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Glen Wilson

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Edward Norton on New York City’s ‘secret sin’ and the complicated legacy of Robert Moses

Alexandra Lange and the actor/director discuss his new film, “Motherless Brooklyn,” through the lens of urban planning geekdom

Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel, Motherless Brooklyn, follows the gumshoe Lionel Essrog as he attempts to find the murderers of his boss and mentor, Frank Minna. In his quest, he is both helped and hindered by his Tourette’s syndrome. The reader is taken on a ride through his “ticcing” brain as well as the dark contemporary city, centered in Brooklyn, where the orphaned Lionel grew up in a Catholic boys’ home and Minna ran his small-time detective agency.

In Edward Norton’s long-gestating film version, released earlier this month, the calendar has flipped from the 1990s back to the 1950s. The movie’s heavy is a version of a figure who should be very familiar to Curbed readers: Robert Moses, standing astride the city and destroying brownstone neighborhoods in the name of progress. Norton’s character, however, is not a Robert Moses facsimile, but a man named Moses Randolph (played by Alec Baldwin). But for the close watcher, Randolph’s office in the shadow of the Triborough Bridge, his love of swimming, and his fistful of mayoral appointments all hew close to the real Moses’s biography.

If Curbed could start its own Pop-Up Video series, this film would make a terrific first episode.

In one scene, new character Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an African-American housing lawyer and lady of mystery, spouts facts and figures ripped from the pages of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. In another, activist Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones), bobbed and sporting owlish glasses, rallies protesters in front of a triumphal arch—an echo of famous photos of Jane Jacobs at Washington Square that also received a nod in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. This level of detail is no surprise: Norton has often spoken of his admiration for his grandfather, urban design pioneer James Rouse, and was deeply involved with the development of the High Line and the Signature Theatre Center on 42nd Street.

Critic Alexandra Lange talked to Edward Norton—who wrote, directed, produced, and stars in the film as Essrog—about film noir, fictional villains, and planning for the people. Spoilers ahead.

A gray-haired woman in a wool coat and orange glasses stands in front of a white stone structure. People hold hand-written signs in the background reading “Eliminate racial myths” and “GI had fox holes veterans need homes.”
In the film, activist Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones) rallies protesters in front of a triumphal arch—an echo of famous photos of Jane Jacobs at Washington Square.
Glen Wilson

Curbed: Why did you decide to introduce a Robert Moses-like figure into the narrative of Motherless Brooklyn?

Edward Norton: A lot of interlocking things led to it. Originally, I loved the book because I loved the character of Lionel. The book has a very 1950s feel to it; it is an homage to Chandler and those kind of detective stories. I said to Jonathan [Lethem] that it could get tricky if you felt like the story was being ironic, like 1950s gumshoes in the modern age. I didn’t want Lionel to feel like a running joke.

The root decision was simply to set the film in the 1950s to give it a hard-boiled, un-PC setting where Lionel doesn’t even know what his Tourette’s is, so his isolation is more intense. Once we did that, the mystery behind the murder that is at the core of it needed to be something that had resonance in that era, and we had to leave the book stuff about Zen monasteries and Japanese yakuza behind.

The lightbulb that went off for me was I had long been interested in this kind of hidden history of what happened in New York in that era. My first encounter with the dark story of Robert Moses was through the [Ric] Burns documentary about New York, and I became fascinated with him. This was during a period when I was in New York, just out of college and working for an organization that did affordable housing development called Enterprise Community Partners, which my grandfather started. So I was interested in affordable housing and urban affairs and all these things, and I started to immerse myself in some of that history.

Chinatown is a great film because it is a great film, but it also tells the original sin of LA. It deals with what is LA’s urban sin, which is that it stole its water. I thought what Robert Moses did in New York is the secret sin under the reality of all the problems modern New York deals with.

Did you then decide you wanted to have Moses himself as the bad guy?

This is not a true story. Citizen Kane is in some ways about William Randolph Hearst, but it also isn’t. If you are going to tell a true story, you need to tell the full true story and stick to the truth. If you want to make a literary version of things—like Citizen Kane does or Chinatown does... Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is inspired by Huey Long, but it isn’t about Huey Long. That’s the direction I wanted to go.

Obviously, for anybody listening to the dialogue, there are references to a variety of types of power brokers and predators. Alec Baldwin’s character has dimensions and characteristics of a lot of different people.

When Lionel visits Moses Randolph’s office on Randall’s Island, I noticed there were pictures pinned to the wall of the Lower Manhattan Expressway Project, designed by Paul Rudolph, a famous battle between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. [Ed. note: Rudolph designed the famously never-built megastructure in the 1960s—a full decade after the loose re-setting of the film.]

We had a variety of stuff. We had homages to the WPA murals, which a guy like that in the 1950s would still have had in his offices. We had physical models that were referencing things like the Verrazano Bridge and the Queens World’s Fair. And the expressway. We pulled from a variety of inspirations of urban design at that time.

