How New York Became New York: A Love Letter to Jane Jacobs, Tucked Inside a Graphic Biography of Robert Moses
How two titans faced off to shape the ideal of the modern metropolis.
By Maria Popova
Few people have done more to redefine the fate of a city — and, by a halo of influence, of cities in general — than Robert Moses (December 18, 1888–July 29, 1981), “master builder” of New York during the city’s astonishing growth spurt in the middle of the twentieth century. He envisioned and brought to life 658 playgrounds, which increased the city’s previous supply of these precious play-areas fivefold, 416 miles of parkways, 288 tennis courts, and 678 baseball diamonds, in addition to numerous major roads and bridges. A brilliant architect and fierce politician who denied doing politics, Moses possessed “an imagination that leaped unhesitatingly at problems insoluble to other people,” as Robert E. Caro wrote in his Pulitzer-winning, 1,200-page biography The Power Broker — one of the most impressive books ever written in the English language — tracing how Moses slowly changed from “the optimist of optimists, the reformer of reformers, the idealist of idealists” into a man who used “iron will and determination” to bend a city, perhaps the world’s greatest city, to his will. That uncompromising willpower and its fruits would eventually lead the great urbanist Lewis Mumford to proclaim that “the influence of Robert Moses on the cities of America was greater than that of any other person.”
Forty years after Caro’s classic, writer Pierre Christin and artist Olivier Balez offer a very differently delightful take on the legendary man’s life in the beautiful graphic biography Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City (public library) — the latest installment in the same series by British independent press Nobrow that also gave us the excellent graphic biography of Freud and that of Karl Marx, which was among the best history books of the year.
In gorgeous mid-century-inspired illustrations, the story chronicles Moses’s formative years, his rise to power, his many contradictions — the greatest urban planner who ever lived built revolutionary highways and freeway systems, but never learned to drive — and how he acted out that infinitely rare combination of dreamer and doer on one of the grandest stages the world has ever known.
But make no mistake — Moses was no holy hero. The deep flaws of his power-hungry character and the dehumanizing ruthlessness of his industrial vision reveal themselves gradually and crescendo midway through the book as his counterpoint emerges: Jane Jacobs, legendary patron saint of urbanism and the human-centered city, enters the scene, via the beloved bicycle on which she was known to roam the city.
By that point, Moses has developed “such arrogance that he started to think himself irreplaceable.” Jacobs, on the other hand, operates with equal determination but from a deep place of humility and compassion for the citizen’s experience. The two titans of urban planning soon clash over their differences, exposing the disquieting fact that no ideal is without its tradeoffs and that what is most effective, more often than not, comes at the expense of what is most ennobling.
Moses’s fertile and perhaps perverse imagination has no limits and a second, equally gargantuan project will bring the antagonism between him and Jane Jacobs to a climax….
Jane has no trouble denouncing the monstrous “Spaghetti Bowl” that will constitute the Lower Manhattan expressway, soon also to be known as the LOMEX.
All that constitutes New York’s heritage, but also the memory of the tenements crammed with new immigrants — the air laden with the smell of meat from the meatpacking district; the discarded fish of Fulton Street; the sewing workshops full of exploited girls — all of this, considered by Robert Moses as inefficient or worse, unhygienic, is destined to disappear under a ten-lane highway.
Jane Jacobs will personify the refusal of the systematic eradication of the human, done in the name of a hypothetical better world.
In fact, the entire book feels like a love letter to Jane Jacobs buried inside a biography of a man far less worthy of admiration, which begs the obvious question: Where is the graphic biography of Jacobs herself? And, more broadly, why is it that among all the major graphic biographies released in the past few years — Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, and Francis Bacon — there hasn’t been a single one of a female cultural icon? There are some lovely children’s books celebrating great women — such as those about Julia Child, Maria Merian, and Jane Goodall — but the graphic biography genre woefully remains gender-warped, to say nothing of the subtler implication that women’s stories are to be infantilized and men’s superheroized.
Even so, Robert Moses remains an excellent book and in many ways a necessary one, worthwhile not only for that love letter to Jacobs — though it, to me, was the highlight — but also for telling the complicated story of a complicated man who shaped a complicated city. In doing so, it disabuses us of the dangerous illusion that history’s most important narratives are simple and straightforward hero-myths.
Illustrations courtesy of Nobrow
Published December 18, 2014