Robert Moses! Jane Jacobs! Robert Moses! Jane Jacobs!

Pinning the blame on Moses, or celebrating Jacobs, or vice versa is a way out of a big question that neither the political left or right in the United States has many clear answers to: how to resolve the tension between the benefits and pitfalls of large-scale planning and local control.

What else was going on in the city, or the world, that might have enabled a figure like Moses to do what he did for decades?

Photo of actors performing the play Straight Line Crazy
Ralph Fiennes as Robert Moses in Straight Line Crazy. Photo by Kate Glicksberg

Straight Line Crazy, written by David Hare and directed by Nicholas Hytner and Jamie Armitage. The Shed, New York, October 18–December 18, 2022.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

“Once upon a time there was a man who built New York City. Through sheer will and political cunning, and without ever holding elected office, he constructed most of the city’s current physical infrastructure. Over the course of his nasty, brutish, and long career, which lasted from 1927 until 1963 (and then some), Robert Moses built thirty-five highways, a dozen bridges, tons of parks, most of the public housing, the beaches, the stadiums, and more. Everything you love? Moses. Everything you hate? Moses. He built New York City, and he destroyed it.”

This is a story commonly told by New Yorkers and others who have either read (or skimmed) a very long and excellent book about Robert Moses—Robert Caro’s The Power Broker—or read or watched any one of the hundreds of summaries and spin-offs it has inspired since its publication.

The classic Moses story isn’t fiction, but nor is it exactly fact. The idea that everything in modern New York City can be explained in whole or in part by Moses is an oversimplification of his legacy, not to mention an oversimplification of The Power Broker itself. Explanations that rely heavily on Moses’s most famous antagonist—the urban planning critic and activist Jane Jacobs—suffer from the same problem.  But this myopia is a trap many self-styled urbanists get caught in. Coming to terms with Moses’s legacy and his role in shaping New York should be a gateway to a greater understanding of urban political economy. Instead it often serves as the end of the road.

One of the most recent contributions to the field of Robert Moses studies is David Hare’s Straight Line Crazy, a play starring Ralph Fiennes as the man himself, which opened last fall at the Shed, the hulking cultural facility in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards development.

Hare’s play presents a Robert Moses that will be familiar to anyone who has consumed any of the most famous works of Mosesology. We get Moses the obsessive, determined visionary; Moses the power-hungry manipulator of human beings and environments; Moses the progressive reformer and Moses the regressive performer; Moses the bad boss and Moses the bad husband; Moses the city-builder and Moses the city-breaker.

Straight Line Crazy is less a play about planning than a play about planning debates. We don’t see the landscapes Moses shaped or those he failed to form—instead, the stage depicts the spaces where people gathered to plan those landscapes, or to oppose them. Through moving panels and furniture, we slide between three locations: Moses’s headquarters, filled with maps and models of buildings and roads, and two sites of resistance: a rich Long Islander’s parlor and a meeting venue in the West Village.

Periodically the actors address the audience from outside the scene, narrating parallel events or simply chiming in. On stage they stand still or pace in place, talking or waiting to speak—a paradox in a play whose protagonists were all about motion: Robert Moses, who cleared the way for trucks and cars, and Jane Jacobs, who demanded space for pedestrians. There is less doing in Straight Line Crazy than talking about what is to be done, and as a result Moses can appear less the power broker than the power braggart.

Told in two acts three decades apart, we begin in 1926 as Moses attempts to construct a network of parks and highways on Long Island that will tear through the estates of robber barons and open the countryside up to the masses—so long as they can get there by car.

In between scenes of Moses’s confrontations with wealthy landowners, Governor Al Smith, and his own employees (Moses chastises a drafter who dared to bend the shape of his highway to appease a member of the Whitney family), we hear from Jacobs, who would later fight Moses over his attempt to drive highways through Greenwich Village and lower Manhattan. Her opening line, delivered directly to the audience, is “I’m Jane Jacobs.” At the end of Act One, she gives the play its name: “I only knew what everyone knew: that 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. The moment had come to rip through Manhattan itself.”

