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What I’m Reading: Allen Sabinson

September 12, 2012

Dean Allen Sabinson

Allen Sabinson has served as dean of Drexel’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design since 2005, when he left a career in show business after three decades. Sabinson was instrumental in securing the new home for the college, the URBN Center at 34th and Market Streets, which brings disparate departments in the college together in one location. The building is expected to open later this month.

Despite a busy schedule and packing for the move, Sabinson found time to read The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro. Published in 1975 and winner of a Pulitzer Prize, The Power Broker tells the story Robert Moses, one of the single most powerful men in early 20th-century New York.

What did you choose this book?

We recently completed a long and challenging year at the Westphal College and I was heading into August with a two-week vacation that I desperately needed. I wanted a big book that would last an entire vacation. At 1,300 pages, this book weighs as much as a bowling ball. I wanted to read The Power Broker because Robert Caro is a brilliant historian and because Robert Moses had a major impact on New York City. I’m a New Yorker; I was born there and have an affection for the city.

What is it about this book/topic that you find important or enjoyable?

What was interesting to me, and somewhat depressing, was that Moses started out as an idealist and a reformer. In the early 1900s and 1920s, reform was desperately needed in state politics. Moses devoted his early years writing legislation to get that reform, but he had no success. By his 30s, he had accomplished very little. Finally, he fell in with Al Smith, the popular governor of New York State and he sold Smith on the idea of public parks. This was good politics, because what middle or working class voter wouldn’t want a park to go to on the weekends. What Moses began in New York eventually was adapted across the country and Moses made a 180-degree turn on a dime and became an incredibly effective and somewhat abusive user of power.

Moses wasn’t just interested in building the parks—he knew he had to build the highways and roads that now traverse Long Island and much of New York State, many of the bridges and tunnels that traverse the rivers around New York City in order for people to reach the parks as automobiles became readily available. Ultimately, he became an incredibly powerful person, in an unelected office, who built much of the infrastructure of New York City and state.

The flip side of all this was that he ran roughshod over neighborhoods and he built an awful lot of inhumane public housing. If he needed a road and it went right through your neighborhood, he didn’t care. He did many expedient, questionable things in the pursuit of accomplishing his goals, many of which were worthwhile and some which were not.

So far, is the book living up to your expectations?

No, it’s depressing me. I wanted to read about a hero who accomplished wonderful things and was heroic and virtuous in all he did and instead I’m finding a portrait of a cutthroat opportunist.

It’s a morality tale of “power corrupts absolutely.” It’s a study of power and the good and bad that comes from it.