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What Moses Wrought

By Keith Kloor
Aug 13, 2009 5:38 PMNov 20, 2019 5:01 AM


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Several weeks ago Dwight Garner from the NYT began a book review this way:

Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs are the subject and the author of two of the most indelible nonfiction books of the 20th century: Robert Caro's biography of Moses, "The Power Broker" (1974) and Jacobs's own "Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961). If you want to know about these towering oppositional figures, those are the bedrock texts, and neither feels remotely like homework: they're as alive today as when they were written.

"The Power Broker" happens to be one of my all-time favorite books. Anyone familiar with Jane Jacobs and her illustrious career also knows that she went mano-a-mano with Moses--and beat him. That was an incredible feat. Nobody bested Moses. How he rose to such dominance and how he singlehandedly shaped New York City in the 20th century are the twin pillars of Caro's magisterial work. But I read it a long time ago and found myself shocked to learn that Jacobs goes unmentioned in "The Power Broker." As Garner notes,

Mr. Caro had devoted an entire chapter to her in his original manuscript, but for space reasons it was cut from the 1,246-page published version.

Hence one of the reasons for Anthony Flint's new book, "Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City." One of her battles with Moses was over his scheme to build a highway through Washington Square Park. (Can you imagine that today?) Garner, in his discussion of Flint's new book, describes how Jacobs pioneered the tactics of community organizing:

She helped rally prominent citizens like Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead and the New Yorker architectural critic Lewis Mumford to the cause. Jacobs was a kind of "war-room impresario," Mr. Flint writes, who urged a three-pronged attack: "grassroots organizing, designed to draw in more allies, more pressure on local politicians, and a stepped-up campaign to gain attention in the media."

Now, as many a New York developer and City Hall official has lamented since the Moses reign ended, those tactics have been successfully employed to stunt New York City's transition to the 21st century. I prefer to think the fault lies with the Moses legacy. Anyway, another smart review of Flint's book discusses this--the Jane Jacobs legacy in NYC-- here, along with the role of government in master planning. Anyone interested in urbanism and urban planning should read both reviews.

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