Moses Supposes

Last week, we went to see Straight Line Crazy, a play by David Hare at the Bridge Theatre near Tower Bridge, with that famous actor, Ralph Fiennes. He and the rest of the cast were great and the script was snappy and sassy. So if you just fancy a good night at the theatre, you might like it (it’s on ‘til 18th June). But I had other reasons for being there.

The play’s about Robert Moses, the “master builder” of New York City who, over almost half a century in a multitude of public positions, made an indelible impact on the city’s landscape. (Intriguingly, his time in office almost exactly coincides with that of J Edgar Hoover at the FBI!) Moses directed the construction of numerous infrastructure projects, including public parks, swimming pools, bridges and most notably, roads. He was also responsible for tens of thousands of homes for working class New Yorkers, including many of those owned by the city’s public housing authority (NYCHA) and Co-Op City in the Bronx, the biggest development of its kind (clue in the title) in the world.

I add his record on housing by way of balancing the prevailing view of Moses. I asked an NYC urban planner friend of mine about him last summer and his immediate take was “Bad Guy. A racist”. There is plenty of evidence to corroborate this opinion, much of it contained in Robert Caro’s mamouth biography, The Power Broker. Probably the best-known example is Moses’ decision to build bridges that were too low to admit buses, thus preventing poor people without cars, many of whom would be non-white, from easily getting to the public beaches he developed on Long Island.

The play touches on these issues, but tends towards portraying Moses as someone who started out as an idealist motivated by a genuine desire to improve people’s lives, who became an autocrat with a God-complex, a description that can, arguably, be applied to the whole discipline of urban planning.  

Moses’ nemesis was Jane Jacobs, a formidable campaigner who lived in Greenwich Village and had her own strong theories about what cities should be like. Jacobs despised the gigantism of Moses’ projects, particularly when they threatened the type of place she lived in. But it would be unfair to dismiss Jane Jacobs as a NIMBY. She helped build a successful community campaign to oppose Moses’ plans for another huge road that would have slashed through the middle of lower Manhattan and so preserved some of the city’s most cherished spaces, like Washington Square Park. But as the play touched on, those areas have since been radically changed by a different threat: the toxic mix of money and the speculative housing market known as “gentrification”.

I feel very ambivalent about both Jacobs and Moses. Her writing suggests a self-righteous dogmatist with a snobbish streak. His actions suggest the same! But I do find something to admire in both – her for fighting the corporate-backed development juggernaut, him for breaking through the inertia of big bureaucracies. Moses is responsible for some of the things many people (including me) love and loathe about New York City. As you stroll through wonderful Riverside Park, it’s not quite possible to ignore the growling Henry Hudson Parkway that runs alongside it. Having lived there for six months, I’ve seen the enduring damage done to the borough by Moses’ Cross Bronx Expressway (which there are now tentative plans to “green”). Jacobs argued for a people-centred, not car-dominated city and ultimately, I’d stand with her and time has proved her right.  

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