Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City
by Anthony Flint
Reviewed by Steve Weinberg
In a city like Portland, where residents pride themselves on maintaining small scale in an urban area, Jane Jacobs should fit right in as a heroine.
How Jacobs (born Jane Butzner in 1916 in Scranton, Pa.) gained her influence, then discredited New York City planning czar Robert Moses, is a remarkable saga. Other authors have written about Jacobs, but almost certainly no previous author has published anything as thorough as Anthony Flint, a former Boston Globe reporter now employed at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Moses, on the other hand, has been the subject of The Power Broker, a biography by Robert Caro that some readers (including me) believe qualifies as the most deeply researched, compelling biography published in the English language.
Despite Flint's skills, his explanations of Jacobs' ideas in Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City can never match her own, as found in her remarkable best-selling book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Published in 1961, Jacobs' book reads mostly like it could have been published in 2009. It is easy to find, easy to consume and might, as it did for me in 1970, change the way contemporary readers view metropolises where they live or visit.
Flint comments that the book "would revolutionize urban planning, and turn the tide of Moses and all the other modernist master builders, as an act of intellectual radicalism."
Jacobs never earned a college degree and never studied urban planning, architecture or other obvious disciplines in traditional ways. Rather, she formulated her ideas about preserving and enhancing existing urban neighborhoods through personal observation and civic activism, as well as writing for periodicals interested in such matters (especially Architectural Forum magazine). The reverse side of Jacobs' advocacy led her to oppose high-rise apartments for low-income residents (often minorities), tearing down existing neighborhoods to build highways and other big-ticket, so-called "urban renewal" projects advocated by Moses and his acolytes.
Flint pinpoints how Jacobs reached some of her revelations. After she married, she and her husband purchased a Greenwich Village building that they remodeled into a comfortable urban home in which they reared their three children. While looking out the windows, Jacobs began to appreciate the residential and commercial diversity of the streets visible from her home. She realized that "eyes on the street" at all times of day and night meant neighborliness and relative safety from crime.
Jacobs eventually moved away from New York City, settling with her husband in Toronto. She never stopped writing or giving public speeches or leading neighborhood activists until poor health forced her to cut back as she approached age 90. She died in 2006. Jacobs had outlived Moses, who died in 1981 at age 92. Her approach to urban planning outlived his, too.