The Power Broker #06: Mike Schur

ROMAN MARS: This is the 99% invisible breakdown of the Power Broker. I’m Roman Mars.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And I, of course, am Elliott Kalan.

ROMAN MARS: Today, we’re covering the beginning section of Part Five: The Love of Power, Chapters 25 and 26. That’s pages 499 to 606 in my book. And later in this episode, our special book club guest is Mike Schur. He is the creator behind beloved sitcoms like Parks and Recreation, The Good Place, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He was a producer and writer on The Office. And he’s also written a book on moral philosophy called How To Be Perfect. Mike is a huge fan of The Power Broker–maybe the biggest fan of The Power Broker I’ve ever met–and he has cited this book as inspiration behind Parks and Rec. So, on this episode, we’re covering pages 499 to 606 in my book. That’s the beginning of Part Five: The Love of Power, Chapters 25 and 26. When we last left The Power Broker, Robert Moses had run for governor. He had been such an unlikable, unpleasant candidate that he lost more than any major party candidate had ever lost before. And his reputation is tarnished. He’s completely on his ass. But President Roosevelt–a unlikely savior–in an attempt to remove him for good, has an order issued stating that New York City will get no more WPA money until it fires anyone holding both a city and a state office. This was an order written just to expel Moses. Moses leaks this to the press. He’s able to frame this as the federal government trying to push around the people of New York City, and it is just what Moses needed to get his halo affixed back over his head. And under Mayor La Guardia, Moses perfects the system of providing physical achievements for politicians to run on, while threatening to resign if he doesn’t get his way. Although La Guardia finds a way to take the piss out of him In this regard a little bit. Over the course of the last section, Moses is even more flagrant about ignoring orders and laws that get in his way, and he’s even more ruthless about just destroying people who are trying to stop him from achieving his ends. But at the same time, he’s beginning to get stretched pretty thin. He’s doing all these jobs around the city. Most of ’em are not as accomplished or as thoughtful as Jones Beach. It is very clear that he’s underserving New York City’s poor and non-white population. And we’ll see more of that ruthlessness and neglect in this episode because what’s clear that Caro is getting to at the end of the last section was that this is not a man in love with his mission–a man in love with parks. He’s become a man who’s just in love with power. The Love of Power.

ELLIOTT KALAN: The Love of Power.

ROMAN MARS: That starts Chapter 25, called Changing. I think it’s, like, the longest chapter in the book, is that right?

ELLIOTT KALAN: I believe so. This is a 75, 76-page chapter. It’s kind of an omnibus chapter that encompasses a bunch of different things all under that heading of Changing. And this is one of those times where I’m like, “Mr. Caro, maybe you could have split this chapter up into some smaller pieces.” It’s a big chapter.

ROMAN MARS: That and maybe this one isn’t served by being called Changing or Driving and Changing. There’s some specificity in these stories that I think might have been broken out a little bit better. But regardless, I actually really dig all this stuff. It’s accumulating to show what type of person Robert Moses has become kind of at the height of his power.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yes. And in a way, Chapter Five is… In some way there’s some great stuff in it, but in some ways it almost feels like Robert Caro is like, “Yeah, yeah, let’s get through this. I want to get to Chapter 26. Let’s get to Chapter 26.” And so, he is like, “I don’t want a whole bunch of chapters. We’ll just have one big chapter, and then we’ll get to the family stuff.” So, let’s jump into it. If there’s a lot of numbers in this chapter, I apologize. Listeners, we’re going to be doing a lot of numbers. It’s a long chapter. But then Chapter 26 is such a dramatic kind of personal story at the end of this large scale metropolitan municipal story. So, you’ll see. This episode, I think, you’ll feel is going to be really well balanced, even though it’s going to seem like we spend a lot of time talking about how much things cost and how many thousand feet of riprap are being used in projects. So, we start this chapter…. It’s ironic that it’s called Changing because Robert Caro starts by saying that arrogance is just a basic part of Moses’ nature. He’s positing that just as it was for his mother and for his grandmother, arrogance comes naturally to him, that is something that is not changing in him, and that once he had a taste of power, he came to need power and dominance for its own sake. And this is why he thinks Moses seems to start going out of his way to antagonize people just with impunity. Before, he would do it to get his way or because sometimes he’s just kind of a jerk. But now he seems to be getting pleasure just out of stepping on people. And he goes through a couple examples. There’s a reproduction of Mount Vernon in Prospect Park, my own home park when I lived in Brooklyn. And he wants to tear it down. And the community councils of the city of New York–they don’t want it to happen. And the council is powerless. Robert Moses could just ignore them. He has total power of parks. But instead he publicizes their opposition so that he can then plant quotes in the papers that are kind of, like, witty reposts to them. He’s like, “I haven’t heard anything from any reasonable people about this.” And the reporter’s like, “What about the community council of the State of New York?” And he goes, “Exactly.” And it’s like, “So, you’re going out of your way just to get that bon mot in the papers?” And he goes all the way to the Rockaways to give a speech to a local association, just so he can tell them that their airport, Floyd Bennett Field, stinks–that it’s not very good. He didn’t have to go out there. The Rockaways is not an easy jaunt from where he lives. There’s a new local newspaper that criticizes him. So, he essentially runs it out of business. These are powerless people really. They can’t really stop him, but he just goes out of his way to step on them.

ROMAN MARS: And one of the ones I found most poignant is this young woman who works for Mayor La Guardia–Pearl Bernstein–she’s a secretary at the Board of Estimate. And all she’s doing is doing what La Guardia tells her to–puts off Moses a little bit, does this, does that, whatever. And he just makes it a mission to destroy this woman’s life.

ELLIOTT KALAN: He makes life so horrible for her and is constantly abusive to her. And he knows she’s just a proxy for La Guardia–that she has no control over what she’s doing. But he can’t fight La Guardia quite the same way. He can’t belittle La Guardia the same way. So, he goes after her. And there’s a story Caro tells of one of Moses’ aides making a suggestion at a lunch meeting and Moses going, “Now, you’re just a swabby on this ship. Do you understand? and then going, “Do you understand? Do you understand,” until the guy finally says, “Yes, sir.” And two things about that. One, it’s so unnecessary. And two, Robert Mosese cannot avoid maritime water stuff. That’s the analogy he goes to immediately. “You’re a swabby on this ship.” He loves the water, even when he was attacking people. And he’s a big guy. He’s got powerful arms from all that swimming. And he’s physically threatening to people. And Caro tells the story of Manhattan Borough President, Stanley M. Isaacs, who will come up a few times in this book as an opponent of Moses. They’re at a Board of Estimate meeting. And Isaac says, “These are misleading cost figures.” And Moses takes a swing in his direction and says, “I’d like to punch you in the nose.” And that’s not… It’s not acceptable. It’s not acceptable for an adult human to say that to another adult.

ROMAN MARS: And I think this is the one part where it is Robert Moses changing. He’s a very pugnacious individual, but usually his opponents are people who have similar power to him. They’re a governor, they’re a president who should be doing better things with his time… But now these are really lowly people that he’s just bullying. And this is kind of a different, just more extreme Moses.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yes, exactly. Before, he was a fighter, who wouldn’t let people get in his way. Now, he’s a bully, who’s bullying people. And there’s always been a little bit of that in him, but now he has the power to really run rampant with it because nobody can get in his way. And there’s a story that Caro goes into detail on. We’ll see how much detail we go into it. I think there’s a lot of good details, but you may get bored of it. I don’t know. It’s about the Columbia Yacht Club, which–on the face of it–doesn’t seem like the most sympathetic group of people just from the name. Columbia Yacht Club. They’ve been on 86th Street since 1888, so that’s almost 50 years by the point this story is happening. This is 1934. They paid a low rent to the city for the land because they had put the money in to develop and build and maintain this marina that was a place for guests of the city to dock their ships. They would get involved with Fleet Week and things like that. When a British royalty stopped by, that’s where they dock their yachts and things like that. So, March, 1934, Moses says that the club is in the way of the West Side Improvement, which is this huge West Side plan that we’re going to talk about a lot in this chapter. This has been his dream for years. And he says, “We’re going to have to tear this yacht club down.” And the members of the club are like, “Well, can we stay through September because we promised to help host during Fleet Week?” And I don’t know if other cities have Fleet Week the same way. But in New York, Fleet Week is a big thing. There’s sailors all over the place. People love it. And Moses says, “That’s fine because the West Side Improvement is such a big project.” It’s going to take me so long to get to the part where we need to tear you down. And then he’s like, “Actually, I kind of want to change that building into a restaurant, and I want to start working on that now. So, you can stay through September if you donate the building to the Parks Department.” And the club commodore–it’s unclear how this happens–in a call with Moses, agrees to this plan. “We’ll stay through September, and we’ll give you the building.” But he agrees in such a way that it irritates Moses in a way that the commodore can never really figure out. And the next day, they get an angry letter from Moses saying they have to vacate in 12 days and anything they leave behind will be considered abandoned property. And Moses goes to the press, and he runs his strategy. “This is the private interests versus the public good. These wealthy yacht owners–they’re standing in the way of this big public improvement.” And the press just runs these statements without question–no criticism. They don’t investigate it. Why would you investigate it? The champion of the parks is up against the Columbia Yacht Club. It’s a yacht club. They haven’t seen 1980s movies yet in the 1930s, but they know–they can guess. Yacht club owners are kind of… For the average New Yorker? They can’t have a yacht. And the club–they apply to the state Supreme Court for an injunction. And the court hearing shows that a lot of Moses’ attacks are based on just outright lies. And the court issues an injunction. But Robert Moses–he doesn’t do injunctions. He’s like, “Andrew Jackson, tell the court you enforced your own injunction.” And he has already sent two steam shovels, and they literally cut off the dirt roads leading to the clubhouse. So, it’s very hard to get to this clubhouse now. The next day, the power gets shut off. And the people from the clubhouse–they get in touch with ConEd. And the ConEd goes, “Oh yeah, someone from the yacht club called and told us to shut the power off.” And it’s clearly someone from the park department has called pretending they were from the club. While that’s being sorted out, a group of park employees come by, and they’re like, “Oh yeah, we heard there was a problem with the water main, so we’re just going to dig it up and remove it.” And it is one thing after another way of forcing them out. And the Board of Alderman of the city demands Moses rescind the eviction order, and he just ignores them. He doesn’t have to. And in the end, the club members have to leave months early. Moses tears the building down. And later on, Caro reports that when someone else asked Moses, “Why did you do this to them?” he said, “Because they were rude to me.”

ROMAN MARS: That’s amazing.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And we don’t even know what the rudeness was. As far as the guy from the club knows, he just said, “Yes. Okay, we’ll agree to your proposal.”

ROMAN MARS: Yeah. I mean, a bully with this type of weaponry at his fingertips–to bring in steam shovels, to cut off the road, to bring in ConEd, to bring in the people to shut off the water–I mean, all that sort of stuff is just a stunning amount of power for a person who is not mature enough to wield it.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Not mature enough to wield it, and also not an elected official. You could say the last president before the current one–he was a bully–but he was, considering our weirdo election system, elected to that office. Some people had decided he deserved it. Whereas with Moses, the people who decided he deserved this power are other elected officials. But it’s not like the people of New York were like, “Yeah, yeah, we elected him to do this stuff.” And these goals are not just bullying. They also help Moses achieve his goals by making people less likely to cross him. And Caro quotes Judge Jacob Lutsky talking like a New York judge, where he says, “If you know that every time you get in a guy’s way he’s going to kick you in the balls, you make pretty damn sure you don’t get in his way, right?” And yeah. This is a judge talking. That’s not from the bench, I assume, but that’s good advice. If you know a guy’s going to kick you in the balls, don’t get close enough to his feet. And so, the people in the city bureaucracy are now making a habit just to stay away from Moses–just to let him have his way–because they know he’s such a troublemaker. And it’s almost like Robert Caro needs to remind us just the sheer power that he has at his hands–that he’s not just being a bully of the Columbia Yacht Club. He spends a page talking about the literal, physical changes to the map of New York that Robert Moses is making. He’s creating 5,000 acres of new land. He’s joining islands together to make larger land masses. He’s built hundreds of parks and bridges. The shape of the city–the physical reality of the city–is in his hands. And so, beyond just pushing out yacht clubs and tearing down their houses, he’s literally changing the map of the city in a way that nobody probably should have the power to do–but certainly not someone who is accountable to nobody and is only going to get less accountable as time goes on.

ROMAN MARS: I mean, he opens 255 playgrounds in the 1930s. He just makes a big deal out of each one of their openings. And he numbers them in the press so they can keep a count of his tally.

ELLIOTT KALAN: They’re like, “Playground 145 just opened. Playground 146–it opened.”

ROMAN MARS: But what is clear is, if you sort of pay attention to where these playgrounds are, he’s really only putting playgrounds in the wealthier neighborhoods. And he’s really ignoring the playgrounds in the neighborhoods that need it the most.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Specifically, he is building a lot of playgrounds in the comfortable areas of the city. And the least amount of playgrounds in the area of the city inhabited by the city is 400,000 Black residents–200,000 of them are children. And Moses is not really interested in providing safe places for them to play. They need safe places to play. And the Black community in New York is calling out to him specifically–to the city government and to him–“Our children need playgrounds. They need safe places to go.” But he doesn’t want to do it. And the press is not running the story, “Moses Refuses to Build Playgrounds in Black Neighborhoods.” They’re running the story, “Look at All These Playgrounds! 255 Playgrounds! This is Amazing!” And if anyone asks Moses, “What about playgrounds in slum areas?” he says, “Oh, I’ve done a lot for the children of the slums.” And the papers are like, “Yeah, he said it folks. He’s doing a lot.” And beyond playgrounds, this is where Carro talks about swimming pools. And there’s a detail in here that was one of the things that always stuck with me in the 20 years after I first read this book, where Caro was talking about how swimming pools were particularly, personally important to Robert Moses. He loves swimming. There were very few pools in the city–public pools. And now Moses in the 1930s–he’s building all these public pools, and he’s putting a lot of his own personal attention. He’s not a kid. He’s not going to play on monkey bars or on a slide or something like that. But he is going to go swim–not in those pools, not with the regular people–but you know what I mean. And he’s putting all the little touches he’s known for. Caro talks about how the problem was always how do you get people to wash their feet before they walk into a public pool. And they invent these foot cleansing troughs that you have to step into. They’re too wide for you to jump over or step over that have antibacterial stuff, so you have to get this stuff on your feet. And it’s just all these kind of ingenious solutions to making public pools possible. And he builds ten of these huge public pools, and one of them is built in Harlem at 146th Street. And Robert Moses is determined this is the pool that New Yorkers of color are going to use. I don’t want New Yorkers of color… He wouldn’t have said “New Yorkers of color,” but you know what I mean. “I don’t want them mixing at these pools. Some kind of trouble is going to erupt. There’s going to be fights or something. It just can’t happen. And so, I want this pool up there. That’s the one that Black people are going to use.” And there’s one pool in particular that is seen as the one with the biggest threat of race mixing. And that’s in East Harlem, which was at the time a white neighborhood, but it’s close enough to the black parts of Harlem and to the Puerto Rican parts of Spanish Harlem to worry Robert Moses. And Paul Windels is like, “How are you going to do it, Robert Moses? How are you going to keep people of color from using that pool?” And he tells him his solution is, “Well, first we’re only going to hire white lifeguards. That goes without saying. But secondly, the other pools in the city–they have heaters that are going to keep them at 70 degrees. This pool? We’re not going to heat it.” According to Moses, Black people do not like cold water. And Robert Caro can’t say that that’s the reason why, but they find that New Yorkers of color who live close to that pool instead go to that 146th Street pool, even though it’s much farther away. If they live three blocks from this pool, they’d rather travel three miles to the other pool. And it always stuck with me the idea that, like, “Well, you know, of course, Black people hate cold water, so we gotta keep this pool cold.” And it seems both a weird stereotype… It’s not one that I had encountered before I read it in this book. But also it’s such a petty thing to do and such a gross thing to do to say, “I got to do anything I can to make this pool unpalatable to the people nearby that I don’t want using it.” There’s such a casual, kind of unquestioned racism about it that I find really shocking–really astounding.

ROMAN MARS: Yeah, it’s really awful. I just am struck by–all the time–how many ways this poison in his mind comes out and the things he builds. It’s just unpleasant.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And of course, I’d be remiss if we gave the impression that Robert Moses was the one racist in an otherwise beautifully integrated and colorblind world. He was the snake in the garden in this one. I’m sure he can get away with this stuff partly because it’s accepted. I mean, Robert Caro doesn’t call Paul Windels a racist in the book, but it’s not like he then recounts Paul Windels saying, “Oh, Bob, you can’t do that. Oh, that’s terrible.” It’s just kind of either tolerated or accepted or believed in by so many people, which we talked a little bit about in the previous episode. And then Robert Caro goes out of his way to talk about how Robert Moses has built this immense stadium complex on Randalls Island. It has 22,000 seats, and it is usually empty. The first five years, it never sells out. Its attendance is usually in the hundreds. And part of the problem is that you can’t get there without a car. There’s no public transit at the time going there because Moses does not want public transit. He doesn’t want buses going to Randalls Island. And so, it’s kind of biting him in the end that this stadium he built is underattended because he made it hard for people to get there.

ROMAN MARS: Totally. Totally.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And this is when we get to the section that I like to call More Bridges, More Problems or More Parkways, More Problems, where we get into the section about how little good a lot of these parkways need to be doing in the massive scale of traffic that the book has been dealing with. So, we start the summer of 1936. The Grand Central Interborough and the Laurelton Parkways–famous names in the hallowed halls of parkways–they’ve opened up. This means Moses has now built a hundred miles of new parkways since he revealed his big parkway plan in 1924. And the newspapers are like, “The traffic problem has been solved for generations.” And then there’s a little bit of blank space on the page. And then the next paragraph starts, “The new parkways solved the problem for about three weeks.” And this is such a New Yorky way to say it. “And yet there seemed to be problems with the… Eh, it solved it for about three weeks.” And we start this pattern here, which we can go into more detail or we cannot if we don’t have to, where a bridge or a parkway opens up–the Triborough Bridge opens up or the Wantagh Expressway opens up–and people say, “Well, this is it. This is going to take care of the traffic.” And then within a few weeks or a few months, the traffic is worse than it was before. The parkways and bridges are becoming jammed almost immediately. But at the same time, the old roads have just as much traffic as they did before. Somehow these bridges and these roads are bringing more cars in. They’re creating even more of a need, which is then being filled. And Moses’ only solution to any of this stuff is to just build more bridges and roads. And Roman, you understand urban infrastructure more than I do. What’s going on here? What’s going on in this situation? The assumption they seem to be working from is there’s a limited number of cars. For five bridges, those cars will disperse out. But instead, it’s almost as if the cars are spontaneously generating to fill this space.

