Friday, March 31, 2006

Bob the Builder

One of the unspoken factors in reflection on government is the acquisition, use and abuse of power. Of course, we do find ourselves turning to Foucauldian-style critiques of ‘Power,’ or in analyses of how, at some macro level, certain classes maintain their privileges to the disadvantage of others, or how will (of the people, of the leader) is transformed into action through a sequence of formal procedures. What we tend not to notice is the manner in which individuals can and do pursue power, ruthlessly and obsessively and then hold on to it against all forces. Blind as we are to how such people circumvent formal technologies of government, we tend not to see the full story of how societies, states and cities are shaped.

I’ve just finished Robert Caro’s mammoth (over half- million word) study of power in practice: his biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker.

Chances are that, if you’re from my side of the Atlantic, you never heard of Bob Moses. Chances are, also, that if you’ve ever been to New York, you enjoyed and suffered the consequences of his forty-year stranglehold over the city’s landscape and infrastructure. Moses was New York State’s Parks Commissioner and the chair of a number of NYC’s public authorities, most notably the Triborough Bridge Authority and the Housing Commission from the 1920s until the 1960s. Starting off as Parks Commissioner he constructed some of the most beautiful city and state parks in the US, starting on Long Island, as well as the ‘parkways’ that provided the new car-owning society with access to those parks. Through Triborough he built the bridges (and partly the tunnels) and highways that determined the shape of New York’s sprawl out from Manhattan.

Notionally, all Moses’s work was done at the behest of the various mayors and governors under whose administrations he worked. But Moses had, early on, used his brilliant drafting of laws to remove himself from their influence. The legislation that created the great parks he built, for example, included clauses giving him absolute authority within the parks.

It was in Triborough that his real genius was invested though. Since, after years of Tammany Hall’s misrule, NYC was for all intents and purposes bankrupt, money for Moses public works was (formally) raised through bond issues – essentially through mortgages with the city’s banks. Moses devised the bond contracts to give Triborough absolute sovereignty in the city, making the organisation untouchable and making the organisation’s chair unimpeachable. And given that contracts are guaranteed under the US constitution, once they were issued nothing could be done.

But this is the real stroke of genius and the tragedy of Moses’s reign. By law, Authorities were established in order to do a specific thing (build a bridge for example) and, once the bonds were paid off (say through a toll on the bridge) they had to go out of existence and the infrastructure would be handed back to the city. Moses figured that, instead of simply paying off the bonds, he could simply use part of the revenue from one piece of infrastructure as collatoral on new bonds to build new pieces of infrastructure. So long as he kept doing this, his authority could never be shut down (since it would always have constitutionally-guaranteed debts to service).

But this all relied on Moses being able to continuously build. If he stopped he’d lose his empire. As with most empires, the only way to keep going was to keep moving.

In order to pull this off, he built up a coalition of (sometimes very dodgy) bankers who wanted the huge profits from the bonds, trade unions who wanted continuous well-resourced work, and politicians who wanted to be seen to be getting-things-done and who wanted their palms well-greased. Using the acclaim he had received from building the great parks, he scrupulously maintained his public image so that elected officials who got in his way, say as he sought to demolish a neighbourhood and displace its occupants for a highway, could at best not get a public hearing and would at worst be subject to scurrilous and vicious public attacks.

It also helped Moses obscure the fact that, in having the city build supposedly marginal elements in his projects (though in fact they were often far from marginal), Moses was diverting almost all city funding from education health and from his primary competitor – public transport.

In essence, Moses used politics (and a reputation for being above politics) to engage in a more than three decade frenzied building programme that gave New York most of its bridges major highways. Which was all very well except that the programme was obviously not, after a while, designed with the needs of commuters or with ease of movement in mind. It was designed around Moses lust for power and around his own ego and whims.

It rapidly became obvious that the building of highways was only leading to gridlock and that, as new highways were built, new cars were coming onto the roads. Not only was each new road blocked, but all the old roads would get busier as the new ones were built. But Moses was blind to this. He refused to fund public transport or even to leave space for public transport around his roads. This was partly because of a deep antipathy he had for people, mainly black and Puerto Rican, who depended on mass transit. Indeed, by displacing funding from public transport to cars, he was actively chasing anyone who had a choice away from trains and buses and funnelling them instead through the traffic jams and toll booths on his bridges.

Moses use of power often seemed petty and mean. His parkways, for example, were the only route to his parks. But he built all the bridges over the parkways 11 feet high. Inadvertant or not, because of this, buses (that require a minimum clearance of 14 feet) could not use the parkways and (until the building of the Long Island Expressway) could not get to the parks. Moses guaranteed that his parks, such as that at Jones Beach, would not be available to the poor.

Moses's reasoning was sometimes utterly obscure, such as when he destroyed an old mixed community in Fairmont in the Bronx by running the Cross-Bronx expressway straight through it (directly demolishing 1500 homes) instead of taking an alternative route that was no less convenient to drivers but would have led to the demolition of 6 homes.

Two things eventually started Moses downfall, though so late on that Moses was in his 70s. The first had to do with his grasping on to the chair of the city’s slum-clearance programme. Moses was not at all interested in slum clearance but had grabbed the programme because it presented an opportunity to spread largesse to his various clients. But the corruption in the programme was so spectacular that it actually created larger slums on the sites of the old ones. The scandal that arose from the corruption of the programme provided the first openly visible stain on Moses’s public image.

The second part in Moses downfall was an attempt to build a car park in Central Park in order to serve the Tavern on the Green, then run at an enormous profit by one of Moses acolytes. This was utterly insignificant compared to Moses’s activities in the Bronx and in Haarlem, but this time Moses took on the moneyed classes of the city and refused to back down. The spat turned the media against him and he never regained his reputation.

Eventually Moses was sidelined by Nelson Rockefeller who combined political power as governor and, crucially, as a member of the family that owned Chase Manhattan, was able to face down the banks in whose hands Moses’s bonds lay.

Although the narrative that Caro constructs is a tale of events, the important story is the manner in which, through ambition, patronage, pr and bullying, Moses managed to construct and maintain a personal empire for so long. He was the ultimate boss – a supreme manipulator of all the interests that matter in politics. At the same time, though, his motivations were never financial: Moses manoeuvres had a purpose.

Getting Things Done might have ultimately become an end in itself but this was largely accompanied by a serious, if often stubbornly bull-headed and misguided, will to improve the city for the city's people. Theory finds it very difficult to capture the sort of phenomenon represented by Moses and, as a result, our understanding of society is much much poorer.

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