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Straight Line Crazy, a new play about Robert Moses, can’t get out of its own way. October 25, 2022
Arts and Culture

Just what New York City needs in 2022: a play about Robert Moses conjured up by the British and staged at Hudson Yards. Straight Line Crazy, the new drama written by David Hare and starring Ralph Fiennes, attracted a sold-out crowd of Manhattanites for its U.S. debut last week after playing in London earlier this year; tickets for the two-month run are impossible to get. The fact that New York’s theatergoing crowd might take this play seriously as urban-planning history—and as urban-planning present and future—is a sign of how shallowly we understand ourselves.

If you’re going to see the play because you have a crush on Ralph Fiennes, then go, rather than scalping your tickets on StubHub. Fiennes commands the sparse set with perfect manner, tone, and costume, and voices a serviceable enough American accent. Shakespearean actress Helen Schlesinger is a strong, sardonic Jane Jacobs. Her first line is, naturally enough, “I’m Jane Jacobs,” illustrating that the legends of these two characters long superseded the people themselves. The supporting cast members complement one another and the leads well.

Hare splits the play into “two imagined moments in the life of an alternately lionized and criticized historical figure,” as the playbill tells us. There’s nothing wrong with that: we don’t have transcripts of historical moments, so most history plays rely on made-up dialogue and imagined, though plausible, scenes.

And the play starts off promisingly. It’s 1926, the era in which Moses was, in popular lore, the good guy. Wanting the New York City masses to be able to access pristine recreation, he has asked for and received New York State’s new public-parks development portfolio from Governor Al Smith. Now, Moses is on Long Island, condescending to explain to landowner Henry Vanderbilt why he wants to seize land there to build two parkways for cars so that city residents can access what will become Jones Beach.

Vanderbilt’s demurral cleverly presages today’s arguments over zoning and density. “Long Island depends for its exceptional quiet and beauty on its isolation,” Vanderbilt pleads to Moses. “Seek to share that beauty and the beauty is gone.” Vanderbilt adds that “the people . . . with their picnic baskets and . . . their filthy children” already “have Coney Island. They have Brighton Beach.” Moses rejoins that “these places are open sewers.” “And now Jones Beach . . . is to become a sewer, too,” laments Vanderbilt. Today, Jones Beach endures as a summer oasis for the public, with more than 6 million annual visitors; the parkways Moses built enabled suburban sprawl and its attendant traffic.

This scene, though, is the play’s high point. As the good Moses of the 1920s gradually recedes and the evil Moses of later decades dominates, the play descends into ahistoricism and caricature. The Al Smith character, for instance, isn’t believable. Smith muses of Moses that “he’s a new kind of man. . . . The man who believes that the way you’re written about is as important as what you do,” and further: “have you ever heard the saying that it’s easier to be a great man than it is to be a good man?”

Yet this scene takes place, still, in 1926, by which time Moses had rated exactly two mentions in the New York Times. Moses was not well-known then; he became prominent only after Jones Beach debuted, in 1929, and much more so when the Triborough Bridge opened, in 1936. Whether Moses ever cared about his public image more than he cared about public works is debatable. It’s true that he obsessed over press clippings, but it’s also likely that his motive for such obsession wasn’t personal glory but to ensure that New York’s public-works projects, from highways to superblock housing, got built—as was his mandate.

Similarly, Hare presents Smith as a mass-transit soothsayer. “When you open up your beautiful beach, your masterpiece, you’ll need to provide public transportation,” says Smith to Moses on stage. “I want a train.” The robotic dialogue is just part of the problem; there’s no evidence that Smith ever directed Moses to build a train to Jones Beach, and that Moses further promised to do so and then broke his promise, thus perfidiously sealing New York’s fate as choked in traffic and stuck with an inadequate transit system.

This quibble may seem minor, but why it matters becomes evident in the play’s second half, set in 1955. In this era, Hare’s Moses becomes entirely villainous, impervious to the hardening consensus, voiced in the play by Jacobs, that the highways Moses wants to keep building are an urban scourge.

