Anthony Flint. Wrestling With Moses. Random House. 231 Pages. $27.00.

Perhaps it is fitting, given modern urban planning’s erratic history, that its first major tract was written by a man for whom the field was an avocation. In 1898, Ebenezer Howard — a native Londoner who had previously emigrated to Nebraska to try his hand at farming, had a rough go of it, and returned to Britain to work as a shorthand writer — published the book To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. It was reissued in 1902 as Garden Cities of Tomorrow, under which title it would become famous.

In it, Howard envisaged a municipal alternative to the Victorian slum cities of his time, which were home to hundreds of thousands of the abjectly poor, who lived and worked in the most crammed and stultifying conditions. The vileness of these slums had been extensively and vividly detailed in an 1883 pamphlet, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, whose tales scandalized the British public and inflamed the editorial pages. The problem was immense. The utter indigence of the poor and the paucity of affordable housing meant, basically, that slum dwellers had no choice but to stay put. What’s more, the slums were generally proximate to sources of occasional work; were a destitute Liverpudlian to somehow relocate, he would be deprived of the meager money-making opportunities that he intermittently found in the city center. These unhopeful circumstances — to which were added the steady influx of rural peasants and lousy urban governance that demolished affordable housing in order to build railroads and expand business districts — left the nastiest, most crowded areas to grow only worse.

Nonetheless, Howard wrote, cities did have their attractions (art, architecture, the possibility of employment) as well as repulsions. They weren’t all awful. And neither was the countryside all good; rural life offered natural beauty in heaps but economic opportunity in mere smidgens, which is precisely why so many villagers were migrating to the polis. Howard’s insight was to devise a new type of city that would incorporate the attractions of both realms, urban and rural, and minimize their repulsions. “As man and woman by their varied gifts and faculties supplement each other,” he wrote, “so should town and country.” To solve urban blight and slum conditions, town and country “ must be married, and out of this joyous union” will come “a new hope, a new life, a new civilization.”

Thus, the garden city: A settlement is established in the countryside. Factory owners are incented to bring their businesses there, and workers follow. The city — planned on a circular grid, with wide streets and parks and gardens abundant — grows, and when it reaches a density of approximately 30,000 people living on 1,000 acres, it is surrounded with a 5,000-acre agricultural green belt, which protects the city both from its own overexpansion and from the encroachment of nearby municipalities. As the New Yorker’s longtime architecture critic Lewis Mumford wrote,

Howard attacked the whole problem of the city’s development, not merely its physical growth but the interrelationship of urban functions within the community and the integration of urban and rural patterns, for the vitalizing of urban life on the one hand and the intellectual and social improvement of rural life on the other.

“The utopia which had seemed so lofty and unattainable,” according to Mumford, “came down to earth.”

Jane Jacobs was less impressed. If Garden Cities marked the beginning of modern urban planning, her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities in many ways marked the beginning of modern urban planning’s end. Jacobs was no city planner or architectural expert or academic; in fact, she never finished college. She was simply, in the words of her biographers Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch, a genius of common sense, who saw in the schemes of Howard and his disciples a wholesale unawareness of how cities actually worked.

Jacobs had been thinking and writing about city planning for years before actively involving herself in it, in 1955. Even then, her activism was forced: Robert Moses, New York City’s master builder, had proposed plopping a busy and noisy road right through the middle of Washington Square Park, near where Jacobs lived. To Jacobs, this was yet another example, a particularly astringent one, of the imposition of  heavy-handed development ideas that originated with Howard and ignored how city people lived. The new planners, she wrote, went “to great pains” to learn from “the saints and sages of modern orthodox planning . . . how cities ought to work and what ought to be good for people and businesses in them.” But “when contradictory reality intrudes, threatening to shatter their dearly won learning, they must shrug reality aside.”

This was especially so when city planners went in for what is still euphemistically called “urban renewal” or “slum rehabilitation,” by which an area is designated “blighted,” the bulldozers rumble in, and planners redesign the cleared space such that it adheres to the prevailing theories of urban aesthetics and success. In Jacobs’s day, that meant transforming city blocks to conform to theories that she found fully nutty — such as, say, the theory that reducing the density of streets in a neighborhood and adding lots of empty space makes the neighborhood more desirable. She wrote in Death and Life that Howard deserved much of the blame for setting in motion such “powerful and city-destroying ideas” because he thought “that the way to deal with the city’s functions was to sort out and sift out of the whole certain simple uses” — to aggressively and systematically plan them — “and to arrange each of these in relative self-containment.” Thus, by dividing city life into sectors, Howard “wrote off the intricate, many-faceted, cultural life of the metropolis.”