Moses certainly was “straight line crazy,” best exemplified by the famous chapter of The Power Broker “One Mile,” in which he refuses to even slightly bend his plans for the Cross Bronx Expressway in order to prevent thousands of evictions. But then, hadn’t planners already drawn hundreds of straight lines through Manhattan already? Wasn’t everything north of Jacobs’s Greenwich Village already sliced into a grid? Was Moses “straight line crazy,” or was New York? Moments like these make the play seem less like the story of the people who shaped New York (or the New York they shaped), but rather the story of how these players have been commonly remembered.

Act Two opens with a battle over Washington Square Park and the city’s growing orientation toward cars, as Jacobs and her Greenwich Village neighbors speak out at a meeting about Moses’s highway plans. Meanwhile, back at HQ, fictional staffers confess their doubts about the Moses Way, only to be interrupted by the man himself. They then launch into a lengthy discourse that parrots popular views about Moses—that he’s brave, brash, dumb, demanding, and so on. At a public meeting about the highway plan, Moses is nowhere to be found, having sent a long-serving staffer in his stead. The activists and the Mosesites yell at each other about what makes a city work—whether Moses’s vision of slum clearance, large-scale reconstruction, and automobility represents progress for humanity or the end of urbanity as we know it. Jacobs and the Villagers call Moses an elitist. Moses’s operative throws the accusation back at the Villagers—they are elitist for trying to protect their beautiful Manhattan enclave from the working people who surround them. Both sides return to the absent Moses: he is the saint or the sinner, but either way he is the one who is responsible for all of this.

Moses, we soon learn, has bigger plans than the Village people realize: not just a highway through Washington Square Park, but another through SoHo and the Lower East Side, and yet another through Midtown. He sees Manhattan as a center of power, and the highway as the way to open it up—or perhaps cut it down. He’s a spurned outsider—he doesn’t say this, but he’s an assimilated Jew who feels looked down on by elites whose ranks he seeks to join. “It’s as if they want us out there, and to stay out there,” Moses laments. “Outsiders forever. And never inside the citadel itself. We break Manhattan or it breaks us.” This, it turns out, is what truly motivates Moses: lateral motion, from New Jersey to Long Island, as a stand-in for social mobility.

Jacobs returns to get one of the play’s last words, though by this point she doesn’t have much to say. She has won the war, evicting Moses from the West Village and later defeating his Lower Manhattan Expressway too. But her side of the story ends not with a bang, but a shrug. “What was once a community was cleansed of everyone but the rich. The Village was saved, but it was also destroyed. Whether that was Robert Moses’s fault or whether it was mine, I really can’t say.”

This doesn’t really sound like the Jane Jacobs we’ve seen in the play—combative, strong-willed, persistent—but it may be a reference to one of the few things Jane Jacobs wrote about gentrification—an endnote in her final book, Dark Ages Ahead. What she actually said, in its entirety, was this:

By the end of the 1990s, gentrification was under way in what had been even the most dilapidated and abused districts of Manhattan. Again, the poor, evicted or priced out by the higher costs of renovating, were victims. Affordable housing could have been added as infill in parking lots and empty lots if government had been on its toes, and if communities had been self-confident and vigorous in making demands, but they almost never were. Gentrification benefited neighborhoods, but so much less than it could have if the displaced people had been recognized as community assets worth retaining. Sometimes when they were gone their loss was mourned by gentrifiers who complained that the community into which they had bought had become less lively and interesting.

Jacobs does not blame herself for gentrification, nor does she blame Robert Moses. She blames “government” and “communities” for not doing enough to stop it. Regardless of what we might make of her argument, it’s notable that she does not seek to personify the forces of urban change, as Hare and so many others want to do. Maybe that’s just humility, but then Jacobs never wrote much about Robert Moses. For his part, Moses never publicly responded to Jacobs’s most famous work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, even when its publisher presented him with the opportunity. (He replied to Random House in a letter: “I am returning the book you sent me. Aside from the fact that it is intemperate and inaccurate, it is also libelous. I call your attention, for example, to page 131. Sell this junk to someone else. Cordially, Robert Moses.”) And throughout the nearly 1,200 pages of The Power Broker, Caro never writes about Jacobs. Jacobs and Moses certainly loathed one another and engaged in direct political combat, but they didn’t seek to explain what they were up against through their opponents’ individual personae.

