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Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses: some (Doctoroff, Burden) say you can have it both ways, and some (Gratz) say you can't

There are two kinds of people in the world of urbanism, apparently: those who think you can meld or navigate the difference between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, and those who think you can't.

Former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff is among the former groups. Asked July 8 if there was a simplistic either/or divide or a continuum, he replied, "“I don't think it is true any more, and I certainly think that the way we went about things, which was by no means perfect but we learned a lot along the way, is evidence that you can have it both ways."

CPC Chair Burden

Last night, at the third of the Architectural League's Conversations on New York, City Planning Commission Chairperson Amanda Burden sounded a similar note. Discussing the legacy of the Bloomberg administration, she observed, "I would say we've been able to have the city grow in place," able to accommodate new New Yorkers and access the waterfront.

She said it was her personal emphasis to "focus on the public realm... to end up with a vibrant street life." In that way," she continued, "We plan on a Robert Moses sort of scale, at least a number of these rezonings, but we judge ourselves by a Jane Jacobs scale."

In the age of Jacobs

Her interlocutor, critic and author Paul Goldberger, was too busy and/or polite to point out that, as he wrote in his 2004 book Up From Zero, about the contested process to rebuild the World Trade Center site, that it's never simple:
We may well be living in the age of Jane Jacobs, as opposed to the age of Robert Moses, but we also live in the age of marketing, and it is common today to see large projects presented as if they epitomized the small-scale, naturally occurring urban values Jacobs espoused.
Or, as he wrote in Block By Block, the companion to a Jacobs exhibit at the Municipal Art Society:
So if there is any way to follow Jane Jacobs, it is to think of her as showing us not a physical model for city form but rather a perceptual model for skepticism.
A Jacobs ally

Then there's Roberta Brandes Gratz, author of the recently published book The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, who told the Times May 13:
The bottom line must be that Moses’ “public be damned” dictatorial methods are unacceptable in a democratic society. “If the ends don’t justify the means, what does?” Moses declared. Means are more important than ends; process is key. This is the fundamental contrast between Moses and Jacobs. She was about process, he about projects. They represent antithetical views. I use their clashing visions as a lens to look at and understand, perhaps differently, recent city history.
Or, as Gratz wrote in City Limits 9/24/07:
Ironically, during the six months of Moses exhibitions and public focus on him, some people tried to give Moses all kinds of credit while saying how much they were also fans of Jane Jacobs. Amid all the exhibits, the desire for another Moses-type who “can get things done” also was expressed. To soften the blow of such an idea, commentators added that it should be a “gentler” Moses, a cross between Moses and Jane Jacobs. But this is an oxymoron – Moses and Jacobs represent polar opposites of urban thought.


  1. Part I

    Norman, great coverage (as usual) on the Robert Moses vs. Jane Jacobs “debate.”

    First off, here’s my take on the overall debate (which seems to have taken off in the four years since Jacobs’ death):

    Generally speaking there seem to me to be two problems that are greatly clouding and confusing the discussion:

    1) Most of the time people aren't defining sufficiently what they mean by “Robert Moses” or “Jane Jacobs” when they invoke these names as arch types. Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs each wrote, said and did many, many things -- so the question is, “What aspect of their legacy is being discussed when the name is being invoked?"

    For instance, are we talking about Robert Moses’ parks, pools, bridges, highways or urban renewal schemes? Are we talking about some of his particular methods (and which ones?) or about the end products themselves?

    Simply put, Jane Jacobs was not against everything and anything that Robert Moses (or Robert Moses “types” elsewhere) ever did. For example in “Death and Life of Great American Cities,” she greatly praises the large-scaled swimming pool that he built in Jefferson Park in East Harlem. Furthermore, some of the things she is critical of have little to do with the criticisms of others. For instance, in the “Economy of Cities” (I believe), she criticizes his mass-production mentality as Parks Commissioner and his over reliance on one species of tree, the London Plane tree.

    2) It seems that most of the time (and, these days, almost all of the time!) when people bring up the name Jane Jacobs they are not referring to the real Jane Jacobs at all (i.e., what Jacobs actually wrote, said or did) but rather to a series of highly distorted, stereotypical myths that have evolved about Jacobs -- especially since she the time of her death. (This is a period in which she, obviously, hasn’t been around, to clear her name and to write/say, as she occasionally would when she was alive: “That’s not what I said,” or “Your putting words in my mouth.”)

    Simply put Jane Jacobs was not against all large-scale construction, all highways, all uses of eminent domain, etc., and, furthermore, most people don’t seem to have the foggiest idea of what she actually stood for.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Wednesday, July 21, 2010, 6:15 p.m.

    (To be continued.)

  2. Part II

    Morman Oder wrote:

    Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses: some (Doctoroff, Burden) say you can have it both ways, and some (Gratz) say you can't.

    There are two kinds of people in the world of urbanism, apparently: those who think you can meld or navigate the difference between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, and those who think you can't.

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    It seems to me that both Doctoroff and Burden (and often Goldberger too) are discussing a cartoon version of Jane Jacobs and ignoring what Jacobs actually wrote, said or did. (I say this fully realizing that some of them, like Goldberger, have actually had conversations with Jacobs. But if what they are saying is based upon what she said to them privately, I think they still should also be discussing what Jacobs has publicly written or said elsewhere and to then try and relate it to what they believe she said to them privately.)

    Briefly speaking, what interested Jacobs throughout all of her writings was how and why do “systems” (e.g., like cities, economies, civilizations, etc.) stagnate / decay, thrive / flourish, and successfully / unsuccessfully weather change over time.

    Both Doctoroff and Burden (and even Goldberger at times) appear be ignoring this and focusing instead on narrow aspects of her work that have beguiled the general public -- and, still, often getting it "wrong." They seem to think, in particular, that Jacobs was against all large-scaled developments (which simply isn’t true) and against all uses of eminent domain (which I highly doubt), etc., and that Jacobs was mostly interested in streetscape aesthetics (which also simply isn’t true), etc.

    Although in my opinion Gratz occasionally makes the same mistakes, it seems to me that she does come closer to the truth in saying, more or less, that the people who think they are successfully combining Moses and Jacobs are more likely than not to be mistaken in this belief.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Thursday, July 22, 2010, 12:40 a.m.


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