Lisa Lucas Talks Robert Caro and the Injustices of NYC Urban Planning
The Power Broker of Books in Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe, and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. One of my favorite ways to learn history is by reading biographies. As a kid growing up near Boston, I fell in love with Esther Forbes’ magnificent Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, which she wrote in 1942. I read it more than a dozen times, marking each reading with a little mark on the inside cover. I forced my siblings to quiz me on aspects of Revere’s life—everything from his favorite foods to the names and birthdates of his 13 children. I loved reading about all the ways that Revere changed the landscape I lived in. As you can tell, Paul Revere is still one of my heroes. But it can be just as fascinating to read books about people we don’t admire as well as those we do. One of the great things about a well written biography is that it shows how the world creates certain individuals and how they change the world that lives on after them — just as reading about them can change you. And recently, I got to talking about one of the greatest biographies of our time with today’s guest.
Lisa Lucas: I’m Lisa Lucas, the executive director of the National Book Foundation.
WS: Lisa Lucas has spent her career working for the kinds of cultural organizations that likely ring a bell—from the Steppenwolf Theater to the Tribeca Film Festival to Guernica magazine. Since 2016, Lisa has served as the executive director of the National Book Foundation. It’s a fitting job for someone who has been hooked on books from the time she was a little kid.
LL: I was born in New York City, which I’m really proud of, but I only lived there for five minutes.
People will often disparage Jersey people and kind of be like, Ugh, whatever, that place is terrible. But it really did manage to capture some of the—at least in my town—it captured some of the diversity of New York City and a lot of the creative spirit. And the proximity meant you grew up going to the museums in New York, you grew up going to see movies in Times Square, and really being a part of New York City as well as being a part of suburban New Jersey.
WS: As a child, Lisa found herself spending a lot of time in the city.
LL: My grandmother was superintendent of district nine in the Bronx, so she was very firmly in New York. And my grandfather was a lawyer, like the neighborhood lawyer in College Point, Queens. So I spent a lot of time in Queens and in the Bronx and in the real New York.
WS: A city that felt very different from the one Lisa lives in now.
LL: It just was like crazy different. Like I just remember the subways looking really different. I remember Port Authority being terrifying. It was gritty in like a really cool way and it was also gritty in a really horrific way. It was like when my grandmother was in the Bronx, one day somebody tried to steal her wedding ring. While she was driving, the window was down and somebody reached in and tried to grab it. She just rolled the window up to just say, you know, cut the person off and drive.
WS: Danger aside, it was an environment that was enthralling for a curious kid like Lisa and how curious she was.
LL: I was very chatty. They used to laugh that anyone could have stolen me. I once followed the mailman around for an entire day because I really liked him. His name was Pat and I just followed him on his route until one of the other parents called my mom and was like, Actually it doesn’t seem like it’s so safe for her to be following around the mailman.
WS: Another place that adventurous spirit took Lisa was into the world of books.I remember as I got older, we had the Scholastic Book Fairs and I remember that being like a big, big, big deal.
LL: There were always books around. So my mom, she would just drag me to whatever. The Madison Avenue Bookstore was the one that she loved the most. She would take me to that bookstore and my grandfather would come from Queens to pick me up in New Jersey every single Tuesday. And he’d say, What do you want to do? And nine times out of ten, I’d say, I want to go to the bookstore. You know, what, five times out of ten, I would say I want to go to the bookstore. The other five times, I think I said toy store, if I’m being really honest with myself. And I did not always get to go to the toy store, but the bookstore was always definitely a place that we could go.
I remember as I got older, we had the Scholastic Book Fairs and I remember that being like a big, big, big deal. And I remember Bunnicula being extremely important to me and I loved that book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which is—this is all dates me so much. These are books that are like—if you’re around 40, these are the books that you loved when you were growing up, and then the Baby-Sitters Club came out for the first time. Sweet Valley High—that stuff all happened when I was a kid. The Baby-Sitters Club, I loved. And I remember we would trade our Baby-Sitters Club books and everybody would have theirs and they’d all be covered in water from swimming or whatever disgusting lake we were diving into all day. We’d be talking about which one we loved the most and which book was the best one and Which ones do you have? and Which ones do you not have? That and Hello Kitty were big deals.
WS: As Lisa grew up, moving to Chicago for college, she found herself embarking on a period of heavy reading that fed her curiosity—chatting with bookstore owners about their favorite books and recommendations, and wanting to know more about the city around her. And that was also the case when she headed back east to live in New York City for the first time and came across a book that would change how she thought about it: Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. Though she didn’t quite know it at the time.
LL: I hate to say it, but I think I had a crush on a boy who was a native New Yorker who had mentioned that he loved The Power Broker. And I think I wanted to impress him.
WS: But that wasn’t the only reason Lisa picked up the book.
LL: That was the first time that I’d ever lived in New York except for when I was like a very little kid. So, I was interested in New York. I was excited. I remember getting to New York and grabbing a copy of the Village Voice every single week and wanting to go to Kim’s Video and wanting to go to the Film Forum and wanting to just do all these things that I understood as super New York-y and obviously as a reader, books were a part of that too. And you wanted to read books that were about where you were living. I wanted to know more. I wanted to feel like a New Yorker. And I guess based on this recommendation of this native New Yorker dude that I had a crush on, and my own desire to want to like really more fully engage with where I was living and understand where I was living, I picked it up.
