Saturday, June 09, 2007

Blog Bud Done Good

Regular visitors know that I read books across a reasonably wide spectrum of topics. New Jersey history and roadway construction have admittedly remained beyond the bounds of my foragings--until now.

The Last Three Miles has as its most specific focus the construction of what is now known as the Pulaski Skyway. Serving as macrocosm are the machinations of politicos and union men and corporations before and during the construction of America's first viaduct/superhighway, as America's growing passion for the automobile begins to have growing consequences for its landscape.

The cast of characters is nigh Shakespearean, and Steven Hart is particularly good at breathing life into the major players. Foremost is Frank Hague, Irish tough and one of America's great political bosses. Serving as foil is Teddy Brandle, the thuggish union boss who becomes rich and powerful by playing ball with Hague, and whose dispute with his patron over the construction of a hospital leads to the climactic labor struggle which serves as climax to Hart's narrative. Also making an appearance is railroad engineer, intrepid world-traveler and lothario Fred Lavis. There are many others.

In less deft hands, the book could easily have exceeded 500 pages, and been rendered unreadable to anyone not a historian by the inclusion of tedious minutiae. Hart's great gift is whittling down the story to its most concise threads, threads that pull the reader happily along. He tells his tale with wit and vigour, somehow managing not to skimp on essential context, situating his New Jersey narrative within the larger frameworks of labor woes, Tammany Hall-style 'democracy,' and federal intervention in local public works. It's a great read. I laughed out loud at several points, most heartily during a catalog of the salaries and 'duties' of several well-paid Hague henchmen. Hart even manages to take the reader on a harrowing ride along the Skyway's hazardous route.

Hart treats his subjects fairly and allows their flaws to speak for themselves, which is refreshing. It's easy to condemn guys like Hague and Brandle for their paranoia and brutish excesses, ignoring their often astonishing achievements. The Last Three Miles documents both in an entertaining and enlightening manner, reminding us that this was how things got done for much of our history.

The Last Three Miles is not merely a story of the hopes, woes, and struggles behind the completion of a public works engineering feat that failed to live up to intended purposes. It's the story of a nation evolving from humble roots to industrial and economic supremacy, often in a ham-fisted, blundering fashion.

I'll nestle it on the bookcase between Plunkitt of Tammany Hall and The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

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