Friday, February 3, 2012

Book Review: “Wrestling with Moses”

In my last two posts, I reviewed first the book for which Jane Jacobs is best known and then the most comprehensive biography of her frequent adversary, Robert Moses.  Today, I’ll bring the two together in a third book review.

“Wrestling with Moses, How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City” (2009) by Anthony Flint contains abbreviated biographies of Jacobs and Moses and accounts of the three fields on which they did battle.

The author doesn’t pretend to be impartial.  Jacobs is clearly his hero and he presents her as the valiant underdog to the shadowy overlord.  And, of course, he celebrates when she wins all three battles.

“Wrestling with Moses” is the most lightweight of the three books.  It is a light and easy read.  Despite the less intense nature of the book, there are still valuable insights to be gained.

The first is the amount of momentum that can be acquired by someone like Moses.   By the time Jacobs first opposed him, he had been the dominant personality in shaping the configuration of New York City for nearly three decades.  He had developed an aura of inevitability.

Most New Yorkers shrugged when they learned of Moses’ his next plan and assumed that he knew best.  Many of the remainder assumed that he was unstoppable.  Very few were like Jacobs, willing to fight his proposals.  And those who fought found a playing field that was stacked overwhelmingly again them.  Planning commissions were filled with people who owed allegiance to Moses.  City Hall was filled employees who knew that their careers could be sidetracked, perhaps forever, if they failed to support Moses.

From the perspective of a half century, we might look at the three battles won by Jacobs, over Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village redevelopment, and the Lower Manhattan Expressway, and assume that Moses regularly sustained defeats.  He didn’t.  These three lost battles were so inconsequential in the scope of his life that they were omitted from his biography, a biography that ran over 1,100 pages but still couldn’t find room for Jane Jacobs.  Nor are there many defeats mentioned in the pages that stayed in the book.

Next, it is insightful to look at the tactics employed by Jacobs.  Mostly she and her adherents relied on grassroots organizing and mobilization.  But Jacobs was willing to slip into civil disobedience when required and was arrested on multiple occasions as a result.  If she was still with us today, she’d likely be in the “inner fringe” of the Occupy movement, willing to proudly march when the masses hit the street, but looking with abhorrence at the Oakland City Hall break-in or the near-violence at the Port of Oakland.

She respected the fabric of civil society.  Indeed, she celebrated it in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”.  But she was willing to test its margins when she felt that the situation called for it.

Lastly, it is interesting to note the story of Jane Jacobs as developer.  Following the defeat of Moses’ urban redevelopment plan for Greenwich Village, Jacobs and other local residents formed an organization to build housing that they thought would fit better within the context of their neighborhood.

One of their proposed buildings was eventually constructed, but as the costs rose, various building features had to be eliminated.  The architectural critics panned the final result and many Village residents were unhappy with the resulting rents.  Jacobs fell prey to the same issues that trouble many developers.  Even the best-intentioned developer can’t avoid the pressure that the marketplace imposes.  It’s something to remember the next time a development in your community falls short of ideal.

One weakness of the Jacobs versus Moses premise is that nowhere in the book do Jacobs and Moses come face to face.  Indeed, they probably never met in life.  However, we are given two humorous stories of their distant interplay. 

Publisher Bennett Cerf sent an advance copy of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” to Moses for his review.  Moses returned it with a note reading, “I am returning this book you sent me.  Aside from the fact that it is intemperate and inaccurate, it is also libelous. … Sell this junk to someone else.”

On the other side, Jacobs and her husband Bob received an advance copy of “The Power Broker”.  They lay in bed, trading sections back and forth, alternating between horror and amusement over the depth of Moses’ duplicity laid bare for the first time.

If you have the time, either “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” or “The Power Broker” is worth the effort.  But if time doesn’t permit, then “Wrestling with Moses” is a fine introduction to the urban planning antipodes represented by towering personalities of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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