And still, decades later, we tend to frame the gigantic social forces they sought to marshal through the unique characters of Moses and Jacobs. They remain common touchstones for explaining our cities today, and New York City in particular.

Hare further cements their legacy without expanding on it. Straight Line Crazy incorporates both critiques and defenses of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, but fails to engage with the most provocative post-Caro reframings of these individuals’ place in the world. It falls into a great-man theory of planning that flattens the process, much as the maps and models on stage flatten real places into miniature or two-dimensional representations. But maps and models can be clarifying, helping people see things that are too large to take in. By contrast, the act of dramatizing planning as a struggle between a megalomaniac and a communitarian means that we see less than the full picture of planning, or place. In Straight Line Crazy, everyone stands around arguing about Moses—including Moses himself—but no one seems to pay much attention to what else was going on in the city, or the world, that might have enabled a figure like Moses to do what he did for decades.

Was Moses a conservative or a liberal? And what about Jacobs? The most reductive popular accounts place Moses on the right and Jacobs on the left: Moses the racist prophet of automobility versus Jacobs the anti-authoritarian activist. But one can just as easily present them in the opposite light: Moses, the builder of public housing, pools, and parks, who partnered with labor leaders like Abraham Kazan to build up the city’s social housing stock; Jacobs, the champion of small-scale capitalist enterprise and critic of big government who garnered the admiration of conservative luminaries like William F. Buckley. But Moses’s and Jacobs’s complicated political positionality—their heterodoxy, to put it kindly—allows their legacies to be used by just about anyone to prove just about anything.

A Typology of Major Mosesology

AuthorBookTake on Moses
Robert CaroThe Power BrokerHe killed New York
Hilary Ballon and Kenneth Jackson (editors)Robert Moses and the Modern CityHe saved New York
Roberta GratzThe Battle for GothamHe killed New York, but then people like Jane Jacobs saved it
Marshall BermanAll That Is Solid Melts into AirHe ruined my childhood
Jane JacobsThe Death and Life of Great American CitiesHe ruined my adulthood
Joel SchwartzThe New York ApproachHe was the liberals’ hatchet man
Robert FitchThe Assassination of New YorkHe was the conservatives’ hatchet man
Anthony FlintWrestling with MosesHe waged a war on Jane Jacobs
Samuel ZippManhattan ProjectsHe waged the cold war at home

To its credit, Straight Line Crazy engages with many of these contradictions.  The play attempts to dramatize not only the events of Moses’s day, but roughly fifty years of debates over his legacy.

Caro’s mark is unmistakable, but the argument has been pruned. Several touchstones of the play are directly reminiscent of The Power Broker, from Moses’s literal and metaphorical love of swimming against the current to his persistent insistence that if you start a project without approval, it will become more difficult to stop it later on. In The Power Broker and Straight Line Crazy alike, Moses sets in motion forces that would doom the city to the financial and spiritual crisis it faced in the mid-1970s, when the book was released. (It’s not for nothing that the subtitle of the book is Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, a title that is much more specific to its time than contemporary readers may realize.) But at over one thousand pages, Caro’s political biography is nuanced and ecological in a way that this play is not, and perhaps cannot be. It considers a myriad of players who shaped, enabled, challenged and inspired Moses far beyond the cast of characters who fit into Hare’s two acts.

Jacobs, too, is present, not only as a character but as a perspective on Moses and on the city. When Moses’s staffers, new and long-suffering alike, criticize their boss’s Prometheanism, they are voicing the critique that Jacobs crystalized in her writing, as well as her activism. But the complexities of her theory are, perhaps by necessity, narrowed down to a few generic talking points: that bottom-up is better than top-down; that transit is better than highways; that public opinion needs to be listened to rather than willed away.

