Anyone interested in US political history is usually a devotee of the New York-based writer Robert Caro, whose five-volume biography of Lyndon B Johnson remains a tantalising work in progress. His first book is less well known but equally gripping, a study of the ‘master builder’ Robert Moses, a legendary city planner who shaped much of mid-20th century New York City.
His name and Caro’s biography ('The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York') came up during a tour of the Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side, the official residence of New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, who’s currently at war with the president-elect over public access to the Trump Tower and associated security costs of his presence in the city. You either love Moses or hate him, suggested the guide, but it struck me that he was the sort of guy the Donald would have loved, someone who didn’t play by the rules, eschewed political correctness and, for good or ill, got things done.
In a corridor next to the De Blasios’ handsomely decorated dining room were displayed two sketches, one of Moses (with a map of Manhattan behind him) and the other depicting Fiorello Henry La Guardia, whom the current mayor apparently regards as his most illustrious predecessor, at his desk. The Gracie Mansion, meanwhile, was named after its builder, the Dumfries-born shipping magnate and one-time business partner of Alexander Hamilton, Archibald Gracie. Gracie also served as the 18th president of the St Andrew’s Society of New York, still a major presence in the city (its guest of honour on St Andrew’s Day was Kirsty Wark, whose daughter is studying journalism at Columbia).
After leaving the mayoral residence, and keen to shelter from last week’s driving rain, I also spent some time at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum close to Central Park. Only later did I realise it had started life as Andrew Carnegie’s New York home until his death in 1919, one of the first American residences to boast a private Otis elevator and central heating.
A few years ago I visited Carnegie’s grave at the wonderfully-named Sleepy Hollow cemetery near the Hudson River in upstate New York, and at the sprawling Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, which I also visited last week, I found Gracie, Joseph Pulitzer, Irving Berlin and a host of jazz greats including Duke Ellington, 'Sir’ Miles Davis (the
knighthood came from France’s Legion of Honour), W C Handy, Max Roach, Coleman Hawkins and the vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, whose gravestone said simply 'Flying Home’, the name of one of his most famous compositions.
Curiously, in a cemetery full of ostentatious memorials, that for Robert Moses (and his wife Mary) was comparatively modest, little more than a red marble plaque on an outdoor community mausoleum in the north-west corner of the cemetery. Of Jewish origin, Moses was a late convert to Christianity, although his detractors would probably
argue that he applied little of its teachings to his human relations or philosophy of planning.
After spending several hours at Woodlawn I made my way back down to Manhattan to see an ‘off-Broadway’ production of the musical 'Finian’s Rainbow', which is in the middle of a run at the Irish Repertory Theatre on West 22nd Street. This, a charming piece of late 1940s Irish-American whimsy with a terrific score, is now doubling up as a topical satire on the recent election, with its racial, political and economic themes. The obviously liberal crowd lapped up Yip Harburg’s reworked lyrics referring to the ‘misbegotten GOP’ (as opposed to ‘VIP’). On the ‘R’ train back to Brooklyn, I overheard two passengers talking about Nigel Farage. Political wonders shall never cease.
It was Robert Moses who connected Brooklyn to Staten Island via the mighty Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the last major public works project he oversaw as New York City Parks Commissioner and head of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. And, like almost everything else he was responsible for, it was controversial, particularly in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bay Ridge, where many long-settled families were forced to relocate. Moses was not known for worrying about the human cost of his expressway vision.
I returned to Brooklyn via the bridge, which unlike others in the city has no cycle or pedestrian path (I caught a bus), having reached Staten Island earlier in the day on the free (and therefore hugely popular) ferry from Lower Manhatten. I’d been on this before,
but like most others whose main goal is to photograph the Statue of Liberty en route, I’d headed straight back to the city’s ‘mainland’.
This time I stayed to explore what one acquaintance disdained as New York’s 'worst borough’. It was also the only one, as I noted in last week’s diary, to back Trump for the presidency, something that reflects an obviously more working-class demographic. Still, there was enough of interest to fill an afternoon, including the gleaming new (but deserted) Staten Island Museum at Snug Harbor, which included details of a secession
movement in the 1980s and 90s. Residents actually voted 2-to-1 to become 'independent’ from New York City, whose priorities were believed to differ from those of Staten Island, but the New York State legislature simply overturned it.
When the UK voted to leave the EU in June, however, a Republican councilman called Joe Borelli harked back to the 1993 referendum by tweeting that Brexit was 'inspiring’ and perhaps it was 'time 2 rethink what many supported #secession’. Yes folks, from Nigel Farage to #Stexit, political ripples from across the pond are manifesting themselves in all sorts of unpredictable ways.