documentation. But for the slum clearance, the federal government didn’t require anything.

Moses would just take a site, like the area between Central Park West and Amsterdam Avenue between 97th and 100th Streets. He called it a slum, but it wasn’t even a slum. It was a mostly poor but vibrant, bustling black and Puerto Rican neighborhood. And he simply threw the people out.

That was in the Fifties. I wrote the book in the Seventies, and the people were gone. It was really hard to find them. And when you ask people about things that happened a long time ago, their memories are bad, they exaggerate. But I found that there was in fact a written record. I kept finding references to the Women’s City Club, whose members had interviewed people as they were losing their homes. Volunteers would do interviews with the people who lived in these apartments, and they would go back to the office and type them up.

Because of those interviews, I was really able to paint a picture. What I found out was that Moses’s guys would just tack a piece of paper on the door that looked like a court notice, saying you had thirty days to get out. It wasn’t a court notice, but it was designed to look like one. People who had lived in these apartments for years and had no money to move were suddenly told they had thirty days to get out. Then there would be successive notices. You have two weeks, ten days, whatever, to get out. They thought these were official. Once I had these interviews, with their contemporaneous impressions, I could track down these people and go to them and say, “Tell me more.”

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