Saturday, December 22, 2012

Liveblogging Caro on Moses: the Long Slog

I'm still trudging through Robert A. Caro's biography of Robert Moses and I'm willing to sign on to the view that it is a monument--though like so many monuments, sometimes stunning and soporific.  It gets particularly heavy as we move through the early Post-World-War-II years though this is more the fault of the subject than the author.  Reading about the 20s and 30s, we could admire Moses' energy and his determination and for the most part we can see him on the side of the angels --who could not love Jones Beach?

But Moses comes out of the war years armed and invulnerable, with the means empowered and disposed to mow down anyone who stands in his way--sometimes because it serves his purposes to do so, sometimes for the sheer hell of it,    In the implementation of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, he destroys a functioning lower-middle-class neighborhood for no visible reason except personal pique.  In the fight over Title One housing, he disrupts whole swaths of the most vulnerable because it just wasn't all that hard.

'One thing that becomes clear over time is that, whatever may have been the case earlier, by the 50s Moses has come to harbor a settled contempt for The Little People--the great unwashed and even the moderately well-washed, so long as they weren't scrubbing down with imported designer soap.  Many times it is indifference or pique but eventually you come to realize that he positively wants to make life difficult for what he sees as the underclass, so as to make life more attractive for what he sees as the Better Sort.  Indeed, the very concept of "better sort" gets more and more evanescent as the book nears its end, to the point where sometimes you suspect it is a class that it includes no one but the New York Times grandee, Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger.

Moses died in 1981 although I suppose it is natural to say that he will be with us through next ice age via has (over time, increasingly private) vision of what a great city should look like. He did suffer some highly public defeats in his late years and  I admit my own memory is faulty here: the way I remembered it, his comeuppance came in his highly public faceoff with Jane Jacobs over his plan to run an expressway through Washington Square (gasp!).  Caro shows me that the story is far more complicated: before Jacobs, there was a another public confrontation (over a plan to put a parking lot in Central Park) and a lot of high-quality critical journalism.  But I suspect the only real defeat he suffered his death at the age of 92.

Caro doesn't spell it out but I think it is possible to see the Moses story as part of a larger tectonic shift in American politics.  I still haven't sorted it out in my own mind, partly because I haven't finished the book and partly because I'm just confused.  Maybe later, or maybe not st all.

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