Asphalt Jungle

A fresh look at a monumental smackdown over urban renewal

Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City | By Anthony Flint | Random House | 256 pages, $27

All city dwellers, and especially New Yorkers, owe a debt to Jane Jacobs. More than anyone else in the mid-twentieth century, she made the argument in favor of humane cities: which is to say, cities built for people, not as sterile showcases for architecture, or object lessons in municipal planning, or money-spinning machines for local developers. In an era when planners and elected officials were busy implementing the massive highway and housing projects that came to be known (and later condemned) as urban renewal, Jacobs was insisting that urban environments should foster existing communities.

These arguments have never been more relevant than they are today. After decades of neglect, infrastructure is once again attracting interest and money from the federal and state governments. It’s an especially fruitful time to revisit Jane Jacobs, and that is exactly what Anthony Flint does in Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City.

Flint’s book makes an important contribution to our understanding of how battles over urban development play out. In particular, he offers considerable insight into the way community activists and their shifting allies in government defeated plans for two major New York City construction projects in the 1950s and 1960s. The first would have run a highway through Washington Square Park, in the heart of Manhattan’s storied Greenwich Village; the second, a similar highway through a densely populated swath of Lower Manhattan.

The main nemesis in each of these battles was Robert Moses, who held so many different government positions over the years, and had so little oversight, that he was essentially a local dictator. He pushed hard for the two highway projects. In both cases, he was forced to accept defeat—and in both cases, Jacobs had a hand in the coalition that vanquished him, first as an inexperienced foot soldier, than as a battle-hardened leader.

Flint is especially good at showing us how the outcome of these battles depended on who could better sway the sympathies of the press and the public. Jacobs actually began her career as a journalist, and Flint—a longtime journalist himself, although he has now moved into land-use advocacy—demonstrates how that background aided her activism.

In one case, for example, a number of supposedly independent neighborhood groups supported the city’s plan to “renew” the western section of Greenwich Village, in which Jacobs and her family happened to live. Her investigative skills allowed her to discover a connection between these groups and the developer chosen for the project:

Then she took the detective work a step further. Flipping through her saved correspondence, Jacobs discovered that one of the firm’s associates, a man named Barry Benepe, had written her a letter asking about a travel fellowship. Then she noticed that the press releases from neighborhood groups supporting the city’s plans looked remarkably similar—whenever the letter r appeared in both documents, it was dropped slightly. Jacobs hired a forensic expert, who confirmed that the developer’s correspondence and that of the supposedly citizen-based groups backing urban renewal… originated from the same typewriter.

Again and again, Flint uses this sort of detail to animate his protagonist’s struggles. He is also an expert at setting the scene and developing character, starting with his initial paragraphs, which introduce Jacobs to the reader:

The public hearing had already begun when she arrived. After stopping to add her name to the list of people requesting to speak, she headed toward the front of the auditorium, acknowledging the applause that rippled up from the crowd as she passed, a flash of white hair bobbing along the aisle, thick black glasses perched on an aquiline nose. She took a seat at the front of the hall.

By opening with this hearing, rather than donning a sequential straitjacket, Flint plays to his own dramatic and narrative strengths. Our first encounter with Jacobs shows her at her finest. She is leading a group of downtown Manhattan residents in revolt against New York State Transportation Department officials. For these urban-renewal apparatchiks, the hearing was meant to be a mere formality on the way to eradicating a substantial stretch of downtown New York City and replacing it with the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Watch Jacobs as she springs into action:

She called the crowd forward, and about fifty people, some carrying placards, moved up the stairs, with Jane leading the way.

[The hearing’s chairman John] Toth rose from his seat as the first of the protesters stepped onto the stage. “You can’t come up here. Get off the stage!”

“We are going to march right across this stage and down the other side,” Jacobs responded calmly, as if to a petulant child.

“Arrest this woman!” Toth frantically called to the police officers assigned to the hearing.

This is important and entertaining stuff. Once it’s over, Flint circles back to Jacobs’s early life: her training and career as a journalist, her entrance into activism, and then her emergence—with the seminal publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities—as a national figure.

Finally, this time in chronological order, the author returns to the Lower Manhattan Expressway hearing. What worked in the beginning as a teaser now appears as the capstone of Jacobs’s public advocacy in New York City. Soon afterward, she would move to Toronto, for a number of reasons: her husband, an architect, had gotten a commission there, and she was tired of embroiling herself in New York City development fights, and her two sons were almost of draft age for the Vietnam War, which she opposed.

Throughout the book, Flint pits Jacobs, a consummate humanist, against Robert Moses, for whom human scale was far too small. This clash gives the story much of its drive. The narratives run on parallel tracks, then intersect. Moses usually made short work of anybody who stood in his way. Jacobs, however, was that rare person who was able to stand up to him. She matched Moses in intelligence, savvy, and stubbornness—and added her own, unimpeachable integrity, as well as the ability to inspire and organize followers.

True, Flint’s title gives pride of place to Moses, introducing him first, and in much larger type. But this book belongs to Jacobs. Partially that is because her influence is more far-reaching: while Moses personally transformed New York City, it was Jacobs who revolutionized not only the profession of city planning, but the way we all view the shape and structure of modern cities.

But the other reason this is Jacobs’s story is that we already have Robert Caro’s extraordinary portrait of Moses in The Power Broker. As Flint notes:

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York was a devastating prosecutorial brief, detailing an obsession with power, ruthless eviction of the poor and people of color, manipulations of the legal and legislative process, misuse of eminent domain, cronyism, patronage, corruption, and insider contractor and developer deals. Coming out in 1974, right at the time of Watergate, The Power Broker inspired legions of journalists and politicians to root out backroom deals and secret financial negotiations. Robert Moses became the classic case study for the abuse of power.

Flint does offer some nice new details and observations on Moses. Yet it is inevitable that his Moses is heavily shaped by Caro’s Moses. Any book on the subject would be.

And now a caveat. While Flint’s narrative of Moses versus Jacobs has many strengths, it also has a number of weaknesses. For one thing, its focus tends to be excessively narrow, especially for a book whose publicity material touts it as a “definitive biography” of Jacobs.

Yes, Jacobs directly confronted Moses over Washington Square Park (when he was parks commissioner) and the Lower Manhattan Expressway (when he was chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority). Beyond that, however, his presence in her world seems to have been rather hazy. He was a local figure of great power, but not always the leader of the opposing army.

And while Moses’s ideas and influence always seemed to extend beyond whatever his job title of the moment was, even he had his limits. At times, then, the Jacobs versus Moses structure feels a bit forced. In reality, Jacobs was battling a whole variety of larger forces, hard to pin down and even harder to shape into a single narrative. She was living in an era of large-scale abandonment of cities by the white middle class, as well as the continuing northern migration of African Americans from the South. European modernism exerted a heavy hand on architects and planners as they wrestled with these demographic shifts. Flint hints at these broader currents—offering, for example, a brief history of modernism—but not enough for us to truly understand Jacobs’s complex relationship to them.

We also get very little criticism of Jacobs’s ideas. This is a crucial omission. As the influential urban historian Robert Fishman has noted in an essay published in Planning History Studies: “Since today we see the city and planning so much through [Jacobs’s] eyes, it is all the more important to be aware of her limitations.” Flint does mention some of these, most notably the problem of gentrification, which he acknowledges that Jacobs never sufficiently addressed. But his critique is fairly glancing.

All that said, the strong points in Wrestling With Moses are strong indeed. Anybody interested in the history of cities—and their future—should read it.

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Elinore Longobardi is a Fellow and staff writer of The Audit, the business-press section of Columbia Journalism Review.