A phenomenal work: a history of urban planning that unspools like a Greek tragedy. It may sound odd to call a book of 1.2 kilopages a page-turner, butA phenomenal work: a history of urban planning that unspools like a Greek tragedy. It may sound odd to call a book of 1.2 kilopages a page-turner, but it is. For instance, in an early chapter recounting one of Robert Moses first public park projects, one that threatened to collapse in financial difficulties, Robert Caro the story-teller understands the drama of withholding the introduction of millionaire philanthropist August Heckscher until page 202. Heckscher saved the park (and got it named for himself, too).
Robert Moses was responsible, to an astonishing degree, for the built environment of New York City: bridges, parkways, playgrounds, public housing, parks, Lincoln Center, and a Disneyland-by-the-sea, Jones Beach. He was a MacGyver of land acquisition, a subtle drafter of legislation—gifted with immense energy and motivation to hustle projects to completion. He straightened a reach of the Harlem River to finish a parkway project. Robert Moses was also a patrician racist, a red-baiter, vindictive on the occasion of his sometime failures (the New York World’s Fair), and brutal when it came to destroying communities that stood in the way of his freeway projects. Caro dwells on just one such incident, the routing of a section of the Cross-Bronx Expressway through the neighborhood of East Tremont. For reasons still not clear, Moses swung the road two blocks to the north, demolishing much more housing than an alternative that would have skirted a park, rejecting both rational argument and emotional public outcry.
Robert Moses was never elected to public office, although he unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1934. Rather, he built and distributed his power as head of the Triborough Bridge Authority (later the authority encompassed tunnels as well) and by interlocking appointments to several city- and state-wide commissions and boards.
A huge book to tell a huge story: Caro conducted 522 interviews. From time to time, his sentence structure runs away with him, as in the case of this corker:
In the setting Moses created at his luncheons, most men allowed themselves to be bullied, even if only by not openly disagreeing with some Moses proposal in the hope that they could disagree later in the friendlier confines of their office—only to find that before they could get out of his, Moses was virtually forcing them to ratify their acquiescence by presenting for their signature the necessary document, which an aide just happened to have with him, or to find out by the time they got back to their own office that Moses had already notified the Mayor or other department heads of their acquiescence and that the project in question had already been moved ahead to the next step, making an attempt to call it back awkward if not unfeasible. (p. 827)
But form follows function, and the writing is a match for Moses’ sprawling empire.
Robert Moses flourished in an era in which, once the surveying and drawings were completed, it seemed wasteful to delay or redesign a project. There were no required environmental reviews and few protections by historic designation. Robert Moses was the master of Getting Things Done. Today’s pretenders to that title are but a patch on Moses....more
This is a masterful work of biography, "the history not of a personality but of a career," as Stegner writes in his introductory note. As such, not onThis is a masterful work of biography, "the history not of a personality but of a career," as Stegner writes in his introductory note. As such, not only does Stegner follow John Wesley Powell down the frightful canyons of the Colorado River and into the even more fearsome halls of the national capital, but the author dwells on Powell's companions and antagonists, his allies and his would-be emulators. He devotes long admiring passages to Powell's associates Capt. Clarence Dutton and Grove Karl Gilbert; he is almost rhapsodic about William Henry Holmes, who provided meticulous grand-scale scientific illustrations for Dutton's geological writings. He explains the dry, hard-rock conditions that Powell found in the west, and makes the connections to Powell's scientific report of 1877, which argued for a pattern of settlement arranged by geology and watersheds and governed communally.
Stegner is wittily cutting about Capt. Samuel Adams, failed explorer of the same Plateau Province of western Colorado, eastern Utah, and northern Arizona. Adams was convinced that the Colorado offered a navigable passage from the ocean to the Rocky Mountains, the author calls him "a preposterous, twelve-gauge, hundred-proof, kiln-dried, officially notarized fool, or else he was one of the most wildly incompetent scoundrels who ever lived." (p. 201) And the account of feud between Powell and Othniel C. Marsh on the one hand and Edward D. Cope on the other is an eye-opener.
Stegner is also a writer of fiction, and he brings a novelist's command of language to this work. The conceit of human geological understanding being directly reflected in the rocks of the Province is particularly fine (p. 120).
New Mexico's tagline is "Land of Enchantment." There's not much to separate enchantment from delusion, and part of the history of the west is the story of that delusion. Powell's virtue was in seeing clearly through the enchantment. Much of his work was truncated, at least in his lifetime, but "the only thing clearer than the failure of his grandiose schemes of study is the compelling weight of their partial accomplishment." (p. 264)...more
A collection of Taoist meditations masquerading as a nature journal, very rich and best consumed in small sips. David George Haskell brings a deeplyA collection of Taoist meditations masquerading as a nature journal, very rich and best consumed in small sips. David George Haskell brings a deeply holistic, long-view approach to current problems like the population explosion of white-tailed deer and its association with disease vector ticks. He has the mindfulness to watch a flower bud open in real time. He writes, “The human body and the snail body are made from the same wet pieces of carbon and clay, so if consciousness grows out of this neurological soil, on what grounds do we deny the snail its mental images?” (p. 52) The three-page entry “April 14th — Moth” is a marvel: as Haskell witnesses a moth that has landed on his hand, taking up sodium from his perspiration on a hot Tennessee day, his musings connect to the chemistry of human sweat.
The entries are backed up by references. One quibble: in a entry on earthquakes, Haskell refers to the Richter scale, which been superseded in the United States by a different logarithmic metric....more