Straight Line Crazy: Urban planning between exclusion, imposition and contestation ★★★★

By Sophia Appl-Scorza

Empty, uniform space: composed of grey, concrete-like material, the stage ranges into a seated audience, that, unable to participate, can but observe from the galleries. We are looking into the mental space of Robert Moses: by some considered one of the most powerful men in the history of New York, he was the leading figure in shaping the city’s urban form, parks and highway network between the 1920ies and 1960ies. In this uniform space of his mind, there is no history, no community – no obstacle to the straight lines he obsessively draws and redraws on his huge maps.

As a Local Economic Development student at LSE, I was particularly excited to attend “Straight Line Crazy” at the Bridge Theatre, and give shape, colour, and voice to the issues I had been discussing in class. I ended up going twice, as the densely written and brilliantly acted play by David Hare allows for different, psychological, political, feminist and even philosophical readings on each visit.

“Straight Line Crazy” fascinated me in exploring a complex and controversial historical figure, the planner Robert Moses, with whom we are invited to sympathize in some scenes, mostly in the first part of the play set in the 1920ies – when he passionately argues for taking initiative, getting things done, creating precedents instead of waiting for the world to change– and whom we find deeply repudiating as the play tends towards its end in the 1960ies – when he appears as a stuck, anti-democratic patriarch engaging in misogynist talk. 

Throughout the play we follow Moses, given life by the both energic and subtle acting of Ralph Fiennes, as he earns without distinction the opposition of everyone on the mission of implementing his vision of New York: A clean, geometric, car-centred city, cutting through the orchards of New York’s richest families and communities in the Bronx alike. Described as “visionary”, “activist” and “bully”, Moses resists a categorization into any social group, but represents a power of its own kind: The technocratic, authoritarian planner, who from his supposed superior knowledge takes the justification to rule over the concerns of others.

As a local economic development student, what makes the play so memorable to me is not only its exploration of a complex historical figure, but even more these very political issues it raises about urban planning and development today. When we speak of local development, what or who is developed and by whom? As a place is “developed”, “becomes (…) pleasing to the eye”, in Moses’ words, to who’s eyes does it become pleasing and who’s eyes did it “offend” in the first place? As his assistant Finnuala (Siobhán Cullen), inspiring identification by the audience, accuses Moses to only care about “clean people, well-off people, white people”, the social and racist prejudice hiding behind the image of the objective planner is unmasked. 

Perhaps, the greatest weakness of the play to me consisted in insufficiently engaging with the role of communities in shaping and appropriating urban space. In the second, in my opinion weaker part of the play, as Moses’ plans for a highway through Manhattan encounter resistance by a coalition of residents, I would have expected that the enclosed space we find in the beginning would begin to crackle in some way – by changing the stage set up to a more contested space, and engagement with the audience, representing the socio-political shift between the 1920ies and 1960ies. By contrast, the role of communities, that become a central and hotly debated actor, is mostly relegated to conversations Moses’ holds with his assistants and his new employee Mariah (Alisha Bailey), who’s relatives in the Bronx were displaced by Moses plans. Being an object of discourse rather than something the spectator can experience and feel makes community engagement remain abstract, falling short of the unique opportunities theatre offers to create transformative experiences. This is possibly a consequence of the play’s ultimate focus on the biographical dimension of the rise and fall of Robert Moses, limiting its scope to extend beyond the spaces directly tied to him.

Despite this primacy of Moses’ story, “Straight Line Crazy” addresses many relevant issues on the political dimensions of urban planning that are strongly relatable our experiences as LSE students as we inhabit the London metropolis: the gentrification absorbing urban space to become part of the Starbucks universe, experiences of exclusion through exorbitant prices of goods and services fuelled by urban densification strategies, encounters with the many homeless people for which the city offers no space and little concern, excluding them for instance through increasingly cashless payment requirements. As you leave the play, you will likely encounter London in a different light, posing new questions towards it, seeking to uncover the power structures and ideologies that produce and reproduce a city that is for some, but not for all.

In the end, the play does not provide us with solutions for these issues, as it does not invite us to either condemn or applaud Moses. The assertion that “a city has to change if it is to live” appears to be as valid as the questioning of “why it is progress to destroy what people love”, and we also find some truth in the psychological observation that most innovations that are later regarded as beneficial encounter opposition in an initial stage. These unresolved tensions, doing justice to the complexity of our rapidly urbanizing world and the variety of perspectives observers take on it, are what makes the play so thought-provoking, entertaining and challenging, pushing us to continuously question and rewrite our answers to the problems of today’s global cities. 

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