By Anthony Flint, Random House, New York, N.Y. 256 pages, $27.
Along with his nemesis, Franklin Roosevelt, Robert Moses was arguably the most influential New Yorker of the 20th century. For nearly 40 years, Moses wielded enormous power in shaping modern New York through a large number of state and local commissionerships and authorities. During Moses’ day, which began under Governor Alfred Smith and ended under Governor Nelson Rockefeller, he was intimately involved in planning, financing, and building hundreds of parks, highways, tunnels, housing complexes, bridges, beaches and two worlds fairs.
No one with such a large footprint on history escapes controversy, however, and Moses is no exception. Celebrated for his prodigious expansion of the state and local park system, Moses has also been excoriated for his disdain for public transportation, zealous construction of new roadways to accommodate the automobile, penchant for large box-shaped housing towers and devotion to grandiose plans for “urban renewal.”
By the late 1950s, Moses was at the height of his power when he convinced city planners to extend Fifth Avenue south through the center of Washington Square Park, splitting the venerable old public space in two. According to Moses, the new roadway would alleviate endless Greenwich Village traffic and spur economic renewal of the neighborhood south of the park.
As chronicled in this new book, Moses lost his fight to build through the park. He met his big match in Jane Jacobs, a mother, author and community activist who rallied the neighborhood to preserve it from Moses’ style of urban renewal.
In addition to providing a fascinating history of the treasured park (“an outdoor living room, respite, and gathering place”), the author describes how Jacobs tirelessly worked with activists, community associations, politicians, the media and various high-profile sympathizers to kill the planned roadway. Included in the entertaining narrative are luminaries such as Shirley Hayes, Raymond Rubinow, Lewis Muanford, Eleanor Roosevelt and a young Edward Koch.
In addition to the Washington Square Park fight, the book also tells the story of two subsequent battles in the 1960s. The first involved the defeat of a proposed “slum removal” project in the West Village which, perhaps not so coincidentally, including the razing of Jacobs’ own home at 555 Hudson St. The second involved the killing of the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX), which was supposed to create an elevated highway in Soho linking the Williamsburg Bridge and Holland Tunnel along Broome Street.
Of the two subsequent battles, the LOMEX fight makes for more compelling reading. The author meticulously describes how Jacobs built and maintained her coalition, challenged officials in public hearings, battled Moses supporters such as David Rockefeller, and finally convinced Mayor John Lindsay to shelve the project. Along the way, the author tells the story of several other important anti-LOMEX activists, including a local pastor, Gerard La Mountain, who defied Cardinal Spellman’s admonitions to quell his opposition to the project.
If Jacobs’ three battles with Moses serve as the centerpiece to the book, then her influence on the urban planning establishment serves as the backdrop. Beginning in the 1920s, a new “International Style” of urban architecture was being advocated by such noted designers as Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, who called himself “Le Corbusier.” He proposed that the urban housing crisis be solved by bulldozing entire neighborhoods, erecting streamlined housing towers and connecting them with new elevated highways. In a 1925 scheme entitled “Plan Voisin,” Le Corbusier devised a plan to knock down much of the Marais district in central Paris north of the Seine, and replacing it with rows of 60-storey towers situated between a grid of new freeways.
Although “Plan Voisin” was rejected in Paris, it found many devotees in the United States, including Moses, who convinced the federal government in the 1940s and ’50s to fund much of his “slum-clearance” activities in New York.
As recounted by the author, Jacobs’ misgivings about modern urban planning orthodoxy germinated in the mid-1950s during her tenure as an editor and writer for Architectural Forum magazine.
At the urging of a local pastor named William Kirk, in 1955 Jacobs visited a newly completed housing complex in East Harlem. What Jacobs found there surprised her. The relocated families considered the new apartments to be “strange and uncomfortable.” Most importantly, missing from the neighborhood was its former lifeblood: the “bodegas and laundries and social clubs and cigar shops.”
The next year, Jacobs, who had no formal training in design or architecture, gave a celebrated speech at the Conference on Urban Design, sponsored by the Harvard Graduate School of Design. There in bitingly satiric tones she castigated the arrogance of modern planners who imposed big changes on neighborhoods without ever bothering to evaluate their effects.
As explained by the author, over the next several years Jacobs became an influential critic of modern planners. Rather than razing entire neighborhoods, she advocated an organic process known as incrementalism, in which selected buildings are gradually chosen for rehabilitation over time, thus preserving the character and economic diversity of the community.
Jacobs’ indictment of the new “stone and glass file cabinet housing” that was sweeping the country resulted in her signature work, a 1961 book entitled “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Nearly four decades later, the book is still considered by many to be the masterwork for the humanistic management of cities.
For admirers of Jacobs, there is much to like in this book. And thanks to her brand of community activism, Manhattan is fortunate enough to be one of the few urban centers in America not to be dissected by the blight of a major highway.
Jeffrey Winn is a partner at Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold.