Tag Archives: 99% invisible

The Power Broker Read-along 2

Continuing to read The Power Broker, but since I talked with my Dad about it, he started reading along as well. It’s been fascinating because of the parallels and because he is a challenging commentary on the text from a contemporary. We’ve been emailing and calling about the book and it’s been a ton of fun.

Things I’ve noticed – our modern discussions of privilege throw a different light on Robert Moses. To me, his family’s wealth is a glaring light on every paragraph I read. The man is brilliant, sure. But he also has the ability to just work on whatever he wants. He doesn’t have to take a job for the cash. He can work for causes that don’t pay because he has no pressure to do otherwise. He can become the best bill drafter in Albany for Governor Al Smith because he has no pressure to feed his family. He can jaunt off to grab a boat and explore the coastline because what… is he going to get fired? He’s an unpaid advisor.

Also – the description of the families trying to make it out of New York City and out to the countryside is the absolute nightmare of any father. This part of the book is gold.

My dad got very interested in some controversies and really got me thinking. My dad is 86, the age of Robert Moses when The Power Broker was published. He has the perspective of someone who was able to enjoy the work of Moses before the book, to see it through the eyes of someone who directly benefited from the beaches and parks that were built. First, he challenged the story of the racist parkway bridges. We went back and forth investigating it a bit. Caro quotes from a direct source interview, but its from someone who died before the book was published. His source says that Moses told him to lower the height of the bridges. And the bridges do seem lower than the previous bridge heights – but there were planned bus routes to Jones beach! You can see the bus schedules!

My dad also bristled at Caro’s description of Franklin Roosevelt as a “featherduster” and someone who went back on his word. Franklin Roosevelt is a hero of my father’s and he has treasured letters from Eleanor Roosevelt in his collections. I think it’s possible that a younger Franklin may have had to play some hard politics to get where he wanted to be. It’s also possible that a younger FDR may have been immature and the older FDR was tempered by the challenges he faced.

Another great contribution from dad was the response by Robert Moses to The Power Broker’s publication, along with Robert Caro’s reply. It seems to me like such a lot of wind to blow so few leaves, but maybe that is my modern sensibilities clashing with someone educated at the turn of the century.

For the podcast, Jamelle Bouie didn’t bring as much to the table as I had hoped, partially since he hadn’t read The Power Broker. Much of the episode was taken up with recounting what we had read. Please! I read it! I want you to give me more insights! There was a great insight from Jamelle about how the “professionalization” of government had removed some incentives to treat people well, to trade favors, to get small things done for actual people. There was corruption, to be sure, but there was also someone to talk to if you needed to get a change done. That papers over a lot of misery and blood I think, but it was more human than a bureaucracy.

a swarm of butterflies against a blue sky

The Power Broker Read-along 1

In addition to my work book club (we’re reading How Big Things Get Done by Brent Flyvberg) I found out that one of my favorite podcasts “99% Invisible” is doing a read-along of the massive Robert Caro book “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York”. It’s a biggie – so they are going to work through it over the course of 2024, with one episode a month covering a 12th of the book. This sounds totally achievable.

I’ve just finished the first part – Robert’s beginnings, his family, his progressive paternalistic origins and the brutal education in power that he goes through. This guy seems to be a massive intellect, a fantastically energetic powerhouse of change, an aristocratic snide jerk who looked down on all of us (my ancestors are particularly some of the people his family organized to keep from embarassing them), and possibly one of the most destructive people who doesn’t get credit for it. Once you listen to Butterflies, the Memory Palace’s story of how Thomas Midgely was inadvertently a destructive monster who murdered so many of us a fraction at a time, you begin to think about the other secret monsters in the world – killing us in tiny slices. They removed so many parts of so many peoples lives, bringing the day of their death closer than needed.

Listening to the first episode of 99PI’s Power Broker read-along was great – Robert Caro is the guest, you begin to grasp that Robert Moses did the same, but in the middle of people’s lives and he did it for aesthetic reasons. He wanted to prevent us from having trains and public transportation. He had the choice and he chose to do things that made so many people in my region sit idling in cars, pumping exhaust out and increasing their blood pressure. It reminds me of the part in Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett where a demon takes credit for a the design of a UK motorway as a force of massive incremental evil. I was hooked in the first 20 pages, but I feel like we are in masterful hands by now. I was eager to not get too far ahead of the podcast – but now I can get through the next chunk. It is definitely not too soon to get started and join in – I am eager to chat with folks about it.

Podcasts of Note

I always assume people already know these things before I do, but a friend just told me about Deadmau5 and so I’m sheepishly realizing I haven’t been telling about the treasures I’ve discovered.

Podcasts are great.  You can subscribe to them in many ways.  I use the google listen app on my android phone because that lets me listen on the subway.

I’m assuming you already know about A Prairie Home Companion, right?  The show so popular they don’t even bother to have a podcast, not for them. You are getting to hang out with America’s grandpa, Garrison Keillor every Sunday, telling the same old jokes over and over and loving it each time.  Good.  I’m glad you are.

So now I also guess you’ve heard of This American Life.  It’s so mainstream that they had a few seasons of a television show on Showtime.  It was good! But this is such an institution that it has become almost it’s own style.  I can recognize their favorite musical bits by now, because they use them over and over to back all sorts of stories. I think the Fiasco episode, just the intro to it, is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. I cried.

But because of This American Life, I found Planet Money.  See, there was an episode of This American Life called The Giant Pool of Money and it was such a good explanation of the financial collapse of 2008 that the individual reporters for that show got their own series.  This is a look at economics through an understandable lens.  The reporters have covered things like where did China’s economic rocket get lit ( a farmhouse, with a secret document hidden in bamboo), how and what happens when you buy a mortgage backed security ( you lose your money), what if you take what you’ve got left and buy gold, etc. etc.  It’s a personable look into the actual workings of the global economy making it understandable for those folks who don’t work with derivatives and reverse repos every day.  Subscribe, understand the water that you swim in every day, my little fish friend.

Another thing I found because of This American Life is Radiolab. It’s a beautifully scored exploration of the best questions in the world.  Like “Where Am I”, “Who are you?”,Memory and Forgetting, Animal Minds, and what happens after life. It is my favorite. Jad and Robert, the hosts, are so good and wonderful and they look at the best most interesting things the world has. The sound style and storytelling of radiolab is so good that it is infecting the rest of public radio, and for the better. Really, you can start with just about ANY episode. Try “Talking to Machines

From Radiolab I was introduced to a new winner – 99% Invisible, a melange of architecture and design. I know, those are visual things, this is audio – but stay with me. The stories are what matter, and Roman Mars takes the time to calmly walk you through the implications of moving a capital city, of how the design of a fountain can affect the homeless, and how the design of a studio got a band to release it’s first album in years. It’s a winner.

What am I missing out on? Any great podcasts that I should be listening too? Some hidden gem of a specialty where just the right person is explaining the emergency value of ultrasounds in a podcast?