“The Transformative Love
of a Place”
A Review of
Wrestling with Moses:
How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s
Master Builder and Transformed the American City.
By Anthony Flint.
Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.
Wrestling with Moses:
How Jane Jacobs Took on NewYork’s
Master Builder and Transformed the American City.
Hardcover: Random House, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Writing in 1980, Michel de Certeau characterizes two uses of the space of the city; one is the “panoramic-city” of the “space planner urbanist, city planner or cartographer” who have views of the city afforded by high places, where the details of life are no longer visible. Conversely, “the ordinary practitioners of the city live ‘down below’…they walk – an elementary form of this experience of the city.” These two images are useful when thinking about two influential figures who have come to represent contrasting ends of city planning in recent history, Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. Just a glimpse at the cover of Anthony Flint’s new book Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City show Jacobs on the sidewalk, and there is Moses, looming large above a table-sized model of Manhattan, new highways bisecting it.
That both Jacobs and Moses made significant contributions to urban redevelopment while living in New York City in the 1930s – 1970s brings into focus their opposing approaches to neighborhoods in two large projects proposed by Moses and blocked by Jacobs. Wrestling With Moses centers around Washington Square Park and Jacob’s home in Greenwich Village, and the later proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway (Lomex) in what is now Soho. First narrating biographies of Jacobs and Moses, Flint characterizes the two visions for city development as practiced by Jacobs and Moses best when they come up directly against each other.
In the midst of community-based development projects now familiar to many cities, it is hard to imagine the context in which Jacobs found herself in 1950s New York. Beginning as a journalist, Jacobs didn’t begin as a neighborhood activist or urban critic; rather, working for the magazine Architectural Forum she met a developer in Philadelphia, who
“’took me to a street where loads of people were hanging around on the street, on the stoops, having a good time of it, and he said, well, this is the next street we’re going to get rid of. That was the ‘before’ street…Then he showed me the ‘after’ street, all fixed up, and there was just one person on it, a bored little boy kicking a tire in the gutter. It was so grim that I would have been kicking a tire, too. But Mr. Bacon thought it had a beautiful vista.’ She turned to him and asked, ‘Where are the people?’” (19-20).
Filling in for her editor to lecture at Harvard in front of dozens of architectural leaders, whose plans she critiqued, then writing an essay ‘Downtown is for People’ poised Jacobs for a similar neighborhood removal slated for her own neighborhood. This was a Moses plan to run Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park and onto new developments planned south of the park, buildings “know as superblocks, [which] would be set in open space, obliterating the existing network or small streets. In the first phase of the project…130 buildings would be smashed by wrecking balls, and 150 families would have to pack up their belongings” (62).
This totalizing, top-down planning typifies Moses’ approach to city development. Existing structures – and seemingly people – have little place as Moses “developed strategies designed to make his projects inevitable, protecting them from democratic resistance. Along with writing his own legislation and running aggressive public-relations campaigns, one of his principle tactics in defeating opposition was simple: act fast” (44). In large part, Moses’ projects were completed following this strategy and squelching resistance; it is in the proposal for Washington Square Park, though, that he is first defeated, as Jane Jacobs’ ideas about local communities organizing together materialize around saving their neighborhood. Significantly, Greenwich Village joining together and stopping Moses’ planning is a turning point in urban development: “ordinary citizens could see that they could challenge the top down planning that Moses represented…the very things that made cities great were being systematically destroyed by people who didn’t understand how cities functioned and who didn’t know them intimately” (90).
For Jacobs, the experience in her neighborhood became the model for characterizing healthy cities in her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. And yet, although Jacobs based her descriptors of the health of neighborhoods on her own Hudson Street – “a street or district must serve several functions; blocks should be short to make the pedestrian feel comfortable; buildings must vary in age, condition, and use; and population must be dense” (124) – city planners quickly identified Greenwich Village as a blighted area, slated for ‘urban renewal,’ shorthand at the time for razing the existing neighborhood to start over with housing towers. Again, Jacobs is characterized as an advocate and organizer of an existing neighborhood, enacting the criticisms made in Death and Life again in the context of an existing, thriving neighborhood.
A second stand against Moses occurs soon after in Soho, with a plan to build the elevated, ten lane Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would effectively demolish “416 buildings that housed 2,200 families, 365 retail stores, and 480 other commercial establishments” (146). The priest of a neighborhood church slated for demolition enlisted Jacobs to help organize resistance to the proposed expressway. In this neighborhood was “a place that had all the elements that she had described as the model of city living in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. And here, again, the city planners thought they could tear it all down and create something better” (154). Once again, Jacobs and a bottom-up neighborhood initiative save their place.
Wrestling With Moses not only is engaging narrative of the lives and places of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, but in describing the context in which city planning came into its own with the community-driven development and diversified neighborhoods represented by Jacobs, this book becomes a useful aid in considering neighborhoods and development in our own places. Jacobs, it would seem, became such an important voice for cities simply because she loved her own neighborhood so much; certainly, any neighborhood planning that begins and ends with affection for a place will make our cities healthy places to live.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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