When Death and Life was published Jacobs was living in New York, where she had moved, from Scranton, 27 years earlier. Jane Butzner first arrived in the Big Apple as an 18-year-old hoping to break into journalism. She initially bunked in Brooklyn on her older sister’s couch. One morning, after a busy few hours of job hunting, she decided to go exploring and arbitrarily exited the subway at Christopher Street, in Greenwich Village. Jane adored the neighborhood, with its tree-shaded streets and lively sidewalks, and within months she and her sister were renting an apartment there.

She worked clerical positions and in spare hours reported and wrote freelance articles. Vogue published her first piece, a profile of Manhattan’s fur district. The editors liked her work and proposed that she write other, similar articles for them, which she did — articles about the lower Manhattan flower market and the city’s diamond district. In 1940, Jane took a job as a secretary at the metals industry trade magazine Iron Age. She was quickly promoted to associate editor but left the periodical once it became clear that her boss did not like having women, especially ambitious and assertive women, in his workplace. She moved to the State Department’s Office of War Information and wrote articles about American culture that were distributed overseas. And after several years there — years in which she also married, bought a Greenwich Village house, and started a family — she departed in 1952 for an editing position at Architectural Forum.

In 1956, Jacobs attended the Conference on Urban Design at Harvard. She was substituting for her editor at Architectural Forum, who had fallen ill, and she was a bit intimidated by the other conferees, an assemblage of authorities in the fields of architecture, design, and planning who were mostly supportive of the predominant trends in urban renewal. Jacobs, by contrast, was not, and she devoted her conference talk to explaining why.

“Sometimes you learn more about a phenomenon when it isn’t there, like water when the well runs dry — or like neighborhood stores which are not being built in our redeveloped city areas,” she began. She went on to discuss urban renewal in East Harlem, where “1,110 stores” had “vanished in the course of re-housing 50,000 people.” Such stores, Jacobs said, should not be treated as urban planners typically treated them — as mere warehouses of “supplies and services.” In East Harlem, where neighborhood stores had been replaced by hulking housing projects boasting big, gleaming supermarkets, residents actually avoided the new construction and walked for blocks to patronize the mom-and-pop shops that had so far escaped demolition. These people didn’t want megamarts; they wanted community, and local stores were integral in making “an urban neighborhood a community instead of a mere dormitory.”  

When she finished the room erupted with applause. Mumford, who was there, later wrote that “into the foggy atmosphere of professional jargon that usually envelops such meetings [Jacobs] blew like a fresh offshore breeze to present a picture, dramatic but not distorted, of the results of displacing large neighborhood populations to facilitate large-scale rebuilding.”

Jacobs followed her talk with an article in Fortune magazine that criticized examples of destructive urban development. Several of her examples had been built by the same man, in fact: Robert Moses.

Those who can, build,” Robert Moses once said. “Those who can’t, criticize.” Moses did both. Foremost, he was a tireless builder (his biographer, Robert Caro, called him “America’s greatest builder”) who, over the stretch of 40-odd years, transformed New York’s cityscape. He was responsible for the Triborough Bridge, Jones Beach State Park, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the West Side Highway, and the Long Island parkway system among other such infrastructure, not to mention the construction of 658 parks and 17 public pools. He was also a tireless critic of those who stood in the way of what he deemed progress. Moses was powerful, heavy-handed, and unafraid to get rough with anyone who tried to block his public works. His early differences with Jacobs, though, were indirect and impersonal.

That changed when Jacobs, in the summer of 1955, received in her mail a flyer describing Moses’s plans to extend Fifth Avenue through the Washington Square Arch, through Washington Square Park, and on into lower Manhattan. “The Fifth Avenue extension,” Anthony Flint writes in Wrestling with Moses, “was a critical piece of Moses’s larger vision for Greenwich Village, one of a dozen areas in the city he had targeted for urban renewal — essentially wiping out sections of the old, cluttered neighborhood and putting in new, modern construction and wider streets.” Moses was, at the time, the head of the mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance (he was also the parks commissioner), and he planned to demolish, in just the first phase of the Fifth Avenue extension, some 130 buildings.