ROMAN MARS: Yeah, it’s true that you basically induce demand by providing more lane. Like, you add more lanes, it just fills up. It’s always been this way. And what I wonder is, is this the first time we really learned that? That is a truism of urban design, and I wonder if Robert Moses’ efforts is when we learned that empirically as such a default pattern that we consider it, like, a law in urban planning–that if you add a lane or if you add a bridge, it does not alleviate traffic. It just induces a new type of demand, and it just fills up exactly the same way.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And that’s taken as a given now.

ROMAN MARS: Completely as a given. It’s about as true as anything gets in urban planning as far as I can say.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Because all I know is what I read in books. And by “books” I mean The Power Broker–just this one book.

ROMAN MARS: Over and over again.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Multiple times–this is my third time through. And the people in the book–they’re baffled by it. It’s like a mystery. It’s an enigma. They cannot solve where these cars are coming from as if a portal has opened up and cars from another dimension are just pouring in. But you’re saying at this point… Now, almost a hundred years later, it’s pretty well understood that if you create a need, people will fill that need.

ROMAN MARS: Completely. And that’s why most of the sort of urban planning thinking is about restricting cars. And there is no notion it’s going to make things worse. It actually will make things better in these ways. But this could be the moment that people really got this stuck in their heads because every city fell for this in this period of time. But I think this is the clearest and most acute example because of the density of the city and the sort of scope of the problem and the fact that it fills up so quickly.

ELLIOTT KALAN: So, incredibly quickly. And it’s happening in the most important city in the world–greatest city in the world–New York City. What other city has a giant gorilla climbing up buildings? Just this one. Well, and some others according to other movies. But I mean, King Kong goes to Tokyo at one point. He’s in Rio, I think, in the new movie. But anyway, mostly New York. But that it’s happening there on such a scale… And Caro says, “Tens of millions of dollars have been spent, and the net result is that there used to be four bridges with traffic jams on them. Now there are six bridges with traffic jams on them.” And people say, “What if we add mass transit links to some of these bridges?”And Moses refuses; he doesn’t want trains on these bridges at all. And it seems like his big parkway system is now just making it easier to dump cars from one place to another in big numbers. And I wonder if it’s like he’s really coming from this world where cars were a thing that you had to have money to own. We’ve talked about before how driving used to be about pleasure and now it’s about commuting. But he’s also living in a world where more and more people can’t afford cars and the car companies are making more cars. So, it seems foolish for them to be like, “This will take care of the traffic problem,” as if there never will be more cars. They’re making cars all the time. There’s always new cars, and some of ’em are going to end up in New York City. I don’t know. What do you think is the reason that they never factored in the fact that more cars can be made and purchased?

ROMAN MARS: I don’t know. I think that Robert Moses has a number of blindspots, and he really just… I mean what Caro tells you of his upbringing–it really set in motion everything he thinks about the world. And this one he just cannot wrap his head around. He has been driven in a car mostly for pleasure but also for work.

ELLIOTT KALAN: He’s got that sweet car office. Yeah.

ROMAN MARS: He gets ferried around to take care of and tromp through wetlands and stuff. But for all of his genius as presented, he has a really hard time updating his firmware to the modern world as he goes along. He just cannot adjust to the world as it is. He’s really building a city for the world… You could say that building for cars is a little bit of–I don’t know–futurist or forward thinking because the subway system was built out very, very quickly in the early 20th century. And he’s reversing all that momentum, but it is just so surprising how much he cannot take in certain types of details to adjust a city plan that would work for everybody.

ELLIOTT KALAN: During this part of the book, he was really reminding me a lot of Elon Musk, where it was like Elon Musk had kind of one good idea, which was we should have an electric car company that operates a large car company, and then assumed that meant he had lots of good ideas, but really he didn’t after that. Whereas Moses has this one good idea, which is we need to have a way for people to get from one place to another, but then he doesn’t have the best solution for it and he keeps applying that solution. Or maybe a better way to compare to Walt Disney, where Walt Disney is like, “I want a theme park full of robots so that I can recreate Main Street 1900 like it was when I was a kid.” It’s like Jurassic Park. “We’ve got all this amazing genetic technology. Let’s use it to recreate the oldest things we can think of: dinosaurs!” Maybe that’s a human drive to be trying to figure out new ways to do old things until someone else comes along and is like, “Well, you can use this new thing in a new way. Or you could use this old thing in a new way.” Anyway, the point is Robert Caro is going to dig in deep on another kind of Moses special, which is the destruction of a neighborhood. And this is kind of a micro version of something we’re going to see in much greater detail later in the book in a different neighborhood. But it’s November, 1941. World War II is about to start. That doesn’t really turn into what we’re talking about. And that’s when Moses opens up this thing called the Gowanus Parkway in Brooklyn. And it’s an elevated road that he’s been able to sell partly because it’s on pillars that used to hold the elevated subway line through that area. It runs through Sunset Park. It’s a neighborhood very close to where I used to live in Brooklyn: Park Slope. And in fact, real estate brokers in Brooklyn have been expanding the boundaries of Park Slope into Sunset Park for years now as a way of raising the rents in Sunset Park. Our producer Isabelle is reminding us that she used to live in Park Slope, too. Park Slope is where people who work in podcasting lived.

ROMAN MARS: Public radio podcasting. Yeah. Writers.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yeah, it’s a great neighborhood for people in the arts who want to live in the city, but they want to live, like, where it’s really smelly in the city. So, there was this elevated train line that ran down Third Avenue. It just became a regular part of the neighborhood. Elevated trains are not great. They darken things. The resonance of this neighborhood–they’ve kind of gotten used to the elevated train line. But they know that an expressway is going to block out much more light because, instead of the slats of a train track, it’s going to be just a cement block. It’s going to be bigger.

ROMAN MARS: Much wider, too.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And much wider. And they say, “Instead of running this expressway over the heart of our neighborhood, can you move it one block over to where it’s just industrial waterfront?” And even the comptroller of the city, who lives in Sunset Park, is like, “Yeah, the expressway would be way worse for the neighborhood than the L tracks were.” And the parkway route–it’s going to have to swing back towards Second Avenue after a mile anyway, so it won’t really be saving that much money to reuse these pillars. But it will blight this neighborhood. And Moses is like, “Eh, it’s a slum. It’s not worth preserving. Why would we bother?” So, Caro investigates that and he goes into detail and he interviews people from the area. And he’s going to do this again later in even much more detail with the Tremont neighborhood in the Bronx. But he interviewed people there. And that portrait he builds is that it’s a poor neighborhood, but it is not a slum. It is a neighborhood of nice houses, where people take care of their blocks. It’s quiet. There’s this kind of strong community of mostly Norwegians, but they’re very active with each other. It’s poor, but it’s not dangerous. It’s not unpleasant. It’s a solidly working class neighborhood of the kinds that I feel like used to be symbolic to me of the outer boroughs when I was growing up but now feels old fashioned. And Robert Carro–he takes us down a little walk down Third Avenue. If you can indulge me in quoting, he says, “The heart of the neighborhood–the focal point that gave it unity and a sense of community–was Third Avenue. Lining it along with newsstands, off which 9,000 Nordisk Tidendes were sold every day,” that’s the, like, Norwegian newspaper, “were seven movie theaters, dozens of tiny restaurants run by couples and featuring recipes from the old countries, little restaurants but good and ‘so many you wouldn’t know where to go for lunch,’ recalls Harold Benson, whose hardware store was on Third Avenue at 54th Street, and scores of small friendly Mama and Papa stores, the Northland Gift Shop, the Finnish Bookstore, a hardware store that looked like a general store out of the Old West, a butcher shop that raffled off 25 big turkeys every Christmas that occupied the ground floor of three and four-story brick fronts, in which mama and papa lived upstairs with the children. ”The avenue was always busy. People shopping or window shopping or just walking,’ Benson recalls.” This is like old school Brooklyn–what I think of as old school Brooklyn–what makes it nice. The image you get is that the neighborhood residents there are very proud of this neighborhood. And they–understandably–don’t want this expressway right over their heads. And the Board of Estimate–one of the reasons they approved Moses for using those pillars is because they assumed, “Oh, the pillars are already there. Moses isn’t going to have to get any new right of way land for this expressway. It’ll save us money. We won’t have to relocate anybody. This’ll be great.” And Moses is like, “Uh… Funny story. I need to relocate a hundred stores and 1,300 families,” because the Board of Estimate didn’t realize you need on and off ramps for an expressway, like for a parkway. A train doesn’t need on and off ramps because it’s just the stations. And this is also where Moses’ twisting the rules comes in even more because he’s like, “If I build this road and it’s not a parkway, the law says I don’t have control over it. So, even though it is an elevated treeless stretch of highway that goes through a city, I’m calling it a ‘parkway.’ And you know what? I have another rule. I don’t allow trucks on my parkway. So, trucks are instead going to go on Third Avenue underneath. That’s a four-lane street. I’m going to have to expand that into a highway–into a 10-lane highway–so that it’s more truck accessible.” And so, now you’ve got so much more noise–so much more darkness–after he builds this road. And businesses start to close down. And Caro makes the point that the elevated train brought people to Sunset Park, and the parkway just brings people through it. And this is the big crux of so much of what Moses is doing; he’s not interested in bringing people to parts of the city. He just wants to get them through it as quickly as possible.

ROMAN MARS: This is really key. If you ever lived in a neighborhood with an elevated train, there are stops not too far apart that you just take the stairs down and you go buy your Nordic paper and then you go back up or you get a snack or whatever. And even though this is a major artery that brings people to and through, it just much more brings people to a place.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yes. When I lived in Astoria, Queens, I was very close to the elevated train there. And yeah, you take the elevated train home, you’d get off your stop, and–exactly–on the way home, I could stop at the hardware store, the grocery store, or the Chinese takeout place, and get everything I needed in my errands to and from the train. And it felt like it wasn’t super pleasant to walk underneath the tracks, but it didn’t feel like you were in a tunnel. But with a road like this, it’s not like someone can be driving down the parkway and look out and see this Norwegian restaurant and be like, “Yeah, I think I’m going to stop there.” The next exit may be miles away.

ROMAN MARS: Right, right. It’s just a different idea of what this sort of type of conveyance is for, and he’s just trying to get you through a place because he doesn’t find that place desirable and thinks that if everyone else inside of it is going to just have to have a car to do it… I mean, that’s one notion to the earlier discussion we were having is, like, if you build a world like this, where there’s a mile and a half between exits and entrances to the Gowanus Parkway rather than a stop every three or four blocks if it’s an elevated train line, all of a sudden, if you live in that neighborhood, you do need a car. And it sort of creates this need, and therefore it becomes a thing that fills it up and therefore makes it bumper to bumper and useless at a certain point. And it just creates a worse and worse world when you design it this way.

ELLIOTT KALAN: To quote the actor John Glover playing the role of Daniel Clamp in the classic film Gremlins 2: The New Batch, “If you build a place for things, things come.” And that’s kind of what happens. Yeah, he builds a place that is for cars and not people, and the people leave. It makes it harder for the neighborhood to actually go about their business because this road is here. It makes it less pleasant. People are less likely to go patronize the business. Their businesses start to close, which means even less people stop by, so more businesses close. People who own those businesses move away. Families are leaving. Now, the side streets are all full of trucks, so people don’t want to live there. And Third Avenue–this place that was a kind of poor but bustling, friendly street–becomes exactly the kind of place that people are afraid to go to. That’s where you go to find drunks, to find street violence, to find drug addicts… More and more people move away, and it becomes the slum that Moses said it was. If you call it a slum and you give it the opportunity to become a slum, a neighborhood will become a slum–just as happens in Gremlins 2: The New Batch, when that shining skyscraper just turns into a hive of gremlins. And to add the most bitter of ironies to the whole thing, the Gowanus Parkway is almost instantly backed up with traffic, just like all the other parkways. And Moses’ solution to this is we got to widen the road. So, he does–to the point that if your apartment is on either side of the road, then on wet days the cars are splattering your windows. Their wheels are just throwing water at your windows. And Moses has essentially wrecked this neighborhood. But as Caro says, “No newspaper mentioned that fact.” The newspaper is only there to talk about what’s going to happen beforehand and how great it is that this guy’s getting things done. “Look at this amazing road.” They’re not interested in what happens after the fact.

ROMAN MARS: Yeah. And speaking of getting big things done, this brings us to the West Side Improvement Project, which is a great section of the book that I actually really love. But we’ll talk about that after the break. We have to divide up Chapter 25 into several sections because…

ELLIOTT KALAN: Into more digestible chunks. Yeah.

ROMAN MARS: It’s very, very long, as we’ve said before. But this is the West Side Improvement Project, which is this massive thing. I love how Caro does this–demonstrates the problem solving and the process that Moses goes through. So, could you describe what is this project?

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yes, and I agree with you. It’s amazing to be reminded in this section also just how brilliant Moses is. If you call him an evil genius, you got to emphasize the genius part because he’s amazing at this. But the West Side Improvement Project–this is the dream that Robert Moses had since the 1920s. If you hearken back to the first or second chapter, he and future labor secretary Frances Perkins were walking around the West Side of the Manhattan island at night as young people. And he’s just talking about, “Couldn’t you see a park here? Couldn’t you see a road here?” The West Side of Manhattan for years has been train tracks–often ground level train tracks–so people get killed there frequently by trains. It is garbage dumps. It’s municipal waste. Manhattan Island is such a different island than it was in the 1920s and ’30s because it used to be an island full of manufacturing–full of industry–and now it’s been taken over by other businesses. If you walk along the West Side of Manhattan now, you’re going to see very fancy buildings. You’re going to see financial structures and things like that. But there was a time when it smelled bad, it was full of animals, it was full of trash, and things like that. And so, the idea is you’re going to have an extended elevated parkway all along Manhattan’s West Side–the West Side Highway, I think–if I’m getting it right. You’ll have a six mile long park. You’re going to build the Henry Hudson Bridge finally across the Harlem River–this bridge that, up till now, in the book’s terms, is represented just by a pillar with no statue of Henry Hudson at the top of it because they could not afford to finish it. That’s going to connect Manhattan and the Bronx. You’re going to have a connection from the Bronx that leads you out of the city to the Saw Mill River Parkway. This is his dream–to connect Manhattan to the parkways outside that he’s building–but also to make the West Side something that Manhattan can be proud of. He does want to make beautiful things. He wants to make things that, at the very least, he can hold pride in having created. And he’s been talking about it for years now, but it is going to cost an incredible amount of money. Moses estimates it’s going to cost $109 million, and this is during the depression. The city does not have $109 million. And what makes it slightly harder is that there’s this 1927 agreement that he knows about between the city and the New York Central Railroad. And it’s their tracks that are going up and down the West Side. And the New York Central Railroad said, “In exchange for some other land in a different part of the city, we’ll cover those tracks. We’ll pay for covering them up. Oops, we didn’t finish it. Sorry. It just didn’t get done.” So, Moses is like, “I’m going to have to cover up those tracks. And if the city pays for it, that’s going to be seen as the city giving away money to the railroad company, which no politician is going to go for. And the railroad’s never going to have that kind of money. So, what am I going to do? And then beyond that, even if I do that, there’s still tens of millions of dollars that I’m going to have to figure out to fund this thing.” And I feel like even to get an estimate of how much money it’s going to cost… And I’m sure he has his staff working with him on it. Even that takes a certain amount of genius–to be able to put a dollar figure on a project this enormous with so many different pieces to it.

ROMAN MARS: Totally.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And as Caro said, to see all these parts working together… This is not just a park. This is a park and a bridge and a highway. And he’s looking at them all as pieces of the same thing. And the only thing I can relate it to in my mind is that, as a writer, I can look at a story, and I can see how different scenes interact with each other to build a plot while also building character, while also building theme. But that feels like such a small thing compared to like, “Well, we’re going to reconfigure the West Side of this island that’s the most densely populated island in the country.” It’s astonishing. Anyway, so the amount of money that he needs–it seems insurmountable. And this is when Caro–he takes you very methodically, step-by-step, through the ways that Moses surmounts it. It is no longer insurmountable. It becomes surmountable, which sounds like a pun name that a knight would have in, like…

ROMAN MARS: Monty Python?

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yeah, Monty Python. Yeah, exactly. Like, an old Puck cartoon. “And then Sir Mountable comes in.” But he sees that, in this 1927 agreement, the railroad owes the city $8.2 million for work on the West Side. The railroad doesn’t have that kind of money. It has no line of credit. It is in debt. It’s paying back its loans at very high interest rates. So, Moses–first, he’s going to have to get money for the railroad and then convince the railroad to spend that money on the park rather than, say, pay its workers or get out of debt. And Moses has a lot of work on legal pads. He only works on yellow legal pads, which… Let me be honest, that’s how I work, too. I like to work on yellow legal pads. So, I really get Robert Moses’ love of just scribbling on yellow legal pads. It is the single best way to work out ideas–on a yellow legal pad. I’m sorry. There’s no other better way to do it.

