Thursday, September 3, 2009

When David Fought Goliath in Washington Square Park


August 5, 2009

Books of The Times

When David Fought Goliath in Washington Square Park


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How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City

By Anthony Flint

Illustrated. 231 pages. Random House. $27.

Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs are the subject and the author of two of the most indelible nonfiction books of the 20th century: Robert Caro’s biography of Moses, “The Power Broker” (1974) and Jacobs’s own “Death and Life of Great American Cities” (1961). If you want to know about these towering oppositional figures, those are the bedrock texts, and neither feels remotely like homework: they’re as alive today as when they were written.


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 American City.”


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 Manhattan. It is hard even to list them now without cringing — or nearly weeping with gratitude that they never came to pass.


There was his plan to build a four-lane highway through the middle of Washington Square Park. Another project would have razed 14 blocks in the heart of Greenwich Village under the guise of urban renewal. There was also a plan to plunge a 10-lane elevated superhighway, to be called the Lower Manhattan Expressway, through SoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown and the Lower East Side.


Each of these projects is, from today’s vantage point, clearly insane; each would have had cataclysmic effects on the quality of life in Manhattan. But their flaws were less obvious to many at the time. It took an accidental activist, Jacobs, and her ability to marshal popular support and political will, to stop them. The battles over all three projects form the spine of “Wrestling With Moses.”


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 Verrazano-Narrows Bridges.


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 Scranton, Pa., the daughter of a family physician and a schoolteacher. When she moved to New York City in 1934 at 18, she had only a high school diploma and a degree from a secretarial and stenography school.


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 Hudson Street in the West Village.


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 Washington Square Park — a park where her own children had often played.


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 Washington Square Park plan. “Nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers.”


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 Toronto, partly for the peace and quiet (though she was dragged into urban planning issues there) and partly so her sons would not be drafted to fight in Vietnam.


About her years on the barricades, she later told one interviewer: “I hate the government for making my life absurd.”



Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company


Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"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


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