For some time I have wanted to share my thoughts on a book that came out in 2009 called “Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City,” by Anthony Flint. The first thing worth noting is that Flint is not an academic. Rather he is the director of public affairs at a Cambridge-based think tank. The fact that Flint is involved in contemporary urban thought and policy is clear in the book. While it recounts historical events, Flint laces the book with references to modern ideas and events – tying the lessons of the past to the challenges and trends of the present and the future.
Most of us involved in urban development and planning are familiar with the work of Robert Moses and the way that Jane Jacobs contributed to permanently transforming the dialogue around urban redevelopment. This book provides a good refresher on the events surrounding several key “battles” in which Jacobs was involved in derailing urban renewal plans that Moses had a heavy hand in. For the general public who may not be familiar with this period of American urban history, Flint’s book is very accessible, recounting complex stories in a fairly concise (199 pages), engaging, and readable volume.
For folks who are already very familiar with these events, I urge you to read the book nonetheless, so you can get to the Epilogue. “Wrestling with Moses” is like a puzzle, selectively choosing elements out of the work of Jacobs and Moses, and building them together into a set of ideas that lay the groundwork for the Epilogue, which steps out of the historical and puts everything into its place in our modern context. By the end it is clear that the lessons the book brings to light are ones that are not just rooted in history, but that we need to address and discuss right now.
Flint spends a few pages explaining how profoundly Jane Jacobs shaped contemporary urban thought. He credits Jacobs’ work with a generation of “freeway revolts,” leading to halted highway projects and, more recently, highways torn down in cities across the U.S. Flint explains that “a new generation of citizen activists” saw Jacobs as “a kind of folk hero.” He recounts how professional organizations like the American Planning Association are incorporating Jacobs’ ideas into their core tenets. He discusses how her ideas influenced areas outside but related to planning, like crime prevention through environmental design.
Flint even goes beyond the planning profession (making a bit of a stretch, in my opinion) stating that “Everything from the design of workplaces to social media—the online networks of Facebook, YouTube, and open-source software—owes a debt to Jacobs and her original analysis of how decentralized, diverse, and ground-up systems function best.” He frames Jacobs as one of the seminal figures in American history leading to our current ideas about grassroots democracy.
Flint does not take the time to similarly clarify Moses’ contributions, perhaps because Moses’ work remains so obvious in physical development projects. Still, Flint points out that there has been some recent commentary on the need for a balanced philosophy that merges the best of Jacobs and Moses – the importance of investing in major infrastructure and also in community development and the human side of the city. He cites New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, who wrote “A city, to survive and flourish, needs both perspectives.”
Doubtless, Jane Jacobs played an important role in asserting a mandate for citizen participation in urban planning and development, and for creating a methodology whereby organized citizens can successfully fight powerful government and private-sector actors. There is something so essentially American about the notion of people in a neighborhood rising up in their own best interest and fighting City Hall.
Yet, it is too easy to frame this story as one of a dictatorial Moses trying to impose his will over the defenseless citizens. To his credit, Flint does not quite tell the story this way. While Moses was a powerful public official and Jacobs was a Greenwich Village housewife, the title of the book indicates that the battle between them was not one-sided. One blogger remarks on this point “Flint’s book really isn’t about planning. It’s about power. Pure and simple. … No question, Moses was a bully. But so, in her way, was Jacobs.”
Jacobs became a role model for active citizens, showing how they could put the kibosh on just about any development they did not like. While Jacobs’ own ideology was more multi-faceted, Flint acknowledges, “… the kind of thoughtful citizen involvement Jacobs envisioned has evolved into mere NIMBYism—the protest of ‘not in my backyard.’” Today, with very little federal money going into urban redevelopment, and generations of citizens studying Jane Jacobs and her followers, public and private actors across the nation often struggle to get any major projects built. Jane Jacobs wrote about a proactive view of urban development, but she practiced a reactive one that now shapes our urban context perhaps as profoundly as urban renewal did fifty years ago.
On the flip side, public-sector administrators in the urban renewal era of the 1950s and 1960s focused on affordable housing as a critical goal. The problem was the reliance on modernist, high-rise towers as the template for how to best house the poor. Jacobs was a critic of this type of housing, and today, urbanists universally acknowledge that this architectural and planning decision was misguided.
However, we often bundle the urban renewal together, rather than looking at the diversity of ideas that emerged from the public sector in this period. Not all affordable housing of the era was built this way. For example, in Philadelphia’s Germantown section, a significant amount of affordable housing was produced through historic rehabilitation, while the fabric of the neighborhood was restored around it with infill development. Jane Jacobs loved this approach, on one trip to Philadelphia admiring how “intermingled with the new, were old buildings, which were being restored, and corner stores.”
Perhaps more important than recognizing the diversity of approaches in the urban renewal period is the overall concept of what the public sector was trying to do. What receives far less attention is the basic notion that a generation of public officials were trying to figure out how to build a significant amount of housing for the poor. Some of that housing got built, but much did not. Today we are seeing the consequences of not building nearly enough.
Urban America went through a racially explosive period in the 1960s, and then an overall era of decline in the 1970s. New York famously was on the brink of bankruptcy. However, the 1990s saw the start of a new resurgence of interest in urban living, and today a number of U.S. cities are booming, while many others are steadily climbing back. As Flint explains, in places like New York, “urban neighborhoods have become so wildly popular that only the wealthy—and predominantly white—can afford to live there.” Flint continues, “Jacobs was convinced that the city was the best possible place for people to live, and in many ways gentrification proved her right.”
Jane Jacobs’ writings and persona have become a major force in re-defining the city as a livable place for middle-class working professionals. However, this same philosophy arguably laid the groundwork for the hyper-gentrification of many urban areas, and the pricing out of the individuals and businesses that created the diversity that initially attracted her to Greenwich Village — the same diversity that attracts so many city lovers to urban neighborhoods across the U.S. today. Now there is even such a strong image of thriving, upscale urbanism that whole cities and parts of cities are practically devoid of economic diversity. Jane Jacobs, personally, was in favor of affordable housing, but the public sector that she vilified was for affordable housing too – and on a much larger scale. We often forget this.
In his book, Anthony Flint retells the story of the interaction between two figure who significantly shaped our contemporary urban issues of redevelopment, affordable housing, gentrification, the need for infrastructure, and the role of citizen participants. He concludes with an Epilogue that ties these historical events to modern-day challenges, and leaves us with a number of unanswered questions. The story of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses is not about good and evil, but about the complexity of solving urban problems. The major question is: can we learn from the urban renewal era and apply its lessons to a contemporary world that is so different, and at the same time so much unchanged?