Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr: Review of Anthony Flint's Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City (Random House, 2009)

Oct 26, 2009 11:28 am

Luther Spoehr: Review of Anthony Flint's Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City (Random House, 2009)

[Luther Spoehr is a Senior Lecturer at Brown University, where he teaches several courses dealing with America in the ‘60s.]

When Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities came out in 1961, she had already won a few rounds from Robert Moses, the domineering master planner who had been building parks, bridges, tunnels, and highways in New York City for decades. Thanks partly to her skills as journalist, publicist, and community organizer, Moses’ bulldozers had been forced to spare Washington Square Park and other parts of Greenwich Village.

The early ‘60s echoed with calls for change. Michael Harrington sounded the alarm about poverty; Rachel Carson summoned citizens to protect the environment; and Jacobs galvanized people who cared about urban neighborhoods. City dwellers came together to defy “urban renewal,” with its impersonal high-rise housing, large, blank open spaces, and ever-wider and more disruptive highways, and to promote mixed-use, smaller-scale, resident-friendly neighborhoods.

It required courage to take on Robert Moses, arguably the most powerful public official in America (and surely the most powerful unelected one). As depicted here, Moses is the same ogre portrayed 35 years ago in Robert Caro’s monumental The Power Broker. An intimidating figure holding up to a dozen appointed positions simultaneously, he was literally and metaphorically a bulldozer, a master of the fait accompli who moved preemptively and used every bureaucratic trick to thwart opponents.

Anthony Flint, a former Boston Globe reporter now based at Cambridge’s Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, often makes it sound like Jacobs single-handedly kept Moses from paving over the city: he could have called this narrowly-focused biography “St. Jane and the Dragon.” As we follow Jacobs from public hearings to organizing sessions and back again, there is little on why the grass-roots sprouted so quickly, or why movers and shakers such as political boss Carmine DeSapio and rising politicians Ed Koch and John Lindsay signed on.

Flint has few second thoughts about Jacobs’ program. Only in the book’s last chapter—after Jacobs has helped to defeat “LOMEX” (the 10-lane Lower Manhattan Expressway) and then left New York for Toronto--does he begin to confront the ambiguities of Jacobs’ victories, particularly the fact that “gentrification” can push poor people out of neighborhoods just as roughly as bulldozers do.

Nor would one glean from this book that Moses-style urban development was being widely questioned by the late ‘60s, not just in New York, and not just because of Jacobs. Urban unrest and the deterioration of public housing in cities around the country mocked claims that such development built strong communities. Thanks to “induced demand,” highway construction led to more congestion, not less.

Jacobs, inspired to action by the view from her Hudson Street window, was significant, even essential, as she warned that Moses would “Los Angelicize New York.” But the moment had to be right, too. And her triumph, such as it was, was not a final one.

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