Saturday, September 19, 2009

anthony flint, "wrestling with moses: how jane jacobs took on new york's master builder and transformed the american city" book review

anthony flint's "wrestling with moses: how jane jacobs took on new york's master builder and transformed the american city" is one of those very short books with an insufferably long subtitle. it could easily have been shortened to "jacobs takes on the master builder," or some other "david versus goliath" moniker. there is no doubt that jane jacobs is the heroine of this new york city centered morality tale, and robert moses stars as the unmitigated force of evil. still, the book is well-worth reading!

robert moses was immortalized in robert caro's pulitzer prize winning "the power broker: robert moses and the fall of new york" in 1974. the huge, 1200+ page, tome painted moses and his work in unsparingly dark tones. to this day, almost 30 years after i first encountered it (in the fall of 1980), it remains one of the most powerful books i've ever read! amazingly, in all those pages, the name jane jacobs does not appear! for someone who thwarted the power broker not once, but three separate times, that's an incredible omission.

to caro's credit, he did write an entire chapter about jacobs and her connection to robert moses. but that material found itself on the cutting room floor when the final version of his book was assembled for publication. jane jacobs, at the time "the power broker" was published, was no longer simply an accidental (albeit successful) activist. she had achieved fame in her own right as author of the urban planning classic, "the death and life of great american cities." flint's book seeks to fill in the gap in the moses-jacobs story.

"wrestling with moses" is a breezy read. it ably covers the three urban planning battles they fought. it's little surprise that jacobs and her allies win all three. it's equally remarkable, in present day new york city, that anyone could have proposed the projects without being branded criminally insane. the first was a proposed 4 lane highway through washington square park, the second (tinged with more than a bit of revenge) sought to raze 14 blocks of greenwich village in the name of urban renewal, and the third - and most ludicrous of the trio - was the "lower manhattan expressway" (an 11 lane elevated superhighway that cut across soho, little italy, chinatown, and the lower east side).

while it's easy to cheer jacobs and hiss at moses, flint to his great credit, points out the danger of jacobs position. she and her husband were original urban pioneers, buying a rundown building and fixing it up. legions after them did the same thing, leading to gentrification and housing costs that were out of reach for middle class families. while jacobs proselytized about living, breathing neighborhoods, her prototypical "not in my backyard" ultimately lead to no development whatsoever. and, letting that gentrification run amok, would remove any and all affordable housing unless city planners took steps to make it available.

the moses legacy today, as flint points out in the epilogue, is being reexamined, in a decidedly less harsh light, by scholars. moses was undoubtedly a bully and had way too much unchecked power. but he did create the landscape of modern new york, and new york city in particular. ignoring his last two monumental achievements, the triborough bridge and the verrazana- narrows bridge, can anyone picture new york city without lincoln center? without the united nations? without (the old) shea stadium? without the central park zoo? those are a handful of the non-transportation projects moses built.

it's a complicated story... but "wrestling with moses" presents it in a fair, even-handed way.

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