The Woman Who Saved New York

Peter Terzian


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In Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, journalist Anthony Flint tells a classic David-and-Goliath story. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Jane Jacobs, a writer and activist living in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, successfully led community protestors in a series of battles against Robert Moses, the seemingly indomitable planning czar. Moses’ vision of a New York crisscrossed with expressways led to the destruction of numerous neighborhoods and the displacement of thousands of City residents, and Jacobs sought to stop his brand of urban renewal before it devastated beloved idylls in the City.    

Flint, a former Boston Globe reporter who now works at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, recounts Jacobs’ staunch opposition to Moses’ plans to shuttle traffic through Washington Square Park, build a highway across Broome Street and replace the West Village with housing projects. The release of Wrestling with Moses couldn’t be timelier. On July 13, the block of Hudson Street where Jacobs lived and wrote her classic work of urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was renamed Jane Jacobs Way. 

Is it correct to say that we have Jane Jacobs to thank for the way New York City looks today? 
Absolutely. It’s amazing to think that 16 blocks of the West Village could have been bulldozed and made into an urban renewal project. Today it’s a beautifully functioning neighborhood with some of the most sought-after real estate in the country. The same goes for SoHo, where Moses wanted to put the “Lower Manhattan Expressway.” That change is unthinkable when you walk down Broome Street today. The beautiful cast-iron buildings and facades, the history, the boutiques, the restaurants, the life in that neighborhood from the Holland Tunnel over to Sara Delano Roosevelt Park—we have Jane Jacobs to thank for that all being there. 

What attributes did Jacobs have that made her such a galvanizing figure? 
She was the original self-starter. When she came to New York, she initially wanted to be a journalist. She started writing about the City for Vogue, and then for Architectural Forum. She didn’t have any formal education in urban planning or architecture, but she trained herself and developed her own expertise. And she was no shrinking violet. She was tough, and she was also a woman in a world that was completely dominated by men—powerful thinkers influenced by Le Corbusier and the Modernist movement. To take that on, you have to have a lot of confidence. 

What do you think Jacobs would make of New York City today? 
Before she died in 2006, she made some comments acknowledging that there was still a challenge in terms of speculation and gentrification in the City. She called it “over-success.” I think that until about 10 months ago [when the economic crisis began], you could walk through many New York City neighborhoods and get the sense that only the very wealthy could enjoy them. And that wasn’t her vision. 

Many critics of Robert Moses say that he destroyed the fabric of the Bronx by building the Cross-Bronx Expressway and replacing established neighborhoods with urban renewal projects. Do you think he was responsible for New York’s decline in the 1970s?
Robert Moses did not set out to destroy New York—quite the contrary. He was trying to save New York at a period of time when cities across the country were going through incredible economic transitions and demographic changes. I wish that Moses had devoted his energy and vision to building a mass transit infrastructure. We’d all think of him as a hero if he’d done that. If I were to blame him for anything, it would be for this broader idea of remaining automobile-centric in our thinking. That legacy is very hard to shake. 

Almost 50 years after its publication, have we taken to heart the precepts that Jacobs laid out in The Death and Life of Great American Cities?
In terms of city building and place-making, the design professions are on the same page as Jacobs. Most planners today embrace her principles and see the value of human-scale blocks, of mixed use and density as well as mass transit, walkable environments and a local economy. Also, there’s a recognition now of the value of cities as hubs of innovation, particularly in terms of the new green economy. If there’s a lesson that hasn’t been completely learned by the entire country, it’s how much we should be done with suburban sprawl. 

Your previous book, This Land, is a critique of sprawl. How did Wrestling with Moses grow out of that work?
I believe that a place like New York City is going to be more and more central to our lives and our nation, and will represent the future of human settlement in the context of energy and climate change. Jane Jacobs really gave us the owner’s manual for the livable city. The more I learned about how she described the elements of a well-functioning urban neighborhood, the more I appreciated that she was well ahead of her time. She said things that were quite relevant today in terms of how we can cultivate cities and make them more equitable and livable.

Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, $17.82, is available at amazon.com.

 


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