The Power Broker Part IV: The Use of Power
A few weeks ago, the New York Times published a trend piece about how every dorkus cable news personality and politician keeps a copy of The Power Broker prominently displayed on their bookshelves during Zoom appearances. It calls Caro’s book “a must-have prop” to signify “New York political sophistication.” Wow. Damn. An amazing burn on the cable pundits, and also me.
Now that I’ve acknowledged being absolutely owned, I also need to say that it feels goofy to publish a blog post right now. If you would prefer to smash that X on this tab, I get it. If I still have your eyeballs, though, I’ll quickly plug donating to your local mutual aid networks or bail funds. (Mine are Bed-Stuy Strong and the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund.) And then I’ll discuss “The Use of Power” which is, unfortunately, extremely relevant to this moment in time, as it might as well have been sub-titled “Lots of Racism, Seriously, So Much Racism.”
Caro follows Moses as his influence grows, and he starts creating projects within the city instead of just on Long Island. It’s wild how much one man’s ideas about what New York should look like ended up shaping it to this day. Moses basically flew over Manhattan in a plane and was like, okay, let’s put a bridge there and a park there and make *this* area gorgeous and completely screw *this* neighborhood up and the city, state, and federal governments were like, sure, we’re scared of you so why not even though you’re really just some rich guy with a bad attitude who no one ever elected. Moses thought a gigantic borough-spanning bridge would modernize the city, so the Triborough Bridge got built. He loved parks, so Central Park got spruced up. And he hated black people, so he deliberately designed his great public works to exclude them.
Moses made it a policy to refuse permits for beach parking to buses with black people in them. When he did occasionally relent, he made sure the parks only doled out permits to the furthest-away parking spots in the furthest-away parks. When FDR was governor, he actually formally investigated Moses for this behavior. (After repeated prodding from civil rights groups, of course.) Even after aides confirmed Moses’ flagrant discrimination, Roosevelt didn’t pursue any consequences. And Moses went on purposefully making the city harder to live in black people for decades and decades, embroidering his own hatred into the physical contours of New York.
I saw a tweet from Bomani Jones recently, talking about how organizations use phrases like “systemic racism” as a copout, a way to avoid actually directly naming perpetrators of racist violence.
Jones writes: all these statements mentioning "systemic racism" or some variant of it. systemic racism is why the officer may get away with this, but that wasn't a system on george floyd's neck. y'all need to bring this to some actual people and call out some institutions by name
While I was re-reading this section of The Power Broker, I kept thinking about Jones’ tweet, and how “systemic racism” and “structural racism” are phrases that sometimes sound so abstract and big, they can feels like something that vaguely happens instead of something that is actively reinforced and upheld by normal people. “The Use of Power” crystallizes this point—for Moses, using power often meant manifesting white supremacy as urban planning. Robert Moses didn’t just shape New York. His hatred stained it.