New York’s infamous city planner Robert Moses is the most engaging of the quartet of characters in Megan Bradbury’s love letter to the Big Apple
Everyone is Watching by Megan Bradbury | Picador, 279pp, £12.99
Everyone is Watching is a first novel by a talented young writer. It’s self-indulgent, like many first novels, but, unlike many of them, it is not about the author herself, except inasmuch as it may be read as a love-letter addressed to New York. It is written in short, often staccato sentences and short chapters, and is buttressed – unnecessarily? – by 13 pages of notes, sources and acknowledgements to colleagues and friends. There is no narrative, or at least no consecutive story, and you could shuffle the chapters and present them in a different order without losing anything. The book is held together by unity of vision and a unity of tone. The style is cool and matter-of-fact.
There are four main characters. All are real historical figures: Robert Moses, the city planner , known as “the Master-Builder”; Walt Whitman, the poet; Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer, and Edmund White, the novelist. White is still alive, and there is no mention in the acknowledgements that he has given the author permission to use him as a character in a book which she says “should be treated as a work of fiction”. I daresay he doesn’t care. Nothing is revealed here that he hasn’t revealed himself, and he is treated quite tenderly. In any case the White chapters draw heavily on his own books and add nothing to them.
Bradbury is evidently fascinated by Mapplethorpe, but has nothing new to say about him, little, I surmise, that you won’t find in Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids or in catalogues of exhibitions of his work. The Whitman sections seem dead to me; they say nothing new about the poet, and little of interest about New York.
The Robert Moses chapters are in a different class, and very good indeed. Moses was a remarkable man, brilliant and ruthless, an idealist with no sympathy for the ideals of others. Never holding any elected office, he dominated the city for 40 years and transformed it, building expressways, pathways, bridges, swimming pools, high-rise apartment blocks and concert halls, and creating new parks and miles of beaches on land reclaimed from the sea or on what had been farmland. He had no care for the property rights of others, and demolished tenement blocks, transferring the inhabitants, usually against their will to what we in Scotland would call new housing schemes, many as soulless as those built by the Glasgow Corporation. He provoked fierce opposition, notably from Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. (She’s a character in this book, treated with sympathy and approval.) Moses was ruthless. He bulldozed opposition as ruthlessly as he bulldozed buildings. His reputation suffered at the hands of an early biographer, Robert Caro, but his achievements as the maker of a modern city are now more generously acknowledged, though even one of the revisionists, Paul Goldberger, writing in the New Yorker concedes that “he was so in tune with New York’s vastness that he had no patience with anything small within it.”
Bradbury has that patience, more than patience, a delight in what is small, crooked, odd, individual. This is charming. One sympathises, even, while recognising that, like many critics of urban renewal and gentrification, there is a degree of sentimentality in her feeling for the warm life of the streets and cheek by jowl slum-living. Nevertheless, because she is also fascinated by the magnitude of Moses’s achievement, he emerges more as a hero, if a badly flawed one, than villain. So the Moses chapters are by far the best parts of the book, and I for one would have been happy to have had more Moses and less Mapplethorpe. Indeed, I would have preferred a Moses novel, fictionalised biography. That said, it’s foolish and wrong to upbraid an author for not having written the book you might have wanted instead of the one he or she wrote.
This book may be more a series of essays or snapshots than narrative, but, written with imagination, great assurance and a painterly eye, it builds up a fine portrait of the city.