Wrestling with Moses:
How Jane Jacobs Took on
New York’s Master Builder
and Transformed the
By Anthony Flint
(Random House, 256 pp., $27)
For urbanists and others, the battle between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs was the great titanic struggle of the twentieth century. Like the bout between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, their conflict has magnified significance, as the two figures have become symbols. Jacobs is the secular saint of street life, representing a humane approach to urban planning grounded in the messy interactions of the neighborhood. Moses is the icon of infrastructure established by power, the physical reconstruction of cities with great bridges and wide expressways and tall apartment buildings. The actual projects that fueled their acrimony may now be curiosities of urban history, but the ideological conflict embodied by Jacobs and Moses continues to rage in every growing city in the world. The growth of Shanghai may be described as Moses on steroids, whereas the land-use restrictions in Mumbai honor a central element of Jacobs’s legacy.
Anthony Flint’s book is a timely retelling of their battles. The federal government, under pressure of an economic crisis but also for reasons of principle, has now renewed its commitment to infrastructure, but it has done so in a way that preserves existing biases. The transportation spending in the Obama administration’s recovery program targets highway-heavy areas, and promises twice as much aid, per capita, to the ten least-dense states as to the ten most-dense states. And beyond our borders, nothing less than the economic and environmental future of the world is tied to urban planning decisions now being made in China and India. So it is a good time to re-acquaint ourselves with Jacobs and Moses.
While Moses dominated New York’s urban growth for the forty years that ended in 1968, Jacobs has owned the last four decades. She had a certain advantage—it is ironic to say so, in the light of her adversary’s immense political power—in establishing her place in history: she was a great writer, and we can hear her still through her own words. Another great writer, Robert Caro, produced the definitive biography of Robert Moses; and unfortunately for the master builder, The Power Broker was so skillfully done, so painstakingly researched, that history has generally accepted its depiction of Moses as an unfeeling, power-mad figure who did much to harm New York. Two years ago, Hilary Ballon and Kenneth Jackson presented an alternative to Caro, a more sympathetic depiction of Moses, in an exhibition partly at the Museum of the City of New York and in an accompanying catalogue. Flint is not a revisionist of any sort, but his book does provide a somewhat balanced picture of New York’s answer to Baron Haussmann.
Robert Moses was born to prosperous parents in 1888 and grew up in New Haven and New York. After graduating from Yale, he received a doctorate in political science from Columbia. Moses’s charging intelligence and idealism gained him the patronage of Belle Moskowitz, a progressive reformer and ally of Al Smith, the Good Government governor from Tammany Hall and the Fulton Fish Market. In the 1920s, parks were part of the Good Government agenda, and Moses became Al Smith’s parks guy. After all, Moses lived on Long Island, which made him more sylvan than most of Smith’s friends.
Parks gave Moses a path to power. By building parkways and popular beaches, Moses demonstrated his skills as a project manager, a bill drafter, and a public persuader. In those early days, he displayed an extraordinary ability to divide and defeat the local opposition to his projects. Moses’s reputation for probity and competence enabled him to thrive even during the Roosevelt years, despite the mutual antipathy between the two men. (Their feud began in the 1920s, when Roosevelt chaired the Taconic State Park Commission and Moses refused funding for Hudson Valley Parkway.) Moses managed to get control over much of the federal spending that was slated for New York, and he used the tolls from his bridges as a sort of venture-capital fund for public infrastructure. While we so often wonder what happened to our tax dollars, the products of Moses’s spending are perfectly plain: they surround New York. If you travel to midtown Manhattan from LaGuardia Airport, you will drive on a Moses bridge to a Moses highway and look from your window at Moses buildings and Moses parks.
By the 1950s, Moses’s achievements had made him a public hero. I may have been one of Manhattan’s most athletically inept children, but even I have fond memories of swimming in pools and beaches that Moses created, and of playing blissfully in his parks. If Moses had retired at the age of sixty-five, he would have left in a blaze of glory, beloved by his city and his state. But the unextinguishable and obsessed man kept on building for another fifteen years. He built much during those later years, including Lincoln Center and the 1964 World’s Fair—but history’s tides were turning against him. More specifically, Jane Jacobs was turning against him, as was the new urban sensibility that she represented.
While many of Flint’s readers will have read Caro’s vast masterwork on Moses, few will have perused Alice Alexiou’s valuable biography of Jacobs, which appeared in 2006. Flint’s background material on Jacobs will therefore come as news to many people, and Flint understandably leads with her story, despite the fact that she was born almost thirty years after Moses. At the time of the first fight between Jacobs and Moses in the early 1950s, Jacobs had moved from Scranton to Greenwich Village, worked as a stenographer, a writer, and an editor, married an architect and had three children. In 1952, she began writing for Architectural Forum and managed, despite the lack of any formal training, to become a powerful public voice excoriating what she called the “anti-city ideals of conventional planning.”
In her battle with Moses, Jacobs was a foot soldier, one of many neighborhood mothers who fought to save Washington Square Park from Moses’s four-lane extension of Fifth Avenue that was intended to snake through the greenery. The mastermind behind the community opposition to the road was Shirley Hayes, a Broadway performer turned Greenwich Village mother. Hayes seems to have taught Jacobs something about organizing opposition to big government projects, which only confirmed Jacobs’s views about the ability of urban density to spread knowledge from person to person. Eleanor Roosevelt was the star member of Hayes’s team. The fight lasted from 1952 to 1958, and Hayes, Roosevelt, and Jacobs beat Robert Moses.
The master builder's defeat wasan early warning about the sea change in public attitudes towards big government projects. As Alan Altshuler and David Luberoff have ably chronicled in their book Mega-Projects, there were three epochs in postwar public building. In the 1950s, during Moses’s heyday, governments happily developed roads, bridges, and stadiums, and ignored the ill-organized local opposition. In the 1960s and 1970s, activists such as Jacobs learned how to use the media and political pressures to stop the bulldozers. In the most recent era, a few mega-projects, such as the Big Dig in Boston, were resumed, but these had to move mountains and spend billions to avoid angering anyone.
Jacobs’s second fight with Moses concerned her own home. Just as she was writing her great denunciation of urban renewal, she learned that her block had been declared “blight” and therefore slated for demolition. Moses had grown up in the Progressive movement, for which slum clearance was a significant objective. In 1937 and in 1949, encouraged by real estate developers, the federal government widened the war against slums to also include “blight,” an ill-defined term which could mean any place where properties were less than pristine.
Moses had relinquished his position as Sultan of Slum Clearance in 1960, but Flint writes that “it was entirely plausible—and, to Jacobs, seemed likely—that on the way out Moses suggested where the bulldozers should go next and steered his successors right to Hudson Street.” Moses’s influence was enormous, so I suspect that Flint is right on this point, but I am less sure about his allegation that urban renewal in “the West Village had the whiff of revenge,” a payback for Moses’s “first major defeat.” Everything we know about Moses’s tastes in urban planning suggests that he would have liked to rebuild the West Village, whether or not it happened to house Jane Jacobs.
Jacobs now took on Shirley Hayes’s leadership role and served as co-chair of the Committee to Save the West Village. She mobilized hundreds of voters to confront and to harass the urban renewal project at every turn. As Jacobs told The New York Times, “We had been ladies and gentlemen and only got pushed around. So yesterday we protested loudly.” Smart politicians latched onto Jacobs’s coattails and became advocates for her community. One assemblyman angrily told the city planners that “you have sent the urban renewal program of this city, state and federal government back to the dark ages of Robert Moses, and his arbitrary and inhuman procedures.” Moses was no longer a champion of good government, but a symbol of dictatorial power.
Jacobs had more than her army of activists. She had also an intellectual ballista pointed right at the heart of urban renewal. In 1961, in the midst of the West Village controversy, Random House published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs’s attack on all that was wrong in postwar urban planning. Against a sterile engineering approach to cities that emphasized square footage and traffic flows, Jacobs offered an anthropological analysis of how neighborhoods actually work. She argued for the benefits of foot traffic made easier by small blocks, and noted that “a well-used street is apt to be a safe street.” She advocated low buildings, where apartments were connected with the streets. She lauded the mixed-use development that was being banned by the city’s new zoning code. She saw nothing good in the Corbusier-inspired vision of vast high-rises and big boulevards, and nothing wrong in her run-down but well-functioning neighborhood in the Village. She wanted to house people “in concentrations both dense enough and diverse enough to offer them a decent chance of developing city life.”