ROMAN MARS: I agree.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Sorry, tech industry. You’re never going to improve on this. It’s the perfect size paper. It’s the perfect color of paper–just for that kind of work. I wouldn’t want to read a book that’s all on yellow paper. Your eyes would hurt eventually. But after doing a lot of math on those legal pads, he realizes he can arrange for New York state to give the railroad a loan–not a payout–but a loan from this grade crossing elimination fund that is somehow incredibly well-funded. It has so much money in it. The city can give them a loan for $13.5 million that has such a low interest rate on it that the railroad can pay back its old loans while saving money on its future interest payments. And he writes up a law. It’s this complicated agreement with tax liens and escrow stuff, and that makes the loan appealing, I guess. And he pushes it through the legislature just at the end of the session. And he manages to convince Lehman to sign it on the last day that the bill is viable before it expires. And he says, “You can take credit for it if you sign it.” And now Moses only has $95.5 million left to find. There’s still a lot of money left to go. So, what’s he going to do? Well, hey, here’s something you can do. I feel like this is depression era thinking. He’s like, “Oh, when the railroad covers up all that land and expands the park space, it’s going to create a lot of waste rocks. And I need landfill. I need $4 million worth of landfill. Why should I let these rocks go to waste? I’ll just use that as the landfill.” That’s $4 million he’s saved right there. Now he only needs $91.5 million more. This next one…

ROMAN MARS: It’s my favorite.

ELLIOTT KALAN: It’s not a lot of money, but it’s my favorite. Yeah, it’s so great. He goes, “If we build a boat basin and we put gar oils on the boat basin, there’s this fund for artwork on public works that we can tap into that no one remembers. And you know what? This philanthropist, years ago, set up a fund to put freezes on public buildings. So, if we put a freeze on it, we’ll do that.” And it says in the book that the engineers are like, “Well, we’ve never seen gargoyles on a boat basin, but okay.” And it gets them $100,000 more. So, that’s $91.4 million to go. And the next one–this is another one–it’s also boat basin related. This boat basin is going to have a marina, it’s going to have a restaurant, it’s going to have a promenade– Remember–Robert Moses–he loves the idea of recreational facilities. He likes multi-use recreational facilities–these grand buildings that a lot of people can use all at once. And coincidentally, Harold Ickes over at the WPA or the PWA–I get my letters mixed up–he wants to employ more people. This is Moses’ enemy from last episode. But Harold Ickes is like, “I’m going to give quick approval to any plan-ready project for things like railroad grade eliminations that can employ a bunch of people.” And one week later, Moses has the plans drawn up for the 79th Street Grade Elimination Structure, which is just the boat basin building with the marina and the restaurant. And the bureaucrats in the federal government are like, “It doesn’t really look like a grade elimination structure, but okay. But maybe these brass turtle ornaments are a little much for a structure for eliminating railroad grades.” And they slash $154,000 from the budget. Now, this is where I would’ve said, “I guess we don’t need those brass turtle ornaments.” But no, instead Moses goes to La Guardia and says, “Hey, if the city chips in $154,000 for brass turtles, then we can get another $1.7 million from the federal government for this beautiful boat basin. And the CWA is going to contribute another $3 million for the labor. Look, now we’ve got $5 million for this boat basin. All the city has to do is spend $154,000 on brass turtles.” And so, he gets it, and that leaves only $86,400,000 to go for the project. There’s still a lot of money, but you see the way he’s chopping it down. And he’s able to find all these ways for it to qualify for state and federal funds for housing, for interstate highways, for river and harbor funds, and for railroads. And he gets another $12 million out of that. He’s so, good at finding these programs. He’s like Matthew Lesko–the guy who had the book about all these government programs that are giving out free money.

ROMAN MARS: And all these different ways of tax strategies and getting to this government fund and making it work for this and your brass turtles and kind of whipsawing La Guardia into thinking that he has to do this $150,000 to get the rest of the money versus just eliminating the brass turtles is his particular brand of genius. But what gets him the most amount of money off of this $109 million bill is he begins to see that he has a certain amount of plans for this park–it costs about $8 million per mile–and he realizes that this actually goes up into Harlem. And he does not care that the people of Harlem have a nice park as the people below 125th Street. And so, by building the park to different standards, he saves $29 million. This isn’t, like, a $100,000 here and $100,000 there. This is where he really eliminates it by just providing worse services for people who need it more.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yes, by short shrifting the people in the neighborhoods that he considers not really worth spending the money on. And so, he’s got this park that–below 110th Street–it’s going to be beautiful. Between 110th and 125th, it’s going to be okay. It’s not going to be so bad. And then from 125th up, it’s going to be done as cheaply as you can do it. And that’s over three miles of the park. And so, he’s saving a lot of money. There’s only $45 million to go. He’s more than halfway there. And at this point, he goes, “Okay, this section–it’s going to cost $30 million. I’ll tell the city I can get $20 million in funding from the CWA for labor if the city pays $10 million for materials.” And he does the same song and dance. “Are you going to let $20 million in pay for this city be lost because you won’t spend $10 million?” And then when they agree, he goes to the CWA and goes, “Hey, I can get $10 million from the city. Give me $20 million in labor funding.” And they agree. He’s whipsawing back and forth. And he manages to make it fit the legal bounds of what they can contribute to by calling the Henry Hudson Parkway a “park access road.” It has to have access to a park. It’s this huge highway. And now he has all the money he needs to build this dream project up to 192nd Street. And this is when it always reminds me how much bigger New York is than any New Yorker spends time in because this is a huge city. And how many people spend time below 14th Street and above 192nd Street in the same lifetime? Very few. But he only needs $15 million to pay for those last three miles. And this is when we get into the part where he starts to do some things that are irreversible changes to the city in order to find and save this money. There were previous plans for Northern Highway that took a different route that avoided cutting through any of the parks up in the north into the city–the north end of Manhattan. And building this lower Henry Hudson Bridge that would go through an industrial area called Marble Hill–he idea behind this was “Let’s avoid taking up land that people might want to use for other things with this road and this bridge.” But Moses has to run the road through the parks at least in some way because the funds are from a park access road. And if he doesn’t at least get into the parks, then he can’t use these funds because it’s illegal to charge tolls on roads that have certain types of federal funding. And he needs to charge tolls to pay off the bonds for funding the building of the Henry Hudson Parkway. It’s all complicated. And anyway, the end result is he’s like, “I guess what I have to do is run this road right through these two parks, Fort Tryon Park and Inwood Park.” And it’s Parkland. I have control over it. I can do whatever I want. And who’s to say a park access road can’t run all the way through a park? There’s no greater access to a park than if you go all the way through it.” And this is going to save him $5 million of the $15 million he still needs. So, he only needs $10 million. And this is the exact amount of money that the Henry Hudson Authority is allowed to raise. Unfortunately, this is the depression, and New York City has almost defaulted on its loans. Bankers are really wary of investing in public bonds. And this is when Robert Caro brings in a new character that is going to show up every now and then: Michael “Jack” Madigan. His name is “Michael,” but his nickname is “Jack.” And he grew up uneducated. He’s a contractor originally from the Pennsylvania coal country. And he ends up as Moses’ shrewd kind of financial retailer, who sells bonds from Moses projects to Wall Street bankers. And here there’s a lot of talk about interest rates and amortization coverage rates. I do not fully understand it. I’m no Jack Madigan. The point is, he’s having trouble convincing lenders that enough drivers will pay 10 cents for the convenience of this Henry Hudson Bridge. And so, there’s a lot of hard selling. And the bankers say, “We’ll buy $3.1 million in authority bonds and no more than that.” So, if Moses is going to build this bridge, it cannot cost more than $3.1 million. And the only way to do that is to run as much of the parkway as possible through the only city-owned land on the Riverdale side of the bridge, Van Cortlandt Park. And he does his usual whipsawing magic, but he can’t get the bridge cost lower than $5 million. He can’t cut it anymore. He gets depressed. Technically $5,090,000. And he doesn’t know what to do. Madigan has an idea. What if they don’t totally finish the bridge? It’s supposed to be a six-lane bridge. What if they build a four-lane bridge but they make the arches supporting it strong enough that they could put an upper deck on there when they have the money for two more lanes. And this persuades the bankers to say, “Okay.” And they sign an agreement that says that if traffic reaches a certain level on the bridge, they’ll buy another $2 million worth of bonds to complete the bridge. And with that, the financing of the West Side Improvement Project is finally complete. He did it. He and his staff have succeeded in doing something the city has been trying to do for 50 years: fund an improvement that will make the West Side of the city livable and make it easier for people to drive north and south on the West Side. And Robert Harris says this is perhaps the supreme example of the practical side–the getting things done side–of Moses’, thinking. He has got this thing done. Roman, when you are going to build this huge thing through parks, that’s totally fine, right? That doesn’t affect anything? You’re not sacrificing anything that you can never give back again, right? Probably?

ROMAN MARS: Yeah. I mean this is something that’s really key to understanding New York at this time. I mean, up here–in this park–this is kind of the last natural area of the island of Manhattan. I mean, it is not developed much at all. And these are the types of parks that Robert Moses doesn’t really care for. He’s a recreation park kind of guy. Like, woodlands doesn’t really excite him because he didn’t build it. And so, some people–when this plan goes into effect–they love this park, including a couple of reformers, Bill Exton and Bob Weinberg. And they say that there’s ways to build around this. And they probably don’t know the amount of work he has done to get to this point. And he doesn’t want to undo a single legal pad’s worth of math about it.

ELLIOTT KALAN: He has woven such a tightly constructed, intricate house of financial cards that can’t tumble. And these two guys, Exton and Weinberg… And Exton is particularly focused on Inwood Hill Park, which is that kind of untouched wilderness. It’s on the northwest tip of Manhattan Island. This is–like you’re saying–a New York City that still has untouched park land. It still has marshland that hasn’t been touched. And all of that is going to be wrecked. A huge six-lane highway is going to go through that woodland. The plan involves them taking this last natural marshland, which Caro paints as this kind of biological refuge that biology classes go to see life that they can’t see anywhere else in the city. That’s going to get turned into an enormous cloverleaf with landscaped shrubbery because Moses doesn’t like that stuff. And Weinberg is protective of this neighborhood called Spuyten Duyvil that is almost rural, at this point, in the Bronx. It’s this small thing. And, right now, it has a two-lane road. And that would be turned, again, into a six-lane highway, which would kind of split this community in half. They find this original alternate route that avoids cutting these places. And they find, “Oh, this route would be cheaper. It’d be a little longer, but it’d be cheaper.” And they don’t have the terms to describe this at the time, in the ’30s but it would be better environmentally and ecologically. They do start to worry about things like, “What’s going to happen to drainage in this area if we remove all these trees?” They don’t have the words for that because, at the time, who was thinking about the environment in the 1930s? Very few people. I mean John Muir wasn’t until he died. I don’t know when he died, but I assumed he was dead by then. But there was no environmental movement like that. There was only a little bit of a preservation movement. And they’re worried that–not just environmentally–if you run this road through Spuyten Duyvil, then that Riverdale area is going to be overrun with people. And my mom lived in Riverdale until she was 13. I should have asked her if it felt overrun with people. But she lived in an apartment building then. And that was an area that had houses. It didn’t have apartments in the ’30s, when this is happening. My mom didn’t live there in the ’30s. Don’t worry about it. You don’t have to worry about my mom’s timeline. And the thing is, as Caro makes the point of saying, this kind of thing cannot be undone. If you destroy that marshland–if you run a road through that forest–you cannot ever get that back. That’s impossible to return. And not only that, he’s been talking about this park that runs along the river, but really it’s the highway that runs along the river for most of that length–right along the water. And that cuts off the waterfront from New Yorkers forever. You won’t be able to walk along the river, you can’t fish from it, and you can’t picnic by it. And I grew up going to a New York and then living in a New York where this is already the case. The waterfront is… Maybe there are little parts of it that you can fish off of a highway overpass or something like that or over a railing. But for most of New York’s history before this time, you could go down to the water and just kind of be there at the water. It’s why New York was one of the great oyster fishing centers of the world.

ROMAN MARS: The Big Oyster.

ELLIOTT KALAN: You could just go down to the water and get stuff. And, of course, that also meant people would just throw trash into the water from centuries. But still, Moses will be creating a wall of Russian cars that will separate New Yorkers from their waterfront. And we’ll talk about this more later probably, but I lived in New York for years, and I would forget I lived in a maritime city because you are cut off in the water and you just don’t think about it. You don’t involve yourself with it very much.

ROMAN MARS: It’s a pretty big deal. And I’m going to invoke another city of the United States–Chicago–as a counter example. I think one of the most important reasons why Chicago is as good as it is, is that there was an ordinance that you cannot build large commercial buildings on the east side of Lakeshore Drive, which is the drive that goes along Lake Michigan. And it allows just everyone to to see, to go down, to experience the lake, and to make it a part of their lives. It doesn’t cut it off the way a bunch of high rises would. And it really is, like, one of the most important architectural features of Chicago, making it as great as it is–that preservation–as opposed to building great things. Sometimes, in order to make the great things great, you have to have some restraint and think about the system as a whole. And it’s so important to Chicago. I think it’s one of the most important things about Chicago that makes it great.

ELLIOTT KALAN: It feels so central to that city–that it’s right there–as opposed to if you want to see the water in New York, you have to go out. If you want to go to the beach, you got to go to the far reaches where Coney Island or Rockaway is.

ROMAN MARS: It’s such a weird thing. It’s a place surrounded by water, and you don’t get to experience it. And it’s a real choice and a real bad choice that people made when they designed these cities and they did these things.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yeah. Although I will ask this question just to play devil’s advocate. How many King Kongs does Chicago have?I rest my case. Your Honor, I rest my case. I think we can end this trial here. And so, Robert Caro–going back to the book–he presents this as a conflict of values, like we talked about. Moses’ generation–parks are for upper class people. You take leisurely drives in them. And as he was coming of age, the question was: “We’ve got all this land, how are we going to develop it so people can use it?” Now, the land has been developed. And the new question is: “How do we preserve what’s left that’s undeveloped for the people who need an escape from that development? And how do you balance the needs of people traveling through the city with the needs of people in the city?” And Caro talks about weighing the need for this bridge against the risk of not having the money for it in the future against the destruction of the things the city can never bring back. It’s a very complicated equation. And Moses refuses to think about it. He doesn’t want to talk to anybody about it. He does grant a meeting to Exton and apparently spends it laughing at him the entire time, which again is bullying behavior. Why are you going to do that? And other city officials listen–they notice that, again, Moses is planning these parkway bridges too low for buses to pass onto them. We don’t need to open up that kettle of worms again, but Moses ignores that anyway. And there’s some civic groups that start listening to the reformers who are against it. But the group with the most clout is the Park Association. The Park Association is led by Iphigene Sulzberger, and she just loves Moses. She’s in the tank for him. She has the Park Association approve these plans. And once again, as we will see time and again, the reformers are shocked to realize that this law they lobbied for that gives Moses ultimate power over parks was not a great idea–that he’s not the benevolent king of parks that they were hoping for. Much like the King of Cartoons on PeeWee’s Playhouse is a benevolent king–he doesn’t tell you what should be in a cartoon or not–he just shows you a little bit of a public domain cartoon and then leaves. But Moses is much more destructive than that guy. And he does all his favorite stuff. He goes, “Oh, I’ll hold public hearings.” And he starts cutting down hundreds of trees weeks before the hearings and he drives stakes, he whipsaws, and he misinforms. And his opponents don’t really have technical experts who can examine Moses’ plans fully and without the support of the press–without the support of the mayor because the mayor wants this West Side Improvement to run on for reelection. There’s little that anyone can do to obstruct him. And Moses begins work cartoonishly fast. So, the Board of Estimate meets to vote on the route through Spuyten Duyvil. By the time they meet to vote, the bridge heads have already been installed, so there’s nowhere else for it to go. It has to go there. And the legislation authorizing the building of the Henry Hudson Bridge is signed at 1:00 PM on May 1st, 1935. At 5:00 PM, Moses has already signed the contracts with the contractors. And by 7:00 AM the next day, the workers are working on it. And a few weeks later at midnight, they’re putting the steel spans in place, and they’re installed by 5:55 AM that day. And Caro says, “When Riverdalians went to work in the morning, there before them was a bridge where none had existed the night before.” He’s building bridges overnight. It’s bonkers. And Moses has to work fast because he can’t allow people to discuss things. He cannot have it get out that he is referring to a highway as a park access road or that all these decisions about location and how the bridge is designed are not based on what’s best for the bridge or what’s best for the city but based on what are bankers going to invest in–what are they going to buy bonds in. Discussion might create controversy. Controversy scares investors. He is only interested in what’s going to keep the investment coming in. And discussion also means delay. And who knows? New York City may never have access to this kind of money again for this project. And Jack Madigan tells Caro that there was no alternative. And Caro is like, in the book… I don’t know if he said this to Madigan. But in the book, he’s like, “There is an alternative. You can just wait and not build a bridge right now. Wait till later. Why does that have to be right now?” It’d be great to have this bridge, but the rest of the project is almost finished. You don’t really need this bridge for the whole West Side Improvement. La Guardia is fixing the city budget. He’s getting a little better. If you need a bridge to do this, can’t you balance that against the fact that the economy may or may not get better or worse and the fact that there are things that we’re going to lose forever by building it in this place? And to Moses and his men, those things don’t matter at all. So, why would they bother them? They don’t have to care if those things matter to someone else. They don’t matter to them. They have the power to ignore them.

ROMAN MARS: It’s the cutting down the trees that just gets me so mad and sad at the same time.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Oh, for me it’s the marsh. But the trees, too–all that stuff.

ROMAN MARS: I mean, just while people are discussing things, he just does what he always does. And the places he controls–he just destroys them so that there’s nothing to save at a certain point. And that just is heartbreaking. I find that extremely upsetting.

