David Hare’s Straight Line Crazy, playing at the Bridge theatre, is a story of 20th Century New York which finds perhaps unexpected drama in urban planning and has contemporary resonance for that other great world city, London.
It’s a powerful portrait of Robert Moses, the unelected unofficial described by his eminent biographer Robert Caro as the “greatest builder in the history of America, perhaps in the history of the world”, embodied in an expansive, muscular performance by Ralph Fiennes.
Moses shaped New York as we know it – its expressways, bridges, parks, public buildings and housing renewal programmes – during an autocratic reign as commissioner of pretty much everything in the city’s urban environment between 1924 and 1968.
Hare focuses on two “decisive moments” in that extraordinary career: Moses in 1926, the man of the people taking on the old New York aristocracy to force his Southern State Parkway through Long Island, opening up access to the beaches for city-dwellers; and in 1955 his doomed attempt to drive an expressway through Washington Square.
There’s not a bulldozer on stage or any hired heavies hounding the poor of the city out of Moses’s way “like cattle”, as described by Caro in The Power Broker. The action is predominately in Moses’s office, with drawing boards, plans and architectural models, and a giant map of the city laid out in front.
At one point Fiennes crouches over that map, fiercely scoring the lines of his Manhattan expressways across the city as if he would personally gouge his way through the dense and historic neighbourhoods intruding on his vision, a powerful image of the reality often lying behind those slick planners’ presentations.
An almost physical exchange with governor Al Smith, the hard-drinking working-class Irish Italian from the Lower East Side with an eye for the popular vote, energetically brought to life by Danny Webb, underlines Moses’s ability to exploit the politics of the time while continuing to disdain democracy. Smith concludes that he always leaves Moses feeling robbed, but not sure what has been taken.
Hare’s portrayal of Moses is more sympathetic than Caro’s. In an insightful interview in the New Yorker he describes his Moses as overcome by an idealism that has curdled. “He’s a man trapped in a dream. That, to me, is not about urban planning. It’s about everybody—including myself.”
The play’s framing as a presentation of the battle between the urban visions of Moses and his Washington Square adversary Jane Jacobs, proponent of the organic complexities of the city in contrast to the “straight line” sterilities of the master-planners, played by Helen Schlesinger, is therefore perhaps less clearly articulated.
It’s left finally to Moses’s long-suffering assistant Finnuala, played by Siobhan Cullen, to pitch the arguments that had long been growing against the dogmatism of the road-builder: the human cost of those expressways and other projects which saw some 500,000 people evicted, and the eventually self-defeating nature of an approach which blocked investment in public transit, encouraged suburban sprawl and, in Caro’s words, made “traffic jams an inescapable part of New Yorkers’ lives”.
Some challenging points are made here, including the arguments more explicit in Caro, that those Moses evicted were overwhelmingly black, Hispanic and poor – “the most defenceless of the city’s people” – with little provision made for their relocation. As a result, Moses’s policies “were to be a major factor in…the dividing up of [New York’s] residents by colour and income”.
Hare is interestingly ambivalent about Jacobs’s impact, having her character note that one outcome of her and others’ campaigning was the historic, densely populated, mixed-use neighbourhood “villages” of Lower Manhattan becoming some of the most expensive real estate in the world.
The arguments continue of course, on both sides of the Atlantic and wherever there are cities, over such issues as the “15-minute city”, low traffic neighbourhoods, cycle lanes, “gentrification”, Nimbyism, densifying the suburbs, building on the Green Belt or prioritising Tube station car parks over building new homes.
Solving the conundrums of our cities, balancing competing interests and promoting growth while conserving heritage, is complex – perhaps more complex than we like to think, the play suggests. And in Hare’s hands Moses is eventually a tragic figure, if not quite a tragic hero, imprisoned by a vision which collided with that complex reality.
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