Giant Slayer

by Josh Getlin
Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City
By Anthony Flint
(Random House, 256 pages, $27)
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Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City by Anthony FlintWhen Random House sent Robert Moses a review copy of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, New York’s master builder was predictably infuriated. Jacobs declared war from the very first sentence: “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.“ An attack, in other words, on Moses’s record, which would ultimately include the construction of 13 bridges, the Cross Bronx and Long Island expressways, 658 playgrounds, 2 tunnels, 17 state parks, plus Lincoln Center and the United Nations.

Moses ’14GSAS, ’52HON returned the copy, advising Random House to “sell this junk to someone else.“ But to his consternation, Jacobs’s work became one of the most influential books ever written about American cities and how they function. A Greenwich Village mother and activist, she deplored the human cost of urban renewal and denounced Moses’s replacement of lively neighborhoods with skyscrapers, housing projects, and highways. Jacobs celebrated the everyday magic of the American city, praising communities where different classes mingled and storefronts shared space with apartments. From her second-story window at 555 Hudson Street, she marveled at “the ballet of the good city sidewalk,“ and her crusade to preserve, rather than simply demolish, older buildings was embraced by a new generation of planners beginning in the 1960s.

The story of Moses and his impact was told in the classic 1974 portrait, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, by Robert Caro ’67JRN. Far less has been written about Jacobs’s life and her battles against the über-planner’s projects, most notably, a planned expressway through Lower Manhattan. Anthony Flint’s Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City attempts to fill this gap, and for the most part succeeds admirably. Flint ’85JRN, a former reporter for the Boston Globe, chronicles the clashes between Jacobs and Moses as they began locking horns in the early 1950s. The two never met. But their David and Goliath confrontations — she as a grassroots organizer, he as the city’s most powerful planner — sparked angry battles over the future of Washington Square Park, the streets of Greenwich Village, and the congested, densely populated communities of Lower Manhattan.

Flint’s narrative ends when both players left the stage in 1968. Moses, who had enjoyed support from politicians going back to Al Smith in 1918, was stripped of his powers by Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Jacobs, her husband, and their two sons, driven by her opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft, moved to Toronto. More than 40 years later, Flint writes, “the business of development has changed completely as a result of Jacobs’s work. Builders and local government officials alike defer to the concerns of the neighborhood, involving the community in every step of the process. . . . They live in fear of riding roughshod over citizens.“

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