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!”