Hare’s scenes of West Village public meetings are reminiscent of bits of Anthony Flint’s book, stripped away of all their chaotic fun. In Flint’s telling, Jacobs was not just good at organizing her neighbors and reframing the tropes of urban planning, but at figuring out how to fuck with the system in real time. In the opening pages of Wrestling with Moses, Flint shows Jacobs and her allies conspiring to storm the lectern and physically destroy the records of a meeting, tossing, tearing, and stomping on the stenographer’s transcript so that the city couldn’t prove it even happened, which would mean it couldn’t continue with its plan to run a highway across lower Manhattan. Anarchy is alluded to twice in Straight Line Crazy, both times in contrast with democracy; the two are never shown working in tandem.

Marshall Berman’s memoiristic theorization of Robert Moses as modern Moloch is also present, but in dulled-down form. In Straight Line Crazy, a fictional young Black woman working for Moses describes how her family was displaced by the Cross Bronx Expressway, just as Berman was. But whereas hippie Marxist Marshall Berman waxed ecstatic about both the horrors of Moses’s bulldozer and the monumental vision of human potential to remake the built environment, the play’s fictional victim gets to do little more than tell a sad story. She is subsequently fired for her offense.

Ballon and Jackson’s Bloomberg-era defense of Robert Moses also floats through the play, though perhaps in ways that aren’t obvious at first. Ballon and Jackson argue that while Robert Moses had many indefensible personal qualities, his legacy includes major accomplishments that make life in New York City possible today. From infrastructure and housing projects to parks, baths and beaches, Moses’s legacy is one they seek to reconsider and contextualize (though, in fairness to them and their contributors, never uncritically). It is entirely possible to watch Straight Line Crazy and come out defending Moses, not as a man but as a visionary who—if you believe in the righteousness of his cause—didn’t let public opinion stand in the way of doing what needed to be done.

In her rejoinder to Ballon and Jackson and the exhibits and symposia that coincided with their book, journalist Roberta Gratz called bullshit. Gratz not only sought to take Moses down a peg and return Jacobs to heroic heights, but to question the political uses of Moses revisionism. To Gratz, rehabilitating Moses was a means to defend then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his administration, while bemoaning the public processes that were slowing down the march of his vision.

The Moses-to-Bloomberg pipeline is certainly present in Straight Line Crazy, though it manifests extra-theatrically. By staging the play in Hudson Yards (one of the biggest developments undertaken during the Bloomberg administration) and at the Shed (whose founding board chair was Bloomberg’s Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Dan Doctoroff, and whose building is named after Bloomberg) the show’s producers seem to be suggesting a connection between Moses and Bloomberg, though they leave the interpretation to the audience. The performance I attended promised a talkback with Doctoroff, which I hoped would illuminate these intentions. Doctoroff’s bio in the program quotes Bloomberg as saying, “Dan Doctoroff has done more to change the face of this city than anyone since Robert Moses.” When the lights came up, however, the theater emptied and Doctoroff never took the stage.

The most challenging works rethinking Moses’s legacy don’t have much of a place in Straight Line Crazy—or, for that matter, in the public imagination of the man and his role in New York history.

Joel Schwartz, an urban historian who also contributed a chapter to Ballon and Jackson’s 2007 book, argues in The New York Approach that most of what Moses is most famous for was accomplished due to partnerships with important liberal institutions and civic leaders—union officials, “business socialists,” local bankers, tenant leaders, cooperative housing developers, academics, public health advocates, and more. Rather than the enemy of feisty neighborhood political activists, he was their partner in destroying what they wanted destroyed and building what they wanted built. In this reading, Moses succeeded not in spite of New York’s liberal (and sometimes socialist) institutions, but because of them. What ultimately doomed this coalition was less the opposition of Jane Jacobs and her followers than their failure to successfully resettle scores of New Yorkers displaced by their massive public works projects.

Whereas Schwartz pointed to Moses’s liberal coalition partners, the muckraking journalist and independent academic Robert Fitch emphasized Moses’s ties to the city’s patrician landowners and the planning institutions they sponsored. The highways Moses built in the New York City metropolitan area were, in fact, first proposed by the Regional Plan Association of New York, a group Fitch argues was created to put the imprimatur of rationality and higher purpose on plans designed to enrich the richest landlords, developers, and financiers in New York. Most uproariously, Fitch (who was Jewish) claims that Caro (who is Jewish) fell hook line and sinker for stories spun by goyim to turn Moses (who was Jewish) into the classic anti-Semitic trope of an evil conspirator pulling the strings behind the scenes of everything. Moses was not, in this telling, the originator of great plans to reshape the city, but simply the Jew the powerful blamed when their plans went bust. (Schwartz was also Jewish, as were many of the liberals he associated with Moses, and also several of the other people who have written Moses books or appear in Straight Line Crazy. For that matter, I’m Jewish too. This is New York we’re talking about.)

Building off insights from both Schwartz and Fitch, historian Samuel Zipp framed Moses’s urban renewal legacy squarely in the context of cold war politics. Why would the US tear up its cities in the middle of the 20th century, building monumental new works of housing, culture, engineering, and transportation? In part, to prove that it could—that American capitalism was as capable of achieving monumental feats of planning and development as Soviet communism. Gripped by fear that the Soviet system would appear future-oriented while American cities would be mired in the past, Moses used federal money and authority to remake New York in partnership with representatives of both the owners of the means of production and the workers whose labor animates the machinery of capitalism.

Moses most likely would have achieved very little if it were not for the constellation of powerful people enabling his actions. As Joe Viteritti argues in The Pragmatist, his book on Bill de Blasio, a contemporary New York City mayor can’t accomplish what Moses did, or is credited with having done. It’s true, as Ballon and Jackson suggest, that public planning systems have become more onerous, but the transformative urban schemes of the mid-20th century were only possible due to an alignment of mayors, governors and presidents. It helped Mayor LaGuardia to have Moses on staff as he expanded the public housing system—but it also helped to have Roosevelt in the White House. And Eisenhower certainly made it easier to build highways.

All of these authors are telling us to look past the man and instead focus on all the forces that enabled him to use his legendary political prowess and will to power in the first place. If we take this approach and look beyond mid-century New York, we see that many of the transformations that took place in New York also occurred in most cities across the country (and to some extent throughout the world) at about the same time. Highways plowed through neighborhoods. Large tower-in-the-park developments replaced low-rise density. Masses of people we displaced.

In every city where something like this happened, we can find a person often described—fairly or unfairly—as that place’s Robert Moses: Ed Logue in Boston and New Haven; Ed Bacon in Philadelphia; Justin Herman in San Francisco; Jacques Gréber in Ottawa; and on and on. The truly Moses-pilled New Yorker will respond that this merely reveals Moses’s prodigious and widespread influence. In Straight Line Crazy, Jane Jacobs herself makes this claim: “It’s Moses’s ideas which are being copied all over the country. In every city in America, it’s roads, roads, roads.”

Moses did, in fact, travel the world explaining his method. But what enabled versions of the same thing to happen all over the place was not Moses’s evangelism but structural forces that made this path the most viable, instead of others we could imagine: a worldwide depression that policymakers dealt with in large part through Keynesian public investment programs that took the form of large-scale public works; the start of a massive reshuffling of both the economic geography of industrial production out of cities and the human geography of white, middle-class suburbanization, both advanced by a combination of federal subsidies and highway investments and by the specific actions of local planners in alignment with the most powerful fractions of capital; an ideological battle manifesting itself as much in a space race and an arms race as a race to reshape our cities; racism at a level much broader and deeper than one very nasty man, which influenced patterns of infrastructure placement, housing production, mortgage lending, and much more to deliberately displace African Americans, Puerto Ricans and relatively recent immigrants; the ascendance of a labor lobby strong enough to reshape urban space in an unstable and temporary coalition with allied branches of capital, but too weak to enact a wholesale transformation of social and spatial policy; and much more.

