Wrestling With Moses: a look at the work and legacy of Jane Jacobs fills in (and goes beyond) the gaps in The Power Broker
It contains two lively mini-biographies, coupled with accounts of major fights over a road through Washington Square Park. urban renewal in Greenwich Village, and the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway (aka LoMex). The first fight helped shape Jacobs's thinking about urban renewal, published before her landmark 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities; the latter two she led, the second after she’d become a national figure.
My main quibble is simply with the scope of the book. Anyone wrestling with the legacies of Moses and Jacobs, especially after major retrospectives on both at museums in New York in 2007, must tackle the latter-day conflicts between their legacies: could Jacobs’s un-slumming--a version of gentrification--truly produce the low-income and affordable housing that cities like New York need, or was the wholesale clearance embraced by Moses the answer?
Or, in a different era, is there a different set of solutions? Author (and former Boston Globe reporter) Flint, to his credit, recognizes these issues, but, as I describe below, could’ve spent more time grappling with them.
(Flint will present a book talk from 6:30 to 8 pm today at the Skyscraper Museum. The event is free, but RSVP is requested.)
Jacobs emerges, as she has in previous portraits, as in independent thinker--indeed, as Paul Goldberger has noted, perhaps her most important legacy is skepticism. Flint notes that, as an adolescent who made up imaginary friends to talk to, young Jane Butzner's choices were Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin.
“I was brought up to believe there is no virtue in conforming meekly to the dominant opinion of the moment,” Jacobs reflected. “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.”
Jacobs as activist
Jacobs emerges as a forceful and clever activist, at times pushy and profane, but only by the standards of the time. She once got arrested for destroying a stenographer’s reel of notes from a public hearing.
“Listen to this! There is no Record! There is no hearing! We’re through with this phony fink hearing!” she proclaimed, according to Flint.
As epithets go, phony fink hearing does not approach the depths of discourse in the Atlantic Yards controversy.
Jacobs was a clever strategist. She followed the money, like a good investigative reporter. Learning from Shirley Hayes, the mastermind behind the Washington Square protest, Jacobs agreed that there was no place for deals or compromise.
When it came to the battle over LoMex, which was supported by establishment groups like the American Institute of Architects and the Municipal Art Society as well as the construction unions, opponents found their own union workers: waiters and bartenders and deliverymen threatened by the massive displacement. (Given economic changes, no such union counterforce was available in the Atlantic Yards fight.)
And, though Flint doesn’t make the comparison, at one point, Jacobs, in content if not tone, sounded as threatening as Darnell Canada, he of the “You’re the victim” speech at the 8/23/06 public hearing so indelibly captured in the film “Brooklyn Matters.”
Her speech was succinct. At a time when affordable housing was scarce, the government proposed destroying the homes of two thousand families. At a time when unemployment was high, the government wanted to wipe out small businesses and warehouse and factories representing thousands of jobs, many of them held by minorities. The government, she said, was acting like inmates of an insane asylum. The people didn’t want this highway, but no one was listening. And she issued her warning: If the expressway is put through, there will be anarchy.
Jacobs based her analysis on her lived observation--the sidewalk ballet of different people and purposes, so different from the prevailing planners' vision: slum clearance replaced by single-purpose housing and large amounts of green space.
But could Jacobs, who died in 2005, have walked around latter-day cities and not noticed how many people are absorbed with their cell phones, as Andrew Blum observed in his 2007 essay on the Jacobs exhibit, as published in the book Block by Block?
Indeed, as political scientist Marshall Berman suggests in an essay in Block by Block, Jacobs’s stoop-side vision was perhaps more pastoral than pragmatic, overlooking some of the inevitable conflicts in urban life.
Blight, then and now
In 1961, blight was defined differently, but it was, as today, a malleable concept.
Davies, head of the Housing and Redevelopment Board, said the West Village had been targeted as a blighted area based on the fact that there was a mix of uses in the neighborhood, considered a “deficiency” under the guidelines of Title 1. Rooming houses, obsolete building types, and excessive density—all of which existed in the West Village and all of which Moses had cited in previous urban renewal projects—were other indicators of blight.
Now, the issue is too little density, at least in places.
The legacy of Jacobs
Flint traces how Jacobs’s ideas have entered mainstream discourse. Cities now are willing to tear down and cover downtown highways, recognizing her now-accepted argument that building new highways invites more traffic. Cities (like Phoenix!) built for the car in the 20th century are now adding light rail, Flint observed recently on WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show.
While Jacobs severely criticized the orthodoxy among urban planners, planning organizations such as the American Planning Association and the Congress for a New Urbanism have since embraced her principles, as have developers, via the Urban Land Institute (which, I’d add, counts Forest City Enterprises as a member).
Like many, Flint worries that Moses-like grand projects could not take place today, given the legacy of NIMBYism that has emerged from Jacobs’s followers.
