The Guardian, "Mother Courage: A bicycling mother arrested for rabble-rousing, Jane Jacobs has set the agenda for urban planning for half a century. But was she right? Christopher Turner walks down her old street in Greenwich Village," by Christopher Turner, on 11 September 2009 -- Jane Jacobs is often portrayed as an almost mythic figure, locked with Robert Moses in an epic battle for the future of New York. She was the mother and determined journalist with owlish glasses and grey thatch of hair who cruised around Greenwich Village on a bicycle, her handbag stowed in a wicker basket on the handlebars. He was New York's seemingly unstoppable construction tsar, the man the press nicknamed "Big Bob the Builder", a master of backroom politics who was chauffeur-driven around the five boroughs in a black stretch limousine with pigskin seats. He wanted to tear down her house, neighbourhood, and much of the rest of New York so that he could cover it with superblocks and expressways. She took him on - David v Goliath - and won. But was the dynamic as straightforward as that?
A new book, Anthony Flint's Wrestling With Moses, documents in fascinating detail this struggle, which has even been turned into a new children's book entitled Genius of Common Sense. Interestingly, Jacobs's own book about urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), only makes passing reference to Moses, even if Moses did think those few remarks libellous. So why the prizefight?
Wrestling With Moses: Genius of Common Sense, by Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch
In The Power Broker, his 1974 biography of Moses, Anthony Caro makes him seem as fascinating a character as the devil himself, while one might also glean from Flint's book that Moses was a second Stalin who would have liked to relocate all those he had the power to evict to a gulag in Queens. In slashing through the most rundown areas, Moses most often displaced the poor; critics described slum clearance as "Negro removal", and dismissed the modernist towers surrounded by parks that re-housed those who were relocated as "ghettos-within-ghettos".
Jacobs, a journalist for the now-defunct "Architectural Forum", was the most vocal critic of the planning philosophy to which Moses adhered in his prolific 34-year career, and she successfully fought such schemes as his Lower Manhattan Expressway, that would have put a 10-lane straight line across Greenwich Village, SoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown and the Lower East Side. But their paths crossed only once, in 1958, at a Board of Estimates hearing to decide the fate of Washington Square Park. Moses wanted to extend Fifth Avenue through the square, ostensibly to ease congestion in Greenwich Village's dense maze of streets, but also to reward developers building on 10 blocks he'd razed to the south.
Jacobs's children often played in the historic park and joined the battle to preserve it: they proved effective at collecting signatures, and were sometimes outfitted with sandwich boards that proclaimed, "Save the Square!" (which had a double meaning in the hip Village). Not used to defeat, Moses stormed out of the hearing shouting furiously: "There is nobody against this - NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY but a bunch of, a bunch of MOTHERS."
When Jacobs joined this community action as a mere foot soldier, she hadn't yet become a public figure, but Moses's power and influence were already in retreat. In 1960 he resigned as parks commissioner, construction coordinator and chairman of slum clearance to become chief executive of the 1964 World's Fair. For obvious dramatic reasons, Flint is keen for Moses to appear as "the man behind the curtain", the wizard that Jacobs rendered impotent in her later campaigns. In truth, her real bogey-figures were two earlier planning theorists, Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier. They were the two men who had, she felt, many years earlier set the flawed agenda for city planning that paternalists such as Moses were now imposing all over America.
In the 1890s Ebenezer Howard proposed decongesting the "cancerous tumour" that was London by building garden city satellites that would support their own industries and be surrounded by green belts. In the 1920s Le Corbusier wanted to raze the traditional city and erect in its place "vertical garden cities" composed of high-density super-towers surrounded by parks and highways. Jacobs considered both ideas anti-city, hopeless efforts to assert order on a messy metropolis, to give the city "all the attributes of a well-kept, dignified cemetery". In The Death and Life, she proposed nurturing the virtues of the real city instead, with shops, cafés and bars creating a busy street life at all hours of the day. The key to making cities safe and attractive, Jacobs thought, was not to impose a suburban vision but to foster a sense of community - to have as many "eyes on the street" as possible.
Looking out of the window of her home, number 555 Hudson Street, musing on how cities work best (and presenting two more curtain-twitching eyes to the street), Jacobs noticed what she described as a "street ballet". In the most famous passage of her book she describes a day's performance in an ethnographic tour de force that shows the order behind apparent chaos. The curtain rises for Jacobs when she puts her rubbish out at 8am, as gaggles of students rush to school dropping sweet wrappers in their wake.
"While I sweep up the wrappers I watch the other rituals of the morning: Mr Halpert unlocking the laundry's handcart from its mooring to a cellar door, Joe Cornacchia's son-in-law stacking out the empty crates from the delicatessen, the barber bringing out his sidewalk folding chair ... Mr Lofaro, the short, thick-bodied, white-aproned fruit man who stands outside his doorway up the street, his arms folded, his feet planted, looking solid as earth itself."
On a recent visit to Hudson Street I found that a third of the stores and restaurants on Jacobs's block are empty. Jacobs died in 2006, but her cast of shopkeepers were swept away by gentrification, of which, ironically, she represented the first wave, many years ago. The White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas used to prop up the bar, has expanded down the street and is clogged with tourists, but Chelsea Cricket, which apparently offered designer clothing for toddlers in the storefront of Jacobs's old home, closed earlier this year, as did the popular Italian restaurant next door and two other eateries on the block - their windows whitewashed on the inside as the recession creates its own urban blight. A man with a moustache, whom Jacobs would no doubt have thought a "character", was sitting on one of these empty stoops shouting at passers-by, "Are you unhappy?"
