For Release Friday, September 11, 2009
Writers rarely get such plaudits, but, as time passes, I believe we can now call Jane Jacobs a heroine of history. This rare creature transformed and expanded our understanding of urbanity. Her vision and compassion fulfilled and expanded the eternal nature of the shared, vibrant, livable city that we cherish.
More dramatically, she blew the whistle on the forces of ruthless urban demolition so prevalent in her time.
I well remember meeting this woman in my own home city of Boston, shaking her hand, and getting a pat on the shoulder as she brushed some crumbs off my coat in a motherly fashion.
Yet if there were ever a fighter, this woman was that fierce commander. With an exquisite choice of words, she condemned the bulldozing tactics that had destroyed thousands of small businesses, their proprietors ruined, with hardly a gesture at compensation or consideration.
The struggle began in Manhattan’s West Village, and moved in time to her writing of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which resonated across the nation to Boston, Philadelphia, and, indeed, St. Louis, and across the world.
And there was no mistaking her message. As the banner headline read, in a Random House advertisement of her book: “The City Planners are Ravaging Our Cities!” Now, with Jacobs at the helm, it was being said publicly: the men who were supposed to be improving American cities were, incredibly, startlingly, laying waste to them.
But then there was Moses–Robert Moses, the great power broker of his day, whose decades of activity encompassed such urban highlights as Lincoln Center, Central Park Zoo, Jones Beach. Yet he had his dark side: running highways roughshod across New York that would have destroyed Jane Jacobs’ Washington Square Park and the West Village neighborhood. And, here, her battle began, as, against all odds she dared to launch the cause, and ended up winning.
Anthony Flint does a remarkable job of capturing this titanic struggle in his new book from Random House, Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City.
Where once stood the Mighty Robert Moses, who had laid proudful claim to tearing down houses for highways, ravaging favored old buildings, and erasing precious neighborhoods, the scene clears to show the amazing power of one woman who believed so compellingly in saving the quirky, the quaint, and the livable, the very factors that make urban life percolate with vitality and humanity.
And without an ounce of pretense. “I like attention paid to my books and not me,” said she.
The Flint book will not only stir up memories for many of us but–let us hope–coax a new generation to look back two ways.
First, to question and resist grandiose city re-make schemes of the Robert Moses variety, schemes of ruthless demolition that tear at the urban social fabric, imposing master plan psychology over common sense and common peoples’ lives.
And second, to re-kindle memory, revive the vivid picture of Jacobs, the remarkable activist figure whose words affirmed as rarely before the eternal nature of the close-packed city, livable and lovable, by force of example and artful language inspiring countless thousands who follow to tend the urban garden, and to treat those who live within, common and famed, with respect, and with care.
Jane Holtz Kay’s e-mail address is JHoltzKay@aol.com.
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