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Jane Jacobs over Robert Moses: The Victory That Keeps On Giving

Jane Holtz Kay / Sep 11 2009

For Release Friday, September 11, 2009
Citiwire.net

Jane Holtz KayWriters 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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4 Comments

  1. Kelly Merks
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    I am a graduate student of Land Use Planning in Texas. Despite that Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is half a century old, it is just as relevant now as it was when she was observing and writing about urban patterns. Indeed, it should be required reading for planners, developers and other urban professionals. Imagine the problems that would be solved!

  2. Fred Pelzman Sr.
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Do you know if Mr. Flint will be making the usual tour publicizing “Wrestling With Moses.” How can I learn if he is coming to Washington, DC area? Thanks

  3. Posted September 14, 2009 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Those of you with interest in Michigan’s urban revitalization of Benton Harbor will appreciate the remediation of iron and steel foundry sites. Presently becoming a Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Community, along the Sunset Coast’s Port of Saint Joseph Harbor, utilizing EPA funds cleaning contaminated sites. A community in transformation sensitive to established urban areas with Art Districts, farm stands, wineries, marinas and yes regional colaboration so new it’s not been name changed from being known as Michiana. Notre Dame, Western Michigan University and Andrews University create the educational triangle.

  4. Neal Peirce
    Posted September 17, 2009 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Comment received from Rick Cole, Citistates Group Associate and city manager of Ventura, Calif.:

    We’re all better off for more attention being drawn to the work of Jane Jacobs — not just Death and Life, but her later work on economics and cities. While I thoroughly enjoyed reading Tony’s book, I don’t share his view that Jane Jacobs has won the legacy battle. The widespread embrace of her work is often shallow and developers continue to push megadevelopments that look cute, but are barren monocultures that cannot replicate the “complexity” she celebrated.