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Straight Line Crazy

I just saw “Straight Line Crazy,” the hot play about Robert Moses. I had some quibbles with the script. But watching Ralph Fiennes happily thunder on about urban renewal was a jarring reminder of the State’s desire to level blocks of Midtown around Penn Station for a giant real estate development.

The Jane Jacobs character was eloquent about stopping Moses’ plans to cut a highway through Washington Square and level blocks of SoHo. She made perfect sense. And she won. Why can’t those arguments resonate as well today?

The production notes on the plan say it leaves us “to examine how power moves in our cities today, intersecting with historically vulnerable communities. How can we demand equity and accountability in public planning? In whose image are we shaping our cities?”

I hope panelists at a December 14 Crain’s breakfast on Penn Station try to answer those questions. No one from the State Economic Development Corporation is on the panel to defend the development proposal…or say what happens now that Vornado says it’s not a good time to build giant corporate towers. The State first claimed that the towers were needed to pay for improvements to Penn Station. Now we know they would play a very limited role.

A Newsday editorial recently demanded that work on Penn Station continue even if the redevelopment is up in the air. It noted that, with Federal, New Jersey, and City money paying for much of the proposed $7 billion Station improvements, the State could just bond its share. Penn improvements are not dependent on the proposed towers.

So what does happen now? There are two lawsuits challenging the redevelopment proposal. Madison Square Garden is apparently still discussing a move. Urban renewal is still a horrible idea.

The play is immensely popular. Fiennes is a draw. But so is Moses. He changed the face of the City and region. But his vision was ultimately myopic. And his disregard for the communities he wanted to alter or destroy brought him down.

How do we make planners and public officials listen to communities? What kind of City do we, ultimately, want to live in?

I hope everyone seeing “Straight Line Crazy” at least comes out asking those questions. It would be so appropriate if being reminded of Moses helped stop the Moses-like Penn redevelopment that would demolish another neighborhood. That would be worth the price of admission.

Peg Breen
President, The New York Landmarks Conservancy

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