ELLIOTT KALAN: It really reminds me of… It’s a more effective version of something that was said when George W. Bush was president. Someone–it was Rumsfeld or Rove or somebody–was like, “Well, the press can talk about this stuff. But while the press is talking about reality, we’re going to be out there creating new realities. And then the press can talk about that.” And Moses is like, “Yeah, we can discuss whether we should cut those trees down, but they’re down. So, you can talk about it, but I’m going to do it. And once I’ve done it, you’re not going to be able to stop me.” And it’s horrifying. And I remember reading this book for the first time when I was a young man and being, like, so mad about him destroying that forest–destroying that marshland–getting physically angry while I was reading it, and having to remind myself, “This happened before your parents were born. It’s no use getting mad about it now.” And Moses would–I’m sure–say, the day after the trees are cut down, “Why get mad about it? It’s done. You can’t– What’s done is done.” But Caro does such a good job of just making it so sad that it happened, even when you’re reading it decades later–when it’s not just a fait accompli–it’s history. It happens. There’s no changing it. He talks about December 12th, 1936–the Henry Hudson Bridge opens. The ceremony doesn’t go great. It’s raining. And there’s this detail that I love that La Guardia forces them to stop the ceremony, so he can go to the radio and listen to King Edward VIII abdicate from his throne. And I love the idea of just that moment to remind the reader and to remind maybe Moses too that there’s other stuff going on in the world besides the Henry Hudson Bridge opening. This is not the most important thing going on in the world right now–not that the King of England abdicating is the most important thing in the world either–but there’s other stuff going on. But Moses is so proud of this. And the whole thing is finished by October of 1937, and it’s just six miles of parks and roads replacing six miles of garbage dumps and industrial waste and shantytowns. And this is the dream he has had since he was a young man, and he’s made it happen. And Robert Caro goes onto this long, very beautiful section describing the experience of driving through the woods right outside the city in the woods that run alongside the Saw Mill River Parkway and then going onto the Henry Hudson and finally emerging into New York. And he makes you imagine you’re one of the reporters on opening day and the kind of magical effect of descending from the forest to the city and how beautifully this has all been put together. There’s really no way for me to… I’d love to read some selections from it. There’s no way to abridge it and keep the power in it. So, you’re going to have to just read the book. I’m sorry–just read this section of the book about it. And for a moment–I don’t know if you had this impression–it’s almost like Robert Caro makes me agree that, yeah, maybe this was worthwhile because the way he describes it is so beautiful and so powerful. And I’ve driven into New York before. I’ve never had that experience of awe other than… The moment you see the skyline for the first time is always a magical moment. But he does such a good job of indicting Moses but then also being like, “Yeah, but look at this thing that he built,” giving him his fair rope.

ROMAN MARS: I think that’s right. And I do find a lot of the parkways in the East Coast nice to be on, and a lot of these bridges are nice to be on. I love going over the Golden Gate Bridge, for example. You didn’t have to destroy a forest to create it. But this part of this doesn’t work on me. I mean, I own a couple of cars–I have a big family–but I do not enjoy driving. It is just a functional thing for me. When everyone says to me, “Oh, it’s just such a nice drive, it’s a beautiful drive,” that for some reason just doesn’t work on me, even though I’m a car dependent person where I live. And so, I get it, but he’s designing a world for himself to be sitting in the back of a chauffeured car. And, I mean, that makes a drive way more beautiful.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Now, imagine you were sitting in the back of that chauffeured car. Oh boy, how great it would be.

ROMAN MARS: It would be amazing.

ELLIOTT KALAN: It’s funny. The first time I read this, I was 20 years old. And at that point, I hated driving. I didn’t like it as a teenager. I was living in New York. I would live in New York for years without owning a car or touching the wheel of a car–both the steering wheel and any of the outside wheels that hit the ground. I don’t know why I would touch those, but I didn’t touch those either. And I’m trying to remember. I think it still affected me somewhat. But now, as a Los Angeles resident and someone who drives most days and has really come to enjoy driving, maybe that’s it. I’m imagining myself–I’m like, “Yeah, that would be a really nice drive.” But I’m imagining that drive on the preview that the reporters get, when there are no other cars. And so, a daily news reporter calls it the most beautiful drive in the world. The press loves it. Moses is like, “This is going to eliminate West Side traffic jams. It’s going to take 26 minutes to get from Canal Street to the edge of the city, which is amazing.” It’s amazing. And I’ve made a note here. I’ve gone on trips where I have to drive down Canal Street, and it takes more than 26 minutes. It’s so incredibly traffic jammed there. And there’s all these statistics on how much hydraulic fill they used and how much feet of steel and cubic yards granite, and Moses says, “And the whole thing only costs $24 million,” which is, of course, a huge lie. And Caro says that ultimately there’s no way of knowing exactly how much it costs. There are so many different sources that are tied up in these things. Caro estimates that the entire project all put together with all the money from everywhere and the tax assessments and things cost at least $180 million–maybe as high as $218 million. And that’s in 1930s dollars. This is when a hamburger cost, like, a nickel. And he says the Boulder Dam–which at the time was the monument to how expensive you could build something–cost $76 million. And this West Side Improvement potentially cost two or maybe even three possibly times more. But at the same time, everyone’s talking about how great it is. And it’s so beautiful. And finally, the West Side railroad tracks are covered up. The press is excited about that. And Robert Caro goes, “Not exactly.” The railroad tracks were covered until they reached 125th Street. And then once you’re in Harlem, the tracks are uncovered from 125th up to 155th Street. And so, you get stench and soot and grime and noise. And Caro says, “The white people who lived along Riverside Drive were freed from those annoyances, but the Black people were not.” And he talks about how Moses added 132 acres of land to the parts of the park below 125th Street with all the fill and stuff like that. He added no new land to the park areas above 125th Street that are likely to be used by Black New Yorkers. And Caro essentially describes two different parks. One of them is very lush, it’s very ornamented, it’s beautiful, and it’s free of commercial buildings. And the other one above 125th has had as little work put into it as possible. There’s a minimum of any sort of facilities, and they’re not easily accessible. This is where Caro talks about how, in the Harlem section of Riverside Park, there are decorations of wrought iron monkeys that appear to have shackles on their arms. This has become a very controversial claim. We don’t need to get into it right now. We’ll probably get into it in the future. This is something that– I feel like there are two aspects of this book that get picked at, and one of them is this claim and the other is the height of the bridges. And we’ll return to them again and again, but we’re talking about this other thing right now. So, we’ll get back to that another time. The press–they’re talking about how Moses has reclaimed the waterfront for the people. But Caro makes the point that, for much of the improvement, the parks are not on the waterfront. The parkway is. You can’t even really see the water past the road. So, a driver gets a few moments of a beautiful view. But the person on foot–they can see almost none of it. And he says, “With a wonderful chance to give the city’s people a way of escaping the city, he had instead sealed them within it,” which is such an ominous way to talk about it. It’s so scary. And I have to admit, when you’re in New York City, you don’t feel sealed in necessarily. But I do wish that you could get to the water more easily. And the driver totals are enormous. The bankers had promised they would only buy more bonds when traffic reaches 6,000 cars per day. On the first day of toll collection, over 9,000 cars use it. And they’re like, “Okay, it’s a new bridge. People are excited about driving over it. It’s not going to always be that way.” But the driver totals continue to go up and up. And they have a chart in the shape of a thermometer in the office measuring the daily traffic totals. And pretty soon the numbers are rising above the top of the thermometer chart. They’ve broken the thermometer and bankers are rushing to buy bonds. The second deck gets added to the bridge. Moses finally puts up that statue of Henry Hudson that’s been meant to go on that pillar since 1909. He builds a park there for small children. Of course, he puts steps in the park, so you can’t bring baby carriages in. It takes 20 years of lobbying to get the steps removed. And this is the point, where if you’re reading the physical copy of the book, there’s this section here of black and white photos of Moses bridges that interrupts this chapter. And I feel like one of the weaknesses of the book–one of the few weaknesses–is the photo sections, which are kind of disorganized. And the photos are not amazing. But there’s this one picture on here that maybe we’ll come back to in the future about the proposed Midtown Expressway, which is an expressway that’s going through the buildings in Midtown Manhattan. It looks so futuristic. It’s one of those things where you look at it, and you’re like, “That looks cool.” And then you think about it for two minutes, and you’re like, “That would be terrible.” But by 1938, Moses has hooked up all his parkways. The second deck is on that bridge. We heard about how beautiful that parkway drive is when you’re driving in. It’s just you speeding along–just getting right into the city from the forest. Traffic is a thing of the past, right, Roman? Is traffic a thing of the past?

ROMAN MARS: No, sir, because the central axiom to urban planning is however many lanes you build–how many bridges you build–cars will fill it.

ELLIOTT KALAN: I don’t know. Let’s find out. Let’s just take a look at the book and see what happened. Oh no. Oh no. Oh, it’s all backed up. And the old bridges and roads–they’re also backed up.

ROMAN MARS: All backed up.

ELLIOTT KALAN: It talks about a reporter who decides, “I’m going to drive that trip from the city line to Canal Street and back and see if it takes 26 minutes.” This is a nine-mile trip. One way, it took him 58 minutes. Another way, 73 minutes. And it’s bumper to bumper traffic along the water. So, you’re not looking at the water, you’re looking at the bumper of the car in front of you because you’ve got to keep moving. And it seems, Caro says, that Moses had two objectives: reclaim the waterfront for New Yorkers and ease traffic. One of those things did poorly, and the other thing it just did not do. On opening day for the West Side Improvement, Bill Exton goes to Inwood Hill–the park that now has a road running through it–and he finds the peacefulness is all gone. And Weinberg’s predictions about Spuyten Duyvil and Riverdale–they came true. They’re becoming haphazardly developed suburbs. The city didn’t really plan for them to absorb all this traffic coming through it. That last freshwater marsh in New York–it’s gone. And Caro says that these things are also part of the cost of the West Side Improvement. Beyond that maybe $200 million that were spent on it, this was the cost, and it was barely considered before it was built. But no one’s thinking about that at the time. Moses is still being celebrated for his work. People love him. Look, children get new playgrounds. Of course they’re going to love him. The old guard of the good government goo-goo groups? They still love him. Mrs. Sulzberger is like, “The Park Association wants to give you our award for the year.” And he’s like, “I’m really busy, so you can come to my office and give it to me.” And all these big business groups want to celebrate him. There’s a movement to name the West Side Highway the “Robert Moses Highway.” But it fails because New York politicians are worried that people are going to call it the “Moses Highway,” which would sound too Jewish, which… If you can’t even have a Jewish highway in New York, it’s not going to happen anywhere. I’m sorry. And so many groups want to honor him, that at one point there’s a black tie dinner in his honor that’s sponsored by 16 different groups. The media is doing the thing of taking his faults and spinning them as strengths. And Caro says, “His vituperation and personal attacks on anyone who dared to oppose him were outspokenness. His refusal to obey the rules and regulations of the WPA or the laws he had sworn to uphold was independence and refusal to let the public interest be hampered by red tape and bureaucrats.” And the columnist Westbrook Pegler makes a joke that Moses–when he starts projects, it’s the “oops sorry” technique. He just starts a project without authorization and goes, “Oops, sorry.” And everyone’s kind of laughing it off. “That’s Moses. That’s what he does.” And national magazines have started picking up the story of this amazing guy in New York who’s getting things done. And Harper’s does this story talking about how great it is that Moses doesn’t let the law or personal property rights get in the way of building his stuff. And Fortune Magazine–this is my favorite of the quotes that Caro has–says, “Thus, not only like a boy scout is Bob Moses always prepared, like Galahad, his strength is as the strength of ten because his heart is pure.” Even if Robert Moses was a truly noble parks builder, that’s a bonkers way to describe him.

ROMAN MARS: And his national reputation grows and grows. And more and more people go to New York to study with Moses to try to figure out how to build things–how to ignore people. It’s really something.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And if you’re a dissenting voice, then you are ignored or, in one case, literally drowned out by singing at a Moses event. Someone is like, “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t have done this thing.” And people just sing really loudly to run him out. And this is when he starts being called the master builder with the master planner. He is no longer just the man with the parks. He’s no longer just the guy who can get things done. He’s the master of it all–someone who is unquestioned. And Robert Mosse still visits Al Smith. This is where Caro takes a moment to look in at Al Smith, who is now 56 years old–not yet an old man. But he has been sidelined from politics. He blames Roosevelt. He’s become bitter. He’s become obsessed with his hatred of Roosevelt. He’s starting to fall in with rightwingers because they also hate the New Deal and hate Roosevelt. Mrs. Moskowitz, who might’ve been a tempering influence on him, has died. His other cronies–they don’t see him much anymore because he’s not powerful. He’s still beloved and popular. And Robert Carro talks about him getting on the bus, and people on the bus will applaud him as soon as he walks on. I’m sure people are still singing East Side, West Side to him. Or sorry, people are still singing The Sidewalks of New York to him. It’s not called “East Side, West Side.” And people are still singing a song to him all the time. But he’s not a political force. He is not even an elder statesman. He’s just kind of, like, a relic. And he tells Bob Moses, “Public support is a slender reed to lean on.” But Moses seems sure that he’s never going to lose it. He’s always going to have that public support.


ELLIOTT KALAN: Roman, you made that sound as if at some point the public may turn on Robert Moses. But I don’t think so. This is the end of the book, right?

ROMAN MARS: What I am struck by in this section is what a good heart Al Smith has through most of his life. I’m sure he had horrible blind spots and did bad things. But he mostly is a champion of the people he cares about–the champion of the city. And this obsession, this bitterness, and this pettiness towards Roosevelt and being ignored by Roosevelt really just undoes him–and in this way that is just kind of heartbreaking. But it’s also just sort of like he has complete control over this. He could just let that go and move on and do different things, but he cannot. And it just diminishes him. It’s just a poison that he just drinks on his own accord. He mixes it up and drinks it–just this hatred. And it just makes him less and less of a person and less and less of a person worth being revered. But Bob Moses still likes and sees the old Al Smith. But there’s just something about him that’s broken here that I find just truly heartbreaking and mostly heartbreaking because it’s a completely self-inflicted wound.

ELLIOTT KALAN: It feels very sad. And there are two thoughts that I have about it. And one is that this is a premonition–and I think Caro is setting it up this way–of Bob Moses in the future. Robert Moses also will someday be a bitter old man who is not lauded the way that he thinks–is not listened to the way that he thinks. And maybe that’s just the lot of anyone who goes for power–that eventually you lose that power either by having it taken from you or just aging out of it, retiring, or something. And you hear so many stories of elder statesmen who yearn for the days when they were important. It’s not enough to be respected. It’s not enough to be loved. They have to be important, and they have to have that power. And Moses saw Al Smith at his height, and Al Smith has fallen from that height. And Moses is like, “Yeah, but that’s not going to happen to me. Fame. I’m going to live forever. I’m going to learn how to fly. I don’t have to worry about this ever happening to me.” But it happens, and it’s as inevitable a part of life as dying. And it feels to me like Al Smith there is very much like, “This is an early death for me, and it’s an admission that my life will end.” And my other thought is, “So, why doesn’t he run for office?”

ROMAN MARS: It’s the weirdest thing.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And I wonder if it’s the machine politics of the day maybe, or he feels like he can’t get the support. But I feel like if Al Smith ran for… I mean, he’s not going to run for governor again. That would be a slap in the face.

ROMAN MARS: Run for mayor, which is something La Guardia is deeply afraid of in the beginning of this.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Always worried about. Yeah, or he could run for Congress. I think about John Quincy Adams who was president, lost reelection, and then went into Congress for years and years–was a congressman for a long time after that. There’s this idea maybe that once you’ve had ultimate executive power, that’s the only thing that will satisfy you, too. And I have a biography of Al Smith that’s been sitting on my toberead shelf for a long time. And I should have read it before we did this podcast, but I didn’t get around it.

ROMAN MARS: We could’ve used it for sure.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yeah. But I wonder if there was this feeling in him of like, “Well, I had it. Why would I settle for anything less? I want it all.” This is a man who thought he would be president, ran for president, and probably should have won if not for anti-Catholic bigotry. But it’s a good question. It feels like he has–more than anyone else–closed the door. But he’s blamed that on Roosevelt. And maybe it’s like he knows he doesn’t have it in him anymore, but it’s easier to blame Roosevelt than to blame himself. But it is very sad. It’s a sad way for Al Smith to go.

ROMAN MARS: He suffers for some of the same thing that a lot of people who accomplish things suffer from, which is they’re right for this section of time, they’re right and effective, they have their finger on the pulse, and they know how to solve problems for this little bit of time. And all their worldview–it just coincides with having a great effect on the world. And that passes with time no matter what. You cannot be that great and on top of things forever. And he just cannot turn it around. And he’s this kind of victim of the same political machine that brought him to that prominence and power. He just becomes diminished in that. And anyway, I would be curious to know if you ever do read that book, Elliott.

ELLIOTT KALAN: I’ll get to it. I’ll try to do it before the end of the… Actually, maybe I’ll read it next when I finish this book of science fiction short stories that’s unrelated to what we’re working on right now.

ROMAN MARS: But I would love to know from another perspective what his biographers say about the end of his life in that regard.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Stay tuned, listeners. Will I get to reading that biography before we finish the podcast? We’ll find out. So, that’s how that chapter ends, and it’s a pretty sad, bitter end to the chapter. Luckily, the next chapter is pretty happy, right? The next chapter is a pretty happy, joyful, sunshiny chapter?

ROMAN MARS: It’s an amazing chapter of great gaiety and frivolity.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Oh, thank goodness.

ROMAN MARS: It’s called Two Brothers. It’s almost exact opposite of the chapter that we’re talking about now. It’s super fascinating. We’ll talk about Two Brothers after this… So, this next chapter, Chapter 26: Two Brothers, is just something else. And this chapter is one of the things I most want to talk to Robert Caro about because it’s inclusion of kind of the different way Robert Moses uses power and to kind of hurt the people closest to him is such an authorial choice to include as opposed to all this other, like… You know, fighting with the Board of Estimates and grounding down different newspaper people and reformers that he doesn’t like is one thing. But the dastardly relationship with his brother is really something else. And I’m so intrigued by it. And so–I don’t know–let’s start talking about this chapter. How does this open?

