A graphic biography vividly recounts the life of a man who reshaped an entire city
The Power Broker by Robert Caro was published in 1974. The book won him the Pulitzer Prize and confirmed his reputation as one of America’s finest biographers. It described the life of Robert Moses, an unelected planner and public official who did more to shape New York City in the 20th century than any other.
At 1,246 pages long, the book was as epic as the creations of its subject. Those looking for a quicker, condensed guide to the life of Robert Moses would do well to pick up this beautifully drawn new graphic novel from the consistently good Nobrow Press, written by Pierre Christin, a veteran of French comics, who created the popular science-fiction series Valérian and Laureline, and the illustrator Olivier Balez.
The book takes a chronological turn through Moses’s life story. His privileged beginnings, his outlier status as a Jew at a WASP-y school, the travel to England to study, his schooling in the softer arts of politics, his love of solitary pursuits - Moses swam a mile every day - and the schemes he dreamed and brought to fruition. In walks through slums that he hoped to transform, we are introduced to his wife-to-be Mary Grady. We see him conducting meetings from his car like a mafia don, and his eventual downfall. Like his idol Haussmann, who transformed Paris, Moses did not die a rich man, and this is played on by the authors as if to say: for all his flaws, this was a man interested in cities, not in personal wealth.
Moses built 600 playgrounds, 700 basketball courts, swimming pools, piers, libraries, sewers and golf courses as well as miles of highway
One factor that helped Moses gain momentum was that very few cities had projects ready to tap into the new Federal funding opened up by Roosevelt’s New Deal. Moses had projects ready to go, and he won the money to build them. Once they were built, Moses could control the tolls, giving his organisations a reliable revenue stream. And with the ability to issue bonds, Moses became a man who could print money, and one with very little accountability for his powers. Moses built 600 playgrounds, 700 basketball courts, swimming pools, piers, libraries, sewers and golf courses as well as miles of highway. He was responsible for vast slum clearances, and as with similar movements in the UK in the 1960s and ’70s, has been criticised for heartlessly displacing the poor.
The authors compare Moses to Gotham’s Bruce Wayne, morally ambiguous characters who would work in their cities then return to their protected homes: Batman to Bruce Wayne’s manor, Robert Moses to his home on Randalls Island. George Orwell, and his writings on the revulsion felt by an upper-middle-class man encountering the filth and chaos that poverty can bring, also comes to mind. Christin and Balez’s Moses has little of the empathy of Orwell.
The chronological approach, and long timeframe covered in a short book, don’t give much insight into Moses’ interior world, or much sense of tension or suspense. Moses’s story as the man with vision, the man who got things built, has meant his reputation has been given a slightly kinder interpretation in recent years, particularly so in a USA coming to terms with its relative decline, where public spending on infrastructure is at its lowest levels since 1947. Democrat politician and former Governor of New York Eliot Spitzer said in a 2006 speech that: ‘a biography of Moses written today might be called At Least He Got It Built’. Meanwhile, as the UK government quietly sells its stake in Eurostar off to a Quebecois pension fund and British wealth fund, one can’t help reflecting on the aggressive civic building programme of the type Moses and his contemporaries in postwar British city architecture departments symbolise, and what of it we may yet be able to salvage and rehabilitate for future generations.
Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City
Author: Pierre Christin, Olivier Balez