Lionel visiting Moses Randolph’s office on Randall’s Island.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

What themes were you trying to underline by having those projects in the background?

We wanted to convey vision. You are set up to believe that this guy is in many ways a monster—he is described as “an autocratic Caesar.” You hear him introduced at the builders’ dinner as someone who—you would have to look to the pharaohs to find someone with the scale of vision.

In that scene he is very seductive. He is clearly more than just an ogre, more than just a brute. He has a philosophy, and he is thinking in Olympian-like terms about cities and what you need to do to transform them. He has a rationale for what he is doing.

Robert Moses is typically seen as a purely negative figure, but more recently there has been some revisionism, where people are attracted to the scale of change he was able to accomplish. What do you think of that take, given the themes of the movie?

I would say it is sort of the opposite. For decades he was viewed in only the most glowing terms, as a selfless public servant, hero of the common man, builder of the parks. That was his reputation. It was really only with the book The Power Broker that [people] really looked at the cost and the brutality and the racism embedded in what he did. That book had such an impact on people’s views—I think it is almost a second re-examination. People who do enormous things that have rippling effects through the decades are going to be constantly debated.

That’s what makes a movie more adult and more interesting: if you have moments where you are destabilized, [where] you don’t know what to think. Lionel is in his own way having to figure out what is going on. He is trying to figure out literally who is good and who is bad, what has gone on here and who is responsible.

Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) introduced at the builders’ dinner.
Glen Wilson

You mentioned reading Death and Life by Jane Jacobs, and I thought the character played by Cherry Jones was styled to look like Jane Jacobs. Was that your intention?

Jane Jacobs was more famous in the 1960s. This character was inspired more by a woman named Hortense Gabel, who came before Jacobs. She was a Moses antagonist in the 1950s who actually was involved with a committee fighting discrimination in housing. But again, the point is to create a composite of people who went up against these power brokers, and Jane Jacobs is probably better known than any of them. Jane Jacobs in her way actually had more of a 1960s style to her. We saw our reformer as probably an ex-Socialist crusader.

You mentioned your grandfather earlier. He was James Rouse, who developed the concept of the “festival marketplace” at Faneuil Hall and South Street Seaport. Have you ever thought about making a film about him?

No, not really. There’s a good book about him. His spirit comes through Willem Dafoe’s character in this film [Paul Randolph, engineer brother of Moses]. A lot of things Willem says are things my grandfather used to say in speeches, and the humanity of his character is very inspired by my grandfather’s belief in people and in serving people.

You grew up in Columbia, Maryland, which he developed. Is there something you can point to from your experience living there that shows how design can serve people?

My grandfather believed that segregation in all of its forms—economic segregation, racial segregation—that that was the antithesis of community. He wanted Columbia to be a place where shared spaces from schools to shopping centers—even mailboxes—created more positive interaction between people of all sorts and types.

Columbia was designed such that upper-middle-class housing, middle-class housing, and even Section 8 housing shared public pools and schools, and there was a blend and a mix of types of development in each of Columbia’s villages and neighborhoods. You weren’t aware that that was unusual as a kid. Growing up there, you took for granted what was way, way ahead of the curve in terms of being an integrated community.

In fact, when I left there and went to college in New Haven [Connecticut], when I experienced a town like New Haven, which was so radically segregated, socioeconomically and racially, and then went to school with kids who had gone to some big public school and literally had never had African-American kids in their school, I started to realize that my experience in Columbia was not the norm.

What are some of today’s biggest urban planning challenges, if in the 1950s it was about housing and roads, as dramatized in the film?

The problems remain what they have always been: ensuring people at all levels of society have access to fit and affordable housing, and to the network of social services that keep a society stable at all levels.

Even a city like New York is facing huge challenges in sustainability and resilience in the face of climate shifts. The flooding of the New York subways in Sandy was unprecedented and will become a new baseline. New York has got to grapple with the impact of climate and become more and more proactive in dealing with that.

At one point in the film, Paul Randolph (Willem Dafoe) complains about all the new roadways being built, saying there will never be enough space, which sounds very familiar today.

I think one of Caro’s really great observations is that by refusing to even include the space in the Long Island Expressway for public transit—because Moses viewed mass transit as competitive to the revenue stream off his tunnels and bridges and roads—we were denied the opportunity to put mass transit in places where it would have been very natural. It was a once-in-a-century opportunity and he squandered it very intentionally.

What other noir films would you recommend that are really about urban planning?

The one that is most obviously about the history of a city is Chinatown. That’s far and away the most analogous in terms of being about what went on that shaped the making of a city.

The Wire is a great dissection of the complexity of American urban life. It is probably one of the greatest things in the modern age in terms of really dissecting the layer cake of how a city works. That’s certainly one of my favorite things ever made about a city.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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