Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, by Anthony Flint (Random House, 256 pp., $27)

Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch (David R. Godine, 128 pp., $17.95)

The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs’s landmark critique of urban renewal specifically and modernist architecture and planning generally, went from protest tract to classic within a generation. Published in 1961, it became a Modern Library title by 1993. Though Jacobs’s ideas were lobbed like grenades from outside her era’s planning and architecture establishment—she had no formal training in either—her defense of cities’ apparent disorder has become more widely accepted. Jacobs’s celebration of “mixed-use” neighborhoods where old buildings take on unexpected but important new functions has more adherents today, it’s safe to say, than Le Corbusier’s alienating towers-in-the-park planning approach does. An influential countermodernist movement known as the New Urbanism, both an academic school and the guiding light for real-world commercial projects, is the professional fulfillment of the Jacobs vision.

Still, few appreciate the extent to which Jacobs’s personal experience in Greenwich Village helped forge her influential ideas. It’s not only the remarkable fact that her study of the street outside her window at 555 Hudson Street sparked key insights about the preconditions for safety and neighborhood vitality. The same deeply local experience led to the development of another, less understood side of Jacobs—her role in shaping, for good and ill, the tactics of what has come to be called community activism. Anthony Flint’s book makes a significant contribution here, smartly built as it is around the perfect foil: New York’s brilliant, high-handed, take-no-prisoners modernist planner-in-chief, Robert Moses, whose plans to crisscross lower Manhattan with highways and housing projects, as he’d previously done throughout the city, were thwarted by Jacobs and her band of Greenwich Village mothers.

Flint, a longtime Boston Globe reporter now at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, makes important additions to our understanding not only of Jacobs but of Moses. Amazingly, Robert Caro makes no mention of Jacobs in his generally definitive Power Broker, the thousand-plus-page biography that changed the public conception of Moses from master builder of parks, parkways, and beaches to undemocratic destroyer of neighborhoods. He was both, to be sure. From the 1920s until the mid-1950s, he used a combination of official position and bureaucratic brilliance to build Jones Beach, the Triborough Bridge, and East Harlem public-housing projects of grand scale. Neither Long Island scions (who fought the Northern State Parkway) nor the blue-collar Bronx (which saw its buildings demolished to open up the Cross Bronx Expressway) could thwart these and hundreds of other plans that transformed the face of metropolitan New York. Moses is the perfect villain in the Jacobs saga not only because of his enormous power but also because of his capacity to articulate, confidently, the rationale for his actions. He called slum clearance, for instance, “the scythe of progress.” He was both the philosopher and implementer of architectural modernism.

Flint describes how Jacobs and a powerful coalition of Village citizens and officials (including the young Ed Koch) successfully led what we would now call a neighborhood-preservation movement. A turning point was the defeat of Moses’s plan, first announced in 1952, to run a four-lane highway through one of the city’s landmarks, Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park. Over the course of the fifties and early sixties, Jacobs helped stop two other disastrous projects: the replacement of 14 blocks of the West Village to make way for apartment towers, and the construction of a Lower Manhattan Expressway linking New Jersey and Long Island. The tactics that helped defeat Moses have become commonplace. Children marched with banners for the benefit of newspaper photographers, and activists got the word out in editorials in the fledgling Village Voice.

But none of this might have mattered had Jacobs not made the intellectual case against high-rise housing, neighborhood clearance, and highways that ran through cities—indeed, against the profession of city planning itself. She was untutored except in the way celebrated by the Yogi Berra aphorism: You can see a lot just by looking. The title of Glenna Lang’s book, which covers much of the same material as Flint’s while targeting young adult readers, is therefore perfectly appropriate. (Genius of Common Sense also has to recommend it an exceptional array of period photographs and illustrations gathered by Marjory Wunsch.)

