Page 45 Review by Jonathan
"Have no fear of change as such and, on the other hand, no liking for it merely for its own sake."
- Robert Moses.
"Cities have the capability of providing something for everyone, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody."
- Jane Jacobs.
To build something truly epic in scale, grandiose in both concept and construction, you first need to have a vision, then the indomitable will to carry your plans to completion over a vast stretch of time, no matter what the obstacles or difficulties you encounter. Clearly then, you have to be single-minded, perhaps to the point of being bloodily so, both in terms of your certitude in the face of dissent and disagreement from others, and also in terms of the sacrifices you are prepared to make, on your own part, but also what you will put others through, just to achieve your aims. Robert Moses, a man I would imagine very few of us have ever heard of, was just such a man.
For a period of around forty years, between the mid-1920s and '60s, Robert Moses effectively built up complete control over the planning and implementation of any and all construction in New York City be it housing, civic centres, roads, bridges, tunnels plus all the other general infrastructure that allows a city to function. He managed to head various bodies directly controlling vast amounts of income such as road tolls, millions upon millions of dollars, to effectively have the complete autonomy to create whatever he wanted.
And so he built what we know as modern-day New York. Inevitably, of course, his star ultimately began to fade, as there were the failures as well as the many successes which affected his public popularity, plus his by-then rampant ego causing as much damage for himself as anything else. There were dissenting voices all along the way, not least the strident Jane Jacobs, also accusations of racism against the black communities, but it wasn't really until the mid '70s, when he himself was in his mid-80s, that the wider public opinion, informed by a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography revealing much about the man himself, finally turned vehemently against him. Though over further time that eventually softened and a strong legacy does endure. Undoubtedly he shaped the New York we know, I think most impartial and informed commentators would agree, both for better and for worse, but what we have today is certainly his vision.
I bought this work in without knowing anything about Robert Moses; I did so entirely on viewing a few exquisite pages of the art which Nobrow had posted on social media, of iconic scenes such as Times Square and the Flatiron Building. Ironically, it was at the Flatiron Building - or the Fuller Building to give it its correct name - where a young Moses volunteered his services to the then administration in the early 1920s. It was an invaluable yet frustrating lesson of the quagmire of politics bogging down progress. Something that no doubt played its part in Moses' dogged determination to circumvent any outside interference whatsoever in his grand schemes by those with political power.
It's fitting, actually, that a biography about such an extraordinary man is illustrated so beautifully. I could talk all day about what I've learnt about Robert Moses, when I should be raving about Olivier Balez's art. It has a wonderfully elegant period feel, of a city on the cusp of radical change, both architecturally and also socio-economically with the turbulent forces of the Great Depression of the '30s rapidly followed by World War 2, then cataclysmically shaken up again by the swinging '60s.
Balez neatly encapsulates the enormous divide between the '20s era Gatsby-esque socialites colonising Long Island, oblivious and probably uncaring for the most part, of the deprivations faced by those less fortunate of their not too distant fellow citizens, whose conditions you'll clearly recognise if you've ever read much Eisner. It's also clear that a desire for social justice did drive Robert Moses to a degree, though how much of that was forged purely by his sense of disenfranchisement from the social elite by his own Jewish heritage is debatable.
But one thing is clear, he was an advocate of social change, and that change in his eyes, could only be achieved by rebuilding the city to his design. As we move forward in time, Balez captures the huge changes in the landscape: architectural, politically and socially, shifting seamlessly back and forth between the changing skylines and construction sites, bustling street scenes and character studies of the locals and bigwigs alike in an understated palette of ochre, pastel blue and other such subtle tones. This work is a fitting testament to Robert Moses, I think, because it succeeds so admirably in its epic portrayal of a man and his city, for the long decades it was simply his.