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Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City

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Robert A Caro’s tome The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York is a thick, unwieldy book at 1344 pages. It sits on my shelf with yellowed pages. I bought it shortly after I moved to New York City 30 years ago. I enjoy history and learned after I moved here that Robert Moses was an important piece of the NYC history puzzle. The book upon first reading was lost to me. I had no real understanding of New York City at that point and Robert Moses’ story was simply too complex and out of context for me. When I think about the enormity of Caro’s book I think of the enormity of the personage of Robert Moses himself. I have started The Power Broker a couple of times, never making it beyond the first few hundred pages. Without completing the book, over the years I have come to learn more about Robert Moses. His imprint is everywhere in the city and people still have a very strong reactions towards him.

Last Tuesday March 9, 2010 Anthony Flint author Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City spoke to a packed room of a 125 people. Anthony Flint is a part of Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank on land use policy based in Boston. Flint talked about Jane Jacobs and her battle with Robert Moses over city planning issues. He talked about how she essentially single handedly challenged Robert Moses’ vision, the status quo at the time. Jane’s battle also took place in a man’s world and not likely to give in to the demands of a woman, who was a mother, no less. The odds were against her. Jane Jacobs had an intuitive sense of what makes a neighborhood thrive, without the backing of a formal education. By simply opening her eyes she took in all the sights and sounds of a busy bustling city. Jane newly arrived from Pennsylvania paints a picture of people and place that is lush and vibrant. Below is an excerpt from Flint’s book of Jane’s initial impression of Greenwich Village after exiting the train at the Christopher Station.

“As she emerged, she immediately noticed that the streets ran off at odd angles in all directions. She saw storefronts with awnings shading cluttered sidewalks, kids chasing one another in front of a grocery, delivery trucks stopping and starting their way up the street. Walking north on 7th Avenue, she saw the skyscrapers of midtown in the distance and when she turned around, the cluster of tall buildings in the financial district in the south. But in this spot most buildings were two or three stories, and a few higher than five or six. They were simple: no grand entrances, no soaring edifices. She gazed at shop windows full of leather handbags and ran fingers over the daily newspapers stacked high in front of shelves inside filled with candy and cigars. Everywhere she looked she saw people-people talking to one another, it seemed, every few feet, casually dressed women window-shopping, old men with hands clasped on canes sitting on the benches in a triangular park. Everyone looked, she thought, the way she felt: unpretentious genuine, living their lives. This was home.”

Jane Jacobs made Greenwich Village her home after moving to New York City in the 1930s. She came to the city to be a journalist and while searching for work she also explored the New York, taking the train to other parts of the city to see what the city had to offer. Through her travels she learned a lot about the New York and came to fall in love with the city. In 1947 a few years after her marriage to Bob Jacobs, Jane and her husband bought 555 Hudson Street. At 555 Hudson, Jane and Bob started a family, they had two boys. Robert Moses proposed extending 5th Avenue through Washington Square Park, one of three urban renewal projects he had planned for the area. Moses plan was to build giant apartment towers. These towers would have put a stake in the heart of this thriving neighborhood of low-rise buildings, destroying the fabric of life that was readily apparent. Many blocks were to be razed to make way for Moses’ plan. Jane Jacobs got word of it and jumped into action, galvanizing public opinion in such a way as to thwart Moses’ great urban development plan. This would be her first battle with Moses, two more would follow: another urban renewal project for Greenwich Village and the lower Manhattan expressway and Jane would win all three.

During his lecture Anthony Flint pointed out how Jane’s community activism has continued to serve as a model regarding urban planning issues. Her legacy lives on in citizen participation in urban planning projects and Jane’s principal of urbanism, expressed in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, whereby short blocks, activity at ground floor level, diversity and walkablity are the cornerstones of what help to make a neighborhood and ultimately a city thrive. Currently more people live in cities than anywhere else in this country and the effort is to try and make these urban centers more people friendly. Many of the ideas that focus on making our cities more successful stem from Jane Jacob’s effort to save her neighborhood.

When Anthony Flint finished his lecture, hands shot up in the air. Their followed a lively and long question and answer period. Questions arose about urban renewal efforts across the globe, as well what we do in our own country. Anthony stated that third world countries are the most challenging in the world today. For example, efforts are being made to bring basic services to the slum areas in Mumbai, where over a million people live without sanitation or clean water. In our own country, Anthony stated that urban planning always tries to build elements into projects that promote a more habitable, people friendly environment. Though, he noted urban planning is not without controversy and some planning projects work better than others and some plans are better than others. But the intention and effort to build a more humane environment is always a goal.

As the official groundbreaking ceremony took place this week at The Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, the planned new stadium of the N.J Nets, I think about the rift that occurred between the concerned parties, pitting residents of the surrounding area against the developers, urban planners, city government. Only time will tell if this project will be good for the community like the developers claim. Passions run deep over this planned stadium, because of the scale of the project. The battle was fought hard between community groups and the developers. In this case the community activism was not enough to tip the scale in their favor. When I think back to Jane and her battle with Moses, her win seems truly momentous in the face of the Atlantic Yards plan.

Anthony Flint’s story of the clash between Jane Jacobs a courageous woman from humble beginnings and Robert Moses who had never lost a fight is legendary. Jane and her family moved to Toronto at the end of the 1960s. She died in Toronto on April 25, 2006. This last excerpt is from the last paragraph of Anthony Flint’s book Wrestling with Moses.

"The morning after Jane Jacobs died, the owner of the Art of Cooking, the housewares store occupying 555 Hudson Street in Greenwich Village, went to unlock the door and open for business. She found bouquets of lilies and daisies at the doorstep and an unsigned note: 'From this house, in 1961, a housewife changed the world.'"

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Shopping Mall America

Although I didn't attend the lecture and haven't as yet read "Wrestling with Moses," you've made the titanic struggle between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs very real and compelling. It seems a particularly apt moment for this story, when most of New York has already been handed over to developers on a silver platter, and our individual neighborhoods have all been been turned into pretty much the same suburban shopping mall. As a big fan of your blog posts, I enjoy seeing your typically gracious style turned to such a multiplicity of subjects.

Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs

I enjoyed this blog a lot. Unlike the author, I've lived in NYC most of my life and read The Power Broker when it came out [around 1975], at which time I had just finished a two year degree in Urban Planning. I went into Urban Planning in part because of Jane Jacobs' book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, as well as another book she wrote, The Economy of Cities. I also recently read the Anthony Flint book which was great and it brought back memories of all I had learned previously. The book had a different approach than Robert Caro's book that was also useful.

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