Book Review -- Wrestling with Moses

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As someone who has spent some time in the East and West Village and Washington Square Park, it's hard to believe that at one time New York City officials wanted to run an elevated highway right through those neighborhoods and separately turn Washington Square into basically embankments to a 4-lane, enhanced 5th Avenue. Currently those neighborhoods are quaint, highly functional urban areas that cater to a diverse (although increasingly wealthy) population. Ruining them with superinfrastructure would seem crazy now and in the 1950's and 60's that seemed crazy to one woman: Jane Jacobs.

Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City by Anthony Flint is a slim book chronicling the efforts of New York's Master Builder Robert Moses to bring highways, urban renewal, and superblock housing to the Greenwich Village area of New York and how Jane Jacobs was not only able to stop those efforts in their tracks but to change the way that people in general, and urban planners specifically, thought about how urban areas worked.

The Flint book is a fascinating retelling of Robert Moses' plans for the Greenwich Village area and how Jane Jacobs was able to use the public planning process, the press, and neighborhood activism to stop those plans. Although today we hear all the time about how neighborhood groups organize to stop some sort of huge public works project or highway project, in the 1950's this was unheard of. Any group that stops a highway from going through their neighborhood should give a tip of the hat to Jane Jacobs.

Having said that, however, Jacobs lasting legacy will be her book The Death and Life of the Great American Cities. Although it espouses concepts we take for granted today -- good urban development needs eyes on the street, a diversity of uses, places for kids to play, places to walk, work, and shop -- in the early 1960's this was a radical concept and flew in the face of the massive "urban renewal" effort that was going on throughout the country. While neighborhood groups eagerly embraced her concepts, city officials, developers, and yes urban planners, treated the book with scorn.

Although the Flint book champion's Jacobs' efforts and recognizes their impact on the urban form some 50 years later, it's not afraid to point out the negative fallout and their lasting impacts. NIMBYism is a direct descendant of what Jacobs wrought and many neighborhoods have used her writings and concepts to oppose any and all development, regardless of merit. Furthermore, although Jacobs also spoke out against gentrification, it is clear that by preserving the quaint urban elements of the West Village and SOHO, those neighborhoods have become a magnet for wealthy professionals and national chain stores, while the dock workers, shop owners, and elderly Jacobs celebrated in her book have long moved away.

One side note, In Robert Caro's book The Power Broker, which is a 1200-page magnum opus on the life and times of Robert Moses, there is nary a word on Jane Jacobs. Apparently Caro turned in a 1500 page manuscript and the editor made Caro trim it. A whole chapter on Jacobs was eliminated, as was a chapter on the Brooklyn Dodgers leaving for Los Angeles and the inner workings of the New York City Planning Commission. Oh to read those chapters! Come on Vintage, reprint The Power Broker in two volumes with the cut chapters intact.

You may not want to tackle 1200 plus pages about Robert Moses, but if you are at all interested in urban planning and the effort to transform/preserver lower Manhattan, the 200 page Wrestling Moses is highly recommended.

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This page contains a single entry by Freealonzo published on October 14, 2009 9:24 AM.

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