Book Review: Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City

Anthony Flint

Review by: Scott Shuler

wrestling with mosesWhen I was in sixth grade our class trip was to the 1964-1965 World's Fair in New York. I read all I could about the Fair and kept seeing the name of Robert Moses. It was therefore easy to conclude that he single-handedly built the Fair and much else in New York City. Bridges, highways, parks, Lincoln Center, Shea Stadium, the UN Building. Wow...one person could do all that?

The 1960's and 1970's that I remember held growth and development in high regard. Urban renewal often meant scraping the land down to the bedrock and starting over with large projects that communicated prosperity and progress. City planners scouted out "blighted" areas that could be removed in favor of large-scale developments and located gaps in the freeway system. In New York City, municipal leaders gave Mr. Moses free rein to repair their city and bring it into the Space Age (pun intended). To do this, large areas of the city had to go. Their infrastructure was aging, and in many civic planners' (and mayors') minds this alone made them expendable.

Enter Jane Jacobs.

Ms. Jacobs lived in a renovated old house on Hudson Street in the West Village. She didn't see herself as an urban pioneer so much as a homebuyer who liked the building, neighborhood and proximity to New York's amenities. In time, the idea of "neighborhood" became more important to her. Her bustling community was active, alive and valuable. Washington Park was her neighborhood's playground for small children and the heart of the community. Mr. Moses saw it as a barrier preventing Fifth Avenue from extending to the Battery. He planned to do what he had always done - remake the landscape to accord with his vision for the city.

Having set the stage, author Anthony Flint describes what happens as these opposing philosophies collide.

He explores both Mr. Moses' and Ms. Jacobs' perspectives, attitudes and goals that placed them on opposite ends of what ostensibly was the same goal: to pull cities out of decline and make them healthy again.

Robert Moses believed the decaying condition of these cities was what helped drive people to the suburbs in the first place and that the existing urban fabric had to be replaced by something more practical, manageable (a key word, as neither Robert Moses nor his followers could trust the masses of city dwellers to solve this massive problem), clean, tidy, airy and modern. He saw the car as something that had to be accommodated and only expressways could adequately do so.

Jane Jacobs saw cities as a collection of neighborhoods and that destroying them to remake a city yielded entities that simply were not neighborhoods anymore. Her neighborhood around Hudson Street was full of people, hence full of life. She believed Robert Moses' projects were desolate and sterile. Worst of all his projects were miserable places to live or to operate shops and restaurants.

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