By Skip Card
One of the holy sites of investigative journalism in New York City has been fenced off from public view – although the site is so obscure that few people realize its significance. In fact, it may be the second most famous garage in journalism — after the one in Virginia where Bob Woodward would meet Deep Throat during the Watergate era.
Tall chain-link gates were recently installed to seal up the entrances to the little-known underground parking garage beneath Riverside Park’s 79th Street Boat Basin Café. Today, the garage is used largely to store maintenance supplies and Parks Department vehicles. But in the 1960s and ’70s the garage contained a secret trove of documents that helped journalist Robert Caro write “The Power Broker,” the Pulitzer-winning biography of Robert Moses. Over nearly six decades, while serving in a dozen unelected posts such as city parks commissioner and Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority chairman, Moses held iron-fisted control over not only the region’s parks but also highways, bridges, tunnels and the New York World’s Fair.
Moses, his staff, his family and anyone who wanted a government contract wouldn’t talk to Caro, and Moses’s papers were closed to the public and press. Without documentation, Caro’s groundbreaking work was seriously hindered. But a journalist named Mary Perot Nichols told Caro that forgotten carbon copies of communiqués from Moses were stored in the Boat Basin’s garage, and she gave him a key. In an interview published in 2014 in Harper’s magazine, Caro recalled going to the garage.
“When I went there the first time, I turned the key and tugged the door open, and it’s a huge garage. But there are no trucks. I turned on the light — they had just a couple of bare bulbs — and there against the far wall was this entire row of four-drawer file cabinets containing not just carbons but thirty years of memos, orders, and directives from Robert Moses to the Parks Department.”
Caro couldn’t remove any documents, so he and his wife, Ina, regularly hauled a primitive copy machine to the garage. The couple worked in the garage daily for several months, taking notes and copying documents. As Caro recalled, his work drew unwanted attention.
“Now, the parkies — these guys in their green Parks Department uniforms, we called them parkies then — they didn’t know what I was doing there, exactly, but they vaguely knew it was something that the commissioner, as they all still referred to him, wouldn’t like. So whenever we went out — if we went for lunch, or if we both went out to the bathroom or something — they would unscrew the light bulbs. It would be pitch-black when we got back. After a while Ina and I would arrive in the morning, and I’d have a packet of four light bulbs in my attaché case.”
Those memos and other documents provided a vital breakthrough during the seven years of work that went into writing “The Power Broker.” They gave Caro the paper record he required to demonstrate how Moses used almost every aspect of a public works project to wield political influence.
“To us, a public work — a bridge, let’s say — is a transportation device. To Robert Moses, a bridge was also a source of power. Every aspect of it was a source of power. For example, there was no terrorism then; the Triborough Bridge was not going to fall down. There’s no risk. Whoever got to write the insurance policies on the structure would make a lot of money. So Moses would parcel out the policies to politicians who were insurance brokers on the basis of how many votes they controlled in Albany. I found memos in the Moses file that said just that: Jim Roe [a Democratic boss in Queens] has twelve votes in Albany. Give him 18 percent of the insurance premiums. So-and-so controls three votes. Give him 4 percent of the premiums. That sort of thing.”
A Parks Department spokeswoman said Tuesday the chain-link gates were installed recently as a security measure in advance of construction work that will begin this year in and around the Boat Basin Café, which closed in October. Work is expected to last four years as crews renovate the café, its circular rotunda, the traffic circle and the underground garage. Park operations have been moved to a different location in anticipation of the work, and the garage will not be used during renovations.
Until the gates were added, anyone could follow Riverside Park’s broad bike paths into the twin entrances of the garage, which is dug into the hillside beneath the circular turnaround where 79th Street meets the Hudson River. Intrepid folks who ignored “Authorized Personnel Only” signs could walk down a broad ramp to a large, dimly lit garage coated in pigeon droppings and dust. The garage currently contains a few vehicles, several caches of supplies and a few tents suggesting work sites. No file cabinets are visible, although the darkness and dirt discourage exploration.
But those who appreciate solid investigative journalism might stand beneath that low ceiling and imagine Robert and Ina Caro doing the hard, tedious research that would ultimately shed light on one of New York’s most powerful historic figures.