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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The book charts Jacobs’s emergence as a journalist with Architectural Forum and an activist, focusing initially on her protests against Moses’s plans for an extension of Fifth Avenue through Washington Square. Long before it became common, she and her grassroots allies mastered the art of working with the media; they cultivated such rising politicians as Edward I. Koch and John V. Lindsay. They also learned the value of deploying children in battles with City Hall. Once, when Jacobs was buying long underwear for her boys, a clerk asked her if it was for the winter. “No,“ she said. “It’s for picketing.“

Flint’s crisp, entertaining prose contrasts Jacobs’s passion for Washington Square’s bohemian flair with Moses’s button-down disapproval. To Moses, Flint writes, the park “needed a shave and a haircut, and to find a steady job. It needed to knock it off with the poetry readings and start serving a practical function for the city again.“ When Flint describes the fierce citizen army that sprang up to defend the square, in essence he describes the birth of modern community protest politics, including tactics that would inspire “freeway revolts“ in other cities. These strategies are now routinely employed by organizers from coast to coast, and Moses’s famous complaint that the only people who opposed him were “a bunch of mothers“ seems almost poignant in retrospect.

Wrestling with Moses suffers in its parallel approach to these twin characters. Flint provides a wealth of little-known material about Jacobs. Yet no matter how thorough he is in summarizing Moses’s career, Flint’s work on Moses comes off as second-best compared to Caro’s blockbuster. More important, Flint describes but does not fully explore a revisionist school of thought that is more sympathetic to the builder. Indeed, the author’s comment that Moses’s “entire career, built on energy, ambition, single-minded pursuit of power has been repudiated“ may strike some as excessive, given the 2007 exhibitions, lectures, and publication of Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York — the work of Columbia historian Kenneth T. Jackson and his former colleague Hilary Ballon — that tried to balance the historical scales. Jackson praised Moses as a man who, despite autocratic flaws, changed the city and embodied a can-do ethic. With New York lurching through the rebuilding of ground zero, some openly voice nostalgia for a planner who knew how to get things done.

Jacobs celebrated the everyday magic of the American city, praising communities where different classes mingled . . .

Flint does acknowledge that some of the ideas in The Death and Life of Great American Cities would eventually collide with other priorities. The push to preserve older neighborhoods, for example, had the unintended effect of blocking construction of much badly needed housing across the country. It also encouraged a gentrification that would have been the last thing on Jacobs’s mind. On the day after she died in 2006, someone left flowers and an anonymous note at the door of the building where she had lived: “From this house, in 1961, a housewife changed the world.“

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