Robert Moses by y Pierre Christin, Olivier Balez

Robert Moses is an intriguing graphic novel biography of a person many consider to be the architect of modern New York City. A controversial and conflicted character, at times simultaneously vilified and feted, I was curious to see what this illustrative approach could bring to the table beyond the Pulitzer Prize winning biography, The Power Broker. And I was surprised; the author does a fairly good job of not taking a stance on whether Moses was ultimately good or bad for the City. We are given a comprehensive yet manageable history that entertains as it educates. And yet, admittedly, the chipper tone and throw away observations on Moses’ less salient aspects did downplay the negatives a bit and this perhaps reveals the author’s POV.

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We’re given a straightforward biography, detailing Moses’ early history growing up a well-off turn of the century Jew with very strong opinions about the poor and slums of New York City. Determination, connections, luck, and especially single-mindedness propel him through 50 years of projects reshaping the City into his vision of clean highways and clean entertainment opportunities for the middle class. Along the way, the poor are summarily ejected or relocated, neighborhoods destroyed, and hundreds of thousands displaced (especially those of non-caucasion descent). Accomplishments such as the Parkways, bridges, swimming pools/beaches, and more reshaped the New York City landscape into the automobile age. But those feats are contrasted by latter day failures including losing two major league baseball teams and the debacle of the New York World’s Fair. Moses’ nemesis, Jane Jacobs, is given quite a bit of page time as well as she brings him down.

The illustration style is crisp, easy to follow, and clean. Since much of what Moses did was physical, I enjoyed being able to see the art as I was reading – without having to look up the various architectural items. Moses does remain somewhat of a cipher throughout; perhaps to underscore through the illustrations that he was a loner who acted fairly singly because of his strong self belief and convictions. There’s not a lot in there about how those who knew him perceived him – his wife, colleagues, etc.

I appreciated that the author touched upon everything from grafting to Moses’ very authoritative and all-or-nothing style. It helped reveal how someone who was never elected or had much in the way of official positions ended up having more power and say about the state of New York City than even the Mayor or Presidents.

Both the story and the history are well done here. You won’t get bored reading the history but at the same time, his biography isn’t overly abridged or treated lightly. A lot of subjects do get short shrift to keep the book streamlined; e.g., I would have loved to see more about Disney and the 1964 World’s Fair rather than the Jane Jacobs story getting so many pages. But at heart, this is more about people than it is about events; the editing, illustrations, and story are all superbly done.

Reviewed from an ecopy prvoided by the publisher.

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This entry was posted in ARC, biography, Book Reviews, Historical, non fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

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