According to the Hare version, it’s Moses who is responsible for criss-crossing New York with its expressways, including the Cross-Bronx. Just as he tricks Smith into building a beach with no train access, he tricks everyone else, including the New York Times, into agreeing with his vision. By the 1950s, explains Jacobs to the audience, “Moses was everywhere, all over the state and all over the city. . . . He was straight-line crazy. Like so many planners, he wanted to put a straight line between any two points and build where his ruler went. Now he drew a line for an expressway straight down the middle of the city,” with a plan to build an expressway across lower Manhattan, just south of Greenwich Village. Agrees a fictional Moses staffer: “If a person is driving on a road anywhere in New York State which has the word ‘expressway’ in its name, they are driving on a road built by Robert Moses.”

In Hare’s defense, this is the accepted story of Moses and New York, the one crafted by Robert A. Caro in The Power Broker, the now nearly 50-year-old biography. It is not correct, though. In real life, in 1929, a group of eminent New Yorkers released a 416-page manifesto called the “Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs.” The report’s main suggestion was to build roadways—2,548 miles’ worth. The regional planners proposed “a completely coordinated and classified system of highways” from New Jersey to the west, to Long Island to the east, and to Connecticut to the north. The network would center around a “metropolitan highway loop,” encircling Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and much of northern New Jersey. Anchoring these routes and cutting through the loop would be eight “express” highways. The expressway, a multi-lane speedway separate from local traffic, was a new invention. The report helpfully noted that it could be built above the street (via an elevated viaduct), through tunnels below it, or in “open cuts” that demolished the existing local road. One expressway highway would cross the Bronx, and two would cross Manhattan, downtown and midtown.

In 1928, a year before the final report came out, the Times wrote a teaser article. “Today we have in those completed surveys the mathematical basis for a dream of New York’s future,” the paper said. “The regional plan anticipates that in the final scheme circular, cross-country highways on the outskirts of Manhattan will prove to be the city’s chief hope of traffic salvation. New York would thus be the center of wide radial highways connected by belt lines, like so many concentric circles, through the various boroughs and suburbs. Much emphasis would be placed on better means of communication”—vehicle movement—“between the Bronx and Queens, Long Island and New Jersey.” To move traffic between planned and existing bridges and tunnels, “the plan . . . would double-deck Canal Street”—that is, build an elevated highway across Lower Manhattan.

Moses had nothing to do with this document. During the seven years it took to research it, he had no public reputation, never mind power or prestige. The Regional Plan project’s chairman was Frederick Delano, uncle of FDR, then the governor, and a longtime railroad executive. The board included George McAneny, a progressive municipal reformer who had served as Manhattan borough president and board of aldermen president (and a mentor of sorts to Moses); Lawson Purdy, a tax expert who had helped devise New York’s pioneering 1916 zoning resolution to protect light and air from dense building construction; Frank Polk, former undersecretary of state; and New Jersey senator Dwight Morrow. Nearly everyone who was anyone in New York lauded the report—with no prodding from Moses. The reality was that after the city built the most expensive transit network in the nation beginning in the mid-1800s—from horse-drawn omnibuses to streetcars to elevated rail lines to subways—the era of the automobile had begun, and nobody who was anybody in New York State or City thought that turning over the city’s streets to cars was unwise.

Moses did not even invent the type of road most associated with him: the car-only parkway, which, in the lore, prohibited buses to keep minorities out of nice areas. New York’s first motor parkway, the one Moses would model his own parkways after, was not on Long Island. It was the Bronx River Parkway, in Westchester County, and plans for it began in 1893, when Moses was five. When the Bronx River Parkway was nearly finished in 1920, the Times pronounced it “magnificent.” Four years later, the Herald-Tribune said that one of the parkway’s best attributes was that trucks and buses weren’t allowed; in 1925, the Times, too, noted positively that “no commercial cars of any description are allowed on that thoroughfare, and the same will apply to the proposed Hutchinson River Parkway, which will traverse a picturesque territory. . . . The absence of heavily laden and wide motor trucks will be a genuine relief.” Moses had nothing to do with any of this.