Not only did Jacobs draw important inferences about how cities, the quintessential human ecosystems, grew and prospered organically; she was able, despite her lack of advanced degrees or even a college diploma, to attract the support of elites through the power of her original ideas. Her position as a staff writer at Architectural Forum lent her views credibility and helped convert the likes of Lewis Mumford, then the architectural critic for The New Yorker, making it respectable for elected officials to oppose Moses. Bronx residents, in their struggle to stop construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, had tried demonstrating against Moses, but to no avail. He had always been able to rely on planning elites, newspaper editorial pages, and his own social background and connections to make “slum-dwellers” look self-interested and benighted. In Jacobs, Moses faced a foe who employed hardball political tactics and sarcasm as well. She dared to condescend to him.

It’s a stirring story with a larger-than-life villain and a happy ending. But what exactly should we make of it? It’s tempting to see Moses chiefly as a public front man for private interests; real-estate developers and contractors certainly got rich through his “slum clearance” and highway projects. But the bohemian quality of Jacobs and her allies can obscure crucial facts. Moses was a classic progressive who used eminent domain to wipe out minority-owned small businesses and to displace thousands of residents of modest means. Jacobs, despite her start in the Village, and despite leaving New York for Toronto during the Vietnam War so that her sons could avoid the draft, was more libertarian than leftist. (Flint notes that Death and Life was praised at its publication by William F. Buckley.)

In fact, Jacobs was the the progenitor of a new elite consensus to rival the grand urban-renewal designs of modernism. She argued that “organic” neighborhoods with many “eyes on the street” would, over time, “unslum” themselves through neighbors’ actions and decisions. Moses thought that expert guidance and planning could create an environment that fostered enjoyment and fulfillment. Jacobs demurred: “To approach a city or even a city neighborhood as if it were capable of being given order by converting it into a disciplined work of art is to make the mistake of substituting art for life.” Her struggle, then, was not just about neighborhood preservation; it pitted individualism and liberty against regimentation imposed by a benevolent despot.

But good cases can make bad law, and the successful defense of Washington Square Park and the West Village can lead too easily to the conclusion that neighborhood preservation, by whatever means necessary, is always correct—and that opponents of development, by definition, occupy the moral high ground. Thanks partly to their efforts, New York City has not opened a new subway line since 1942, has no easy transit link to its airports, and enforces a system of legally dictated rents that allow affluent tenants to stay forever in cheap apartments and insulate themselves from neighborhood change. Some would even extend such rent controls to commercial properties, thus interrupting the cycle of decline and rebirth that marks dynamic cities.

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. It’s become too easy to stop new projects—often with the tactics Jacobs pioneered, but without any countervailing theory of how cities should work, only a fear of change and a desire to protect special interests at the public’s expense. Moses protégé Edward Logue—rightly infamous for his role in the destruction of Boston’s West End to permit construction of luxury high-rises—wasn’t entirely wrong when he called Death and Life a “defense of the status quo.” Certainly Jacobs herself could lend credence to that view. Flint informs us that she once called for the “enforced conservation” of the buildings in her neighborhood.

Treating Jane Jacobs as a folk hero, as both Flint and Lang do to varying degrees, risks misinterpreting her work as uniformly favoring the preservation of charming older neighborhoods populated by David Brooks’s “bourgeois bohemians.” 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. Also not fully appreciated is Jacobs’s celebration of neighborhoods like Boston’s North End, which, when she wrote about it, was a collection of brick walk-ups from which residents of modest means could watch the streets. In other words, poor neighborhoods could be good neighborhoods. (Herbert Gans’s tour de force about Boston’s late West End, The Urban Villagers, makes this point even more effectively than Death and Life.) Today, elaborately subsidized apartments for the poor continue to be supported at all levels of government, in the process creating utterly nonorganic communities, in which income groups are mixed for ideological reasons.

None of these concerns, however, detracts from the value of these new volumes, which add much to our knowledge of how Jane Jacobs’s life influenced her work—in turn, sparing New York, widely scarred by the excesses of modernism, from even greater damage.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next