I introduced myself to two elderly women sitting outside the café next door to Jacobs's former home. (The three-storey house that she bought in 1947 for $7,000 is currently for sale at $3.75 million.) Margaret Botros, 74, and Geraldine Six, 77, were sisters whose brother coincidentally had a bit part in Jacobs's book to illustrate the life-saving benefits of late-night eyes on the street.
"When Jimmy Rogan fell through a plate-glass window (he was separating some scuffling friends) and almost lost his arm, a stranger in an old T-shirt emerged from the Ideal bar, swiftly applied an expert tourniquet and, according to the hospital's emergency staff, saved Jimmy's life."
Their father was a truck driver and they used to live in an apartment above the café. The sisters now live in the dwindling stock of rent-controlled apartments a few streets away but return like homing pigeons every day to drink coffee. "It was totally different back then," they said, speaking in speedy chorus, "There were stores all along here. We had an ice-cream parlour, a locksmith, a butcher, a tailor, a baker, a deli, a vegetable stand ... But the rents went sky high."
The two sisters were nostalgic for Jacobs's vision of a happy urban village. But even at the time, Jacobs's version of Hudson Street was criticised as romantic and "folksy": the New York Times review of Jacobs's book compared her old-fashioned vision of community to Thornton Wilder's fictional Grover's Corner, and Lewis Mumford, the New Yorker's architecture critic and a proponent of the garden city, dismissed her ideas for urban improvement as "Home Cures for Cancer". The Hudson Street she painted was always under threat - Jacobs lamented that the area was increasingly awash with uncivic-minded "high rent tenants most of whom are so transient we cannot keep track of their faces". In The 100 Mile City (1993), Deyan Sudjic remarked that Jacobs "sounds like a pioneer from the Old West, guarding her homestead in hostile territory ... Despite her ostensible celebration of diversity and community, the underlying message is of unblinking paranoia."
Almost immediately she handed in the manuscript of The Death and Life, Jacobs's theories were put to the test when 14 blocks of the West Village, including the very section of Hudson Street that she had celebrated in her book, were earmarked for urban renewal. This time, Jacobs led the battle to save the area and proved a formidable opponent, staging a mock funeral for the neighbourhood and choreographing other stunts. She was arrested for rabble rousing and newspapers compared her to Joan of Arc and to Madame Defarge leading the people to the barricades. She exploited her new celebrity and was photographed by Diane Arbus for Esquire and trumpeted as "Queen Jane" by Vogue.
This summer a block of Hudson Street was renamed Jane Jacobs Way, an honour that grateful community groups had been trying to bestow on Jacobs since her death, even though she hadn't lived in the area since 1968, when she moved to Canada so that her sons could avoid the Vietnam draft. When the mayor's representative came to unveil the sign, she was mobbed by Jane Jacobs look-alikes protesting the rezoning in Coney Island that will see the historic amusement park halved in size and shielded from the sea by high towers. It seems that anyone standing in the way of the bulldozers must ask, "What would Jane Jacobs do?"
Jacobs is not only a hero of grassroots activists, but has set the agenda for urban planning for half a century. Her utopian vision of Greenwich Village life has been exported unquestioningly to the rest of the world, where an urban stage set provides a background for Disneyland-like islands of social fantasy that hardly relate to the rest of the city (think of Covent Garden, which was also saved from an expressway); suburbs have also been retrofitted so that they resemble little villages. In New York, many of the historic districts she helped save from the Lower Manhattan Expressway, such as SoHo's cast-iron district, have become open-air museums or malls for tourists that are just as soulless as the cultural centres and high-rises she so abhorred. In these entertainment zones, any semblance of street ballet is swamped by the marching of out-of town consumers, most of whom got there via the bridges and tunnels Moses built.
In 2007, a triumvirate of revisionist exhibitions tried to remind us that Moses, for all his many power-crazed faults, was once a popular figure. He was pugnacious and intransigent, but he was a bully, at least at first, for the people, using his power to bulldoze through the golf courses and country estates of the wealthy so that anyone would have easy access to the parks and beaches he created. Flint tallies his impressive achievements: "13 bridges, two tunnels, 637 miles of highways, 658 playgrounds, ten giant public swimming pools, 17 state parks, and dozens of new or renovated city parks".
It was only when Moses tried to bring light and air into the city that he was charged with elitism. Like Jacobs, he wanted to democratise space - it was just his techniques that were different. He compared himself to Baron Haussmann, whose "dictatorial talents enabled him to accomplish a vast amount in a very short time, but also made him many enemies, for he was in the habit of riding roughshod over all opposition". Like Haussmann, Moses thought the end always justified the means, that the old should make way for the new, that the medieval warren should make way for glorious parks, apartment buildings and boulevards.
Jacobs checked Moses's mad worship of the car and his despotic excesses. But in a world of faux cobblestones, pedestrian zones and hanging baskets, aren't we a little nostalgic for Moses's obsessive audacity - for an era when planners could transcend the nimbies to execute grand gestures in the public interest? (source: The UK Guardian)