But who wants to hear all that? It’s so much simpler to look around New York City and see Moses everywhere. This approach goes beyond pinning individual pieces of architecture or infrastructure on one guy. It affects how we interpret everything about planning in the city today. Everyday uses of Robert Moses in contemporary urban planning discourse include:

A Typology of Typical Takes on Moses and Jacobs in Contemporary Planning

IssuePopular Invocation of MosesVariant 1: The Moses Revisionist, aka “The Developmentalist”Variant 2: The Unreconstructed Jacobsite, aka “The Preservationist”Variant 3: The Synthesis Seeker, aka “The Urbanist”
Public review processes“Our planning system has been so democratized that we can’t do big Robert Moses–like things anymore.”“Moses was good, actually, and we need another one like him to cut through the morass.”“Moses was bad, and that’s why we shouldn’t be able to build like that anymore.”“Moses was so bad he scared the public away from supporting the kind of large-scale development we need again today.”
Comprehensive vs. piecemeal planning“Since Robert Moses, we’ve stopped planning beyond the scale of the neighborhood.”“We can’t let comprehensive planning slow down the drive for development. Moses didn’t wait for planners’ approval, and neither should we.”“We can’t let comprehensive planning run roughshod over neighborhood opposition. Jane Jacobs stood up to the planners, and so should we.”“We need comprehensive planning to achieve the best of both Moses and Jacobs.”
Big new projects“[Insert megaproject] is the biggest thing since Robert Moses.”“Finally, we’re back to Mosesian ambition. New York’s got its groove back!”“[megaproject] is just another Mosesian monstrosity. It must be stopped!”“We need [megaproject] in order to undo the worst legacies of both Robert Moses [cutting off the waterfront, air pollution, et cetera] and of Jane Jacobs [fighting against anything big].”
Big new egos“[Insert name of politician, planner or builder] wants to be the next Robert Moses.”“That’s good.”“That’s bad.”“Maybe it’ll be better this time.”

Each of these variants contains subvariants, and none is a perfect type, but they are tropes that recur throughout most planning debates in New York and elsewhere. All this, despite the fact that neither Moses nor Jacobs considered themselves planners. Jacobs was not trained as a planner and never worked as one, though she wrote and campaigned on planning issues and participated in countless community planning sessions in New York and Toronto, where she moved in 1968 and lived until her death in 2006. But she always strategically positioned herself in opposition to the planners of her day, opening The Death and Life of Great American Cities with the line, “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.”

Moses, for his part, certainly did plenty of planning, but he preferred to think of himself as a builder. In a note in the Playbill, Hare calls Moses “a Jew who didn’t admit he was a Jew and a planner who hated planners.” Hare has Moses deliver the line, “‘Urban planner.’ The very phrase smacks of weakness.” Caro, too, was adamant that Moses didn’t see himself as a planner. For Moses, planners were nerds, sticks in the mud, process freaks. They were enemies because they sought to impose order on his vision—to survey the city and figure out what should be done, rather than to do what could be done and react to the consequences later.

In my own writing about urban planning in New York City, I’ve generally avoided any mention of Moses unless he’s essential to the story that I’m telling. Sometimes I get asked why I haven’t centered this one individual, who allegedly did it all. In a workshop on one of my dissertation chapters which did, in fact, discuss some of Moses’s actions around “urban renewal,” a professor challenged me, saying that “A specter was haunting [my] work—the specter of Robert Moses.” I replied that if anything it was the specter of Robert Caro. His work to uncover Moses’s methods has morphed into a Moses myopia that situates one man at the center of all of 20th-century New York City history.

In the case of Jane Jacobs, while we have some good books about her, it is her own writing—as much as or more so than her activism—that has made her so crucial to the public’s thinking about how their cities work, or don’t. The Death and Life of American Cities continues to be read by all kinds of people seeking to explain what makes a city tick, and what planners have (allegedly) done to make it suck.

But it’s more than just great writing by or about these figures that keeps them front of mind to people like David Hare. Pinning the blame on Moses, or celebrating Jacobs, or vice versa is a way out of a big question that neither the political left or right in the United States has many clear answers to: how to resolve the tension between the benefits and pitfalls of large-scale planning and local control.

