She took down a Goliath in Gotham

By Chuck Leddy
August 31, 2009

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In his last book, “This Land,’’ urban planning expert and former Globe reporter Anthony Flint examined the battles over suburban sprawl and offered an array of possible solutions. Now working at the Cambridge-based Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Flint looks at a seminal struggle of 20th century city planning, one that involved two giants with utterly differing views of how cities should look and develop.

While Jane Jacobs, a Greenwich Village mother without any formal training in architecture or urban planning, would harness the power of grass-roots community activism to turn back the powerful forces of top-down urban renewal, as practiced by Robert Moses, Jacobs’s victory was anything but simple, Flint shows. Moses, the subject of Robert Caro’s classic biography “The Power Broker,’’ got his way by using his political connections, his relationships with real estate developers, and moving aggressively so as to cut off the possibility of community opposition killing his massive projects.

Before Jacobs, Moses literally bulldozed through community opposition. A New York City journalist, Jacobs lived near Washington Square Park and learned of Moses’s plans to extend Fifth Avenue right through the middle of the park, a place where she’d take her kids to play. Moses wanted to relieve traffic congestion and renew what he deemed a decaying area. Jacobs, however, viewed the park, and Greenwich Village as a whole, as a vibrant, diverse, and anything-but-decaying area that needed protection from Moses’s bulldozers.

While Moses attacked opponents like Jacobs as enemies of urban progress, elitists, and “stupid and selfish people,’’ Jacobs worked tirelessly to build a neighborhood coalition to stop Moses. Working the media like the expert insider that she was, attracting big name supporters like Lewis Mumford and Eleanor Roosevelt, and developing solid political relationships with up-and-coming leaders like Ed Koch (who’d become mayor of New York) and John Lindsay (who’d also become mayor), Jacobs was able to stop Moses and preserve the park. But the stubborn Moses just kept coming up with more plans to “renew’’ Greenwich Village with massive building projects that would leave countless people homeless.

The battle to save Washington Square Park transformed Jacobs into not just a symbol of effective grass-roots activism but forced her to theorize about what made cities vibrant and sustainable. She would go on to directly attack Moses’s vision of urban renewal as clearing slums and then building massive highways and housing projects on top of the rubble. The resulting “renewed’’ areas, Jacobs argued, were lifeless zones without any sense of community.

What Jacobs deemed essential for a vibrant city were “short blocks, and a mix of buildings of different sizes, new buildings and old buildings, and, critically, a mix of uses,’’ from stores to homes to restaurants and more. For Jacobs, great cities were organic places where people connected. Urban planning was thus a contradiction. Jacobs would successfully assault Moses-style urban planning in her classic 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,’’ which has become a textbook among urban planners. Perfectly in step with the 1960s, Jacobs showed that you could indeed fight City Hall and win, because she did.

Today, and largely because of Jacobs, “urban renewal and top-down redevelopment schemes are viewed as the shameful past,’’ writes Flint. Jacobs toppled the idea that planners sitting at a drafting table knew what was best for cities. In her struggles against Moses, dramatically described in Flint’s winning account, Jacobs showed that communities could come together to stop destructive development in its tracks.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

WRESTLING WITH MOSES: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City By Anthony Flint

Random House, 256 pp, $27

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