No question, of course, that by the late 1950s and early 1960s, Moses enthusiastically pressed ahead with plans for Manhattan highways long after public sentiment began to change, after the completion of the Cross-Bronx proved the cost that dense urban areas would have to bear for highways moving through them, not to them.

So why shouldn’t Moses be used as a handy stand-in for all twentieth-century planning and building decisions, as Hare uses him? People can embody ideas. The problem with this approach—both in the play and in real life—is that it lets everyone else off the hook. Moses had no power to override state and city law and political will, on any of his built projects. He had no power to trick people into building roads instead of rail. In the early 1950s, for example, Mayor Robert Wagner could have stopped the Cross-Bronx Expressway. He didn’t—not because Moses fed him some magical potion, but rather because he, and virtually everyone else, still thought the highway was a good idea.

“It’s suddenly fashionable to dislike me,” stage Moses says, “because I’m the dirty bastard who pushed through the things . . . democracy couldn’t deliver.” No: democracy got us the Cross-Bronx expressway, and every other mile of highway that New York ever built. Democracy got New York its embrace of the car, at the expense of the train, in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. “Why didn’t we build rapid [rail] transit? Why have we never built rapid transit?” Moses’s staffer rues toward the end of the play—except that with or without Moses, virtually every single elected official in New York City and State, until John Lindsay arrived in 1966, considered mass transit a massive headache, as ever-higher operational and capital costs made it untenable to keep their promise of holding the fare at a nickel. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, for example, ripped up New York’s streetcars in the World War II years, both to make more room for car traffic and because private streetcar lines, unable to raise the fare under their agreements with the state and city, were bankrupt. Moses again had nothing to do with it.

Straight Line Crazy fails as history—though most of the audience, raised on The Power Broker to blame one man rather than a succession of democratically elected officials for New York traffic woes, won’t know that.

But the play fails beyond history because it never answers a fundamental question: is it a history, of any kind, or is it merely about Robert Moses as a tragic-heroic figure, causing with his arrogance his own downfall—with the history of New York’s twentieth-century urban planning just the incidental backdrop?

Hare has written some dramatic masterpieces, including Skylight and The Red Barn. But those plays are clearly about people. Yes, Skylight offers as a backdrop the upheavals of the Thatcher era in the U.K., but the story’s tension is its ill-fated romance of the two main characters; the rest is just incidental noise. Similarly, The Red Barn offers a historic backdrop of strained upper-class New England morals, but well-honed characters drive the story.

But Straight Line Crazy doesn’t work as personal drama. It has no well-honed characters. Fiennes does his best, but he can’t act what’s not there. Even if we accept the premise that Moses turns more villainous with each new line drawn on the map, for the sake of a good story, the play offers no credible motive as to why.

Moses’s two top staffers, both fictional figures who serve him over these three decades, are supposed to represent his missing conscience, as is a younger staffer, also fictional, who enters the story in the 1950s to confront Moses over the Cross-Bronx Expressway’s displacement of her family. (The woman is black, though the people whom Moses displaced for that highway were primarily white.)

But these staffers remain animatronic conveyers of blunt ideas, never becoming real people on the stage. A particularly absurd scene has one of the fictional top staffers, Finnuala, berating Moses for never having noticed that her colleague, Ariel, has been using a wheelchair for decades. “All these years, you’ve watched [him] suffer,” laments Funnuala. “You’ve watched him fall prey to a terrible disease . . . without once, as I remember, ever once so much remarking on it!”

It would be fine if this entirely made-up scene pointed to a broader, true point about Moses’s evolving, or un-evolving, character, but that’s the problem: What is the point? Are we supposed to conclude that Moses was uncaring about individuals, and that this unfeeling manner had to do with New York’s highway decisions? The problem with this theory isn’t even the historical inaccuracy, as Moses wasn’t uncaring to his top staff; they all loved him. Rather, it’s that this big “reveal” seems to have no context and no purpose, and thus lands like a dud.

The most egregious violation the play makes, though, is toward the end, when the stage Jane Jacobs speaks out of time to give the audience a lecture. “I was lucky,” she tells us. “I’d known New York when everyone, from all backgrounds, lived together. But our efforts to preserve Greenwich Village and SoHo”—in killing Moses’s planned Manhattan expressways—“succeeded in transforming it into the most expensive piece of real estate in the world. What was once a community was cleansed of everyone but the rich. The Village was saved, but it was also destroyed.”

The issue here isn’t that Jacobs never said such a thing, nor that she would never have said such a thing, but rather the lesson that we’re supposed to take: that Greenwich Village is a failure. There’s no question that the Village has an affordability problem—but to equate this with the destruction that an elevated highway running just south of it would have wrought is too much. The Village, today, is home to nearly 100,000 people, and, with more than 107 people per acre, is twice as dense as New York City overall, and thus one of the densest places in America. The Village is far more racially diverse than it was in Jacobs’s day. Back then, it was almost entirely white; today, it is 29 percent Asian-American, Hispanic, and black. Yes, the Village is wealthier than average, with an average household income of $131,000. That means, of course, that half of households make less than $131,000, including the 20 percent who make less than $50,000.

Moreover, wealthy people want to live in the Village because it is well-designed and well-built. People with means are attracted to the Village’s scale, dense but not overwhelming. People of diverse income levels live in varied Village buildings, from mid-rise apartment buildings—including some that Jacobs and her neighbors supported as part of a compromise plan in lieu of mass-scale, Moses-era “urban removal”—to brownstones. It’s not that the Village can’t do more development within context, but even doubling the number of housing units wouldn’t meet global demand for cheap apartments in Greenwich Village. The larger answer to demand for the Village is not to blanket it with glass skyscrapers and make it into Hong Kong but to build more neighborhoods like the Village, both in the New York region—including near transit, on Long Island—and around the country.

To do that, we need transit. So what has New York done instead? Moses has been dead for four decades; we can’t blame him anymore. In those four decades, New York has built exactly four new subway stations, including one at Hudson Yards, whose Shed cultural venue is now hosting Straight Line Crazy.

But Hudson Yards, despite its one subway station, isn’t a Jacobs-style vision of urbanism. It is a supertall-skyscraper superblock. Its buildings aren’t of different sizes, styles, and economic accessibility, as Jacobs envisioned; they are a monolith directed entirely to meet the demand of the global wealthy, from the mall featuring Cartier and Rolex on the ground floor to the restaurants so expensive that the menus come without prices. As for culture: for some reason, Hudson Yards’ developers, under New York City planning supervision, chose to build the Shed’s theater on the sixth floor, making exit by escalator or elevator difficult at the end of the show. There’s a reason why Broadway’s theater developers built at ground level.

After a long, cramped wait to exit down six floors’ worth of escalator after the play ends, the Shed dumps you onto 30th Street, a stretch of the street grid now overwhelmed by Hudson Yards’ scale. As with all superblock designs, it’s hard to know which direction is which. The one subway station is several blocks away from this exit, but that’s fine: it’s a short walk to 10th Avenue and a regular, reliable bus line. Halfway down the block, though, I encounter a man carrying a heavy metal object and shouting randomly about “f*ggots.” I turned back, re-entered Hudson Yards’ ground-floor bar, and summoned an Uber.

Six minutes later, I was riding in a massive Chevrolet Suburban SUV, paying $40 to get home, just a mile and a half away. Just as desired by our caricature version of Moses, the stand-in for all our urban-planning sins, I am, for the moment, dependent, in the most transit-rich city in the country, on the automobile. Is the fault in Moses, or ourselves?

Photo by Truman Moore/Getty Images

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