October 1, 2009 - From the September, 2009 issue

Sam Hall Kaplan Reviews Wrestling Moses: Jane Jacobs—Gone Three Years—Lives On!

In the following article, exclusive to TPR, reporter and author Sam Hall Kaplan reviews Wrestling Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City, recently authored by Anthony Flint. In the process of reviewing Flint's work, Hall Kaplan illuminates the still-developing legacy of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses and their influence on the ideas and movements of contemporary urban planning.


Sam Hall Kaplan

Heading the list in a recent poll by the popular planning and development website Planitzen.com ranking "the most important urban thinkers of all time" was community activist and author Jane Jacobs. Departed now three years, she still rides high on the wave of her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, written nearly a half century ago. Though sporadically misapplied today by sham urbanists, its planning precepts extolling density and diversity are as relevant as ever.

The home schooled, self-styled urban economist won by a nearly two-to-one margin over the nearest nominees that included both current and past luminaries as architect Andres Duany and park designer Frederick Law Olmsted. Disdainful of plodding planners, pandering politicians, and tedious academics, most of whom Jacobs considered feckless, if alive and kicking today she probably would have ignored the accolade with a quip that such polls tend to be blatant promotional ploys, and to hell with them.

However, the curmudgeon that she was no doubt would have enjoyed the fact that her nemesis in a series of pitched community battles that forever changed the way planning and development is pursued in cities, the autocrat Robert Moses, was a distant 23rd. And this despite being championed of late by neocon commentators bemoaning not having such bullying bureaucrats as Moses around anymore to bulldoze away the opposition to their favored, over-indulgent design. She would consider them elitists and not have kind words for them, either, nor would she appreciate those who try to codify her axioms.

Jacobs preferred common sense over bureaucrats crafting zoning codes, conquests over compromises, and citizens over public servants. It was not without cause that those of us writers and community activists who rallied around her then occasionally would address her as Joan, as in of the Arc, rather than Jane. But under a cloud of cigarette smoke and with beer in hand, she would quickly reply that it was Moses who would be burned at the stake, not her. And she was right.

Those battles that consumed Jacobs in Greenwich Village and what is now SoHo for nearly a decade is the grist of Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City, by Anthony Flint (Random House, 231 pages, $27). It explains much of what informed Jacobs' street-wise writings and correctly credits her for Moses's fall from grace, which not incidentally was fatuously omitted along with any scholarly pretense in Robert Caro's over-blown derivative tome, The Power Broker. (Published 13 years after Jacobs's classic to become a classic in its own, heavily-hyped right, one wonders how well read now are its 1,246 pages.)

Written in a straightforward if stolid style with an obvious populist bias, Wrestling With Moses relates how an untutored plain Jane from a Pennsylvania coal town lacking a college degree, or for that matter, any pedigree, embraced New York while aspiring to be a journalist, to emerge as a heralded neighborhood activist and standard bearer of a dramatic rise in community consciousness.

Specifically chronicled are the pitched battles surrounding Moses's plans to rend historic Washington Square Park in the heart of Greenwich Village with a roadway, have a 14 block expanse of then gritty but vibrant and viable West Village declared a slum so it could be replaced by a pricey residential redevelopment scheme, and, most egregious of all, demolish a swath of lower Manhattan to make way for an elevated cross-town highway. Then, and in retrospect, the plans showed no regard for the tens of thousand residents and businesses that would have had to be rudely relocated, along with the criminal razing of much of the area's history and charm.

Jacobs's prime motivation was clearly to save her beloved if romanticized West Village, where she lived with her architect husband Bob and their three children in a modest walkup they had painstakingly renovated. Located on a truck-clogged commercial street, they had purchased the property in the early 50s for $7,000 (equal to about a month's rent today), very much in the tenacious spirit of early urban pioneers.

To the dismay then of the New York establishment and in defiance of how things were done back in the bad old days of bulldozing first and asking questions later, Jacobs and her neighbors, abetted by a sympathetic press, tangentially succeeded in rending the heretofore heroic public works overlord toothless and tottering.

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The successive battles exposed Moses as a despotic bureaucrat, who up until then had been an acclaimed master builder in the mold of a Baron Hausman and a self-anointed savior of the city. It became obvious he had stayed too long at the party, and in time was stripped of his various local, regional, and state jurisdictions.

Hastening his demise was Moses' penchant for impolitic put-downs, prompted by Jacobs goading, such as when he dismissed her and a group of protesters as impertinent housewives. This was a particularly ill-timed remark, coming as it did at the dawning of the feminist rights movement. Even now, nearly a half century later, the battle pitting Jacobs against Moses is an inspiring story.

A reporter for 16 years with the Boston Globe and now a foundation flack, Flint relates Jacobs's critical role in this turn of history-no small task, for along with her dislike for academics she had repeatedly rebuffed attempts to be honored or to cooperate with would-be biographers. However, not to make her into a misanthrope as has been implied, for the record Jacobs was always generous with her friends and fans, of which I counted myself as one. (In the interest of self-disclosure, Jacobs wrote a blurb for one of my books as well as a recommendation on my behalf for a foundation grant she herself had spurned.)

Flint picks up on her being influenced by Bill Kirk, a social worker in East Harlem who opened her eyes to the vitality of even the most downtrodden neighborhood, how she was encouraged in her writings by the author sociologist William H. Whyte, Holly to all who knew him, aided by her savvy neighbor Rachelle Wall, and supported in all things by her steadfast husband. Hinted at also was how Jacobs was surreptitiously schooled in the way of public serpents such as Moses by Lester Eisner, a pedigreed political appointee (who coincidentally was the father of Michael Eisner of Disney fame).

Understandably missed, though remembered here, were the ceaseless conversations and the perverse plotting of Jane and her neighbors and supporters at conclaves at the White Horse Tavern and also at the Jacobs' apartment a few steps away. Who knew then that the machinations debated there would forever change the way cities would be shaped and misshaped.

I have gone back to the tavern several times over the past few years to find it sadly no longer a gathering spot for would-be revolutionaries, writers and poets, nor is the neighborhood a rough hewn mix of incomes and trades edging a gritty waterfront extolled by Jacobs and where I happened once to work the ominous nightshift. Instead are pricey boutiques, high-priced nightclubs and higher priced housing catering to the Wall Street and the Hollywood-on-the-Hudson crowds. Cabs now prowl the streets where once they never dared venture.

There has to be a certain irony in the West Village neighborhood Jacobs helped save by blocking its designation as a slum recently having its 10014 zip code cited in Forbes magazine as the most expensive in the moneyed Manhattan galaxy. Not too far down the list was 10012, SoHo, which the Lower Manhattan Expressway would have taken out. Both deserve to be footnotes in the next edition.

Sam Hall Kaplan is a planner, Emmy award winning reporter, and former urban affairs writer for the New York Times and design critic for the L.A. Times. His books include L.A. Lost & Found, The Dream Deferred, and The New York City Handbook.

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