But what mobilized the crowds against Moses was not this flippant destruction of homes, which, distasteful as it was, was not particularly remarkable in 1955. Rather, it was the proposed bisection of Washington Square Park, one of New York’s most historical and beloved spaces. Flint nicely recounts the park’s layered history, running from its turn as a colonial-era gallows, to its days as a destination for tony 19th-century promenaders, to Bob Dylan. To good effect, he quotes Henry James, who wrote that arriving at the base of Fifth Avenue, where the park begins, was “as if the wine of life had been poured for you, in advance, into some pleasant old punch bowl.” Moses passed on the punch. He believed, Flint writes, that Washington Square Park desperately “needed a shave and a haircut, and to find a steady job. It needed to knock it off with the poetry readings and start serving a practical function for the city again.” Moses had been trying to redesign the park, in fact, since 1935.

In 1958, Jacobs got more involved in working to keep Washington Square Park traffic-free. One of her more effective insights was that the neighborhood organization must accept no compromise, nor allow its basic position that parks were no place for highways to be at all diluted. She also consulted Mumford, whom she had befriended after her Harvard speech, and he helped by penning a rousing defense of the park in which he called Moses’s plan “a piece of unqualified vandalism” and suggested that he, Moses, was in thrall to real estate developers who stood to make lots of money if Fifth Avenue were extended south (suddenly, their buildings would have a Fifth Avenue address). Eleanor Roosevelt, a Village resident, defended the park in her “My Day” column in the New York Post, and Columbia University professor Charles Abrams, another neighbor, slammed Moses in an article in the Village Voice.

Moses fought back, of course, using the press to communicate the benefits of lengthening Fifth Avenue and depicting Jacobs and her allies as selfish, ill-informed reactionaries. But the momentum was against him, all the more so after Jacobs and other community leaders met with local politicians, especially those involved in close reelection campaigns, to press them to oppose the Washington Square Park thoroughfare. Flint writes that once New York’s secretary of state, Carmine De Sapio, publicly opposed the roadway, “Moses knew that he had been checkmated.”

“For Moses, the battle of Washington Square Park served as a worrying portent of things to come. He was particularly concerned that it would embolden the neighborhood forces to oppose all forms of progress for New York.” It was also a rare defeat for a man not accustomed to losing and, when he did lose, not accustomed to doing so with grace. To wit: Several years later, in 1961, fourteen blocks of the West Village, including Jane Jacobs’s own, were pegged “blighted” and designated for urban renewal. Though the plan was not directly headed by Moses it was covered with his fingerprints and “had the whiff of revenge.” The proposal was defeated, but only after Jacobs discovered that many of her neighbors who had signed a pro-renewal petition had been given inaccurate information about it by the very real estate company that would gain from the West Village’s razing and redevelopment. “It’s the same old story,” she said, “First, the builder picks the property, then he gets the Planning Commission to designate it [a slum], and the people get bulldozed out of their homes.”

She and Moses would tangle a third and last time. Their final public battle was over a major project called the Lower Manhattan Expressway (Lomex), which Moses had designed to provide commuters an easy and efficient way to travel from New Jersey, across Manhattan, into Brooklyn and beyond. Lomex’s intended but hypothetical consequence was relief from traffic congestion in lower Manhattan; its assured consequence would have been a ten-lane elevated highway along Broome Street, in Soho, that would have wiped out 416 buildings, many of them historic with cast-iron facades.

Father Gerard La Mountain, whose Church of the Most Holy Crucifix was in Lomex’s path of potential destruction, convinced Jacobs in 1962 to help him fight against Moses’s design. She was named co-chair of the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway and quickly reprised the tactics that had been so successful in thwarting the Fifth Avenue extension and West Village obliteration. She organized Soho’s residents and brought them to City Hall for protests; she created photo ops, “outfitting residents at one hearing with gas masks, symbolizing the soot and exhaust they envisioned filling the air if Lomex was built”; and she courted politicians and counseled against compromise.

The battle lasted years. Its culmination came in 1968 when Jacobs (now quite famous for her writing) was arrested at a Lomex hearing after she and about 50 others mounted the dais from which several New York State transportation officials were presiding. Her arrest galvanized her allies and convinced the indifferent to oppose Lomex. “Mayor Lindsay . . . did see that Jacobs’s arrest had permanently tarnished the Lower Manhattan Expressway as a project pushed by heartless bureaucrats who would go to any lengths to subdue public opposition,” Flint writes. In the summer of 1969, Lindsay proclaimed the ten-lane highway dead “for all time.”

