Book Quotes: Wrestling With Moses

Today is Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday, so here’s a post to celebrate her centennial. Check out the Google Doodle dedicated to the inimitable Ms. Jacobs.

On a recent trip, I finally found just the right book to carry me through two long, cramped plane rides and keep my mind off the discomfort of modern air travel. In fact, it was so perfect, that I read the last sentence just as the plane jolted down onto the runway in Atlanta. The book is Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City by Anthony Flint (2011, Random House). Longtime MissPresers will know that I have a standing fascination with Jane Jacobs for her Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)a brilliant counter to the urban renewal planning principles epitomized by Robert Moses. Even though Death and Life isn’t technically about historic preservation, it is required reading, in my opinion, for every preservationist. Get a taste of it in the very first Book Quotes series here on MissPres, which begins with “Jane Jacobs on City Planning” but definitely undertake to read the whole book if you haven’t already. Bring both Death and Life and Wrestling With Moses to the beach or the mountains or wherever you plan to relax this summer.

Wrestling With Moses takes us behind the scenes of Death and Life and gives us blow-by-blow accounts of the battles Jacobs waged in her neighborhood, Greenwich Village, against the urban renewal plans of Robert Moses. In Flint’s telling, previous to Jacobs, Moses had won almost every battle he had ever fought: “like the pharaohs of Egypt building the pyramids, Moses reshaped New York through the exercise of shrewd and unfettered power.”

Flint especially focuses on two battles between Jacobs and Moses, the first, regarding Moses’s plan to cut a highway straight through Washington Square Park, the second, to demolish fourteen blocks in the Village, including Jacobs’s own home, for Urban Renewal.  As I read the book, I found so much of the back-and-forth reminded me of preservation battles I’ve experienced, from the secretive back-room deals between government officials and developers to the definition of perfectly good housing as “blighted” to get Urban Renewal money. I know that Greenwich Village is not Mississippi, but these battles are worthy of our study as Mississippi preservationists. If you haven’t experienced these situations yet, you will, and it’s helpful to see that we can overcome them with strategic thinking, thoughtful ally-making, and sometimes, just plain stubbornness. Here are few excerpts from Chapter 3: The Battle of Washington Park Square, with my editorializing in italics.

“The peace that the residents of Greenwich Village viewed as comfortable and unpretentious was to Moses another city park that had fallen into disrepair. The plantings had withered, and the benches were broken. Moses cites this decline as a rationale for major changes. Like so much of the city, Washington Square Park needed to be upgraded and modernized.” (p. 71)

Moses quickly recognized that he needed to deal with the neighborhood opposition, just as he had done with the Long Island estate owners attempting to block his parkway there. His strategy was similar: portraying the opponents as not-in-my-backyard elitists, standing in the way of progress. But he took his tactics one step further–threatening to withhold all improvements if the Greenwich Village residents would not cooperate. (p. 72)

Determined not to let the neighborhood get the upper hand, Moses did his best to keep the residents off balance, delaying key hearings until the last minute, then quickly scheduling them in the hope of minimizing attendance. (p. 78)

Hmmmm, isn’t this a new age of sunshine laws and public notice? No, the newspapers are full of proof that residents much be constantly vigilant against this type of behavior, especially when it involves a development project. In fact, my recent experience here in Jackson’s Fondren neighborhood involved apparent complicity between government, developers, AND the press to keep quiet the impending demolition of a large, several-block section of the neighborhood until demolition was already underway, to avoid neighborhood outcry. Knowledge is power, y’all, and “they” will keep you in the dark as long as they can.

[Regarding naming their group the Joint Emergency Committee to Close Washington Square to Traffic], “We weren’t trying to embrace all kinds of points of view about the Village, all kinds of political groups, all kinds of anything. We were trying to collect and concentrate on this issue, the people who felt as we did on that issue,” Jacobs recalled later. . . . “People knew what they were getting into. They weren’t getting into ideology. They were getting into a particular thing . . . [We joined] people who believed in a particular thing and might disagree enormously on other things.” (p.79)

Please, please, please, re-read this paragraph! The thing I love about preservation is that it has mostly been able to keep itself above the mud of party politics and ideologies that don’t have anything to do with preservation. We need Republican preservationists, Democratic preservationists, Socialist preservationists, capitalist preservationists, black, white, Asian, Latino, and everyone in between. It is very distressing to me in the last several years to see more and more preservationists and the organizations that represent them becoming blatantly political on issues that aren’t about historic preservation. I even wrote a post about it way back when, “Red State Preservationist, or what the National Trust Should Have Said.” And about allowing our preservationist argument to get co-opted by other trendy movements: “A Preservation Philosophy That Doesn’t Kowtow to the Green Movement.”

Jacobs advocated changing the terms of the debate away from the broader picture that Moses was painting. The emergency committee’s best argument was that Washington Square was a park, and a park was no place for highways. . . . There should be no negotiations, she argued, and no acceptance of a slightly less harmful roadway, like Hulan Jack’s proposal to reduce the number of lanes from four to two. If the roadway was built, and it connected to the Lower Manhattan Expressway, it would no doubt eventually be widened. (pp. 79-80)

I’m not saying preservationists should never compromise, but I like that phrase “change the terms of the debate.” Too often, we are on the back of our heels from the start of a preservation controversy and we make the mistake of accepting the opposing argument as a place to begin debate. Maybe a developer wants to demolish a whole block of houses and we propose saving three of the five houses. Well, then we’ve ceded the majority of the argument, which is “demolition will occur.” Think about changing the terms of the debate and not accepting that ANY demolition will occur and debate from that standpoint instead.

The victory for the bunch of mothers was complete. Moses had been trying to fix Washington Square Park since 1935, and a quarter century later he was forced to give up. The achievement was infectious as neighborhoods across the city found a new voice in development, public works projects, and especially parks.

This was a significant achievement in community organizing against Urban Renewal and politically connected developers, but in the 50 years since, both government and developers have adapted, and some of the gains Jacobs’s band of mothers made have been rolled back. Bottom line, be vigilant in your community!

Categories: Historic Preservation


3 replies

  1. … like Hulan Jack’s proposal to reduce the number of lanes from four to two.

    I thought that the four-lanes-to-two-lanes plan was Kramer’s idea–part of his Adopt A Highway Program.


  2. This is very strange news that you and Google bring me today, E.L. Having no idea that today was J.J.’s 100th, it happened that last night I picked up DARK AGE AHEAD again to dip into some ideas I have for an architectural studio I am teaching in L.A. this summer, the focus of which is the horrific role the L.A. mandarins had in leveling (figuratively and literally) downtown L.A. I’ll take this as an omen that J.J. will be looking over my shoulder.


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