And, he concludes, “Had Moses been in charge of building the worlds’ greatest transit system, he would be cheered today no matter how many people he had uprooted.”
Indeed, that goes to the question of what constitutes the legacy of Moses. As I wrote in December 2007, big plans don’t necessarily mean megaprojects like Atlantic Yards but infrastructure and the framework for growth. Thus, despite a nod to high-speed rail in the recent stimulus package, we’re still way behind many other countries.
Questions of gentrification
Flint appropriately observes that Jacobs didn't fully address gentrification. (Indeed, she was writing about a city during the era of suburbanization and superblocks)
“I think it should be so obvious… that, if the Village area is left alone and if no middle-income housing is projected by the board, which is the only way it can be, eventually the Village will consist solely of luxury housing, which we, of course will be powerless to prevent,” [Clarence] Davies [the director of the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Board] wrote to a colleague. “This trend is already quite obvious and would itself destroy any semblance of the present Village that [Jacobs and her allies] seem so anxious to preserve.”
Indeed, housing official Roger Starr criticized Jacobs’s concept of unslumming: “This means, Mrs. Jacobs admits, reducing the neighborhood population, i.e., throwing out the people who were living there, and remodeling for expensive apartments or single family occupancy.”
Starr had hit on the most stringing critique of Jacobs’s theories: if no low-income housing was planned or built, her vision of organic city growth would do little to curb gentrification. And, after all, the underlying motivation that drove many urban renewal projects and public housing plans was to help the poor.
Indeed, would you believe that Park Slope of the early 1960s, when the brownstones were chopped up into rooming houses, had a larger population?
Indeed, the recent retrospective on Moses, points out Flint, delves into the issue of gentrification. More recently, some Jacobsian ideas, such as inclusionary zoning, aim to thread the needle, to add affordable housing as a byproduct of growth.
Jacobs, writing during a time when there was space to build in cities like New York, suggested infill construction on vacant lots would solve the affordable housing problem. Today, I suspect, as do others, the solution is more variegated; an investment in transit: development-oriented transit rather than transit-oriented development.
As I wrote in December 2007, biographer Alice Sparberg Alexiou criticized communities for not demanding the fairness Jacobs expected:
To state it bluntly, how many white urban pioneers are fighting to ensure that people of color are not pushed out of their now-gentrifying neighborhoods?
Indeed, that was the failure—of both the community and the government—in the rezoning of Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. Now the Bloomberg administration believes in adding density to ensure affordability, and is doing that in some rezonings throughout the city.
The gentrification issue came up when Flint appeared on the August 7 Leonard Lopate show, which is also features original audio of protagonists Jacobs and Moses.
Lopate quoted a comment from a listener, who wrote that Jacobs preserved the West Village for wealthy hipsters and preserved Soho for wealthy New Jersey shoppers, while Moses’s project still house working people.
“Gentrification is the curse of reviving cities everywhere,” allowed Flint. “It is incredible though, to think that an urban success story like SoHo could’ve been the site of the Lower Manhattan Expressway... so I appreciate the way she allowed the neighborhood to flourish.”
True enough, but where to go from here?
The critical reaction
The New York Times review, curiously enough, doesn't mention the issue of gentrification in its daily review. In Metropolis, George Beane points directly to the gentrification issue and the unfortunate consequence of Jacobs’s legacy.
In the San Francisco Chronicle, critic John King acknowledges dismay over the role neighborhood groups in cities like San Francisco and Berkeley that invoke Jacobs use process to derail projects.
He notes an intriguing contrast, pointing to challenges of growth that Jacobs, at least in Death and Life, did not focus on:
Jacobs, by contrast, defined exquisitely how to bring out the latent qualities of the places that exist. But that's different than shaping new districts, or responding to global shifts in manufacturing and technology.
In an ideal world we'd have leaders with Jacobs' relish for life, her desire to encourage complexity and diversity in all their forms - and Moses' path-clearing will to make things happen when needed at a citywide or regional scale.
In the Wall Street Journal, Vincent Cannato concludes:
Urbanites rightly cherish their copies of Jacobs’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” but there is a danger in demonizing urban development. Try to imagine New York and its surrounding areas without the bridges, roads, playgrounds and beaches that Robert Moses built. Modern cities need infrastructure as well as the public spaces and-neighborhoods that nurture urban life.
Indeed, and that’s an argument for infrastructure and truly civic projects.
In the conservative/libertarian City Journal, Howard Husock noted that “Moses was a classic progressive” using eminent domain for perceived good ends, while Jacobs “was more libertarian than leftist.” He acknowledges that neighborhood activists can cause stagnation.