ELLIOTT KALAN: So, this chapter opens thusly. It begins like this: “Often at the rear of a cheering audience, there would be standing one figure who wasn’t cheering–who, in a room full of men and women gathered to honor Robert Moses, stood watching Robert Moses with a face twisted with bitterness and hatred and contempt. He was Robert Moses’ brother.” And this is a… I’d like to continue to read more of that passage–the way this chapter opens. “Paul Moses had a strange story to tell about this hero who appeared particularly heroic because, so the legend went, he had absolutely no interest in money. Robert Moses, Paul Moses said, had cut him out of part of his inheritance. And, Paul said, his brother had done more. To minimize the possibility of mutual acquaintances finding out what he had done, he had used his influence to keep Paul away from those acquaintances as much as possible by keeping him out of city posts for which he was eminently well qualified and to which he would have otherwise been appointed.” And like you said, this kind of book–this is a biography. It’s not like a Kitty Kelly tell-all biography where it’s like, “Here, let’s get into the closets and look at the skeletons and all the dirty laundry.” This is a book that is working on these huge scale themes of how a city works, how democracy works, and how power works. And it’s almost like Robert Caro has taken you through this long chapter about how you fund a public work and the costs that are embedded in that, both social and technological. And he is like, “We’ve done a lot of that. It’s time to get small. And let’s look at Robert Moses–the person in his family–a thing that hasn’t really been touched on too much previously in the book. But I think that he would tell you… This is my guess, and I’d love to ask him about this, too. He is looking at Robert Moses as a person as a whole. And this is another way that his use of power reveals something about him because this isn’t just Robert Moses getting at his brother and we’re going to regale in the dirty laundry, like I said. This is Robert Moses using power not just against the faceless thousands or millions that he doesn’t know personally. This is him using power against someone who, in theory, is closer to him than anyone else–to his brother who he’s known obviously his whole life. It’s his slightly older brother. And this is an amazing magic trick to me–how that last chapter was so huge and now it’s like, “We’re going to zoom way in, and we’re going to look at his personal history–something that we haven’t done before. We’re going to talk about a new character–someone we have never mentioned in the book up to this point–his brother, Paul Moses.” So, like, if a TV show did this, it would be startling–to suddenly have this new character and be like, “Oh yeah, I’m his brother.” And you’d be like, “I didn’t know he had a brother! What’s his story? What’s going on?” He’s just masterful at this kind of storytelling. And there’s a little bit at the end we’ll get to about Moses’ wife, too. And I feel like Caro touches on that briefly, and that feels kind of like old world gentility to me. That is not what the chapter is about. But it’s also who he had access to because, as we’ll see, Robert Caro had access a little bit, at least, to Paul Moses–to Robert Moses’ brother–and he really makes use of it.

ROMAN MARS: And that’s a point I want to get to of this chapter that I found really intriguing. So, these two chapters side by side that we’ve grouped together sort of artificially in our sort of episode planning and stuff like this… But I like to juxtapose them because I’m really fascinated by them. There’s this whole section–that $109 million section that I love in the previous chapter–that represents so much work. I mean, just understanding that weird tax strategy loan thing to get the money to the railroad legally and then pull that money back out to fund his project–that must have represented so much work of just documents and talking to people and just understanding it. And Caro gives no mention of how much work that really was, even though I know that represents a ton of work. But he spends a lot of time in the beginning of this chapter talking about how hard it was to get Paul Moses to talk to him.


ROMAN MARS: And I was trying to think about why. And I think it’s because he’s not trying to show off how hard it was and how he got him eventually. He’s trying to show–in support of this story–that Paul Moses just did not want to talk to him. Paul Moses was not someone who wanted to speak ill of Robert Moses to anyone who would listen and especially Robert Caro. So, he’s setting the struggle up to talk to Paul Moses not as like, “Look at this amazing thing I finally got to do as a reporter.” He’s setting up as like, “You should maybe trust what Paul Moses is saying here because he’s just not out there on every street corner talking about how bad Robert Moses is.”

ELLIOTT KALAN: I think it’s a little bit of that. And the other thing that Caro’s been talking about in that last chapter is that, if he says it, it means there’s documentation that backs it up. You can look at the paperwork. And here, I think, he wants to make it clear, “I got this from Paul Moses. Here’s how I tracked him down. Here’s how I got to him. So, if anything in this isn’t true, it’s because Paul Moses is confused.” And so there’s a little bit of him, I think, trying to both back it up and also distance himself from the claims.

ROMAN MARS: And just explain it that the provenance of the material is not the same as his normal level of rigor. It really is single sourced in a lot of ways.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Well, and he says in it, “The truth of Paul Moses’ charge about the inheritance will never be determined.” And I remember… I’ve heard Caro talk about how when he was writing about Lyndon Johnson, they would say, “No one will ever know whether Lyndon Johnson stole this election.” And he was like, “I’m never going to write, ‘No one will ever know.’ I’m going to find out the answer to that.” But here he has to write, “I’ll never know the truth of this,” because by the time he’s writing this, Paul Moses is dead. Robert Moses refuses to talk about it. Everyone else who was involved in it is also dead. And so, I think this is the first chapter–maybe the only chapter that I can remember–where Caro is entering almost true crimeish territory, where it’s like, “I’m going to tell you some things. This is what I’ve come to believe, but we’ll never know this stuff for sure.” And everywhere else he’s certain about what he’s saying. He is not playing that game. And he says, “Paul could have dispelled those shadows. For months, the author asked him to do so. He refused, saying it no one’s business but his own. Finally, he said he would at their next interview. On the day before that interview, he was stricken with his final illness. From the hospital, he telephoned the author and began the story. Before he could get more than a few sentences into it, he collapsed. Several days later, he died, leaving the shadows forever undispelled. Also the pain of that for Caro, too, of like, “Oh, I had it. I almost had it…” As we’ll see with Paul’s story, there are parts of Paul’s life that are a mystery. No one knows what was going on with him during that time. And we’ll never know now. And Caro was so close to having it. But there’s also something kind of Victorian novel about it, too, where you want to learn more now that you know we’ll never know the truth of it. Now it’s a mystery, so I want to hear about it.

ROMAN MARS: And you really couldn’t create a fictional rivalry as rich as this one. I mean, these two men, Paul and Robert, are kind of refracted mirror images of each other. They’re both considered very handsome, very charming, kind of know-it-alls… They’re very close in age. I think Paul is only about a year older.

ELLIOTT KALAN: He’s only a year older, and they have so much of the same personality about them. Like you said, they’re both really smart. They’re both really charming. They both feel their superiority to other people. They feel not necessarily the need to show it, but they both feel the assumption that they’re superior to other people. And Caro points out that they had two differences–one small and one big. The small difference is Robert Moses did not care about lower class people or people of color. Whereas Paul Moses seemed to be genuinely sympathetic towards them and even seemed to express warmth towards poor people that he would not show towards more affluent people. But the biggest difference, and Robert Caro was like, “This is the turning point for them,” is that Robert Moses–the guy who stands up to power and everything–if his mother said something, he’d be like, “Uh, yes, mom.” Whereas Paul Moses would not. So, if they’re disagreeing with Bella Moses, eventually Bob would be like, “Yeah, okay, I guess you’re right mom,” and just pretend. And Paul Moses would be like, “No. You’re wrong, mom,” which means that the person who is the real secret weapon for Robert Moses in that she is bankrolling him for much of his adult life before he can amass that power is on his side because he will follow her lead. Whereas Paul Moses–the slightly older brother–he will not follow her lead. And we talk about Paul Moses’ youth here, and there’s these kind of blank spots. He seems to have had some kind of falling out with her mom. It was either over politics–he was a Democrat and she was Republican–or if it was over a girl that he was in love with. But either way, the upshot is that he drops out of Princeton. And for four years, he’s just gone, and nobody knows where he is. Nobody knows what he’s doing. And then he returns to college. And instead of majoring in classics, now he’s majoring in electrical engineering. And this is one of those dark spots in his life that Caro wanted to know about and is never going to know about. In 1913, both Bob and Paul want to go into public service. Bella, we know, arranges for Bob to go to the Bureau of Municipal Research. This is the first big step in his eventually becoming the Power Broker. Paul is told, “We’ve arranged a job for you at an investment bank.” And Paul is like, “I don’t want to do that.”

ROMAN MARS: That sucks.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And he leaves. Nobody knows where he goes. Some other family members–they tell Caro, “Yeah, I think he might’ve been in South America for a little bit. Nobody knows what he does.” And the trail doesn’t pick up again until Paul is serving in the Navy during World War I. And Caro mentions that, during World War I, Robert Moses is staying out of the military. He doesn’t want to do it. Whereas Paul enlists and serves. And while Bob is kind of starting to compromise his anti-machine politics, so he can learn from Bell Moskowitz at this point–if you remember back that far in the series–while he’s doing that, Paul Moses is working at ConEd and is wrecking a very promising career by arguing politics with his bosses. He will not compromise. In some ways, Paul Moses is the Bob Moses that Bob Moses is promised to be. He cares about people who are below him on the social scale. He’s uncompromising. And it just keeps causing him trouble. And finally, he gets the chance to enter public service. He’s offered a job at the Department of Public Works. At the last minute, Al Smith, who was governor at the time, vetoes the appointment. And Paul Moses, I guess, tells Robert Caro that he didn’t suspect it at the time that his brother might’ve been behind that because, at the time, it wouldn’t have occurred to him that his brother would be getting in the way of him ascending into that world.

ROMAN MARS: This is so sinister. This is also really upsetting. And then one of the other things that they have in common, curiously, is this love of swimming–this obsession with swimming. And so, while Bob Moses is building Jones Beach, Paul is building this enormous swimming club in Pennsylvania, which is–again–what an obsession. I don’t understand it.

ELLIOTT KALAN: I could understand it if this was, like, the Louganis family–you know–they had a history of family swimming or diving. But yeah, they just love swimming. I don’t know. And the difference here–Paul Moses–he’s like an alternate reality version of Robert Moses in so many different ways, where Robert Moses can build Jones Beach and he can go way over cost because he has the power of the governor behind him. He can spend an entire bathhouse’s budget on the foundation for the bathhouse and then say to the legislature, “Give me more money. I got to finish this bathhouse.” But Paul–when he overspends on this swimming club–he has nowhere to turn. He won’t ask his mother for financial help. Robert Moses–remember–he asked his mom to float him, like, $22,000 to finish a project once, and she did. And Paul Moses–he won’t do it. So, he’s sinking further and further into debt. And by 1929, things are looking up. It’s a great year for everybody–1929. And Paul and his mom are starting to reconcile. He gets a consulting job with Con Edison. The pool is starting to bring in money. And he has an argument with his brother. And Paul Moses tells Robert Caro that he didn’t see it as any other different argument than before Robert Moses was a government guy. But suddenly, in 1930, the next year, Paul and his mom have another falling out. And when he tries to make up with her, she refuses to see him. And suddenly, other relatives are cutting him out. They won’t talk to him. And the big mystery that I’m always drawn to in this chapter is they all seem to think he has done something horrible–he’s committed some kind of crime. And he is too proud to ask what they think he did. And he will never know. And later in the chapter, Robert Caro talks to relatives, and they’re like, “Yeah, I don’t really remember. He did something bad. I don’t remember what it was. Maybe Bob said he did something bad.” But nobody can seem to remember what the sin is that Paul committed that basically got him excommunicated from the family. No one knows. And when Bella Moses dies, she divides her estate up between Robert Moses and their sister Edna, who we’ve barely heard anything about. And she leaves a trust For Paul. It’s $100,000. He’s only allowed to receive the interest–which is not very much money–never the principle. It says in the will that if he contests the will, it all goes to his siblings, and he loses it automatically, which is a very Bob Moses move, I feel like. And worst of all, Robert Moses is named the trustee of the fund or one of the trustees. And so, now that his mother is gone, Paul Moses has lost any financial security he ever felt like he had before. And even into his old age, he’s wondering, “Why did my mom cut me out of a full share of her will?” He’ll never know. And much like Al Smith curdling with resentment towards Roosevelt, in some ways, Paul Moses comes to believe Robert Moses– He doesn’t say “Robert Moses.” He would have said “Bob.” In my notes, I say “Bob” all throughout. And I’m like, “I’m not used to calling him Bob.” This is very disorienting. Paul Moses comes to believe that his brother Bob lied about him to the rest of the family to poison his relationship. And Paul Moses tells Robert Caro, “There was an earlier will that divided the estate into three equal parts. And then when my mom was in the hospital, Bob came and got her to sign a new will because he wanted my share of the money.” And he alleges that then his brother made it harder for him to find work. And Caro investigates Paul’s charges as best as he could. He finds Paul has some details wrong about when the new will was signed. There was an old will and a new one, but it was before she was in the hospital that it was resigned. Paul’s relatives don’t remember what the deal was. They’re sure he did something bad. And Paul Moses says to Robert Caro, “Look at this in light of Robert’s 1930 financial situation. He’s not Secretary of State anymore. He doesn’t have a job. He’s 41 years old. He has no income except what he’s getting from his mom. He had two girls to send to private school. He’s got two homes to keep up.” And for the first time, you can see he needs money because he submits a bill to the government for some work he’s done for them. And the bill is denied payment. But he made such a big deal about “I don’t get paid for my work” that just to send a bill means he needs money. And he refuses to leave public service for a private industry job. His whole deal is that he’s the guy who doesn’t care about money. He spends lavishly–all the Moseses do–but he doesn’t care about money. And meanwhile, Bella Moses is spending her money faster than it can be replenished in her old age. And Bob Moses is like, “If I’m going to get a fair share of this inheritance, I’m not going to be able to support my family.” And Caro says, “This, of course, is Paul’s analysis. Robert will not discuss it. And there is living no one else who is able to.” And he says a little later, “But it is possible to ascertain the truth of Paul Moses’ other charge. It is possible to determine whether or not it is true that Robert Moses secretly employed his behind the scenes influence in city government to keep his brother from getting jobs He deserved.” Paragraph indent. “It is true.” And it’s like, “What?” And if Robert Caro’s saying it, it’s because people told him! And he says, “I know this is true because people I talked to told me it was true and I can’t find anyone to tell me that it’s not true.” And this is what it’s like. You’re reading it, and you’re like, “Okay…”I certainly have family members who argue with each other and blame each other for things that happened a long time ago. And they don’t talk to each other now because of wills and things like that. It’s always like, “All right.” So, this story with Paul Moses, I’m like, “Maybe. I don’t know.” And then as soon as it gets to, “Oh yeah, he totally stopped his brother from getting work,” you’re like, “Oh, well, maybe the will stuff was true! I don’t know!” And this is when it gets kind of strange–you know–the lengths that Robert Moses is going to keep his brother from supporting himself from working in the same field that he’s in.

ROMAN MARS: And this is just hard to figure out. It’s funny. Cutting him out of the will–the motivations or Robert Moses’ role in that is harder to determine. But the motivation for such an action is very clear here. The trail of evidence is very clear. But the motivation sort of eludes me of why you would make it so that he could not find consulting jobs in the city.

ELLIOTT KALAN: I mean, there’s only two thoughts I have about that. Roman, do you have any brothers?

ROMAN MARS: I do not.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Okay. So, I have a brother. And–yeah–sometimes I get kind of annoyed with him and he rubs me the wrong way. But that’s a minor point. But there’s something about Bob Moses. He needs to be the superior one. He needs to be the authority. He needs to be the bully. And I wonder if just having someone there who not only doesn’t see him as an authority but sees him as an equal or maybe even as slightly lesser because he’s his younger brother–to have someone who is like, “Oh yeah, well, I’m not as afraid of you because I literally remember when you were pooping in your pants as you were a little kid”–that’s something, I imagine, Bob Moses cannot have around, even beyond the will stuff. So, he goes about making sure that his brother cannot be hired in the city and then both for the government and then later in private industry. And there’s a point where La Guardia needs someone like Paul Moses. He needs someone who understands electrical engineering and is liberal so that he can give him the information he needs to regulate and investigate the utility companies for ripping off New Yorkers. And he also needs someone who has that knowledge and expertise, believes in the cause, and does not care if he pisses off utility companies that might hire him later on. And there’s basically one guy who fits that bill, and it’s Paul Moses. And multiple people recommend Paul to La Guardia. And La Guardia says to them, “I can’t have him around as long as Bob is here.” And people in the city government–they can sometimes hire him for temporary consulting jobs. They’re impressed by him. He cannot seem to get hired on a permanent job. And what’s interesting is Paul Windels seems to be trying to hire him all the time. But then when Caro talks to Paul Moses, Paul Moses is like, “Yeah, Paul Windels didn’t want me around.” Even he doesn’t fully understand who was really stopping him from getting hired. And once Paul Windels leaves the government, Paul can’t get temporary jobs. Suddenly, even private companies won’t hire him even though they used to offer him work. And the hand behind this is Robert Moses, who–again–controls all this stuff. He’s the one person who both has the influence to stop his brother from getting work and also would care at all. Who else would give a shit? Pardon my language. Who else would care if Paul Moses gets a job?

ROMAN MARS: And the amount that this sabotages his life… It’s not just he’s throwing up roadblocks to make things difficult so that he doesn’t gain a certain level of success and therefore is somehow more formidable a rival to Robert Moses. He brings him to poverty through these actions.

ELLIOTT KALAN: He ruins him completely. Yeah. It’s not like, “And so Paul Moses didn’t work in government, and he ended up becoming a lawyer or he ran a shoe store or something.” No, it’s like he’s wrecked as a person. Partly it’s his own fault because the Moseses spend money lavishly. Paul Moses is also a spendthrift. And by the end of 1938, the years we were talking about in the previous chapter, he’s out of money. He’s in deep debt. He used to be this kind of dapper man about town. Now, he’s staying at a Salvation Army or living in the office behind his pool complex. His suits are ragged. He’s skipping meals. He simply cannot afford to eat regularly. And he’s this bitter frustrated guy, and he hates his brother. And it doesn’t help that his brother has managed to invest Paul’s trust money in a bad real estate deal that has made Paul lose even more money and put him into even deeper debt.

ROMAN MARS: And he also lobbies to… As the executor of the trust, Bob Moses demands a salary off of this money. It’s just insult to injury. It’s so terrible.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Robert Moses says, “I want to be paid for this work. Also, this investment–we actually overpaid into it. So, you need to return some money to us. You need to return a few thousand dollars you don’t have.” And Paul Moses is like, “My brother’s going to get paid more money from the trust I inherited than I’m ever going to get.” And he sues the trustees. And the case is moved from an impartial judge to a judge who’s friends with Al Smith, who not only rules for the trustees and rules for Robert Moses but then lectures Paul about being greedy. And at this point, it’s like the Book of Job. It’s just one thing after another happening to Paul Moses. And he becomes this guy who is fixated on his brother. And it makes it easier for other people around him to believe, “Oh, he’s unstable. He did something bad in the past. He must have. We can’t trust him.” And he just can’t get work in New York City. And Robert Caro says to him, “Why don’t you go to another city?” And Paul says to him, “What? Let him drive me away?” And it’s like, “Ooh, that’s not a healthy outcome.” And it does remind you, like, “Oh, well, he probably could have gone to Chicago, Los Angeles, some other Cincinnati, somewhere, and gotten a job doing this kind of work.” But now there’s a personal rivalry to it. And also New York is the place that he knows. By now, he’s becoming an older man. And people in the New York area are like, “It’s pretty weird that this brilliant electrical engineer whose brother controls the hiring of engineers for public projects can’t get a job. Very strange.” It’s like, “Robert, you’re having trouble finding engineers for this dam you’re building on the St. Lawrence River. Didn’t your brother already make up plans for a dam on the St. Lawrence River? But you won’t hire him. I don’t know what’s going on.” And it gets to the point that you’re saying–he ends up in poverty. He’s an old man. He lives in a one-room, walkup apartment at the very southern tip of Manhattan. He lives with a woman named Millie who, Caro says, nobody seems to know what her last name is. She’s just this older woman who seems devoted to him. And Caro hints that this may be the woman Paul loved at Princeton when he was young. There’s something about that that feels a little too romantic to me. So, I don’t know.

