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.