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'Straight Line Crazy' explores power broker Robert Moses' legacy

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Robert Moses redesigned New York City with bruising efficiency. He built 416 miles of parkways, 13 bridges, 658 playgrounds in the New York metro area, changing the way all American cities practiced urban planning. The result? Both vitally important public works and thousands displaced as whole neighborhoods were knocked down. Now, Ralph Fiennes is starring off-Broadway in a volcanic turn as the controversial master builder. Jim O'Grady reports.

JIM O'GRADY, BYLINE: It's a sold-out hit, even beyond what you'd expect with a star like Fiennes, which raises the question - why are we still arguing about a guy who's been dead for 40 years? Because Moses was a bureaucratic pharaoh who built monumental works - before his downfall, that is. And who doesn't like to rubberneck a good downfall? "Straight Line Crazy" is written by David Hare and directed by Nicholas Hytner. It opens in 1926, when Moses is 28 and mounting his climb to power.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY "STRAIGHT LINE CRAZY")

RALPH FIENNES: (As Robert Moses) I paced the beach, the salt spray in my face. And I had the idea. I stood there, taken aback by the beauty, by the isolation, and I thought this beach could belong to the people.

SIOBHAN CULLEN: (As Finnuala) Yes.

FIENNES: (As Robert Moses) To the people.

O'GRADY: That's Fiennes' Moses describing his first great achievement, Jones Beach on Long Island. To do it, Moses must take on some of capitalism's first families, the Vanderbilts and Whitneys, with their nearby estates and distaste of the masses yearning to sit by the sea and breathe free. Playwright Hare shows this Moses, early Moses, as a political force applying flawed means toward democratic ends. Here's Hare talking about it at a Q&A session.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID HARE: My play is about idealism, but the dream he had of improving the lives of people who lived in the tenements was dependent on an instrument, the car, that would travel along the roads. And so, for me, the tragedy is he's a man who's trapped in a dream. And what begins as a great dream of liberation becomes, in fact, a nightmare of oppression. And it's his failure to modify and to adapt. This seems, to me, a universal theme.

O'GRADY: Robert Moses wasn't the only planner who failed to see the tradeoffs that come with cars - increased mobility at the cost of congestion and danger and noise and pollution, so says Nicole Gelinas.

NICOLE GELINAS: I'm a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

O'GRADY: That's an urban think tank. Gelinas points out that when Moses came to power, a vast network of highways and bridges had already been mapped onto New York.

GELINAS: This idea that he came up with this plan of highways, he pushed it through over everyone's better judgment - not true. Many people - most people with power at the time wanted these highways.

O'GRADY: The prevailing view said highways were the key to modernization.

GELINAS: Anyone who was anybody in conventional wisdom.

O'GRADY: Cars would connect urban cores to the regions around them while opening up a new frontier of suburban development. Moses made those plans concrete. He gave New York a thrumming circulatory system of wide roads. Other cities followed suit.

GELINAS: He just did a good job of executing it where other people had failed.

O'GRADY: On the side, he built iconic projects like Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the United Nations Building. And as Ralph Fiennes' Robert Moses would like to remind you, he never stopped helping New Yorkers get outdoors.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY "STRAIGHT LINE CRAZY")

FIENNES: (As Robert Moses) I've doubled the green space in New York City by 35,000 acres. I've added zones, recreation centers, ball fields, 17 miles of beach, and 658 playgrounds.

O'GRADY: This is the Moses of Act 1 - the guy who's not all bad - the historical figure whose methods compared to his outcomes could be debated. Then comes Act 2, set in 1956, about the classic effects of wielding too much power for too long - impatience, egomania, interpreting good-faith criticism as personal attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY "STRAIGHT LINE CRAZY")

FIENNES: (As Robert Moses) Manhattan will no longer be the sinking sand in which lateral traffic spins its wheels aimlessly in mud. Please tell me - who would not be happy with that?

O'GRADY: By now, mere citizens' groups have started questioning his authority, including Jane Jacobs, a writer who champions everything Moses loathes about a city, especially those densely settled, quirky little warrens that are alive with mom and pop shops, pedestrians and mass transit, as she points out in this speech saved by the New York Municipal Archives.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JANE JACOBS: Many different kinds of enterprises, many different kinds of people in a small geographical area.

O'GRADY: People who belie the stereotype of the anonymous urban dweller by looking out for one another.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JACOBS: People in cities are not just masses of people; they are people mutually supporting each other.

O'GRADY: By the early 1960s, organized resistance slows Moses to a crawl. Some of his projects, like highways through Soho and Washington Square Park, are stopped cold. Jane Jacobs is openly scolding him. What you call slums, she says, others know as old but intimate neighborhoods, as home. Moses and his fictional assistant have this debate in the play.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY "STRAIGHT LINE CRAZY")

CULLEN: (As Finnuala) Slum clearance, we call it. I'll tell you what slum clearance really means - getting rid of the Negroes, that's what it means.

FIENNES: (As Robert Moses) It's just a fact - the poorest people live in the worst houses. Their color makes no difference to me. We move people out. So we should. We take them out of dirty places, and we move them to cleaner places. We cut out the cancerous tissue. If you leave things as they are, they rot.

O'GRADY: He really did talk like that. Here's the man in-person defending himself to the New York Building Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT MOSES: Nobody can tear down ancient, rat-infested rookeries without first moving people. We have not been heartless in the process.

O'GRADY: His fall finally comes in the late 1960s, when the state consolidates several of his agencies into the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, then eases the old man out the door. That authority still runs New York's subways, buses and commuter lines. But how are cities and cars getting on these days? Well, there's a movement to claw back urban road space for bike and pedestrian lanes. And some Moses-era highways are going or gone. San Francisco demolished its Embarcadero Freeway. And Syracuse is working on taking down its Interstate 81. Those are two examples. But Nicole Gelinas has counterexamples.

GELINAS: Florida, with the massive I-4 interchange widening project, building new highways all over the southwest - so outside of New York City, mostly, the highway-building era is not over.

O'GRADY: And neither is the argument about what is gained and lost by building more roads for more cars and trucks. But there's also the argument about how to distribute power, about allowing us to build, even over objections, without making one man a kind of king.

For NPR News, I'm Jim O'Grady.

(SOUNDBITE OF GNARLS BARKLEY'S "CRAZY (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim O'Grady
Jim O'Grady is a contributor to NPR's Planet Money podcast.