“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.