Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City

By Anthony Flint

Random House, 2009, 252 pp., $27 hardcover

This is a book that grips the reader from first paragraph almost to final page. Wrestling With Moses opens with Jane Jacobs, age 51, entering a high school auditorium in Lower Manhattan and acknowledging applause from some of the 200 people in the crowd. The year is 1968. She is already known locally as a pro-neighborhood activist and acclaimed nationally as the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This spring evening, she has a dragon to slay.

“A flash of white hair bobbing along the aisle, thick black glasses perched on an aquiline nose,” Jacobs makes her way to a folding chair at the front of the hall, Anthony Flint recounts. She is here for a hearing of the New York State Department of Transportation, which is gathering testimony on “LOMEX” — the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which if built would cut a monstrous swath through dense urban precincts from the Hudson River to the East River.

The hearing is basically a sham — the once common (and still not eradicated) kind of session in which the public’s views are sought by officials and just as quickly ignored.

“What kind of administration could even consider destroying the homes of 2,000 families at a time like this?” Jacobs demands when her turn to speak comes. “With the amount of unemployment in the city, who would think of wiping out thousands of minority jobs? They must be insane.”

She exhorts the crowd to march across the stage in protest. John Toth of the city’s Transportation Department responds by shouting to the police, “Arrest this woman!” Chaos erupts.
 Although the writings of Jane Jacobs are known by everybody who takes urbanism seriously, and although her clashes with Robert Moses over New York projects have been discussed many times, Flint’s book is the first to weave Jacobs’s life and her struggles with the ruler of New York’s public works into a single, riveting narrative.

Flint, a former Boston Globe reporter who now works for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, is a superb storyteller. Wrestling With Moses tells how Jane Butzner, from Scranton, Pennsylvania, arrived in New York in 1934 at age 18, how she discovered Greenwich Village, how she supported herself as a secretary for a candy manufacturing company, then a clockmaker, and later a drapery hardware business, how she found her way into journalism, and most of all, how, during her married middle years, she fought the destructive plans of one of the most powerful men in New York.

Learning through immersion
Probably everyone involved in New Urbanism has a sense of Jacobs’s accomplishments, but this book is eye-opening nonetheless. Flint’s account is built on vivid details of her personal history — such as how, during her first months in the city, she would walk across the Brooklyn Bridge from the Brooklyn Heights apartment she shared with her older sister Betty, go to job interviews in lower Manhattan, and spend the rest of the day exploring the city. “She would invest a nickel for a subway ride and get out at random stops” — then, as now, a fine method of learning through immersion.

She and her compatriots won the battle against LOMEX. “Jacobs’s then-radical argument against the Lower Manhattan Expressway — that building new highways just invites more traffic that quickly fills the lanes to capacity — is now widely accepted, and known as the phenomenon of ‘induced demand,’” Flint writes. “…. The business of development in the United States has changed completely as a result of Jacobs’s work.”

The last few pages are a bit hurried in their attempt to sum up Jacobs’s lasting impact. It is not quite correct to say, as Flint does, that “her fight against the Lower Manhattan Expressway inspired a series of citizen rebellions against highway construction in city neighborhoods across the United States.” Resistance to urban expressways had begun to form well before Jacobs took on that particular road.

Stanley Isaacs, a Manhattan borough president, fought Moses over diversion of money from transit to freeway construction in 1939, according to John Norquist. In California, Caspar Weinberger, as a state assemblyman representing San Francisco, fought the Embarcadero Freeway in the early 1950s. Robert Conradt, a longtime traffic engineer and highway planner based in Novato, California, says the proposed Panhandle Freeway in San Francisco and an extension of the Embarcadero Freeway were both stopped (permanently) in 1966. A 1946 proposal for an elevated Riverfront Expressway through the French Quarter in New Orleans — put forth by Moses acting as a consultant — was killed in the late 1960s, partly, according to New Orleans attorney William Borah, because the Crescent City’s historic preservationists were inspired by California’s killing of the Embarcadero extension.

Jacobs’s impact, then, seems to have come largely from her books rather than from her battles against specific Moses projects in New York. Nonetheless, the story Flint tells is captivating. Anyone who underestimated the woman from Scranton made a huge miscalculation.

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