On the left, we have a history of calling for massive state action to overcome the chaos and discrimination of market domination and provide public goods to one and all. At the same time, we have a history of calling for community control to overcome the capitalist state’s deeply ingrained tendencies toward domination, discrimination, racism, and reaction.

On the right, they have a history of calling for strongmen leaders to seize power and take decisive action to reshape the city without worrying about namby-pamby NIMBYs and their particularistic problems. At the same time, they actually are the NIMBYs much of the time, pushing for property owners to have a stronger say in local politics and fighting large-scale planning when it challenges their economic interests or facilitates redistributionist policies.

Pinning the outcomes of decades of fights about these very dynamics on two central characters makes it all a question of human flaws and charisma rather than a political quandary we have never really resolved. We need less wrestling with Moses and Jacobs and more wrestling with the questions their era continues to pose for ours.

A couple years ago, when a proposal for comprehensive planning legislation came before the New York City Council, its proponents tended to represent the “Urbanist” crowd, while its opponents scrambled the spectrum, from “Developmentalists” to “Preservationists” on the left and the right. Coming out against comprehensive planning at the council’s one public hearing on the bill were: anti-gentrification groups; traditional preservationists; homeowners’ associations from both predominantly Black and white neighborhoods; localists who thought the proposal didn’t give enough power to Community Boards and councilmembers; the director of the nonprofit Citizens Housing and Planning Council, who went on to become Eric Adams’s “housing czar,” argued that it would give too much power to community boards and councilmembers; and even the New York City Department of City Planning itself, representing the position of planners against planning. The names Moses and Jacobs came up several times, mostly as reasons to kill the bill. Comprehensive planning never came to a vote. Nothing changed.

In Hare’s play, the conflict between Moses and Jacobs shapes the future that surrounds us. What actually surrounded the audience as we took in Straight Line Crazy was Hudson Yards: a massive, publicly subsidized but privately owned ultra-luxury development that sits on a platform above an active railyard.

This $25 billion project is the biggest in New York City since Rockefeller Center. Only halfway completed, the full project promises sixteen commercial and residential towers, plus a seven-story high-end mall, eventually a school, maybe a casino, and, of course, the Shed.

The project is being developed by Related Companies and Oxford Property Group. Related started out in New York City affordable housing shortly after Robert Moses left the scene in the 1970s, then quicky moved on to luxury projects, ultimately becoming one of the Bloomberg administration’s go-to private sector partners for large-scale developments on public land. Oxford is the real estate arm of the Ontario Municipal Employees’ Retirement System, which, since the 1960s, has invested labor’s capital into all sorts of profitable property development around North America, and beyond. The project received an estimated $5.6 billion in public subsidies, covering various aspects of the project and its supporting infrastructure. It is a large-scale model of how fractions of capital, labor and the state combine to produce urban space in the early 21st century.

When I told people I was going to see a play about Robert Moses staged at Hudson Yards, they typically chuckled. I laughed too. The whole thing sounds like a setup to a joke: “Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs walk into Hudson Yards . . .” But why is this funny?

Our first guess might be that it’s because Hudson Yards is a classic Robert Moses-style project. In a New York Magazine story about the opening of phase one of Hudson Yards, Carl Swanson described Related CEO Stephen Ross “a Robert Moses for our age of concierge mega-urbanism.” Pari Dukovic photographed Ross in a manner that recalls the famous 1959 Arnold Newman photo of Moses standing proudly on a beam over the East River, with some of his accomplishments behind him.

But that joke would work better if Straight Line Crazy were playing a couple miles north at Lincoln Center, a project Moses had a strong hand in shaping through an “urban renewal” action that displaced seven thousand mostly Black and Puerto Rican households. As Straight Line Crazy was playing at the Shed, the newly-reopened Geffen Theater at Lincoln Center was hosting a musical tribute to San Juan Hill, the neighborhood that was destroyed to build the arts complex, nearby Fordham University, and a constellation of public and private housing projects.

