For Release Sunday, September 19, 2010
Writers write best about what they know, and what I know best about Roberta Gratz, longtime urban journalist and author of the new book — The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs (Nation Books, 2010) — is my own relationship with her, which began about 20 years ago now.
At the time I was a reporter for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, stirring up trouble with my stories on urban planning and development. Gratz had once done the same thing at the New York Post. I would call up Gratz, whose first book, The Living City, had just come out and which I loved. She would respond to my questions with great long quotes about the importance of remaking cities and their neighborhoods from the ground up, protecting the urban fabric, avoiding mega-projects, and nurturing real urban life.
Gradually over time, I made the same leap Gratz did: from being a reporter on urban planning to a thinker and writer on the subject in my own right. As happens when mentees grow up, I gradually started to disagree with Roberta some of the time, but we were and are still friends.
I say all this as background in reviewing her latest book, because it doesn’t seem quite right to leave it out. It’s certainly affects my view of Gratz and her writing.
The Battle for Gotham is essentially a memoir, although that’s not how it is billed, and it is the memoir portions that are best. Gratz’s story encompasses six or seven decades in and around New York City, including growing up on Washington Square Park, a move to the Connecticut suburbs, back to Manhattan as a young woman, working as a reporter at the New York Post, urban homesteading on the Upper West Side when it was still dangerous. And more than that: it covers the fortunes of her husband’s light manufacturing business (Gratz Industries), becoming friends with Jane Jacobs and helping persuade her to go public with her opposition to the Westway highway project, helping renovate a synagogue on the Lower East Side. And more.
Those rich experiences serve quite nicely as vehicle for Gratz’s many insights into ways one should and should not grow a city. It’s the perspective of an outsider, even as Gratz herself has become an insider of sorts, serving on the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and numerous other public bodies.
Gratz’s viewpoints are surely sharpened by the fact that a bulldozer and eviction notices have been following her family around for most of her life. New York University tore down her parents’ home, Moses’ policies shoved out her father’s dry-cleaning business on 8th Street, and another urban renewal project in the 1960s tore down the building that housed her husband’s metal-working shop on West 32nd Street. (It successfully moved to Long Island City, the strangely-named industrial neighborhood in Queens.)
Gratz’s stories of her past glide smoothly into her commentary on the present, which is equally valuable. She points out, accurately in my view, that the quasi independent public authority, The Empire State Development Corporation has essentially replaced Robert Moses in doing big projects, such as the big stadium and housing project Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, with little real public input. As Moses would have liked, these big projects often sit like islands in the city they are nominally part of.
I certainly don’t agree with Gratz on everything. She hints that the organization where I’m a senior fellow, The Regional Plan Association, is a bunch of highway-loving stooges to the powers that be because its 1929 Regional Plan called for more highways. The roadways actually made perfect sense at the time, given that the majority of the nation’s roads then were dirt and gravel. And at least since the late 1930s, RPA has worked tirelessly on behalf of the region’s mass transit system.
But I digress. What I see as Gratz’s central point is one I agree with: Moses’ style of anti-urban, anti-transit, anti-street style of development has continued in New York, (and I dare say other cities as well), routinely pushed by governments in the name of economic development, despite Jacob’s victory in academic and intellectual circles. We should figure out why this is the case, and change it. At least part of the story is that these big mega blocks reflect the realities of power, where some private interests hold disproportionate shares.
What’s unfortunate about the book is that it is billed as a story of Robert Moses, the mega-builder, versus Jane Jacobs, the champion of the traditional city. The book does recount much of their history, but this story has been told before and better elsewhere (including Anthony Flint’s 2009 book, Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City).
Gratz (or her editors) should have had the guts to bill the book as a straight memoir, rather than hanging her personal story on the overexposed Moses and Jacobs. I would have entitled it: Gratz: An Urban Memoir. And what a memoir it is!
Alex Marshall’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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