Archive for April, 2016

Surviving Robert Moses

April 12, 2016

the-power-broker-p_1161886aReaders of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker (first published in 1974, but only out in the UK very recently) are going to be daunted by one obvious thing. This is a hardback that clocks in at eleven hundred pages and change. My uncle advised me to clear a month for his biography, but The Power Broker has the curious quality of the Game of Thrones books: it’s dense, dull, almost infuriating in places – and near impossible to put down.

There are long dead politicians and businessmen whose names are invoked in praise and curse on the street still. Robert Moses appears to have been quietly forgotten. The first reference I found outside of Caro was a line in Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities: ‘Robert Moses bringing expressways into New York’. And that’s an understatement. Although in NYC he began with parks, I think his real love was expressways, freeways, parkways, suspension bridges, arterials and gyrations, big, big roads. From Caro’s intro:

Standing out from the map’s delicate tracery of gridirons representing streets are heavy lines, lines girdling the city or slashing across its expanses. These lines denote the major roads on which automobiles and trucks move, roads whose very location, moreover, does as much as any single factor to determine where and how a city’s people live and work. With a single exception, the East River Drive, Robert Moses built every one of those roads. He built the Major Deegan Expressway, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Sheridan Expressway and the Bruckner Expressway. He built the Gowanus Expressway, the Prospect Expressway, the Whitestone Expressway, the Clearview Expressway and the Throgs Neck Expressway. He built the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Nassau Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway and the Long Island Expressway. He built the Harlem River Drive and the West Side Highway.

The Power Broker is like a three act play, and the reader forms three distinct impressions. At first we’re cheering on the young reformer Moses as he slices through Tammany Hall to lay decent green spaces for the city’s people. Disquiet creeps in as you understand the means he is prepared to employ to build his highways: families thrown out of their homes and lively intown communities ruined in the shadow of yet another gigantic overpass. By the final chapters, the reader applauds out of sheer joy as the Moses World Fair falls over, the press wake up to him and Rockefeller finally finds the balls to oust the old campaigner forever. Moses the passionate workaholic is brought to astounding life. He set up an office in his car, he graduated from Yale and Oxford, he ran an empire from an office under the Triborough Bridge, he near strangled a man in argument, he planned roads and waterfronts and zoos down to the smallest detail, his only recreation was swimming, he had no social life; he was genuinely terrifying.

There are bad men audiences are drawn to. There’s the Tony Soprano type who works his way up from nothing. Or the Roy Cohn (or Saul Goodman) style showman, who demonstrates a genuine delight in the buzz and the game. But although we respect, admire, and despise Robert Moses, we never really get to like him in Caro’s book. Probably the root of this is his unapologetic disregard for the common people in his life. Napoleon, historians say, had a fantastic memory for his soldiers’ names. Moses didn’t bother with such things. His contempt for people from New York’s ethnic minorities was common in his day, but still chilling on Caro’s page. Here’s a para from the days where Moses finally found time to extend a park to Harlem:

Robert Moses had always displayed a genius for adorning his creations with little details that made them fit in with their setting, that made the people who used them feel at home in them. There was a little detail on the playhouse-comfort station in the Harlem section of Riverside Park that is found nowhere else in the park. The wrought-iron trellises of the park’s other playhouses and comfort stations are decorated with designs like curling waves.

The wrought-iron trellises of the Harlem playhouse-comfort station are decorated with monkeys.

The Moses mania for carving up the city with highways was understandable because Moses began in the automotive age of the 1920s when cars were still a cool new thing that consumers associated with leisure and family time. As the decades went on, though, cars and roads came to be associated with stasis: the traffic jam. Supply creates demand. If you build it, they will come, the hippies said. If you build more and more roads, what you get is more and more traffic. Because Moses (who never learned to drive) was chauffeured everywhere in a limousine so large he could run a small office out of it, and in his later years surrounded himself with people who agreed with everything he said, the old campaigner never understood this. I can forgive the master builder that mistake, though – it’s one made by governments who right into the twenty first century give in too easily to the car lobby, and fail to build adequate mass transit systems into cities.

Reading about a life like this, all the work, all the meetings, all the politicking, heartbreak, ruination and shitty deals, the reader finally wonders: what, exactly, was the point of all that? You almost feel sorry for Moses in his eighties, finally thrown out of City Hall and unable to reconcile himself to a life without power – which for Moses meant a life without activity or diversion. (‘Things he had once enjoyed doing were less and less solace to him now. For no matter what he did, he could not get away from himself.’) It’s a fine thing to work hard, and shape a city. But the power broker could have used Darran Anderson’s advice that all buildings contain their own ruins.

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Borderpolis: Inside the City of Thorns

April 11, 2016

cityofthornsAt some point in the last two or three decades, immigration became something it was impossible to have a reasonable conversation about. It is a domestic and international issue that has been politicised and magnified beyond reasonable conversation. The right doesn’t like immigrants because it thinks they erode British culture and drain welfare capital. The left doesn’t like immigrants because it thinks (on dubious evidence) that they take British jobs (and also, refugees cannot always be trusted to express constructive opinions of the absurd religions and nasty, thieving dictatorships that so many leftists in the UK support). Neoconservatives worried that immigrants had too much potential to be radicalised and become terrorists. And there are also some people who don’t like immigrants because they have racial prejudices against people from foreign countries or with different colour skin.

A sense of raging unreality replaced the reasonable conversation. A few reasonable voices demurred. Centrist leader writers quoted from economic studies, Quakers worried about the humanitarian consequences of indefinite detention and deportations. But the raging unreality created its own compelling discourse, so that immigrants can drain the welfare state and take British jobs, can reshape English communities and fail to make a social commitment to the ‘host country’, refuse to learn English and simultaneously speak it far too well. When the crisis came, when thousands drowned in the Med, a few reporters wandered around Calais for a few days, but still the focus of the debate remained on the impact of immigration upon the UK. The public sector mantra ‘no decision about us, without us’ never applies to migrants. What doesn’t get asked is: who are the refugees? Why are they coming? And what are they running from?

Ben Rawlence spent four years, on and off, in the Dadaab refugee camp on the Kenyan/Somali border – one of the many grey zones and process centres that are created, and expand, when the rhetoric of the open world meets national protectionism. The camp complex is funded by the UN, is the size of a small city and has existed for generations. Somalis ran there fleeing warlordism, starvation and al-Shabaab. (It took some guts to do so. Rawlence explains: ‘The camps lie seventy miles inside Kenya across the barren scrub of the border country and the crossing is dangerous. The police in Kenya jokingly refer to undocumented Somalis as ‘ATM machines’. Rape is routine.’) Once inside the camp, accommodation and work are scarce: refugees make a pittance shoeshining, or selling khat from a stall. (The UN also has an ‘incentive worker’ scheme where people the National Security Council designates as Islamists in embryo, risk their lives detecting and defusing al-Shabaab IEDs.) The common situation of the migrants doesn’t guarantee solidarity. Rawlence meets numerous refugees whose lives have been put at risk after falling in love with someone from the wrong religion or tribe. How do you imagine a refugee camp? It’s not Buchenwald. It’s more like an open-air prison – complete with beatings, headcounts, hustles, desires, hatreds, segregations, and plots to escape.

If the city of thorns is a prison, parole is extremely difficult. Migrants crowd around the UN building daily to check the few resettlement slots that become available. For those without nous or connections to get moved up the list, the wait can last generations. Some people can’t handle the wait, and sign up with a trafficker. ‘If you get a good one,’ a restless young man told Rawlence, ‘you can reach quickly and safely’. If you don’t get a good one, you can die in a broken-down hotbox truck in the desert, or be ransomed back to your relatives by corrupt cops. Even if one escapes by lawful means, freedom can be short lived. A man Rawlence met, named Fish, came to Dadaab feeling a civil war in ’92 and eventually made it to Nairobi, but had to head back to the camp when the Kenyan authorities cracked down… and ‘cracked down’ in Nairobi meant more beatings, arbitrary detentions and rapes.

Just like in prisons, a listlessness takes over, drains thought and energy. People spend whole days chewing khat, or creating Facebook photos of imaginary lives in Europe or America. There is a Dadaab word for this feeling, buufis, ‘the name given to the longing for resettlement out of the refugee camps. It is a kind of depression rooted in an inextinguishable hope for a life elsewhere that simultaneously casts the present into shadow.’ The emotional detail is typical of Rawlence, who narrates City of Thorns in terms of the complex relationships and inner lives of the people he meets there. The flailings and machinations of various governmental and NGO bodies, as they try to deal with unprecedented eruptions of globalisation and war, he recounts briefly – and perhaps with a little dark irony. (Rawlence is particularly scathing on the corporate aid agencies: ‘At five o’clock sharp, they left their cool offices and their computers glowing with warnings and got into their cars…. through the streets wet and slick to some house party or restaurant glittering with laughter and money, and the lights of the city sparkled in the puddles.’) Mainly, Rawlence gives his voice to the voiceless. As Fish says: ‘We talk, but our voices are never heard. We move, but only inside a cage. We have many skills and talents, but we are denied our chance to maximise our potential’.