ROMAN MARS: I always remember that detail because it’s so poignant, even if it doesn’t quite hold water.

ELLIOTT KALAN: It’s beautiful if true. But by the 1960s, when Robert Moses is still a powerful person, Paul Moses is an elderly man. He can’t get up the stairs of his building. His brother is building thousands of apartments in elevator buildings for people at Paul Moses’ income level. And Robert Moses is giving out those apartments to people as favors. And it never occurs to him–or, if it does, he rejects the idea–to give his brother one of those buildings, which, as Caro points out, would’ve improved his brother’s life immeasurably, to live in a building with an elevator. This is how far their lives have gone. These two guys started in the same place. They’re very similar men. Robert Moses is the shaper of worlds, who is–almost by hand–remolding New York and Manhattan Island and things like that and putting up more bricks than anyone ever has and more cement. And his brother meanwhile is struggling to get up the stairs to this tiny apartment he lives in. And he haunts City Hall. He’s always hanging around there to the point that the people he used to know retire. And now Paul Moses becomes just kind of, like, in the eyes of the people who work there, a nut who just goes into offices and bothers people. And finally in 1962, Paul collapses. And his brother finally goes to visit him at the hospital. And he brings him a brochure about the Triborough Authority or something like that. He brings him souvenirs that are about how great Bob Moses’ work is. And Paul Moses, at this point, is so nervous that Millie is going to be left with nothing when he dies–with no money–that he swallows his pride after decades. And he writes Robert Moses, and he asks him for a job. And Moses arranges for him to become what Caro describes essentially an errand boy at an engineering firm for $96.16 a week. The least he can do is what he does, which is like, “Oh, my elderly brother. Yeah, I’ll get you this kind of low-man-on-the-pole job, where you should be probably running this firm at this point.” There’s other members of the family that we’ll get into in just a moment, but the story of Paul Moses really feels like you’re seeing, in some ways, the same person–it’s a real sliding doors thing–on alternate tracks. And I wonder if part of it is Bob Moses seeing competition from his brother and wanting to cut that off or Robert Moses being like, “I could have turned out like my brother. I don’t want to be reminded of that. I just don’t want anything to do with him.” That’s the more sympathetic way to look at it, in a way.

ROMAN MARS: Or doesn’t want anybody to see someone so similar to him so down in his luck–so low. And so, therefore, you can imagine Robert Moses as this man knocking around City Hall, talking about engineering. You could totally… I think this idea of Robert Moses self mythologizing has to come from somewhere. So, obviously, Bella Moses is part of his story, but there’s this way he doesn’t talk about having a brother in any public forum. His biography when stuff like that is mentioned–part of his personal life is mentioned–he stops cooperating with his biographer. He never talks about his sister either. And I think that there’s a bit of him that just doesn’t want any personal history that allows for some kind of weakness–some kind of different part of the story–instead of what he makes of himself. He’s the city builder, and he was just born fully armored out of Zeus’s head as the city builder. And him having a period of time where this weak man–this failure of a man–probably dominated him and was maybe smarter than him… He can’t have a period of his life have any type of narrative in which he is below or less than or whatever it is. I mean, this chapter is really heartbreaking. And also, of all the different things and interpretations of whether or not Robert Moses is doing the right thing for the most amount of people–the person who can get things done when most people can’t–and you can argue these little bits and points about him being just part of the entire culture of cars that’s happening in cities around the nation and his poor decisions were really the fashion of the time, this type of thing, where this man, who could literally give him an apartment and gives apartments to people all the time, could just alleviate the suffering of his brother and doesn’t do it, is just so cold. It’s so painful.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yeah, there’s no national ideological trend of ruining your brother in America at the time. There’s a car culture, but there’s not a torturing your siblings culture into adulthood. Kids torture their siblings all the time.

ROMAN MARS: He could do– It’s so little. It’s so nothing for him to make Paul’s life better. And it just blows my mind.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yeah, it’s astounding. And it’s almost like he’s the master builder. He’s going to reshape the world the way he wants it, no matter who has to leave, get relocated, or get hurt in the process. And he’s going to reshape his history the way he wants it, no matter who he has to relocate or get rid of in the process. And the story only gets a little sadder from here. So, buckle up folks. I mean, first, Caro briefly talks about their sister, Edna, who really gets short shrift in the book–maybe because she didn’t talk to Robert Caro or maybe because her life is not particularly eventful, which is fine. But she kind of does whatever Robert Moses tells her to do in terms of family stuff until she and her husband move to Florida and then she finds that her brother effectively forgets she exists and just ignores her and doesn’t take her calls. There’s one point where he’s coming to Florida and she’s like, “Oh, can I see you?” And he’s like, “Yeah, well if you come to the airport, you can see me for a couple minutes before I leave for this other place.” And she goes, “Okay, I get the idea. I’m just not going. That’s it. I don’t need to do that.” And it fits into that rubric for him of like, “If I can use this person, they’re a part of my life. If I can’t use this person, I don’t need them to be a part of my life.” But then Caro ends the chapter talking about the relationship between Robert Moses and his wife, Mary Moses. And we remember Mary was the secretary at the bureau that he fell in love with. He would talk his ideas out with her, and she was the woman who–when he was working too long hours on the Long Island Park Commission–she’d come to the office and pull him by the ear and get him home. And she is the person who is effectively making his career possible by running their home while he’s away. And that split is pretty classic for the time–that the man works outside the home and the woman is inside the home. But even further than normal, she’s buying all his clothes, she’s paying the bills, she’s arranging for his haircuts, and she makes sure in the morning that he has carfare in his pockets in case he has to take a car or a train somewhere. And if he’s schmoozing with city politicians, she helps him remember who people are. She helps him to get them on his side. She helps take care of the staff. If he’s in a bad mood when he leaves to work, she’ll call ahead and say, “He’s in a bad mood today. Just be careful.” If someone on staff loses a family member, she’s the one who remembers to reach out to them and give their condolences. She is very much a partner in a lot of what he’s doing and is also constantly defending him to other people–constantly advising him. And Moses is quoted in the chapter that, when he makes a mistake and something doesn’t work out, he goes, “Oh, that’s one of the times I didn’t listen to Mary. I didn’t talk to Mary about that one.”

ROMAN MARS: Anytime he makes a boner, it’s because he didn’t listen to Mary.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Old-fashioned way of saying it. Yeah. But over the years, Caro depicts this process. And it’s not as detailed as the Paul stuff, I think, because he wasn’t talking directly to Mary Moses. And also I get the feeling here that he’s kind of covering his sources a little bit more than he does in other sections. I have to look in the notes in the back to see. Every now and then in the notes, you’ll find a part where it’s like, “This person only spoke if I kept them anonymous.” Or there’s the mention in one part earlier in the book of one of Moses’ staff members who commits suicide because he’s being driven so hard. And he says in the notes, “I am not mentioning this man’s name out of respect for his mother, who’s still alive.” So, there’s a little bit of that, I wonder, going on here. But he talks about how, as the years go on and Robert Moses gets more powerful and louder, Mary Moses is getting kind of weaker and quieter. And by 1930, she’s seen by people no longer as the vivacious equal partner of Bob Moses but as this kind of shy, withdrawn woman. She still clearly idolizes her husband, and she boosts him a lot while minimizing herself. When he’s running for governor, she’s interviewed, and she’s like, “Well, I don’t know why you’d talk to me. You should talk to the candidate. He’s a more interesting person than me. I don’t know what I’ve done.” And she seems to be aging dramatically, perhaps from the strain of running their household and Bob’s life and her own life, or perhaps just from being ignored so much. Who knows? So much of Robert Moses’ life is spent with the things he’s doing. And as Caro has made it clear earlier, there’s almost no time in the day for any of this stuff. It’s funny because Caro will be like, “Robert Moses was always there for clam bakes with the kids.” But it seems like that… I don’t know how often that must have happened. It seems impossible.

ROMAN MARS: Exactly. It’s not a weekly clambake.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And Robert Moses is… At any time of day or night, he may suddenly leave and go swimming to stay kind of physically vigorous. And Caro starts jumping ahead and saying, “By the 1950s, Robert Moses is catching the eyes of younger women, who see Mary as not being much to speak of.” And as early as the 1930s, there are rumors that Moses is having affairs with more glamorous women–richer women. And under the strain of all this, Mary begins to drink. People began to assume that she’s an alcoholic. And there are times when she embarrasses herself in public because she’s had too much to drink. And she’s eventually hospitalized several times. And it seems unclear whether that’s because of alcohol abuse or because of other kinds of breakdowns. But we are left with this portrait of this marriage that was between these two vigorous people–one of whom was clearly subordinating herself for the ambitions of the other. And now he’s stayed powerful–he’s gotten only more powerful–and she has withdrawn more and more. And I think it’s too far to say that Caro is saying this, but the impression I get is almost of Moses like a vampire kind of draining the vitality from his wife in order to stay on top of his own life. And then when she is no longer able to keep up in the same way because she’s gotten older, he’s kind of tucking her away and not necessarily openly mistreating her but sidelining her from his life. And it’s just a sad way for this chapter to end. The last chapter ended with the sadness of Al Smith as this bitter old man. And this chapter has taken us through the ruin of Paul Moses and then the just diminishment of Mary Moses. And there’s something… I’m of two thoughts about this chapter, and one of them is that this is much more gossipy than other chapters in a way that Caro mostly stays away from. But also to avoid showing this–to say only, “Oh, we’re only going to talk about his public life and the public things he did”–is to not look at the person in full and all the ways that he used power because there’s another sort of power, and that’s the power between two people. That’s the power dynamic that’s in a family. And these are other aspects of power that are not democratic power. They’re not urban infrastructure power or electric power, which comes up so much in the book–the power of motors and things like that. But every human interaction involves some sort of power dynamic. And I feel like the last–I don’t know–10, 15 years of American society has been about people having their eyes opened to kinds of power dynamics they maybe didn’t recognize before or we refuse to recognize before or we’re oblivious to. And these are other aspects of power, and they show us some more of the cost of someone being the master planner who can get things done in this way–that the cost is not just in money, it’s not just in marshland, but it’s also in the people around this person. And whether that’s a fair cost or whether that’s an equation worth balancing–Caro’s not going to give us that answer. That’s not his job to give us that answer. His job is only to lay it all out there and then allow us to make the choice, I think, of how we feel about it. And it’s a hard thing that… I don’t know. I like it when my books tell me what to think. I don’t like when my books just ask questions.

ROMAN MARS: It’s pretty interesting to me how segregated this portion is. It both extends and collapses time in an interesting way. It works on a different timescale than other parts that we’re talking about. I mean, we sort of reach the end of Mary Moses’ life here somewhat and definitely the end of Paul Moses’ life, but it’s very sequestered to do this thing, which is to give a well-rounded view of Robert Moses as a man as opposed to his activities as the master builder. It strikes me that in the Lyndon Johnson books that Caro wrote, the personal and political are more integrated into the story of LBJ, and they’re more documented too. So, it seems like he’s figuring out how to place this. He sort of has a way of just integrating it better when he’s talking about Lyndon Johnson in the later volumes of the work that he did. This just stands out. This is one strange chapter that tells a totally different story that gives you a different view of this man that you’ve, at this point, grown to somewhat loathe and now you really do because it’s not that his actions are relatable at all. They’re just more normal. More people have experienced rifts within families that caused this type of strife and can place themselves more in these situations. And you can totally see how a person could read this and see themselves in Paul Moses or Mary Moses in a way that they maybe can’t, like, a person who’s just had their favorite park bulldozed or something like that.

ELLIOTT KALAN: I think you’re right that, in the Lyndon Johnson’s books, they’re more integrated. I wonder if part of that is because, yeah, Lyndon Johnson was already a famous personality. But also he knew he would have at least three books to work on that with. So, he’d kind of get into it more. But I also wonder if Caro is still kind of working, in some ways, in a reporter mode. And the reporter mode is like, “You’re telling a big story. You got to find the human element of it. We talked with Brandy last episode about people are interested in people. Every story that’s interesting has people in it. And so, he’s very good I think at picking out who is the individual that he’s going to boil a story down to a lot of the time. He gives a couple examples earlier on in the first chapter of, like, when it’s time for him to talk about Moses as a bully, he focuses for a few moments on Pearl Bernstein and the way that Moses treated Pearl Bernstein. And it’s so much more powerful than if he said, “400 people quit from Moses’ staff,” or something like that. And here it’s like the reporter part of him that’s like, “You got to find the human angle. We’ll do it here, and we’ll do it about Paul Moses.” And yeah, it is a strange chapter. It’s strange the way it’s balanced. It’s called Two Brothers, but it ends talking about…

ROMAN MARS: About his wife. Yeah.

ELLIOTT KALAN: About Mary Moses. And I’m not quite sure how I feel about how little space Mary Moses gets–whether I think more space would be allowing to tell her story more fully, because right now she’s almost treated like a side person in this whole story, or if more space would feel like it was holding her up to in indignity. Whether it’s protecting her or not–the gentility of it and the oldfashionedness of protecting someone or revealing the truth… There’s a lot going on under the surface in this chapter. And I wonder if it’s aided by the fact that Caro was so open at the beginning of like, “This is when I talked to Paul Moses. This is what it looked like where I saw Paul Moses.” He’s much more in this chapter than he is in other chapters.

ROMAN MARS: Yeah. It’s just so different and fascinating. And I think when people look back and have read this with us over the year, I think it’s super likely that this will be the chapter they remember the most detail of and has the most visceral impact on them. It’s really something else. It just stands out in this interesting way that I like. But I’m just kind of fascinated by it. I think about it all the time.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yeah, it’s a powerful thing that it sticks out that much. The book is so huge, and there’s so much stuff going on. And true, I feel the same way that this chapter always stuck out to me and the details of it. That opening–that you’re in a room full of people applauding Robert Moses and way in the back is Paul Moses and he is not applauding–that visual and that moment stuck with me so long and it’s so cinematic. And this feels to me like when a TV show does their one episode, that’s kind of like the weird episode, where it’s, like, a musical or it’s all set in one room or it’s told backwards and it’s so unlike what the rest of the series is but that’s the episode people remember partly for that reason. You know, it sticks out in their mind. So, I guess this is Robert Caro’s bottle episode, where he didn’t have the budget, so he had to have everything take place in one car or something.

ROMAN MARS: A walk-up apartment. Well, anyway, so it’s just a fascinating chapter and a fascinating discussion. And when we move on from here next month, we’ll be covering pages 607 to 702. That’s Chapters 27 through 32, which will finish out Part Five: The Love of Power and continues onto Part Six: The Lust for Power. It just gets worse and worse.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Oh, if you thought The Love of Power was bad, lusting for power is even worse. At least loving–there’s an emotional aspect to it. Lusting–it’s just animal passion for power. Yeah.

ROMAN MARS: That’s next month. But after this break, we’re going to talk to Mike Schur, who created Parks and Rec and The Good Place. And we’re going to talk to him a little bit about what this book means to him and how–after Robert Caro presented the parks department as this secret source of power–Mike Schur came along, decades later, to remind us that Parks and Rec is actually a little, tiny department that does nothing. That’s after the break. Now for our interview with television writer and creator, Mike Schur, the man behind Parks and Rec and The Good Place and a bunch of other amazing television. We learned that not only is Mike a Power Broker super fan but he also used the book as inspiration in developing Parks and Rec. We just had to have him on. The idea for having Mike on the show actually came from our Discord server. So, thank you to user Ben for the suggestion. First of all, let’s talk about your experience with The Power Broker. How did you come to it? And what happened to you once you read it?

MIKE SCHUR: Well, I don’t want to kick this off with a brag, but I’ve read it three times.

ELLIOTT KALAN: We call that the minimum around here. We call that the beginning step, but okay.

MIKE SCHUR: Yeah, that’s right. I have achieved amateur status by reading it three times. So, I moved to New York after college in 1997. And I love New York. I grew up in Connecticut, and New York was always big and scary and exciting. And then I moved there and just completely fell in love with the city. And I was at a party maybe a year after I moved, and I was ranting about New York because I was saying, “This is the best city in the world! And it is so beautiful. And it makes so much sense–the layout of the streets and the neighborhoods and Central Park right in the middle, taking up a thousand acres of greatest, most valuable real estate certainly in North America. And everything about it is great except for one thing, which is why is it so messed up in terms of its transportation?” And coming from Connecticut, which is just north and a little east of the city, every time I drove home, I would have this same feeling, which is like, “What is this insane tangle of road that you encounter? Why is it so crazy? The Van Wyck Expressway and the Major Deagan and then the Saw Mill and the BQE and the Cross Bronx, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. You can barely take the subway to the airport. It takes four hours and it’s just… I don’t get it!” And someone–I don’t know who, lost to history–basically said, “Read this book, and you’ll understand.” And I’ve heard you two talk about this on this very podcast. It was like I was being inducted into the Masons or something. It was like a secret society. They opened a trench, and there were some knockoff watches and a copy of The Power Broker, and they gave me the copy of The Power Broker. And I started reading it, and I just tore through it. I read it in two weeks. And I thought, when I was done, “That’s the greatest novel I’ve ever read.” That’s how I thought about it. It’s certainly the greatest book I’ve ever read, but I thought of it as a novel. No imagination could have come up with a better story than this story. And I started talking about it so much that my then girlfriend and now wife actually banned me from talking about it at cocktail parties or other gatherings. It’s one of three times in her life she’s been like, “You’ve got to stop talking about this”–not for her sake, for my sake. She was like, “You’re going to drive all of your friends away if you keep talking about this book.” And she was, by the way, totally right. So, instead of talking about it, I just thought about it. I thought about it endlessly for years. I moved to LA in 2004. And a couple of years after that, I started working on the TV show Parks and Recreation, which was about a woman who worked in local government. And the idea for Leslie Knope–Amy Poehler’s character–was she was going to be a person who was a pure idealist but had no understanding of the structures, the power structures, the calcified system of government, and how to actually get things done. And I thought, “I got to read The Power Broker again. That’s the book that helps you understand these things.” So, I read it for the second time–sort of in preparation to run that show. And it was very sort of meaningful in this new context, which was not about living in New York but about what happens when you are an idealist but you also need to get things done because obviously that book is the greatest story ever of a person who starts off with the best of intentions and is slowly corrupted by power and sort of the understanding of how levers are pulled. And I remember saying early on to Amy, “The goal of this is to have Leslie be Robert Moses but remain true to herself.” “Robert Moses but good” is a good explanation of the character. So, that was a sort of guiding principle. We actually worked it into an episode. She mentioned it in one episode, and I think gave it to a friend of hers as a present or something. And then the third time I read it was over COVID. When we were all locked in our houses, I sort of had this thought of, “well, I can’t leave my house. What should I do to spend my time?” And I was like, “I haven’t read that book in a decade. I’ll read it again.” So, I read it for the third time. And the wonderful and funny thing was that when I read it over COVID, it was the same copy. It was the same paperback copy I’d read the first two times. And it completely disintegrated in my hands. Just the binding broke, and huge chunks of the book had fallen out. And by the time I was done reading it, it was the cover of the 1,100-page book but with only, like, 300 pages still actually adhering to the spine. So, that’s my history with it. It started with, “How do I understand New York City?” It changed to, “How can I understand this character who is obviously not anything close to Robert Moses but has the same set of goals as he did when he started out as a sort of wide-eyed reformer?” And then the third time was just because I love it and I wanted to read it again.

ELLIOTT KALAN: I love that your story with it is kind of like the story of a prophet who has received the word from on high and tries to share it with everybody. It falls on deaf ears. They’re not listening. They tell you, “Stop. Don’t tell us this anymore.” Then you find the person or the form that you can actually communicate it in. And you reach, I guess, Amy Poehler–you reach the one person who is open to that message. And then when you try to return to the original source–the original word–it’s like God has shut off that valve and is like, “You don’t need this anymore. My time with you is done. You’re no longer a tool I need in the universe.” And the book disintegrates like something in a fantasy novel.

MIKE SCHUR: Exactly, yeah. The words floated off the pages and disappeared into the ether.

ROMAN MARS: The lost golden discs of Moroni.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yep. Yep. Exactly.

MIKE SCHUR: Yeah. Am I saying I’m a prophet of some kind? I don’t know. That’s not for me to decide. That’s up to your listeners.

ROMAN MARS: That’s outstanding. I mean, one of the reasons why I was so intrigued to talk to you is this Parks and Rec connection of Robert Caro creating this masterpiece to talk to us about how the parks department is this strange source of hidden undemocratic power. And then you, like, 40 years later, talk about being as sort of silly as you might expect a parks and rec department to be but also having all these sort of intricacies of bureaucracy and good people doing bad things… But mostly it’s good people doing good things on Parks and Rec. But it’s so funny to me that there’s this connection there when you are already connected to this material in some way.

MIKE SCHUR: Yeah, I mean, the research that Greg Daniels and I did early on in order to write the show was very eye-opening and also very at a small scale level, obviously. It was very reminiscent of the early chunk of The Power Broker because what we learned was, when you’re trying to do public works projects, you start off with an idea. And the idea can be very pure. And then because this is America, the public gets to weigh in. And the public has a lot of opinions, and some of them are good and some of them are bad, but they all have to be heard. And we talked to this one guy who was trying to redesign a small park in New York City. And he had this idea to sort of restore the park to the way that it had looked in the 1890s. And that involved light stanchions that had a certain kind of… At the time, I think it was, like, a Doric column kind of feel because it was the Gilded Age. And so, he was going to do these old timey 19th century sconces and all this sort of stuff. And it was a very beautiful idea. And then meeting, after meeting, after meeting, after meeting, people say, “Those lights are too tall. They’re going to shine in my apartment. And I’m not going to be able to sleep.” And so, he makes alterations. And then someone else says, “This is where we walk our dogs. And if there isn’t enough green space, then the dogs won’t have places to walk or whatever.” And they just kind of chip away and chip away and chip away. And by the time the design was actually approved by the public commission, the columns were just now steel poles, and everything was flattened. And there was this one little, tiny, little flourish at the top of the light stanchions. There was a tiny bit of intricate stone relief that he had managed to keep and salvage from his original design. And we said, “That must’ve been so devastating.” And he kind of shrugged, and he was like, “Look, I got this small win. I had this idea to do this big elaborate thing. And at the end of the day–yeah–it’s not what I wanted, but that’s not my job. My job is to serve the public. And so, if I can manage to salvage one little, tiny thing that I’m proud of, then great. And then the public–to the extent that the public can ever be truly satisfied with something–will be satisfied with the project.” And it was both sort of heartbreaking and also kind of lovely because his attitude was like, “I managed to do something that I’m proud of. And also the public was served in the way that they asked to be served.” And we had that… It’s not like a… I don’t know what you would call it. It’s not quite a North Star for the show. But it had this vibe of, like, this is what Robert Moses lacked, especially as he gained power–he forgot about the second part. He forgot about the part where his job was to serve the public, and all he wanted was for it to be the way that he wanted it to be. And I thought, “Well, there’s the difference. If you’re trying to create a character who’s the good version of Robert Moses, then the part of Robert Moses–the idealist and the reformer–should be 99% of the character. And the part of Robert Moses that just wanted to run roughshod over everybody and do things only the way that he saw fit should be 1% or less than the way that this person goes about their business. And there were a lot of moments like that where we would hear a story or a sort of tale of woe from a public servant. And the first thing I would think of is Robert Moses. I would think about the book and the fundamental difference between the way that folks who are responsible public servants behave versus how Moses ended up behaving for the great majority of his life.

ROMAN MARS: In your research, I bet you found–as I think I have found sort of in my life–that public servants are… They’re more like Leslie Knope than they are Robert Moses out there in the world.

MIKE SCHUR: Yeah, I think that’s probably true. I mean, really many of them are not like either.

ELLIOTT KALAN: They’re neither angels nor demons. I don’t know.

ROMAN MARS: But there’s a sense of serving the public in a way. I mean, they know what’s right and wrong, and sometimes you put yourself in a position of leadership because you feel you know what is right and therefore you reluctantly take the advice of other people. But I found that most people are trying to do good in this world mostly.

MIKE SCHUR: I think that’s true. Yes. I think that there’s… Let’s put it this way, there are very few people who are trying to be Robert Moses in part because it’ll never happen again. Part of what makes the book so compelling is it’s the exact person and personality type and family lineage and city at a time of possibility. Most things in American cities are pretty well formed at this point. We’re not making a lot of new big cities that even have the opportunity for someone to do what Moses did in New York. And then also the kind of weird confluence of events of Moses coming of age in a time when Tammany Hall was running New York and him getting that firsthand look at how idealism is fine but power is what gets things done. And him learning that lesson, getting crushed by that power, and then shifting gears from idealist to power gatherer… And at a time when the entire West Side of Manhattan was garbage and landfill and there were no highways and cars were just kind of coming into vogue as individual modes of transportation and there were beaches all around and no one could get to them. And so, he was able, by building those roads, to get people to beaches, which then gave him the power in the public sphere that he could wield as the great man of the people. All of those things had to swirl around and join forces at exactly the right moment. So, if you’re a public servant now, you don’t even have the opportunity to become Robert Moses because it’s too late. So, I think most people go into public service, especially in urban design or in working for a parks and rec department or something, with the goal of doing something good for the public. They don’t go in… No one in their right mind would say, “I want to be the most powerful man in the world. I’m going to join the parks and rec department of this city.” It’s hard to imagine what kind of psychopath would think that was even possible. So, I think you’re right. I think that if there’s a default setting for the folks who have these jobs now it is on the side of good. It is “I just want to make the soccer field look nicer for the Girls Youth League to play on,” and not “I’m going to dominate the urban landscape for 50 years.”

ELLIOTT KALAN: You make a good point that the time when that’s possible is fairly over. I feel like, within my lifetime, the only person I can think of in New York at least that wanted to do that same sort of thing was maybe Michael Bloomberg when he was mayor, where he was like, “I’m a billionaire. I can do whatever I want. I’m going to make it so I can run for a third term. And everyone’s going to let me do what I want.” And he had these big visions, but he’s still coloring in the lines that Robert Moses set down. There just isn’t the blank canvas. I mean, Robert Moses’ canvas was not that blank since, as happens throughout the book, he displaces thousands of people. But this sense of like, “Oh, this city is clay that I can mold.” With Bloomberg–his vision was still limited by the fact that the city was now, instead of clay, plastic. So, he was like, “Well, I can break this piece off, but I can’t mold it.”

MIKE SCHUR: “I can melt and warp this kind of plastic structure. But yeah, I can’t totally…” When I was leaving New York– So, I left New York in ’04. And just as I was leaving–I might have the timeline wrong, it’s been 20 years, obviously–Bloomberg unveiled a giant plan for West Side redevelopment, and it involved massive new stadia for, I think, the Yankees and maybe the Mets and maybe the New York Giants and Jets.

ELLIOTT KALAN: As many teams as he could push to the West Side of Manhattan. And he wanted the Olympics to be in New York so badly. So, it’s like, “We have to build all these facilities to make New York a world-class city for the Olympics.” And I remember that I felt, as a New Yorker at the time, “Uh, we’re already the greatest city in the world. The Olympics would be lucky to have us.” But he had this huge plan for all this stadium development.

MIKE SCHUR: And it was not just a stadium. It was like the whole West Side was in this plan that he laid out–the whole West Side. It was exactly the kind of project that Moses would have not only proposed but actually just ramrodded through. And I remember thinking, “Well, this is insane. This guy’s lost his mind. This is a hundred trillion dollars worth of development.” But I remember reading a quote from him, and the quote was fascinating and, I think, both scary and also true. And what he said was “New York is a city that builds things. And if New York ever stops building things, New York will die.” And that’s a paraphrase, but that’s what he said. And I remember thinking, of course, immediately of The Power Broker but also that he’s right–that one of the things about New York that has defined the city is that even though you can walk down blocks on the Upper West Side or the Upper East Side and you can see these brownstones that have been there for 150 years and there are enormous cathedrals and there are structures that date back 200 years, which for American cities is pretty old, the defining characteristic of the city is that every time you go back it’s different. There are stores and restaurants that have disappeared, and new ones are there. And buildings have been torn down, and new skyscrapers have been built. And for better or worse, the city just moves forward, and it moves forward through construction. And Bloomberg was the last mayor, I think, who was trying to not only acknowledge that fact but also get downwind of it and sail on that aspect of the city and say, like, “The stuff that Moses did–yes–it might have been racist and awful and displaced thousands of people and destroyed neighborhoods. But that’s just what this city does. It’s what the city has always done. And we can’t stop doing that. We maybe can do it more responsibly and less racistly, but we can’t stop building.” And I do think that, again, part of what made Moses a singular person was he was doing it in that city. If Robert Moses does what he did in Cleveland, Ohio, or even Chicago or Dallas or Phoenix or even Los Angeles, I don’t think it’s the same thing because New York is so concentrated–it’s so packed in. And in order for it to have this kind of… The ages of emperors were traditionally very long. And the ages of emperors in New York are very short. These time periods that we think about in the city–they’re measured in years or maybe decades but not centuries and not millennia. Everything is knocked down and built back up very quickly. And so, he was just… Moses was the guy who did it the most. But other folks who have come after him have recognized that and have tried in some cases, like Bloomberg, to actually replicate it by saying, “Hey, if we stop moving, this isn’t New York anymore.” And it’s one of the things that is so wonderful and also kind of heartbreaking about loving that city is just how often it is erased like an Etch A Sketch and then rebuilt. And I don’t know what that means about the future, whether that will continue, whether the time of New York has come and gone, but part of the reason the book is so fascinating is because that true fact about New York met the greatest builder who’s ever lived, and they, in the course of let’s call it 30 years, basically built a new city within the city that already existed.


ELLIOTT KALAN: I mean, that’s very well said.

ROMAN MARS: It’s well said. Yeah.

ELLIOTT KALAN: But it’s funny because you kind of get the idea that comes after the book is written. It’s interesting to me to read the book now, 50 years after it was written, and there are certain things in it where Moses is saying, “The things I’m building are going to last for centuries. This is how it’s going to be for centuries. For centuries, people will be going to the New York Coliseum. That’s going to last as long as the Roman Colosseum.” And it’s gone. “For centuries, people are going to go to Shea Stadium.” That’s not there anymore. Even Moses–he’s building the biggest sandcastles. But maybe that’s the nature of New York. It’s a wave that eventually wears down anything. So, maybe there’s hope to get that waterfront back. I don’t know.

MIKE SCHUR: Well, that’s, again, another fascinating aspect of this. He was right in some cases and very wrong in other cases, especially toward the end when he lost his fastball. He didn’t understand… He built Shea Stadium. Shea Stadium was always a piece of crap–always. It was never a good stadium ever. And right next to it, he had Yankee Stadium that was–also now gone–a testament to history and to something that had longevity compared to other similar stadiums across the country. But he was so shortsighted to think that Shea Stadium–this kind of random collection of slabs of concrete and a terrible blue and orange color scheme and all of the other stuff that made Shea stadium terrible–is his Roman Colosseum. This is what’s going to stand the test of time?That thing was doomed from the beginning. I went to Shea Stadium for the first time in 1987, and I remember thinking, “What a piece of crap–just awful.” And it’s very funny to have the attitude that he had, which was “I am the one guy who will build things in this city that will never be torn down.” And then to build Shea Stadium–it’s a very funny P.S. But his slow growth and, you might say, delusion of “I’ve won this race. I have conquered this city. I will be the person who’s never forgotten”–the irony is that if it weren’t for Robert Caro, he would absolutely have been forgotten by now. It’s not that people wouldn’t know who he was. He still has his name on a thousand state parks all over the state. And people would go like, “Oh, who is that guy? Yeah, he built the Van Wyck or whatever.” But like all truly kind of narcissistic, delusional lunatics, by the time he was done, he felt like he was going to be Caesar or Nero or whoever–a piece of history that would never be displaced–which is why the last line of the book, spoiler alert, is so beautiful.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Pause this interview right now, listeners, then listen to the rest of the series, then come back and finish this interview. Something I wanted to ask you about… So, in this episode, one of the chapters we talked about is Two Brothers, the story of Paul Moses and Robert Moses. And you are a very versatile writer, but a majority of your writing on television is sitcoms. I’m curious, how would you develop a sitcom about the rivalry between the two Moses Brothers? Is that basically just Frasier or is there another way to do that?

MIKE SCHUR: Well, you know what it really is at some level is Succession kind of already did it. When I was watching Succession, the James Cromwell character has got a similar vibe–the James Cromwell, Brian Cox relationship. It’s slightly different because James Cromwell is also a billionaire, but he broke a different way. And in that version, his character was 100% convinced that his brother was just a terrible, evil demon. The relationship of the book is very different. The relationship of the book is more heartbreaking because Moses just essentially ignores his brother. His brother’s living in poverty, and Moses could–Caro makes it clear–at any moment give him any number of hundreds of thousands of different jobs that he controlled to lift him out of poverty and just didn’t because of his vindictiveness and his acid and everything else. So, Cromwell in Succession was also, because he was a part of the family–this titanic family–like, a billionaire. But the way in which those two brothers… Just a rift formed that was unhealable. And the differences in the way that they approached the world reminded me of the book a lot at different times. And they didn’t pull their punches in succession. Again, spoiler alert if you haven’t watched Succession. But when it gets all the way to Brian Cox’s character’s funeral and Cromwell just is like, “I’m going to speak at this funeral,” what you expect, because we’re so trained for this, is that there would be a little bit of a… “There are moments where I regret the way that we grew up or we treated each other.” And you get one tiny fleck of that in the eulogy that I remember. But mostly it’s Cromwell going, “My brother was an asshole. He was a terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible person.” And it’s so shocking, but it’s like, “Yeah, that’s the truth of these relationships sometimes is, just because you’re brothers, it doesn’t mean that, when one of you dies, wounds are healed. Moses was so awful to his brother in so many ways that I can’t imagine if Paul spoke at his funeral that he would’ve been like, “You know, he wasn’t a bad guy. He was all right.”

ELLIOTT KALAN: “We had our differences, but look at those bridges.”

MIKE SCHUR: Of course, as I work in TV, I’ve thought so many times about like, “Can you ever film this? It’s the greatest story ever told about America. Could you ever film it?” The conclusion I’ve come to is no, you could not, because you would need 50 hours. You would need 50 hours of drama. And you would need an actor who could play both an 18-year-old and a 79-year-old somehow. Or you’d have to do that thing where you cast different actors who kind of look like each other to play these different eras or whatever. I mean, look, the Crown did it. Maybe it’s possible. But it’s one of those… If you could snap your fingers and have the version of a Crown-like show about Robert Moses, it would be the greatest filmed story ever told. There’s no more compelling portrait of an American than that book.

ROMAN MARS: I mean, we’ve been talking about the book as this great novel–as this Dickensian, Shakespearean… All that sort of stuff. But it’s also this great ethical case study. You wrote a book on moral philosophy, and I wonder about that. What Caro was setting up is Robert Moses’ values that inform his sort of utilitarian calculation of a greater good are being questioned by Caro because he has extremely different values about what the greater good is. How do you look at the book as someone who’s thought about, wrote about, and did a show about moral philosophy?