Elite architects and urban planners may not have liked Jacobs’s book, but the public certainly did. After all, high-rise public housing was a fiasco, and Moses did indeed destroy well-functioning but poorer neighborhoods, such as Tremont in the Bronx. Jacobs was a sympathetic figure both to the New Left, who liked her willingness to fight the establishment, and to the New Right, which had little fondness for large public schemes to better mankind. The Death and Life of Great American Cities may still be the most indispensible volume in any urbanist’s library. I do not quite recall where I put my Mumford or my Corbu, but my Jacobs is always close at hand.
The book’s great strength lies in Jacobs’s ability to analyze the interplay between structure and society at the block level. She walked and looked and used her acute intellect to understand her city.
Her lack of academic training was probably a strength, since few preconceived ideas or methods distorted her understanding of the street. Jacobs also displayed an utterly ferocious courage in taking on the established wisdom of the world’s urban planners. But that was not new for her: in 1952, at the height of McCarthyism, she had told the Loyalty Security Board to take a walk.
The biggest and most famous fracas between Moses and Jacobs concerned the Lower Manhattan Expressway, or Lomex. Moses’s idea was simple: an elevated highway cutting across lower Manhattan that would connect the Holland Tunnel with the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges. From an engineering and planning perspective, it made perfect sense. Unfortunately, there was the small matter of the two thousand or so families that would need to be relocated, and the streets that would thereafter remain in the shadow of the great road.
Jacobs, of course, wanted none of it, and she was back in force leading the opposition. By the 1960s, Moses was beginning to look like the underdog. In 1962, Jacobs managed to get Lomex killed, but Moses brought it back the next year. In 1965, John Lindsay, New York’s new mayor, hoisted Jacobs’s banner, but still Moses kept fighting. In 1966, a building on the proposed path of the Lomex was changed from being urban blight to a designated and protected landmark. In 1968, Jacobs managed to get herself arrested protesting against the lack of democracy in urban planning, and Moses was finally through. Nelson Rockefeller, the state’s governor, took away the old man’s commissions, and for the first time in forty years Robert Moses was no longer the infrastructure king of New York state.
The inclinations of history continued to favor Jacobs. The Vietnam War and Watergate further discredited the high-handed tactics of leaders such as Moses; America embraced grassroots activists such as Jacobs. In 1974, Caro published his biography of Moses, which suggested that the master builder played a not inconsiderable role in “the fall of New York.” As the automobile became an environmental and social villain, Moses’s highways looked worse and worse. Jacobs left the United States for Canada in 1968, to protest the Vietnam War and protect her sons from the draft. She lived in Toronto until her death in 2006, a cherished, almost saintly figure. Moses died in 1981, a vilified has-been who seemed to represent a dark age in American cities.
Yet there is something quite wrong in the completeness of Jane Jacobs’s victory, and something unjust about the wholesale denigration of Robert Moses. As individuals, there is much to like about both people. It is easy to idolize a woman without a college degree whose brilliant books changed the world’s understanding of cities. And Moses gave his life to his city and his state, earning far less than he could have in the private sector, and soldiered on, fighting against constant opposition for what was, in its time, widely understood as good policy.
We should not revile public servants as dedicated and capable as Moses. He may have been wrong, but he was not a villain. Moreover, much of what Moses did was not wrong. His parks and his pools were a great blessing to New Yorkers in the years before air conditioning. His roads and his bridges were not all bad, either. Millions of Americans have saved hours, months, and years by taking advantage of this transportation infrastructure.
