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Wrestling with Moses

perry street west village people crossing street

Last Monday evening, MAS welcomed Anthony Flint, author of the new book Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, who gave an engaging lecture on the clash between these two influential figures.

Flint portrays their battle as the ultimate David-and-Goliath story: Jacobs was the quirky “girl from Scranton” who shunned academics and would later turn down an honorary degree from Harvard. Moses was the “master builder” who graduated from Yale, continued his studies at Oxford, and returned from England with an affected English accent. He wielded his power through appointed positions, while she used savvy activism to mobilize the community and to court both the media and up-and-coming politicians like Ed Koch.

Jacobs discovered Greenwich Village, the neighborhood she would come to love and defend, almost by accident in what Flint calls the “quintessential New York story,” which began when she wandered off the subway at Christopher Street out of curiosity. Greenwich Village was a wonderful oddity to Jacobs, its low-rise buildings sandwiched between the skyscrapers of Midtown and the Financial District. Flint writes, “Everyone looked, she thought, the way she felt: unpretentious, genuine, living their lives. This was home.” No doubt unearthed during the many hours he spent in the archives pouring over Jacobs’ writings, this anecdote is just one of the many interesting details that Flint incorporates into his book, making it an entertaining narrative.

Moses had quite a different view of Jacobs’ beloved neighborhood, which he condemned as a slum and slated for urban renewal in the early sixties. It was this condemnation that outraged Jacobs and moved her to initiate a successful campaign against Moses’ proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX). We can still see the ripple effect of her triumph over Moses today, as Flint pointed out, in the growing support for dismantling many of the expressways that bisect our nation’s cities in an effort to create the human scale and short streetscapes that Jacobs championed. Flint spoke in particular about the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, where, he said, landscape architect and opponent of the expressway Carrie Moon has cited Jacobs as an inspiration.

Although her principles have been thoroughly embraced by the planning profession, Flint reminded us that Jacobs’ activism was originally intended to be against city planners, noting that she did not really believe it was possible to “plan” an area and make it like Greenwich Village. Rather, successful neighborhoods were organic and dynamic. Still, Flint argued, there can be place for verticality and large-scale projects, as long as they are designed with smart principles in mind. In the end, Flint seems to advocate an increasingly popular historical view of late: Jacobs cannot be put on a pedestal just as Moses cannot be completely condemned.

If there’s one issue that Jacobs could not quite solve, it was that of gentrification. Flint remarked that she did indeed recognize that the “oversuccess” of a neighborhood could well become its curse. One might wonder, as some of the audience on Monday did, what Jacobs might think of the Greenwich Village of today — an upscale neighborhood with a high-priced real estate market. Flint’s work makes clear, however, that one only has to walk through the winding streets of Greenwich Village to know that this neighborhood could have met a significantly worse fate had David not slain Goliath.

To learn more about this epic battle, check out Anthony Flint’s book Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, available now at the MAS bookstore, Urban Center Books.