Staight Line Crazy: Robert Moses, the planner who did

Posted on August 11, 2022

Back in the 1990s when I first became a member of the Royal Town Planning Institute I opened my first copy of its The Planner magazine with great interest. One thing I still remember from that edition was a letter lamenting the fact that architects got all the glory in Hollywood movies and that planners never got a mention. Glamourous, good looking, charismatic, ambitious, a little bit ruthless, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, feted almost as modern artists in their own right. It was all so unfair.  Now finally the record has been righted, set straight even. Planners have inherited the earth. Or at least one has. Robert Moses. Though as anyone who has read Jane Jacobs book ‘The death and life of great American cities’, will know, this reappraisal of the planners birthright might come into the ‘be careful what you wish for’ category.

Straight Line Crazy has been playing to packed houses at the Bridge Theatre in London for some months. So packed that the National Theatre has been streaming it to cinemas all over the country so that those who couldn’t get a ticket for a live performance could nonetheless get a piece of the action. And action there is aplenty.  Starring Ralph Fiennes as Moses, David Hare’s play, directed by Nicholas Hytner takes the life and times of Robert Moses at two points in his career- the mid-1920s and the mid-1950s and examines the extraordinary power the man had over anything that  came up against his vision of a new world, whether that be the urban form of  city of New York, it inhabitants, both gentry, the Vanderbilts, the Whitney’s or the JP Morgan’s, on their estates on Long Island, or the common people, who lived in inconveniently dense concentrations in Brooklyn or the Bronx. To say nothing of his staff or his (notionally) political masters. In the 1920s Moses carries all before him, browbeating both the landed gentry and in an incredible scene, New York’s Governor Al Smith (Danny Webb), who at one point, after a particularly heated row where Smith lays down a political demand, to build a railway line to Long Island, leaves the office remarking ruefully that ‘When you leave the company of Robert Moses you feel like you’ve been robbed, your just not sure what of.’

Both in Straight line crazy and in real life, Moses believes that he is right and the majority wrong. His vision is to open up the beaches and countryside of Long Island to the denizens of New York, to democratize leisure and to make the freedom of the road available to everybody. It is a duel between elected and unelected power, the rights of citizens to shape their city and Moses’ belief that some parts of the city aren’t worth saving, whatever the tight-knit communities who live there might think. Moses has a vision that is partial to say the least. Highways to the parks and the coast must be built. But in the 1920s the motor car was out of reach of most families (and in New York where would you park one anyway?). People already had leisure opportunities, Coney Island was hugely popular. But Moses only wanted a certain ‘type’ of person to enjoy these new freedoms. And that wouldn’t include poor immigrants or black people, so staff were instructed to build bridges too low for a bus to pass underneath, and Smith’s injunction about rail lines from the city to the coast, was completely ignored. In the 1920s when citizen participation was still a long way in the future, the sheer exhilaration of a visionary approach to city planning seemed glorious. Young planner Finnuala Connell (Siobhan Cullen) at one point proclaims that working for him was like galloping across the plains on horseback.

But thirty year later it looks like riding for a fall. The deficiencies of the expressways are more obvious, the implicit racism of the decisions taken about which communities they destroyed more glaring, and the breathtaking lack of accountability to political masters looks less like vision and more like a toxic mixture of bullying and corruption. The scales begin to fall from the eyes of his previously star struck staff if not from those of Moses himself. The second half begins to look like a reckoning. Connell recruits a young black woman played by Alisha Bailey, freshly out of planning school. Her family was displaced by the Cross Bronx Expressway which she refers to as the ‘heartbreak highway’ and it feels as if the two of them map the emerging cultural currents more accurately than Moses. The final flashpoint is his attempt to drive another expressway across Washington Square in Lower Manhattan, ’The man is straight line crazy’ remarks one opponent. The park has its defenders, amongst them Jane Jacobs.  The world of planning suddenly becomes more diverse; women, black people, a planner with multiple sclerosis, who see the world through different eyes from Moses. Suddenly he is vulnerable to ‘handbag activists’ and the game is up. Invincibility once challenged isn’t invincibility any more, and Washington Square and a lot of the rest of lower Manhattan is saved from destruction at the altar of the motor car.

The resonances with the present day are obvious; the conflict between conservation and development, the car versus liveable neighbourhoods or public transport, the power of the bureaucracy versus political power, the weakness of political power in the face of corporate imperatives, racism in planning, and the obsessiveness of the charismatic figure transfixed by infrastructure projects that they hope they will forever be associated with. Playing in a theatre so close by the site of that never built bridge, Straight line crazy is a dramatically gripping and politically thoughtful masterpiece, placing the planner centre stage at last.

This article first appeared in the July/August 2022 edition of Town and Country Planning

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