Jacobs was right that cities are built for people, but they are also built around transportation systems. New York was America’s premier harbor, and the city grew up around the port. The meandering streets of lower Manhattan were laid down in a pedestrian age. Washington Square was urban sprawl in the age of the omnibus. The Upper East Side and Upper West Side were built up in the age of rail, when my great-grandfather would take the long elevated train ride downtown from Washington Heights. It was inevitable that cars would also require urban change. Either older cities would have to adapt, or the population would move entirely to the new car-based cities of the Sunbelt.
When Henry Ford made the car affordable, millions of Americans understandably wanted to drive. After all, the average commute by car in the United States is twenty-four minutes, whereas the average commute by public transit is forty-eight minutes. The automobile certainly created great challenges for every older city that was built at highway-less higher densities. No matter what Jacobs thought, there simply was not a car-less option for New York. For the city to continue growing and changing and leading the world, it needed to be retrofitted for the automobile. And that enormous task was given to Moses. Perhaps he did too much for the car. I am certainly on Jacobs’s side on the Lomex issue, and cannot possibly approve of the destruction of Tremont; but New York’s fall would have been far more precipitous if it had ignored the automobile altogether.
It is hard today to accept the allegation that Moses was responsible for New York’s demise. The troubles that New York experienced in the 1970s were hardly unusual. Except for Los Angeles, every one of the ten largest American cities in 1950 lost at least 10 percent of its population over the next thirty years. New York is exceptional not in its decline but in its resilience, and perhaps Moses deserves some credit for that. New York and Los Angeles are the only two of those ten big mid-century cities that have gained population over the past sixty years.
Jacobs did help to make public decisions more accountable, which is an incontrovertibly good thing. There is little to like in arbitrary public power—but at this point the pendulum has swung too far. Today it often feels as if every neighbor has veto rights over every new project, public or private. When Jacobs’s heirs argue for limits on eminent domain and expensive boondoggle projects, I stand with them. When they impose more and more restrictions on private owners building on their own land, I shake my head. Jacobs herself did not oppose only highways and urban renewal, but also far more benign private projects such as NYU’s library. Education is crucial to urban success. Surely a twelve-story university library would not have hurt Greenwich Village.
Jacobs’s greatest insight was that cities succeed by enabling people to connect with one another. Humans are a social species, and our greatest gift is our ability to learn from others. Many of the finest achievements of human civilization occurred because smart people learned from one another in cities. As Jacobs understood better than anyone else, the chance encounters facilitated by cities are the stuff of human progress. But Moses was also right that cities need infrastructure. People cannot just argue forever on an unpaved street corner. They need homes to live in and streets to travel along and parks for relaxation. Jacobs underestimated the value of new construction—of building up.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities argues that at least one hundred homes per acre are necessary to support exciting stores and restaurants, but that two hundred homes per acre is a “danger mark.” After that point of roughly six-story buildings, Jacobs thought that neighborhoods risked sterile standardization. (The one public housing project that Jacobs blessed, at least initially, had only five stories.) But keeping great cities low means that far too few people can enjoy the benefits of city life. Jacobs herself had the strange idea that preventing new construction would keep cities affordable, but a single course in economics would have taught her the fallacy of that view. If booming demand collides against restricted supply, then prices will rise.
The best way to keep cities affordable is to allow private developers to build up and deliver space. Jacobs was right that high-rise public housing is a problem, as street crime is much more prevalent in high-rise, high-poverty neighborhoods. But in more prosperous, privately managed buildings, height is not a problem. If you love cities, as Jacobs certainly did, then presumably you should want the master builders to make them accessible to more people.
Successful cities need both the human interactions of Jane Jacobs and the enabling infrastructure of Robert Moses. Anthony Flint has done a fine job describing the battles between these two great figures, but unlike the Louis-Schmeling fight, their conflict should not be resolved. An absolute victory for Moses leads to heartless cities, built to accommodate cars but not pedestrians, with high-rise buildings that are disconnected from their streets. An absolute victory for Jacobs means a city frozen in concrete with prices that are too high and buildings that are too low. New building is needed to welcome the diversity that makes urban magic. No city can survive without the personal engagements beloved by Jacobs, but no city can thrive without master builders such as Moses. Mumbai and Shanghai had better take note.
Edward Glaeser is the Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard. He directs the Taubman Center for State and Local Government and the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.