WS: And provide her with a new understanding of the city it did.
LL: It’s about Robert Moses, the architect of the New York that we live in today and about how someone who was the Commissioner of Parks, never elected for anything, managed to be able to build the power and the capacity to negotiate with the cities—the powers that be—to force through an enormous amount of construction that would forever change the way that New York City looks and also demonstrate that power does not always flow through government and that unelected power is really scary.
WS: When we come back from the break, Lisa dives further into the Power Broker and into the city around her.I didn’t know anything about Robert Caro at the time and it just looks like a big old dry book about a dead white guy by an old white guy.
WS: When Lisa Lucas first moved to New York as a recent college grad, she was eager to learn more about the city around her. And she couldn’t have chosen a better book for that moment than The Power Broker.
LL: You realize that somebody is governing where you live, that these spaces didn’t just happen. These spaces were built and these spaces were designed and that thoughtlessness and carelessness with people had consequence. And you started to notice a housing project and you started to notice a pool and you started to notice all of these different things, like where you were living, that you just would have taken totally for granted. And I still think when I see something that I know from reading The Power Broker was built by Robert Moses. I still notice it.
WS: The book itself also surprised Lisa.
LL: I thought it was cool. I thought it was like, I remember thinking it’s a big old book. I feel like I look smart when I’m reading it. I feel like I want to win. I want to finish it. I picked it up and I thought, I’m going to read this book and that person probably doesn’t think I’m going to finish it. And it probably looks surprising that I’m sitting on the train at Flushing on the 7, reading it. And I like that, because I was super young and stupid, right? There was like an aesthetics to reading. I think there still are, right? Like people on the subway are signaling something when they read a book. And I think I was definitely trying to signal something about who I wanted to be when I picked it up, but I had no idea other than I had heard it was good. It was a real, true surprise, what I found once I started reading it.
It’s this big dense looking nonfiction book about some dead dude, right? Like that built in New York. It seemed like it might be a little dry. I knew that I would like to know what was inside of it. But it didn’t seem like it was going to be a particular joyful experience. And what I found was that the language itself was so adjacent to the fiction that I loved reading and so evocative and gorgeous and thoughtful. And then on the flip side, it also was just such an extraordinary take on something that so many of us take for granted.
WS: It was Robert Caro’s writing that made Lisa hold the book in particular esteem.
LL: I didn’t know anything about Robert Caro at the time and it just looks like a big old dry book about a dead white guy by an old white guy. And I was just absolutely shaken by the clear interest in justice that this author had and the loving, tender, thoughtful regard in which he described the people that Robert Moses had been rolling over. And the way that Bob Caro described these people, it was, they were included. They were a part of the story. They were equal participants in the telling of the story of New York. And it’s building in the time of Robert Moses.
You cannot tell the story of Robert Moses without telling the story of the people who lost their homes and who were treated unkindly and treated unfairly and excluded. And I just was so moved by that because seeing, being interested in the marginalized and being marginalized in some ways as a black woman, for sure, and from a black family that certainly had dealt with all manner of discrimination over my grandparents’, great grandparents’ and parents’ lives. Like to see a book that so many people held in such high regard by an author who was so brilliant that actually took our story into consideration was really miraculous.
WS: The book served as a key component of Lisa’s political awakening.How can you look at your city in the same way that you looked at it yesterday when you know who had to move out for that highway to be there and who that highway was built for?
LL: I think that The Power Broker really helped me to sort of understand and to become a little outraged. Like to understand that something was going on that like did not necessarily involve the best interests of an enormous population that lived in the city that I was living in. And so, being aware of that makes you political if you care about people. Right?
WS: For Lisa then—and now—reading remains a way to explore your own curiosity about the world—and a way to try to make the world a better place.
LL: Everyone’s not going to read The Power Broker and come away feeling activated, right? Everybody’s not going to read it and come away feeling like they want to do something or change something. But I do think that is much harder. You have to really steel yourself to be a person who knows what’s really happening in great detail, beautifully rendered by an excellent writer in a very good, thoughtful book and not change. You have to really be steeled against change. And so I think the practice of building readers and building a better world because you’ve built readers means that you are developing a curiosity in people. You’re developing knowledge in people and it’s hard to unknow.
There’s so much information, if we only want to access it, right? Like change is the way that we’re going to look at people. That sort of idea that reading generates additional empathy in us, which I think people throw around a lot really loosely, and they’re like, Oh yeah, it really makes you more empathetic. But it’s like, but how can you look at your city in the same way that you looked at it yesterday when you know who had to move out for that highway to be there and who that highway was built for? How can you look at your city the same way? How can you look at your elected officials or your participation in an election when you know what the consequences are? When you know what these schools mean? What these neighborhoods mean? Who has. Who doesn’t have.
Any kind of reading, I think makes you bigger. And I love books because it’s a protracted experience with a piece of text. If I spend 14 hours with you just talking, and I listened to your story, I’m going to have a very different relationship to you than I do now. Right? So those 14 hours are a big deal, 20 hours, 30 hours or I mean God knows how many hours it took me to read The Power Broker. But this is like, it’s a relationship. and I think that there’s something about sort of like staying in a story like that must happen in your brain that changes your relationship to it and remembering it and having it like kind of become a part of you.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino. Thanks to Lisa Lucas and the team at the National Book Foundation. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at email@example.com.