MIKE SCHUR: It’s an incredible case study for a number of different issues, I would say, that pop up in moral philosophy. The first and most obvious to me is what I would sort of broadly call the danger of the shifting Overton window. What you find… I wrote about this in the book I wrote. There’s a danger in violating any moral principle that you hold in even the slightest way. And the danger to me is that once you do that, your Overton window for what you personally find permissible, ethically speaking, shifts a tiny bit. So, you normally don’t park in a handicapped parking spot, but today you do because you’re in a rush, and nothing bad happens. And so, the next time that you’re driving around, you see there’s a fire lane that you could park in. And you’re again in a rush, and so you’re like, “Well, the last time, I parked in the handicap spot, and nothing bad happened. So, this is fine. I’ll just do this.” And then nothing bad happens. Then you, like, ding someone’s mirror when you’re pulling into your next parking space, and it’s, like, a tiny little chip of paint. And you’re like, “Well, this isn’t that much worse than parking in a handicap spot or a fire lane, so I’m just going to drive away. It’s whatever. Cars get banged up. It’s fine.” And ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, the Overton window just shifts a little bit more and a little bit more. And soon, you’re a serial killer. That’s the end of the story.

ELLIOTT KALAN: We’ve seen it so many times.

MIKE SCHUR: Yeah, we have, right? But no, you’re not a serial killer. But you’re a person who has now deemed it permissible for you to do certain things and then certain things that crop up that are only slightly worse than the thing that you are okay with. And it snowballs, right? And the problem, obviously, with thinking this way is that no one likes a rules nerd. And I know that because I’m a rules nerd and no one likes me. And so, you don’t want to be the kind of person who never does anything even remotely– Never jaywalks or never… That’s not a way to live either. So, the trick–and this is what I wrote about–is, in those moments where we have to do small things that you know aren’t quite right or are bending the rules a little bit, which we all do… The trick isn’t never do them. The trick is, when you do them, just note it in your brain. Just be like, “You know, I shouldn’t make a habit of this.” This is not quite 100% in line with my personal ethical code. And I’m not going to make a habit of this, and I’m not going to justify more severe transgressions by saying, “Well, I did that other thing and that was okay, so I’ll do this now.” And Moses’ trajectory was so granular… And that’s, again, why the book is 1,100 pages long. Piece by piece, bit by bit, he goes from a guy who is a pure idealist reformer into the most corrupt person who’s ever been a part of any government, which is saying a lot in this country. And you can read the whole book as just a continual slide of his personal Overton window from idealist reformer to completely corrupt lunatic. And those moments where he does something, he pulls a lever of power, it works out for him, he gets what he wants, and then, the next time, he pulls two levers of power and gets what he wants even more–they’re laid out so perfectly and so completely that you can just watch in real time. It’s a slow motion train wreck of a guy moving from one kind of person to another kind of person. So, to me, that’s the biggest philosophical or ethical story of the book. The other one is… Again, no one likes Kant because Kant is too rigid to actually be helpful in the world. “You can’t lie ever.” He would say you can’t ever jaywalk because jaywalking isn’t allowable and, if everybody jaywalked, then the world would be chaos, so he’ll never let you jaywalk. And if it’s 120 degrees and you need to go to CVS and the light is taking a long time and there’s no cars coming, you can jaywalk. It’s fine. Just jaywalk. It’s okay. But what Kant would say is that he was following essentially a pretty strict moral code in terms of how he was trying to go about his business. And then he gets to a point where he’s crushed by the levers of power and the gears grind him up and spit him out. And he basically, in that moment, just flips. He flips from a pure Kantian to a pure utilitarian and says, “If I can justify what I’m doing for the greater good–if what I’m doing, even though it seems like it’s a little iffy–if it gets people to Jones Beach and they can swim, then it’s worth it, and it doesn’t matter what I did. That’s irrelevant. What matters is the result.” And when you combine that shifting personal Overton window with a flip from Kantian ethics to utilitarian ethics… And utilitarian ethics are the most easily justified ethics in the world. It doesn’t matter. You can murder a busload of nuns, but if it helps 50 more people than there were nuns have a certain amount of happiness that overtakes the amount of sadness you cause to the nuns and their families, then you’re fine. And so, he just found a haven in this really corrupted view of utilitarian, ends-justify-the-means power. And it’s the greatest cautionary tale maybe ever of why a corrupt version of utilitarianism is a bad idea because he justified everything he did essentially by saying, “It’s good for the people, it’s good for the people, it’s good for the people,” long after the things he was doing stopped being good for the people that he was supposed to be helping.

ROMAN MARS: Yeah. I think it’s so amazing that Robert Caro identifies the moment that the Overton window shifts in taking the sort deal with Otto Kahn. And he knows that’s the moment. And he knows that Robert Moses is sensitive to that moment because maybe even Robert Moses knows that that’s the moment that he began to shift his Overton window.

MIKE SCHUR: Well, I heard you talk about this in an earlier podcast, but the primary attitude, I think, that Caro adopts is that power doesn’t corrupt–it reveals. And I think that what is so great about that moment is what he has set up for you is a guy who was kind of waiting all his life for that moment to be presented to him. It’s like he was a guy who had these goals, he had this idea in his head of how to achieve them, and he was wrong. Someone else was like, “This is how you achieve them.” And he was like, “Great, then I’ll do that.” And you’re talking about a guy who–lest we think that he was actually a good person who was corrupted by power–didn’t only believe that all cities should be planned and all city planning should be executed by only Ivy League graduates, he thought they should only be planned and executed by people from Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. “Screw you, Columbia–not good enough to build our cities. Sorry, Brown. Nice try. Good riddance, Cornell grads.” He was such an inveterate snob and so elitist that the actual disconnect when you read the book to me is his combination of extreme elitism and his initial stance on sort of idealistic populism. That’s the part of the character that doesn’t make sense to me. The part of it that gets corrupted by the deal with Otto Kahn and then executes his miserable plan of running roughshod over rules and regulations and the public for 40 years–that makes sense. That’s the part that seems like, “Yes, this lines up with the guy that we learned about at Yale and the guy who had this absurd view of how it was that cities should be run.” And so, when that deal happens, what it actually feels like is the gears were not meshing properly until then for him. And then once the deal happens, it’s like–yeah–click, click, click. Now, everything is working the way it was supposed to for him.

ROMAN MARS: Yeah. Well, I think that what I could use to explain Robert Moses’ delusion in his younger years is that he thought that these sort of masters of the universe should be anointed masters of the universe out of merit. And then he ran into reality, and he realized that there was no merit. And so, he just had to use the old systems to get things done.

MIKE SCHUR: Totally. 100%. And that’s why Al Smith is, again, this confluence of events. Al Smith is essentially an illiterate man, who did not–by the way–go to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. I think Moses met him and was like, “Wait, this son of a bitch is the guy who has all the power in the city?” How is that possible? I’m 6′ 4″ and devilishly handsome and Ivy League educated, and I wrote a thesis on civic planning. How is Al Smith running rings around me?” And so, it shattered his worldview that because you are born to the right kind of family, look a certain way, or are educated in a certain place that you shall be granted, from on high, the ability to just do whatever you want to do. He learned that lesson from a slovenly, functionally illiterate guy who was just very charming and had figured out how to consolidate power. And that was incredibly revealing for him obviously. It was like, “If this jackass, who didn’t even go to college, can be just knocking me off my game so easily, then I haven’t actually learned how to achieve what I need to achieve.”

ROMAN MARS: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. That’s totally right. And he also learns that this idea of the tools to use that is how to learn laws and how to write laws, and he learns the skill through Al Smith. And I find that to be stunning. I just love that.

MIKE SCHUR: Oh, the details of him burying in footnotes all of those little, like… “We’re going to use the definition of this thing as laid out in the 1812 law that says this thing which allows this commission to be set up…” It is very damning because this is one way in which the world, I think, is very similar. You learn all the time about these omnibus spending bills that are passed in Congress. And they’re given to people to read with, like, 48 hours before the vote. And there’s handwritten notes just thrown into the margins and things crossed out or whatever. And you see the politicians in the minority party say, like, “We’re having a vote on this tomorrow and it’s 6,000 pages long and no one’s read it.” And then it just passes. And you’re like, “Alright, whatever’s in that bill is now the law of the land. And money is being thrown around and wasted and given out to people left and right that there’s no accountability for.” And when you read how Albany functioned back in that time and you realize that all of the people in the Tammany Hall world are just out getting drunk– They don’t read the bills. And him realizing, “They don’t read the bills, and if I learn how to do this, I can do anything I want because it becomes the law,” is such an amazing lesson to learn and be right about. And it’s probably still right today.

ELLIOTT KALAN: It’s such classic… I keep bringing it back to stories. I apologize. It’s such classic kind of fantasy or martial arts storytelling, where it’s like, “Oh, okay. I want to learn how to be the greatest fighter in the world.” “Well, you’re going to have to carry this bucket to that well and back again a hundred times a day, every day.” “Ugh, I can’t believe I’m doing it. Wait a minute, these are the motions I need.” So, it’s almost like he walks in and he’s like, “Of course I’m going to run the world.” But it turns out he’s going to have to read every bill so he can learn this arcane magic language of the law. And then suddenly he’s Neo in The Matrix and he can see the code and no one else can see it and…

MIKE SCHUR: It’s the really slow and boring version of Neo getting that thing plugged into the back of his head and then saying, “I know kung fu.” It’s that, but it takes four years, and it involves reading a billion really boring bills from legislators.

ELLIOTT KALAN: It’s the real life version of that–the way that if you want to be a holy man, you have to go sit on a mountain and just think nonstop for years. And it’s like, “That’s a lot of work. I guess maybe I don’t want to be holy that badly.” But Moses wants to be in control that badly. He’s like, “I’ll do it.” And Al Smith, too. “I’ll do it. I’m going to put the work in.” And if this was a different kind of book–if Caro was more on Moses’ side–this could be a book about how, “Kids, if you put the work in, you strive, and you work harder than everybody else, you get to the top of the heap.” And that’s kind of buried in there. But unfortunately, usually in those stories, the person does the work and then they’re a good person. And that’s not exactly the case in real life or in the book.

MIKE SCHUR: I want to read that version of the book now where it’s like, “Hey, kids, you want to become powerful and do good things?” That’s Robert Moses’ self-appointed autobiographer. His spin on it is like, “It’s the story of a noble man who did the work and reaped the rewards.” That’s an amazing version of The Power Broker. I’d love to read that.

ROMAN MARS: I mean, the funny thing is that that story was written for decades in the newspaper.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yes, that’s true.

ROMAN MARS: And he began to believe that in his own way when somebody interrogates it even slightly and they go, “What about that brother Paul?” He’s like, “I never had a brother Paul.”

ELLIOTT KALAN: In that Overton window moral choice mindset, there has to be a moment where you say, “If I am telling the world my brother doesn’t exist, maybe I’m doing the wrong thing here. Maybe if I’m denying the existence of my closest sibling, maybe I’m not the good guy at the moment.” Or maybe I am. I don’t know.”

MIKE SCHUR: The unknowable thing that is never to be known is to what degree, if any, those thoughts pass through Moses’ brain, right? Did he ever have a single pang of regret or sadness or did he feel like, “I don’t know, maybe this isn’t so great.” All of the times that he wanted to build something and a group of people came to him and said, “If you just do this three blocks to the south, you will destroy a bunch of abandoned buildings and you won’t destroy this neighborhood and you won’t displace these people,” and he ignored them. And then all the people were displaced. And he would say to the press, “They’re all being given housing.” And none of them were being given housing. And they were driven from their homes. Families ruined. Neighborhoods ruined. In all of those moments, was there ever a moment where he thought to himself, “Oh, this isn’t great.” And it sure doesn’t seem like it.

ROMAN MARS: Doesn’t seem like it at all.

ELLIOTT KALAN: No, it doesn’t.

ROMAN MARS: And I just can’t imagine what you’re thinking about when you’re swimming all those laps, except for that. That’s what’s always on my mind at all times. And him–it’s just building bridges. And to me it’s “Did I accidentally upset that person in junior high?”

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yeah, I imagine, when Moses is in the shower, he’s not thinking about “What are all the mistakes that I made when I was young?” And instead it’s “How do I get this thing done? How do I get that?” And I wonder if there’s an aspect of his psychology that is like Mayor Bloomberg’s vision of New York. “I have to keep moving. I have to keep building, or I stop. And if I stop, I think. And I can’t think. I’ve got to keep thinking about the next project because I can’t think about my life or what I’ve done.” And I doubt he was conscious enough of those things or cared enough, but it does feel like, when he’s swimming… I certainly don’t like swimming partly for the reason that my mind wanders to embarrassments in the past or things like that. But I’m sure he’s just thinking about, “Okay, if I can put this bond across at that percentage rate, then I can get the money from the federal government to get the labor. And then I can build this bridge across.” It seems like his mind’s just always going at these problems.

MIKE SCHUR: I don’t know. In 1993, I was getting on a plane. And the woman at the counter helped me change my seat. And she gave me my ticket, and she said, “Have a nice flight.” And I said, “You too.” And then I walked on the plane, and I was like, “She’s not flying anywhere. Why did I say, ‘You too?'” And that was 32 years ago, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. I think about it once a month. That was so weird. Why did I do that? Why did I say, “You too,” to a woman who wasn’t flying anywhere? And there’s something essentially human about reflecting on your own foibles and mistakes and small goofs and gaffes and certainly more serious things–times that you offended someone, hurt someone, broke up with someone in a crappy way, and made their lives miserable or… Anything! That stuff haunts us, and it should haunt us. It’s probably evolutionarily beneficial that it haunts us because it helps us correct our behavior or maybe do better the next time we’re in a similar situation. And he, Moses, had apparently such a hardened kind of lizard brain–just a fight or flight-guided brain–that you get the sense that not only did it not haunt him, I don’t think he ever would’ve seen any of those things as mistakes or foibles or failures of character or anything. I think he just somehow had a constitution that allowed him to focus only on the future and, like you’re saying, what else he could accomplish in his limited time on Earth and had a true belief that everything he did was right and good and proper. And that’s just not a mindset that, I think, most of us can access–Thank God. I would not want to access that kind of mindset. What kind of person do you become if there’s no self-reflection? I think we know. The answer is Robert Moses, and a couple other people we could probably name in national politics, right? That’s the kind of person who will never apologize, never admit you were wrong, never admit defeat, never focus on anything except the next thing you’re going to do and be 100% sure that that thing is right and good and proper… It’s a very brutal way to go through life.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And alongside that, if he does think about the past, he does seem very conscious of how other people have wronged him or things that he’s mad about. And it’s like Richard Nixon, where he seems powered by just wanting to be like, “I’ll show them. I’ll show them all!” There’s this spite that is just fueling him that is, in the right person, real powerful. You can accomplish a lot if you can harness that spite.

MIKE SCHUR: Yeah. No, look, dictators can accomplish more than democratically elected officials. That’s always been true. The pyramids were not voted on by the Egyptian public. That’s why certain folks who have this mindset have dictator fantasies. That’s why Trump is constantly praising world leaders who have dictatorial powers. It’s because, to him and to folks with this mindset, that is the ideal kind of methodology for a world leader. You have all of the power, no one can challenge you, you could do whatever you want, and you’re convinced that what you do is the right thing to do. It’s just completely antithetical to the American system of government, and it’s why Moses worming his way up to that amount of power through non-elected positions is such a cautionary tale and such a fascinating portrait of a person not who ran for president or who ran for governor and didn’t really care. He had already figured out the way to do what it was that he wanted to do, and it was through legislation and commissions. And by the time he hit the peak of his power, he had a theater that only he could go to and restaurants in every borough that were fully staffed, even though–by definition–you can really only eat at one restaurant per meal because you’re only one person. And he achieved all of that dictatorial power without ever being elected to anything, which is just incredible.

ROMAN MARS: Well, it’s been so much fun talking to you about Power Broker. I love the fact that it’s infused all these parts of your work and that you read it three times. It’s just been a real pleasure for us to have you here. So, thank you so much for joining us on the book club.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Thanks so much for joining us. Really appreciate it.

MIKE SCHUR: It’s the greatest book ever written. I’m so glad you’re doing this podcast. I will be listening to every episode, and it has been a real pleasure to be here. So, thank you for having me on.

ELLIOTT KALAN: That’s all for this month, Power Brokers. Next month, we’re going to cover Chapters 27 through 32. We’re really burning through the chapters there–only two this episode but so many next episode. We’ll be finishing Part Five and starting Part Six: The Lust for Power. It’s pages 607 through 702 in my copy of the book. If you just need to hear my mellifluous voice sometime between now and next month, then please listen to The Flop House Podcast. It is my bad movie podcast. I co-host with Dan McCoy and Stuart Wellington. It is as foolish and devoid of information as this podcast is serious, literary, and educational.

ROMAN MARS: If you have a guest idea or just want to keep talking with fellow Power Broker fans, head to our Discord. To join in, the link is on our website, or you can go to Thanks again to Ben for suggesting Mike Schur as a guest.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And you might’ve noticed that Mike didn’t finish his thought about what makes the last line of the book so beautiful. Well, in case you haven’t read it before, we didn’t want to spoil it for you. We’re only halfway through. We don’t want to give away the last line right now, but we love what Mike said so much. He had so many great ideas about it and thoughts that we are saving that for the end of the series, so stay tuned. You will hear it in the appropriate time.

ROMAN MARS: The 99% Invisible Breakdown of The Power Broker is produced by Isabel Angell, edited by committee, music by Swan Real, and mixed by Dara Hirsch. 999% Invisible’s executive producer is Kathy Tu. Our senior editor is Delaney Hall. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Emmet FitzGerald, Gabriella Gladney, Martín Gonzalez, Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, Neena Pathak, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. The art for this series was created by Aaron Nestor. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find us on all the usual social media sites as well as our own Discord server, where we have fun discussions about The Power Broker, about architecture, about movies and music–all kinds of good stuff. It’s where I’m hanging out most of the time these days. You can find a link to the Discord server as well as every past episode of 99PI at

MIKE SCHUR: If you have five more hours, I can keep talking.

ROMAN MARS: You know what? I just gave us a wrap-up point because you gave us an hour. But I have tons more questions.

MIKE SCHUR: I actually probably need to go actually do my actual job.


This episode is produced by Isabel Angell, edited by committee, music by Swan Real, and mixed by Dara Hirsch.

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