Hudson Yards is clearly not a Moses project: if it were, it would probably have more public housing and less public transit. Robert Fitch might have argued that the most Moses-like thing about Hudson Yards is that it closely conforms to recommendations set out by the Regional Plan Association in their 1996 Third Regional Plan.

Instead, Hudson Yards is largely the product of anti-Moses or post-Moses programs and institutions. The land is owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which, in Caro’s telling, was created in part to give the governor power over an authority Moses couldn’t control. Its housing is subsidized through 421-a, a tax exemption created by the Lindsay and Rockefeller administrations in 1971. It drew financing from the federal government’s EB-5 visa program, which, since 1990, provides immigration status to rich would-be immigrants who invest at least half a million dollars into select US real estate projects. To the extent that it contains affordable housing—and most of that is planned for the unbuilt phase two, or is located on other MTA sites away from Hudson Yards—it is because of the “inclusionary housing” bonuses created by Mayor Koch and used in the Hudson Yards rezoning by Bloomberg’s planners. None of these features have Moses’s fingerprints on them.

Could it be that Hudson Yards is actually a Jane Jacobsian wonderland? Improbable as it might sound, Judith Miller (yes, that Judith Miller) argued in the conservative Manhattan Institute publication City Journal that “a project that might well have gained Jacobs’s support, despite its vast scale, is Hudson Yards.”

But this is a laughable proposition. Hudson Yards flies in the face of the kind of urban development Jane Jacobs defended in her conflicts with Moses and other advocates of large-scale redevelopment. It was built all at once rather than slowly over time, and it contains only new buildings, rather than a mix of old and new. It is patrolled by several private security firms, rather than the general public’s “eyes on the street.” While it contains a small plaza named after Bella Abzug, who represented Jacobs’s west side neighborhood and shared her fighting spirit, the place is far from the kind of small-scale and slowly changing urban village that Jane Jacobs celebrated. But if you know the history of the planning regime responsible for this development, you know that its planners invoked both Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs in describing their vision to the public.

Mayor Bloomberg’s Planning Commissioner, Amanda Burden, liked to describe the administration’s approach as “Building like Moses with Jacobs in mind.” They would support large-scale redevelopment, but they would do so with sensitivity to street life, mixed uses, and multiple modes of mobility. In a New York Times profile of Burden toward the end of Bloomberg’s time in office, Julie Satow noted that “On Ms. Burden’s watch . . . the once-desolate Hudson Yards neighborhood is poised for a rebirth as a commercial and residential hub. ‘I like to say that our ambitions are as broad and far-reaching as those of Robert Moses, but we judge ourselves by Jane Jacobs’s standards,’ Ms. Burden said.”

This was exactly as asinine in practice as it sounds. As geographer Scott Larson argued in a book named after Burden’s slogan, “What mattered most to the administration was producing an ascendant global city whose quality of life was a selling point, an object of consumption. When Jacobs and Moses could be bent to serve those purposes, they were.” The primary lesson they drew from Moses was quantity—build more. From Jacobs, it was quality—build nice things. They chose to ignore Moses’s interest in building things like public housing and limited-equity cooperatives, or Jacobs’s defense of deep democracy.

It’s a clever bit of marketing, but it’s just that. Walking to the play, I passed 50 Hudson Yards, the latest addition to the development: a high-rise corporate office building with a sign for Blackstone—the private equity firm that has become the world’s largest landlord—at the entrance. Also at its base was a sign advertising that the ground floor retail would soon be home to the latest outpost of Russ & Daughters, the beloved Lower East Side Jewish fish store. Building like Moses with Jacobs in mind!

This is the real joke of Straight Line Crazy at the Shed: for all the invocations, Hudson Yards is a space that both Moses and Jacobs would have hated. The project is thoroughly Bloombergian. The setting reflects neither the visions of Moses nor Jacobs, and therefore undermines the play’s central message that these two players set the parameters for the city’s future growth and development.

When the Shed puts up a play about Dan Doctoroff called “Tax Exemption Crazy,” we’ll know we’ve made some progress.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles