He Built It, They Came

The Arts

The 20th century was a century of movement.

Aldous Huxley once wrote, ‘Now that we can travel easily, we spend our lives traveling.’ 

The pendulum began to swing back during the pandemic, when many realised that a large proportion of their journeys were unnecessary, and it had been moving against the petrol engine for some time – climate change has seen to that.

So what are we now to make of Robert Moses, the unelected, untrained public official so obsessed with shifting people from place to place that he set about destroying much of the old New York? His plans for twin expressways chimed with times when gas was cheap and Americans were going pedal-to-the-metal for change. His plans influenced a generation of engineers, architects and urban planners and paced up the US’s slower way of life. But it brought him into conflict with those who saw their communities torn apart by freeways.

It’s a subject that has interested director Nicholas Hytner and writer David Hare, who have once more teamed up with Ralph Fiennes, this time at London’s wonderful Bridge Theatre nestled beside Tower Bridge. They’ve created a fascinating character study of a zealous, innovating radical who over four decades saw the tide eventually turn against him as his own views calcified into blind intransigence.

‘Straight Line Crazy’ seems something of a niche subject until it broadens in the play’s second half to show why so many of America’s problems stemmed from the idea of terraforming at great speed. A visionary Moses might have been, but he failed to remedy his own flaws, clearly believing he could bend the laws of nature through willpower alone.

He denied being Jewish despite his surname. He was unqualified but more driven than a charismatic preacher. He professed a desire to bring the masses to nature, yet refused to plan for any kind of public transport, even deliberately building bridges too low to allow rapid transit vehicles. He wanted equality, but only for the right kind of people.

In his cars-only future where every green space contained a gasoline-drenched bridge, tunnel or freeway he imagined people scurrying from place to place – but to what end? Did he assume his own restlessness was universal, that we all felt the need to drive everywhere? Moses didn’t – he’d never even been behind the wheel of a car. His motivation remains unclear, but it’s Hare’s job to present the man and throw open the questions, and Ralph Fiennes is the ideal actor to lead them.

Fiennes roars and postures and spits and stamps, demanding his own way by sheer force of will through the map-strewn set, breaking laws, bribing, intimidating and downright defrauding, behaving like that great American archetype the huckster, forcing us to share his vision. Yet after the intermission he returns pale and ever more worn out by his endless battles. Fiennes’ performance is ablaze, although he more than meets his match in Siobhán Cullen’s Finnuala, his fiercely loyal second lieutenant.

Hare doesn’t dig quite deep enough into Moses’ motivation, especially claims that innate racism caused him to bulldoze mostly Black and Latino neighbourhoods, but he reveals man who will block anything that interferes with his vision. There’s more than a touch of Ayn Rand here, but a late revelation reveals the human cost of such single-mindedness. Eventually those too long marginalised sought to take back neighbourhoods. History was not, ultimately, on his side. 

By the way, how nice it is to be back in a civilised, well-spaced modern theatre with such stunning views, seeing a brand-new grown-up play without songs? A second Bridge Theatre is coming, this time to my local neighbourhood, and I cannot wait.

 

31 comments on “He Built It, They Came”

  1. Bernard says:

    Robert Caro’s monumental biography of Moses, The Power Broker (1974) is a thorough, detailed, exhaustive and exhausting examination of the man’s life, accomplishments, and psyche. Moses’ arrogance, narcissism, and racism are on full display but so is his brilliant vision, political manipulation, engineering, and management. The entire story is a tragedy of missed opportunities to fashion a modern, open, inclusive, healthy, efficient, progressive city. Added to this is the tragedy of Moses’ personal relations with friends and family, just as much victims of his bulldozing as the poor.

    Moses’ obsessive motivation was to build roads for cars. He repeatedly promised that his new project would eliminate traffic jams and congestion and provide free flowing travel. Repeatedly each new project became congested within weeks, even days, of opening. All he ever seemed to learn from this was that the next project should be bigger.

    Finnuala is pure fiction. There were many fiercely loyal lieutenants but the only person who ever stood up to him was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

    Caro’s book is highly recommended as is his still incomplete biography of LBJ.

  2. Roger says:

    “He denied being Jewish despite his surname.”
    Jewish descent is through the mother, so he may not have been jewish.

    We had our own – fortunately smaller and much less successful – London versions of Moses. Look at the transport plans for London after WWII.

  3. Stu-I-Am says:

    Urban planing has always been a fascinating subject (for me at least…). What are cities for: people living there or focused primarily on efficiently ‘moving’ people in and out of them ? Two very different concepts. Interesting that the Bridge Theatre itself is an example of ‘urbane’ renewal, with Nick Hytner and Nick Starr (London Theatre Company) going against conventional wisdom that commercial theatre should be confined to the West End and building their flexible 900 seat space in Central London near Tower Bridge.

  4. Stu-I-Am says:

    For those with even a passing interest in urban ‘renewal’ (and ‘messianic’ planners like Moses), but do like a good ‘David and Goliath’ -type story, I suggest reading about the battle royal between urbanist and activist, Jane Jacobs and Moses for NY’s Greenwich Village, in particular.

  5. Bernard says:

    Roger, he was ethnically Jewish on both sides neither of which was in denial (according to Caro).

  6. Peter+T says:

    It’s wonderful to hear of a newly constructed theatre anywhere. Let’s try not to think of the carbon footprint of all the cement. Could a visionary town planner not nudge the architects and civil engineers away from the oppressive world of concrete toward the promised land of the steel frame? I don’t understand town planning or urban renewal. There must be a hidden agenda.

  7. Roger says:

    Is jewishness defined ethnically or by beliefs, Bernard? Richard Feynman demurred when he was described as jewish, even though he was descended from jews for that reason.

    And – of course – read Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Stu-I-Am.

  8. Davem says:

    The Bridge Theatre is one of my favourites

  9. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Peter+ T Peter, not so much a ‘hidden agenda,’ as a continuing hodgepodge of codes, rules, regulations and disparate authorities to enforce these often conflicting requirements. Town planning may lay out the ‘grand scheme’ but history has shown that its usually worthy aspirations tend to get derailed in a welter of presumably well-intentioned but unilateral decisions by other associated bodies. This lack of coordination by otherwise well-meaning (benefit of the doubt here…) professionals is essentially what has led to the current disconnect and sprawl. There is some hope with noises being made on high to allow for far more local and regional control of not only where things can be built but how. We shall see.

  10. Peter T says:

    I lived in Houston, a city famed for its lack of planning and much criticised by urban planners. However, as a resident, I didn’t find it at all bad. It was certainly much easier to move around there than in most cities in the UK and the rest of Europe. Of course that’s close to thirty years ago.

  11. Helen+Martin says:

    Hmm, our library doesn’t have the Caro biography of Moses, but it does have the Jane Jacobs (being twenty years newer) so I have that on reserve at the husband’s request. I hope I have a chance to see the play because we almost had freeways slashed through Vancouver’s downtown. They got far enough to destroy the black community but not far enough to destroy Chinatown.
    Caro’s biography of LBJ is listed for our library unless it is just the first part?

  12. Mark Pack says:

    If anyone is tempted by Caro’s LBJ biography after the earlier comments (and it is brilliant), I’d recommend the audio version as the narrator – Grover Gardner – is brilliant.

  13. Alan R says:

    I learn so much from this Blog (?) and the comments made by the followers. I have found many suggestions and subjects to follow up on. I am surprised and shocked that I had no idea of who Robert Moses was and the massive effect he had on New York. I’ll find a good book to complete my education. You are never too old to learn.

  14. Richard says:

    As an old Manhattan cabbie who lived in the West Village well over 50 years ago, this subject hits close to home. Rather than blabber, I encourage today’s city dwellers to watch the half-hour PBS documentary “Jane Jacobs vs Robert Moses: Urban Fight of the Century” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMnUnp0ifgo. The fight goes on.

  15. Paul C says:

    Recommend a recent book in this vein called Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention by Ben Wilson (2020) which is a fascinating read.

  16. Stu-I-Am says:

    Interesting that Moses further developed or more likely, ‘hardened,’ his imperial (imperious ?) view of things while at Oxford — and at perhaps its most liberal college, Wadham — where he received a B.A. and M.A. in Jurisprudence. His law (and political science) work obviously came in handy since he drafted the laws creating every unelected position he ever held. While at Wadham he also became ever more enamored of the British Civil Service, which he viewed as an exemplar of the upper class as a meritocracy. In fact, he wrote a book on the Civil Service which became the basis for his PhD in political science from NY’s Columbia University. A paradox to say the least.

  17. Peter T says:

    I’d avoided mentioning Oxford, but, since Stu has brought it into the discussion, it may explain Moses’ infatuation with urban expressways. The record of the city and surrounding area to organise its road and transport systems is atrocious. No useful roads, few useful bus services, close most of the shops. The urban plan? Turn our beautiful city into a Disneyland. I’d better stop – I’m beginning to feel a lot of sympathy for Moses and his ideas.

  18. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Peter+T Peter, not to put too fine a point on it (oh hell, why not !?) — Oxford is, in fact, a ‘poster child’ for present urban disorders, from its dearth of affordable housing, ill-conceived (or politely — uncoordinated) planning to rampant gentrification. The ‘dreaming spires’ allusion lulls far too many into a sense of complacency. But as I recall from my time there a number of moons ago, there was always a tension between the authorities (city council, in particular) and the major landowners — the university colleges and Oxford itself, over what should be done and where — and which has grown ever more palpable over time. Btw — it should rightfully pointed out that the other extreme of the Moses ‘meat axe’ approach to urban renewal, is a focus on saving buildings and neighbourhoods at the expense of the people living in them — too easily leading to handsomely rehabbed and expensive, exclusionary real estate.

  19. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin I see we will be able to celebrate both Bastille Day and the publication of ‘Peculiar London’ this 14 July. I therefore declare 14 July 22 a Fête nationale Anglaise in keeping with these momentous occasions.

  20. Paul C says:

    Talking of the Bastille, one of the last remaining prisoners evacuated just a few days before it was stormed on 14 July 1789 was the Marquis de Sade. His work is utterly unreadable but the story of his life is astonishing – it’s well worth reading a good biography. Sorry – way off piste again….

  21. Helen+Martin says:

    As someone said, what a wonderful collection of things we learn here. I knew there were only a couple or so prisoners in the Bastille, but was not aware that de Sade was one of them.
    University towns can be very problematic, especially ones as old as Oxford (and probably Cambridge) and there has always been tension (to be polite) between town and gown in Oxford. It probably goes back to things which the university considers its “privilege” and may be one reason why North American universities are organized so differently.

  22. Glasgow1975 says:

    You should Google the plans that were mooted for Glasgow. They were going to level the entire city centre and build square blocks of towers. Thankfully they saw sense, but not before bulldozing entire communities and shoving a motorway through the city centre, with a ‘bridge to nowhere’ the legacy of cancelled roads never joined up. I believe it’s still the only major European city with a major motorway threading through it. Now the council want to put a roof over it and plant a garden on top… which I expect will happen around the same time as a viable transport link to the airport… #never

  23. Mimi Paller says:

    Wow! All this talk of cars and no mention of my fair city, its ugly freeways (except the first) or its smog. We didn’t need a Robert Moses to get into this mess, it came naturally. Fortunately for us, we did have Griffith J. Griffith (probably a worse person than Moses) and so have one decent-sized park.

  24. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Mimi Paller Mimi, actually LA did have a ‘mini-Moses,’ who was fortunately somewhat more thoughtful and sensitive, especially in running freeways through smaller California communities. Known as  as “Mr. Freeway” and “Mr. Caltrans”, Jacob Dekema, as then Caltrans district director, not only revolutionised how Los Angelenos (and Californians, in general) got around, but laid the groundwork for the U.S. Interstate Highway System. And. in fact, one of his first jobs was to design the ‘Pasadena Freeway,’ that first freeway you mention. Certainly controversial, even if he didn’t exhibit the hubris and resort to the tactics of a Robert Moses, he was regularly criticised for his fixation on building more and more freeways, to which he just as regularly replied with regret about not being able to build as many as he actually wanted.

  25. A Holme says:

    Bill Bryson nailed Oxford’s planning woes and the reasons for them back in ’95 in ‘Notes from a Small Island’. He’s was even more uncomplimentary about Abingdon where I happen to reside!

  26. Helen+Martin says:

    Our friend Ed should be posting this since his Seattle also has a bridge to nowhere, the result of a freeway that was canceled before the link was built. I believe there is a park where the overpass would have gone. Do the planners only think as far as seeing what a site looks like at the moment of finishing? There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of extrapolation going on.
    Glasgow is a fascinating place, although I’ve only visited once. We almost started a trip there but perhaps I’m glad we didn’t if airport transport is so awkward.

  27. Jo+e says:

    The chat is all about planning, or lack of it, in existing cities but what do we think of Milton Keynes then? An entirely new conurbation from the ground up. Technically not a city, although it calls itself one, but perhaps more deserving of the name than some. Perhaps give it a cathedral as well – it’s about time we had a new one. Although that in itself might spark a whole PC debate I suppose.
    With certain small disasters along the way I think it is actually very successful. Although individual older estates can be open to criticism the newer ones have improved over time and many of the fundamental ideas of how to accommodate, or separate, the car within a built up area work very well.

  28. snowy says:

    I don’t know MK very well, [though I did spend two days in the Central nick and a friend of mine got themself ‘sectioned’ under the ‘Mental Health Act’ after a visit].

    I don’t want to upset anybody, but it always felt a bit artificial on the few times I was there, a sense that if you walked around a corner the buildings would be revealed to have no backs, like a film set.

    Um… there is a New Town Syndrome that takes ages to disappear, lots of structure, but no ‘traditions’ and no ‘focus’.

    ‘Traditions’ are hard to define, but by it I mean all the social ‘glue’ that isn’t just buildings, Baby and Toddler groups, Cricket teams, WI etc. – all the fun/useful things ignored by planners that have to be grown by people. [I’m sure they exist now].

    Focus is even harder to describe, except perhaps by counter example:

    Welwyn Garden City was an escape from a polluted city to a socialist ‘utopia’, Bournville and Port Sunlight were constructed around chocolate and soap respectively, so had a focus, [but residents of all three were never really free from social constraint].

  29. Stu-I-Am says:

    @snowy Snowy, indeed! ‘Proper’ urban areas are organically grown, not designed and ‘wished’ into existence, however well-intentioned the motivation behind the concepts may be. Not very efficient or politically-expedient, of course but it is instructive to look at how refugees in camps often rearrange and reconfigure their ordinarily uniform and regimented housing units when given the opportunity. And then, of course, there are the highly complex insect colonies which are wonderfully regulated — although in many ways parallel a human political system.

  30. Mimi Paller says:

    Stu-I-Am: Thanks for the great info. I will research Jacob Dekema.

  31. Helen+Martin says:

    Just over the Fraser River is the city of Surrey which had its portion of Celtic Fest last weekend. As we were driving through its edges I saw a sign saying City Centre and wondered where that was. My husband, who knows all things, said that it’s the next to last stop on Sky Train and the new city hall has been built there. Other than that there isn’t a centre to the place because it is a gathering of construction projects facilitated by car travel. The comment about organic development is important because these modern “cities” aren’t, they’re just houses near each other. Any openings are filled with Cosco, All-American SuperStore, and assorted fast food outlets.

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