Seizing real power in our times

New York’s Triborough Bridge, one of the crowning accomplishments of Robert Moses. (PHOTO: Young Sok Yun, Flickr CC)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Sometimes I have a great notion that a tall building could be erected on the corner of First and Howard in downtown Hibbing. Bustling with commerce, brimming with human progress, this grand edifice would become a beacon for a new age of internal improvement of our Iron Range city.

We could restore the parks, scrub away blight and refill the pockmarks of the Iron Range with recreation, diverse new enterprise and beautiful monuments to human accomplishment.

I have this notion at my desk where I have just consumed a sandwich from a Tupperware container, spewing stray crumbs into the computer keys. This vision will reach the newspaper, but no further.

Why not? Well, power of course. I do not possess it. Neither do most of you.

More accurately, I do not posses *enough* of the *right kind* of power to enact my vision. Fact is, neither do most of our elected officials, business leaders or community activists. Together, maybe we do, but there are reasons the many fail to unite. Our discordant values and interests conspire to hold back such lofty visions.

We deeply suspect that such a project would be stymied not only by cost, but by arguments over who would be cast in shadows by such a tall building, and which undeserving wretch it should be named after.

I recently read Robert A. Caro’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1975 biography “The Power Broker,” exploring the rise to power of famed New York city planner Robert Moses. As books go, “The Power Broker” feels heavier than a brick. It nevertheless reads as a compelling treatise on how to seize enough power to get things done. It also a warning about doing so.

Moses presents an interesting study on power. This brilliant man hailed from a moderately wealthy family that nevertheless lacked much influence in the world. He was never rich. And yet over the course of 60 years in government he ran roughshod over the wealthy, the powerful, and, at times, the entire population of New York.

Moses built parks on Long Island when the most powerful people in the country opposed them. He built highways to reach the parks and, soon, highways and housing projects that recomposed America’s largest city. Moses began his government service at a time when city budgets weren’t even written down. He ended in the 1970s, undone by his expenses and inflexibility to change. No other human being shaped the place we now call New York more than him. And America follows New York.

I am reminded, on a much smaller scale, of Victor Power and his exploits in early Hibbing. The subject of my current (sprawling) research project, Power turned his knack for oratory and natural political sensibilities into new parks, street lights, aid programs, and even an entirely new city of modern Hibbing.

But power slips through our hands, even when our name is Power. In time the overwhelming political force of the mining companies and the rising tide of immigrant laborers proved too much for old Vic. We could point a finger at many causes for the end of the Power era. The simplest is that he ran out of power with a small “p” and it ruined him.

In the cases of Victor Power in Hibbing and Robert Moses in New York, lowly people subvert oppositional power through great effort and intelligence. Though, they never keep this power forever. Six years or sixty, still just a blink of an eye in the e’er unfolding life of our world.

So how will we do it? How will we marshal power without becoming tyrannical like Moses did, or overrun like Power?

To me, the two stories share one important trait. The hubris of their protagonist. If we think we must be an emperor to solve problems, we spend our power to protect our egos. If we set aside those notions, things change.

I bet we could fix one or two problems, no matter the powerful interests blocking our way. For just a small group could saw at the timbers beneath the trestle of power until it falls. Then, we build a wider bridge for all to walk across.

We need only think of goals instead of ourselves. Our works will speak for themselves. So, too, will our lack of them.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, March 11, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

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