[AUDIO] Robert Moses vs Jane Jacobs


It was a struggle that shaped not only New York City’s urban landscape but that of cities around the country. On one side was the father of urban renewal, Robert Moses, and on the other, urban critic Jane Jacobs. Roberta Brandes Gratz discusses what Moses did — and tried to do — to New York, as well as Jacobs’ efforts to stymy him, and the long term ramifications of their conflicting visions for the city itself.


Howard Husock’s book review in an issue of City Journal discusses Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, by Anthony Flint, and Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch.

Jane Jacobs was the great self-taught urban philosopher and activist who wrote the Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she took the lessons she learned from Greenwich Village to expound upon the value of organic urban life, where planning and government have  a limited but instrumental role.  This stood in direct contrast to the most powerful man in New York, the unelected Robert Moses, who built many of New York City’s highways and housing projects.

Husock makes many notable points, including this one:

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.

Neither Moses nor Jacobs had a perfect philosophy.  Any transportation advocate recognizes the need for eminent domain at some minimal level and that good transit can help organic growth.  Think about how commercial and residential centers grow around particular subway stops or how other areas decay when city planners choose to move a bus line or close a light rail stop.  In this day and age there is no such thing as truly organic transit.  The days of paving over old walking and cow paths are over and transit now is a matter of government and the community working to make transit systems and routes that work with and for the community.

Moreover, Moses and Jacobs stand as historic examples of the long-lasting effects of making (or not making decisions in planning).  Moses radically changed the city and Jacobs prevented some of his other attempts and set the tone to make sure that other Moses-like projects would never occur.  In this day and age of 24-hour media we forget that our policy decisions have a longer lasting effect than the day or week they are put into place.  A policy decision, especially one as large as where or whether to build a highway or subway can have ramifications for decades if not centuries.

As we finally begin to give transportation infrastructure its due in the 21st century, we are best served to remember that any decision on transit–whether it is high speed rail, improving our highways, investing in more subways, efficient cars or something else we are bound to imagine–those decisions do not solve only current problems.  Those decisions will have ramifications today and for centuries to come.  Transportation grants should not be handed out for efficiecy’s sake or for mere stimulus effect, but to establish and preserve productive, creative, economically thriving centers of American life.


Big Snub as Robert Moses Gets a Second Look


The NY Times’ Robin Pogrebin is reporting that the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum of Art and Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery will unveil a three-parter over the next month on the master builder. Columbia University architectural historian Hilary Ballon says that Moses’ achievements have been overlooked.

From the Times:

Living in New York, one is aware there has been no evident successor or successors to Moses,” she said. “There aren’t master builders. Who is looking after the city? How do we build for the future?” All around New York State, she suggests, people tend to take for granted the parks, playgrounds and housing Moses built, now generally binding forces in those areas, even if the old-style New York neighborhood was of no interest to Moses himself. And were it not for Moses’ public infrastructure and his resolve to carve out more space, she argues, New York might not have been able to recover from the blight and flight of the 1970s and ’80s and become the economic magnet it is today.

The definitive account of Moses, of course, is Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, a 700,000-word, 1,286-page tome on the man who redefined 20th century New York. Caro tracks Moses’ tenure as parks commissioner and Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority chairman, concluding that Moses not only destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes in the Bronx, Upper West Side, Sunset Park and Long Island in the name of new highways and “slum clearance,” but also rebuilt parks and playgrounds for “the rich and the comfortable.”

The three exhibitions tackle different aspects of Moses’ reign, according to the Times. “Robert Moses and the Modern City: Remaking the Metropolis” at the Museum of the City of New York is an overview of the roads (Henry Hudson Parkway and Cross Bronx Expressway, among others), buildings and monuments (Lincoln Center and the UN) and parks (the expansion of Riverside Park, East River Park and Central Park) created by Moses. “Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Road to Recreation” at the Queens Museum of Art (housed in a building that Moses conceived for the 1939 World’s Fair) looks at the 416 miles of road and 658 playgrounds he expanded in the 1930s. And “Robert Moses and the Modern City: Slum Clearance and the Superblock Solution” at Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery examines Moses’ urban renewal-gone-amok phase of the 1950s.

All three seek to supplement – and, yes, modify – Caro’s story, given Caro’s focus on Moses’ destructive and diabolical side. Caro’s view was so unwelcome that he even was left out of the exhibitions until a sponsor of the Columbia show called and asked Caro to speak.

This is what Caro told the Times:

When I am writing a book, I try always to give all sides a chance to express their viewpoint. I guess they didn’t want my viewpoint expressed, and not inviting me is certainly an effective means of accomplishing that.

That snub has set off a strange smackdown between Caro and Columbia historian Kenneth T. Jackson, the editor of the amazing Encyclopedia of New York City and Crabgrass Frontiers: The Suburbanization of the United States. Jackson, who, bizarrely, told the NY Observer that he wished his name – instead of Caro’s – were on Caro’s book, wrote four pages in the exhibition’s 336-page catalog, taking an alternate approach to Caro’s. Caro’s book exaggerates Moses’ influence on American life and his role as an “evil genius,” Jackson told the Observer’s Matthew Schuerman, adding that the city’s renaissance since 1974, the year the book was written, would not have been possible without Moses. “Had he not lived … Gotham would have lacked the wherewithal to adjust to the demands of the modern world,” said Jackson.

Even Caro’s editor, Robert Gottlieb, who read those four pages, weighed in on the dust-up:

I got this impression that Mr. Jackson, even if he didn’t have a direct animus toward Caro, was suffering from some kind of Moses envy, as if he wanted to own Moses himself.

In addition to Ballon and Caro, the Times has interviews with Jackson, Hertog (the sponsor who called to invite Caro), the executive director of the Queens Art Museum Tom Finkelpearl, Northwestern University African-American history professor Martha Biondi (who addresses Moses’ racism) and deputy mayor Daniel Doctoroff.

The Observer has a detailed account of the Caro-Jackson feud featuring an in-one-corner analysis of the dueling writer-thinkers. Aside from Jackson and Gottlieb, it also features interviews with Ballon and Caro.

Both are good reads.

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