Correction to This Article
The review incorrectly said that Robert Moses intended to bulldoze the East Village and that he revealed plans to raze much of the West Village. He had no such plans for the East Village. Moses did not personally reveal the West Village plan, which would have designated 14 blocks as a slum, but rather worked behind the scenes toward the goal. The review also incorrectly said that Moses continued into the 1960s his efforts to extend Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park; he gave up that battle in 1958. The review also misstated the year Jane Jacobs moved to New York. It was 1934, not 1943.

Book Review: 'Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City,' by Anthony Flint

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, August 23, 2009


How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City

By Anthony Flint

Random House. 231 pp. $27

A photograph of Robert Moses published in "Wrestling with Moses" shows him in 1938, a cocky grin on his face, standing in front of a map of metropolitan New York City detailing the vast array of public spaces he was instrumental in creating during his amazing career as New York's master builder. It's an arresting picture and a fair depiction of the incalculable influence he had had by then on his native city, but it does not show the Robert Moses who is the subject of this book.

When that photo was taken, Moses was about to turn 50 and in the prime of his career. The Moses who comes under Anthony's Flint's scrutiny was in his late 60s when he lost the fight to pave over much of Washington Square Park, and well into his 70s when he lost two more: to bulldoze the East Village and replace it with high-rise housing, and to build an expressway through the heart of Lower Manhattan. As a younger man, Moses had been power-happy, arrogant, devious and vindictive, but he had also been a public-spirited New Yorker whose works, like those of Ozymandias, commanded awe:

"He had built bridges, highways, parks, and housing towers with astonishing speed, and his works had transformed New York. He was responsible for thirteen bridges, two tunnels, 637 miles of highways, 658 playgrounds, ten giant public swimming pools, seventeen state parks, and dozens of new or renovated city parks. He cleared three hundred acres of city land and constructed towers that housed 28,400 new apartments. He built Lincoln Center, the United Nations, Shea Stadium, Jones Beach, and the Central Park Zoo. He built the Triborough and Verrazano-Narrows bridges, the Long Island and Cross Bronx expressways, parkways down the side of Manhattan and north and east of the city, avenues, overpasses, causeways, and viaducts. Any New Yorker or visitor to the city has at one time or another driven down, walked through, sat in, or sailed into something that Moses created."

No one else in American history, indeed perhaps no one in human history, has built so much. Unlike the works of Ozymandias, of which in Shelley's great poem "nothing beside remains," most of Moses's endure, but like Ozymandias he is now mostly forgotten, except by students of city planning and readers of Robert Caro's influential, if almost unrelievedly vitriolic, biography, "The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York" (1974). By contrast, Jane Jacobs, who came out the winner in all three of his late-life battles, is known around the world. The great book she wrote even as she was going up against Moses, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961), has become the bible of the very city planners whom she attacks in it, and of just about everyone else who loves cities.

Jane Butzner was a smart, strong-willed, principled woman from Scranton who moved to New York in 1943 in hopes of a career in journalism, found various writing jobs including one at Architectural Forum, married an architect named Robert Jacobs and reared their three children in a house at 555 Hudson Street not far from Washington Square. She cared deeply about Greenwich Village and was determined that it not be plowed under in New York's unceasing drive to build bigger and taller. She soon became what we now call a community activist and, as it turned out, an exceptionally astute and resourceful one.

"I was brought up to believe there is no virtue in conforming meekly to the dominant opinion of the moment," she wrote once. "I was brought up to believe that simple conformity results in stagnation for a society, and that American progress has been largely owing to the opportunity for experimentation, the leeway given initiative, and to a gusto and a freedom for chewing over odd ideas." These convictions brought her smack up against the New York power structure, the modus operandi of which was succinctly summarized in the Consolidated Edison signs that in the 1960s could be seen all over the city: "Dig We Must for a Better New York."

Jacobs believed that tearing things down doesn't always make things better but sometimes makes them worse, and in the three projects over which she came to grips with Moses she was absolutely right. In the 1950s and early '60s, Moses wanted to extend Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park -- "four lanes, forty-eight feet wide, with a mall in the middle to be planted with trees" -- for the convenience of cars, buses and trucks. In 1961, soon after Jacobs submitted "Death and Life" to her publisher, Moses revealed plans to raze much of the West Village; since the targeted area included Hudson Street, Jacobs obviously had a personal interest in the plans, but they were outrageous on their face, the willful destruction of one of the city's most diverse and historic neighborhoods. Then in the 1960s, after years of planning and what can only be called scheming, Moses wanted "to evict twenty-two hundred families, demolish over four hundred buildings, and relocate more than eight hundred businesses to clear the way" for a highway that would rip right through Lower Manhattan to "increase efficiency for drivers looking to cross from New Jersey to Long Island."

By this stage in his life and career Moses had turned monomaniacal, and he had the unfettered power to carry out his imperial designs. The uncountable positions he held were appointive rather than elective, and he was so entrenched in all of them that he was, to all intents and purposes, answerable to no one. His victory in all three projects seemed foreordained, yet Jacobs and her equally unknown allies -- along with a few politicians possessed of varying degrees of conviction, cynicism and opportunism -- wore Moses down in every one. They aroused public opinion against the projects and set an example for ordinary citizens in other cities. It is no exaggeration to say that Jacobs changed the way we see cities, the things we expect of them, the way we live in them.

Flint, a Massachusetts journalist who works at a think tank in Cambridge, has written a workmanlike account of these epic battles. His heart is in the right place -- i.e., he and I are on the same side -- yet he is reasonably fair to Moses, acknowledging his vital contributions as well as his great shortcomings. But there are occasional instances of sloppiness -- for example, "The Marine Parkway Gil Hodges Bridge" may have "opened in 1937," but "Gil Hodges" did not become part of its name until 1978, after the death of the much beloved Brooklyn Dodger first baseman -- that somewhat diminish this otherwise useful book.

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