Might a fourth airport be a commercial boon for the New York metropolitan area? The development skeptics say no, but Jacobs understood that public facilities could spark urban vitality. She approvingly cites branch libraries, for instance, in Death and Life. When I interviewed her for Boston public television in 1981, she was dismissive of critics of the new Faneuil Hall Marketplace, who feared that public investment had created a redoubt of restaurants and shops for the affluent. Characteristically, she marveled at the throngs that gathered there at all hours. They still do today.
The point to remember is that there are times when government properly takes the lead in building the infrastructure on which private plans can then thrive.
Sure, but that’s not necessarily an argument for megaprojects.
And what about AY?
But it also risks overstating the extent to which her vision has prevailed. It’s difficult to imagine her having a kind word to say, for instance, about the proposed Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, where eminent-domain power is to be used for massive clearance and the construction of subsidized high-rises and a sports arena. It’s classic old-style urban renewal, dressed up with plans to use a big-name architect. Sports stadia—the only significant public works to be built in New York recently—are particularly out of keeping with Jacobs’s view that major public facilities should attract people throughout the day and night, not just intermittently.
I’m not sure that sports stadiums qualify as truly public works, but, as I wrote, Jacobs opposed subsidies for sports facilities.
In a contrarian review in BookForum, Philip Nobel argues that Flint overstates Jacobs’s influence and overstates the battle of Washington Square Park, which Nobel considers mere NIMBYism.
Nobel criticizes Flint for calling the 48-foot wide road a “highway,” which isn’t true; while Flint does at times use the word “highway” to describe the road in the thoughts of Jacobs and allies, he chooses the word “roadway,” which was ultimately part of a larger system.
That leads to Nobel’s challenge:
We don’t build much, by the standards of our own history, and we don’t build big. Often—Hudson Yards? Atlantic Yards?—we don’t build at all. That may be why we salute both Jane Jacobs and the best side of Robert Moses, builder of beaches and parkways and playgrounds, not to mention an essential foil in a decades-long effort to work out a compromise.
Today, we’re close to that sweet spot. Some think the city is selling out; I think it’s maturing, growing more sophisticated, closer to its older cousins in Europe.
Nobel considers Flint’s book to be part of a larger school of David-and-Goliath struggles, worshipping individuals as heroes. He writes:
Perhaps because it makes the story easier to tell, or more compelling in the marketplace, they put disproportionate power in the hands of individuals, suggesting that events turn on their characters and acts. They seldom do; the factors effecting change in cities are too convoluted, the contexts too multiple. Especially in New York. Here, change always comes as the net result, the averaged vector, of a thousand actors, strong and weak, pulling at their own angles.
He has a point. The battle in Brooklyn Heights to beat back Moses's Brooklyn-Queens Expressway was epic in its own right, yet was not chronicled or publicized as much as the later battle over Washington Square Park.
Still, Nobel, oddly enough, sniffs that the highway was "relocated from the center of Brooklyn Heights to the west of and below the neighborhood because of offended preservationist sensibilities" without acknowledging that it also made much more sense to run it around the edge of the neighborhood.
On the other hand, individuals do make a difference. Didn't Jacobs, in her book, crystallize the concerns about neighborhoods and developments that had been expressed by many? Could the real estate industry have made such progress without Mayor Mike Bloomberg?
The market Jacobsians
Two commentators who approach Jacobs with a free-market bent also should be noted. In a New Republic review, Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser suggests--disregarding Brandes Gratz's observations--that there should be a balance:
Jacobs was right that cities are built for people, but they are also built around transportation systems.
He also warns about process:
Jacobs did help to make public decisions more accountable, which is an incontrovertibly good thing. There is little to like in arbitrary public power—but at this point the pendulum has swung too far. Today it often feels as if every neighbor has veto rights over every new project, public or private. When Jacobs’s heirs argue for limits on eminent domain and expensive boondoggle projects, I stand with them. When they impose more and more restrictions on private owners building on their own land, I shake my head. Jacobs herself did not oppose only highways and urban renewal, but also far more benign private projects such as NYU’s library. Education is crucial to urban success. Surely a twelve-story university library would not have hurt Greenwich Village.
He suggests that "Jacobs underestimated the value of new construction," even as new supply is needed for affordability:
An absolute victory for Moses leads to heartless cities, built to accommodate cars but not pedestrians, with high-rise buildings that are disconnected from their streets. An absolute victory for Jacobs means a city frozen in concrete with prices that are too high and buildings that are too low.
In response, the New York Jacobsian Benjamin Hemric responds that Jacobs was not against high-rises, just against "tower-in-the-park" versions (which, I'd add, defines Atlantic Yards), high-rise housing for the poor, and a plethora of high-rises that destroy diversity.
Hemric observes that Jacobs was "not against modern day automobile infrastructure when such infrastructure respected the needs of cities" and that Jacobs did not oppose "the construction, per se, of NYU's Bobst Library," rather its placement.
Note: I met Anthony Flint in early August and, at his request, gave him a tour of the Atlantic Yards footprint and environs. This review was largely finished by then.