Book Review Archive: Wrestling With Moses

Each Tuesday, I’m posting book reviews that I did in the past for D+A Studio’s blog. I’m doing this because, well, I love to read, and a good book will not be dated and will keep coming up when discussing current issues.  Click on the “Book Review” tab to see all reviews. 

Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, by Anthony Flint, tells the stories of Robert Moses, who served for many decades in various appointed infrastructure-related posts in New York City, and Jane Jacobs, the activist and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The book reads like a novel, if a very detailed one (I was hooked and stayed up late to finish it like a novel, curled up with book and my maps of Manhattan).

Flint parallels the early life and careers of both Moses and Jacobs, then describes a few of her most famous battles over proposed public works projects headed by Moses: a proposed road through Washington Square Park, an area of the West Village designated as a “slum” through the Title 1 Urban Renewal program and slated for demolition to make way for housing projects built by private developers (federally funded by the Title 1 program), and the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have run through the Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side to connect the Holland Tunnel with the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges.

These neighborhoods, found to be “slums” by the government, where, according to Jacobs, in fact organically planned, active, caring, living neighborhoods. Jumbled uses, some vacancies and many imperfections, but far from “slums.” Being designated as a “slum” by Title 1 could be self-fulfilling prophecy: government officials would find a neighborhood that had some physical imperfections, perhaps a few buildings that weren’t up to current building or fire code, some vacancies, or boarding houses without a bathroom for each room, and the area would be designated a slum. This designation could stick for many decades even if nothing happened, and as a result banks would stop investing and businesses would not move in, so the neighbor would in fact go downhill.

Flint describes Jacobs’ legacy of citizen activism and bottom-up action. Today it’s hard to imagine such sweeping urban projects being planned without any citizen input (as anyone who has experienced the back-and-forth of the viaduct plans in Seattle can attest). I can’t believe I have never heard Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s play on NIMBY (not in my backyard) when speaking about citizen veto power: BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything).

Although the book is obviously pro-Jacobs, Flint does touch on a common criticism of Jacobs: that she does not take gentrification into account when discussing what makes great neighborhoods. One of the projects that she fought which is highlighted in the book would provide affordable housing, under Title 1 Urban Renewal.

“Jacobs was convinced the city was the best possible place for people to live, and in many ways gentrification proved her right. She argued that the problem was a matter of supply and demand-that there weren’t enough urban neighborhoods, and if they were as ubiquitous as suburban sprawl, they wouldn’t be such a precious commodity, and prices would come down.”

We see this happening now. Not everyone can afford to live in Greenwich Village, or have a house in Capitol Hill in Seattle, but suburbs such as Kirkland are “urbanizing,” realizing the appeal and practicality of a more urban zoning code with a mix of uses and less parking. Most suburban zoning codes are based on the outdated idea of the separation of uses from the 1920’s, where tenement houses were next to leather tanneries. The most desirable urban neighborhoods have a mix of uses, all within proximity of the other and ideally combining all daily needs within walking distance.

It’s hard to imagine the present day AIA (American Institute of Architects) supporting a plan to replace a street like this with an elevated highway (the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, which the AIA then supported). Broome Street in SoHo, with its wealth of cast-iron front buildings, is what some would consider an ideal urban street.

Flint also points out the many good things that Moses made a reality: many state and city parks, beaches, playgrounds, parkways and bridges throughout New York City and Long Island. He includes a great point from Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic for the New York Times:

“‘Today [2006, when she died], the pendulum of opinion has swung so far in favor of Ms. Jacobs that it has distorted the public’s understanding of urban planning. As we mourn her death, may we mourn a bit for Mr. Moses as well.’ Moses vision, he said, however flawed, represented ‘an America that still believed a healthy government would provide the infrastructure-roads, parks, bridges-that bind us into a nation. Ms. Jacobs, at her best, was fighting to preserve the more delicate bonds that tie us to a community. A city, to survive, must have both.'”