Undisguised in Wrestling with Moses is the hero and the villain. Jacobs takes her traditional place as the scrappy underdog David with the lucid vision and accurate aim, while Moses, the powerful and dour man who worked in a medium of bulldozers and pain, dutifully fills his role as Goliath.

Examinations of Jacobs and Moses always portray them this way. And that is as it should be. Which is not to say that Moses did nothing worth celebrating; he did, surely. Many of his works fulfilled a real public need and, according to the New Yorker’s Paul Goldberger, “conferred grandeur, even nobility, on their neighborhoods.” Nonetheless, he was a flawed man with a flawed vision. His imperiousness and self-assurance were epic (and well-documented in Caro’s 1974, Pulitzer-Prize winning biography The Power Broker) and produced many awful and avoidable mistakes, the worst of which was the removal, in the name of slum clearance, of over half a million New Yorkers from their homes.

And just as Moses deserves the scorn he receives, Jacobs is owed the credit she collects. She realized, long before the experts did, that urban renewal was renewing nothing and destroying much. She stood against the orthodoxy and was largely right. How sadly ironic, then, that her ideas are today being glibly inserted into the old Moses-Howard formula of arrogant planning, with tiny streets and mixed-use buildings simply substituting for colossal bridges and agricultural greenbelts.

Jacobs counseled that planners should work with the inclinations of citizens, not against them, but a major and influential subset of architects and planners — the New Urbanists — have lately pressed their Jacobs-derived beliefs (fewer cars, more pedestrians, higher densities) on places where they don’t make sense and on people who oppose them. For example, as Jesse Walker wrote in Reason magazine, the New Urbanists believe that “If it was wrong to push freeways into pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, they should try to herd people into expensive, unpopular mass-transit systems.” They worship Jacobs while flouting her fundamental precept and disregarding her explicit words: “I hope no reader will try to transfer my observations into guides as to what goes on in towns, or little cities, or in suburbs which still are suburban.”

And then there is Jane Jacobs as interpreted by the New Urbanists by way of real-estate developers: i.e., the “urban village” concept, which promises to transform just about anyplace into a sanitized, commercialized Greenwich Village replica. The urban village manifests itself most prevalently as what is basically an outdoor mall, with “mixed-use” buildings sporting fake neighborhood storefronts (Ye Olde Banana Republic) on fake streets leading to fake fountains in fake town squares. Such areas usually comprise a few blocks of an extant city but, occasionally, entire towns fit the model. The locus classicus may be Celebration, Florida, which passes Jacobs’s ideas about the benefits of vibrant street life, small blocks, and old buildings through a corporate-generated fantasy-world filter. Celebration was created in the 1990s after the Walt Disney Company bought 49,000 acres of land outside Orlando; hired architects; studied the historic and quirky facets of cities such as Charleston and Savannah and considered how to duplicate them in a characterless place; convened focus groups; and then planned and built a town for the lucky few — a modern-day garden city.

Jacobs is exalted but her teachings are frequently warped, because the urges to plan without pondering, to design without discussing, to exert control, and to plain make money remain just as strong as they ever were, whether New Urbanists are pushing mass transit on people who don’t want it or a developer is building an urban village that is merely a husk, a simulation, of an authentic, vibrant neighborhood. Reclaiming Jacobs means remembering that cities are not fundamentally created by planners but by those who live there, who have lived there for years and years. The essential lesson of The Death and Life of Great American Cities is not about small blocks or density or diversity. It’s that cities cannot be contrived.

Indeed, after finishing Death and Life, we may feel called to load all the suspected “contrivers” — the planners and builders and architects — into tumbrels, cart them to the nearest superblock housing project, and lop off their heads in the middle of its dingy, deserted courtyard, but that would be foolishness. These experts — the class that made Jacobs so suspicious — were and are often misguided, but sometimes not. Always, though, they are necessary, because plotting systems of freeways and tunnels and bridges and designing buildings and parks and monuments is essential and it is experts’ work. We may be at turns energized and charmed by the natural spontaneity of the Marais, but what is Paris without Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower and, yes, the Metro that takes us from one to the other? New York without Greenwich Village or Soho is unimaginable, but is it not also so without Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge?  The urban interplay between planned and unplanned aspects is seminal; each group must labor to respect and complement the other. For even in their apparent simplicity — a cheerfully noisy square, a bustling sidewalk — great cities are complicated things.

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