August 5, 2009
When David Fought Goliath in Washington Square Park
WRESTLING WITH MOSES
How Jane Jacobs Took On
By Anthony Flint
Illustrated. 231 pages. Random House. $27.
It’s not immediately clear, in other words, why anyone needs a book like Anthony Flint’s well-carpentered but breezy “Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the
Yet Mr. Flint, a former reporter for The Boston Globe, makes an interesting case for his book’s relevance. He points out the curious fact that Jacobs is not mentioned once in “The Power Broker.” Mr. Caro had devoted an entire chapter to her in his original manuscript, but for space reasons it was cut from the 1,246-page published version.
What’s more, Jacobs fended off biographers. Despite Alice S. Alexiou’s biography, published by Rutgers University Press in 2006, the intricacies of her life and her battles with Moses are not well known.
Moses and Jacobs clashed during the 1950s and ’60s over three of the huge public works projects Moses tried to force on
There was his plan to build a four-lane highway through the middle of
Each of these projects is, from today’s vantage point, clearly insane; each would have had cataclysmic effects on the quality of life in
Robert Moses (1888-1981) and Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) were almost perfect antagonists. He grew up wealthy on East 46th Street in Manhattan, attended Yale and Oxford and, after becoming a close aid to Gov. Alfred E. Smith of New York in the 1920s, held a series of appointed positions that allowed him to become, for more than four decades, the driving and nearly omnipotent force behind the rapidly changing physical environment of New York.
He was a workaholic, and ruthless — a man driven to get things done. And get things done he did: Moses built Lincoln Center, Shea Stadium, Jones Beach, the United Nations, the Central Park Zoo and the Niagara and St. Lawrence power projects. He built the Long Island and Cross Bronx Expressways, the West Side Highway and the Triborough and
Mr. Flint writes: “He was responsible for 13 bridges, 2 tunnels, 637 miles of highways, 658 playgrounds, 10 giant public swimming pools, 17 state parks and dozens of new or renovated city parks.” He was not used to people standing in his way.
Jane Jacobs (née Jane Butzner), on the other hand, was born in
She worked at secretarial and low-paying journalism jobs until she began to get assignments from Vogue and later Architectural Forum, where she became an editor. In 1944 she married the architect Robert Hyde Jacobs, and the couple refurbished and moved into a three-story building on
In her journalism Jacobs became an ardent critic of urban renewal, the tearing down of old neighborhoods to make way for blocklike towers and other “improvements.” Her big breakthrough came in 1958, when she got an assignment from William H. Whyte, an editor at Fortune (and the author of “The Organization Man”), to put her ideas into an article called “Downtown Is for People.” It put her on the map, and led to the publication of “The Death and Life of American Cities” three years later.
Around the time she was writing “Downtown Is for People,” Jacobs became involved in the fight against the proposed highway through
She helped rally prominent citizens like Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead and the New Yorker architectural critic Lewis Mumford to the cause. Jacobs was a kind of “war-room impresario,” Mr. Flint writes, who urged a three-pronged attack: “grassroots organizing, designed to draw in more allies, more pressure on local politicians, and a stepped-up campaign to gain attention in the media.”
Mr. Flint makes Jacobs’s war rooms sound like nice places to be. People sat around the table during meetings, he writes, drinking martinis and smoking cigarettes. So many people came every night that Jacobs disconnected her doorbell and began to leave her door unlocked.
Mr. Flint neatly summarizes all three battles between Jacobs and her forces and Moses and his. He captures Mr. Moses’s pique at being stymied. “There is nobody against this,” he sputtered about the
Mr. Flint describes how “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” came to be written, and puts it in context amid the classics of dissent in the early 1960s, books that included “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan, “The Other America” by Michael Harrington and “Unsafe at Any Speed” by Ralph Nader.
Jacobs became famous (she was photographed by Diane Arbus for Esquire), but she ultimately grew tired of the spotlight and of public battles; she wanted to spend more time writing books. She and her family moved in 1968 to
About her years on the barricades, she later told one interviewer: “I hate the government for making my life absurd.”
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs