Living for the City

Living for the City

There’s more to the legend of Jane Jacobs than her showdown with Robert Moses.


Cities, Jane Jacobs famously observed, offer "a problem in handling organized complexity." In her first and still most famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, Jacobs argued that cities are not chaotic or irrational; they are essentially systems of interrelated variables collected in an organic whole. The challenge, she wrote, was to sense the patterns at work in the vast array of variables. Something similar could be said for writing about cities. How does one coax the thread of a narrative from the scrum and fray of urban life?

In Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, Michael Sorkin, an architect and critic, makes like Jacobs and immerses himself in the rhythms and patter of the street. He has shaped his book according to the contours of his daily stroll across a dozen or so blocks of Lower Manhattan, from the top floor of his five-story Greenwich Village walk-up to his office in TriBeCa. Walking, Sorkin writes, is "a natural armature for thinking sequentially," providing opportunities for heady musings on all manner of city life. Yet his peripatetic narrative is anything but linear. Proving there’s a raconteur in every flâneur, Sorkin unspools strands of free-floating observations about a scattered array of urban issues and gathers them into a loose weave along his path downtown. Any full accounting of his rambles would be impossible, but he manages to ruminate on landlord-tenant troubles, the 1811 Manhattan grid, historic preservation, the "ratio of tread to riser" on apartment stairs, elevator etiquette, zoning and housing codes, rent control, the theory of montage, green roofs, public art, crime, gentrification, traffic, urban renewal and public-private partnerships. He also takes diversions into the city thinking of Walter Benjamin, Michel de Certeau, Ebenezer Howard, Jacob Riis, Le Corbusier, Henri Lefebvre, the Walt Disney Company, the Situationists, the New Urbanists and, of course, Jane Jacobs. It’s a primer on what one might call the "New York school" of urbanism.

Sorkin is a congenial, sometimes irascible guide. Ever the Manhattanite, he lambastes oblivious SUV drivers, callous landlords and "Disneyfied" urban environments (an undying spark for his ire), but he is also aware of his own foibles, including his tendency to lapse into "high ethical mode." Sorkin’s musings–outrages and enthusiasms alike–converge around his sensitivity to the restless yet productive tension between the city’s role as both public sphere and commercial marketplace, and the intermingled chances city life offers for making meaning and making money. For Sorkin, the city’s hum and buzz is the sound of an endless "dialogue of desire and demand" and the pitched voices of "poets" and "bandits" jostling for each and every advantage.

The foremost poet in this dialogue is Jacobs. Her attention to the intricate weave of interaction–the "organized complexity"–that binds the social lives of streets and neighborhoods undergirds much of Sorkin’s book. Jacobs, Sorkin observes, "approached the city as a medium of exchange rather than a static artifact." It was "commerce, in every sense of that word," that she found at the heart of a healthy city. Sorkin prizes the social possibilities of this notion of exchange–the "intensified reciprocity" that has made cities such fertile ground for free association and expression. He finds this reciprocity at the heart of all the urban virtues he and Jacobs cherish: "mutuality, self-government, neighborliness, diversity, intimacy, convenience, contentment, and safety."

For Jacobs, however, commerce of the social and economic varieties is mutually sustaining. But is commerce always good for community? Certainly Sorkin does not think so. He is one of many New Yorkers distressed by the collateral damage of prosperity in Lower Manhattan, where the opportunity for so much private profit has eroded public propinquity. A good example is SoHo and its transformation since the 1970s. The neighborhood, just south of Greenwich Village, was a manufacturing and warehouse district until the late 1950s, when artists began illegally to occupy the loft spaces of its cast-iron fronted buildings. By the late ’60s, after Jacobs had helped neighborhood allies save the area from an urban expressway, SoHo’s cultural cachet triggered a "golden goose effect." Artists and galleries were priced out of lofts to make way for condos. "Cheap restaurants were supplanted by pricey ones," Sorkin writes. "Shoe stores and boutiques proliferated. The streets were jammed on the weekends with people who, with no thought of art, had come simply to shop and brunch and to look at each other shopping and brunching." Working artists are so despised in SoHo, Sorkin observes, that local merchants have launched a campaign to ban the "street artists" who have long sold their wares from informal sidewalk tables. The neighborhood’s commercial vitality has infringed on its public character, and the drive to eradicate "the juxtaposition of no-rent vendors and high-rent shops" is the latest act in the decades-long transformation of SoHo into a theater of "high-end lifestyles" in which "residents become cast members and the rituals of everyday life become spectacle or food for consumption."

But how to distinguish between virtuous and insidious commerce? One person’s "intensified reciprocity" might be another’s narrowly scripted "high-end lifestyle." Sorkin remembers one walk through SoHo when he narrowly avoided being hit by two converging Maclaren baby carriages "being pushed by a pair of yuppie moms who were gabbing on their cells." Despite grumbling about "French bulldogs and nanny-propelled prams," Sorkin admits that "dogs and babies are signs of the life of the city." Some of the "urban qualities" gentrification produces–"lively street life, profuse commerce, preservation and upgrading of old buildings"–are "the substrate of urbanity." The key to meaningful distinctions, as Jacobs often pointed out, lies close to the ground, at the level of scale. Bandits arrive in the form of what she called "cataclysmic money," those great cascades of capital poured into a neighborhood by urban renewal schemes or, more recently, by the sort of corporate-backed gentrification efforts that have replaced much of Greenwich Village’s local commercial ecology with chain stores that aim to exploit local vitality and abscond with the profits.

Writing from the West Village of the late 1950s and early ’60s, Jacobs hoped that hard-pressed neighborhoods like hers would be afforded a slow process of "unslumming" sustained by precise doses of "gradual money." That, she believed, would protect the economic and social diversity she prized in her mixed-use and mixed-income neighborhood. But many have charged over the years that "unslumming" has looked a lot like gentrification. That’s because the upscaling of Greenwich Village–and many other formerly disheveled, troubled neighborhoods–hasn’t been primarily dependent on "cataclysmic money"; the cycle of renovation, refurbishment and rejuvenation has been sustained by a slow-drip accumulation of wealth. More and more middle-class people, attracted by the very virtues Jacobs celebrated, have quite gradually transformed the Village into a neighborhood where private sources of "cataclysmic money" feel comfortable alighting.

Jacobs, however, was not blind to gentrification. She recommended public supplies of "gradual money" to help local businesses and homeowners invest in the neighborhood and offset what she called "the self-destruction of diversity." Most important, as both Sorkin and Anthony Flint remind us, she acted quite dramatically to protect the intricate weave of public and private neighborhood functions. In Wrestling With Moses Flint, a Boston journalist, fleshes out the story of Jacobs’s public activism, offering the fullest account yet of a mythic Gotham tale favored by urbanists and Jacobites the world over: how a feisty freelance journalist, armed with the observations about urban life recorded in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, recruited neighbors and local politicians to save Greenwich Village and SoHo from a bandit named Robert Moses and the bulldozers of the City of New York.

She was born Jane Butzner in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1916, and came to New York City in 1934 with a high school diploma, some secretarial skills and a surplus of ambition. Like so many seekers before and since, she soon found the Village and settled there. Over the next decade Jacobs launched a freelance writing career. The assignments she took on for Vogue and other magazines and newspapers–profiles of the flower market, the garment industry, the diamond trade–introduced her to the various niche economies she would later define as the heart of city life. During the war and just after it she worked for the State Department, penning articles about American life for overseas distribution. In 1944 she met a young architect, Robert Jacobs. They married and in 1947 bought a fixer-upper–an old storefront building with an upstairs two-story apartment–at 555 Hudson Street in the West Village. Aided by her husband and several assignments for the State Department, Jacobs began to nurture an interest in architecture and city planning. By 1952 she had landed an editorial position with Architectural Forum, where she found herself in the belly of the beast: the magazine was the country’s leading advocate of the austere towers and open plazas that epitomized the midcentury Modernist style in architecture and planning.

Up until this point, Jacobs had few convictions about city planning. This began to change when she visited Philadelphia, where she found head planner Edmund Bacon more concerned with maintaining order and "view corridors" than with sustaining neighborhood life. Not long after, she met William Kirk, the head worker at Union Settlement Association in East Harlem. He and his colleagues had begun to question the impact of the public housing going up in the neighborhood they served. The new tower complexes were uprooting old neighborhoods, scattering community life, deepening racial segregation and spoiling a lively streetscape. Flint notes that Jacobs was influenced by Kirk but overlooks how she joined forces with Kirk and his colleagues, which helped them to develop and express a new vision for urban planning, one that would not only inform Jacobs’s thinking as she refined her views but also propel the gathering revolt against urban renewal and Modernist planning. East Harlem is proof of the much larger current of dissent into which Jacobs was stepping. Flint, however, focuses on Jacobs rather than the larger movement.

Back at Architectural Forum, Jacobs became something of a black sheep. She began to question openly the blind faith so many of her colleagues placed in Modernist planning principles. In 1958 she won a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation that allowed her to take a leave of absence to begin work on a book. Here, Flint’s story narrows to its point: the familiar Jacobs-Moses cage match. The feisty and outspoken Jacobs, set on a "collision course" with Moses, publishes Death and Life and then proceeds to defeat the "master builder" in a decade-long contest for the soul of New York City. Having changed how everyone thinks about cities, Jacobs then pulls up stakes and moves to Canada, fed up with urban renewal and the threat the Vietnam War and the draft posed for her teenage sons.


At the heart of this story are the three efforts Jacobs joined or led in the years between 1958 and 1968. The first was a protest against Moses’s campaign–the latest of several attempts over the years–to run a road through Washington Square Park. Jacobs signed up to stop the roadway, helping a local committee to foil Moses’s plans for good. Then, in early 1961, just after she finished writing Death and Life, she discovered that the city was planning to launch an urban renewal plan for her neighborhood. She played a key role in founding and leading the Committee to Save the West Village, the organization that convinced Mayor Robert Wagner that he’d be better off abandoning the project. Finally, there was perhaps the best known and hardest fought of Jacobs’s campaigns, the effort to stop one of Moses’s most fervent dreams: the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Lomex, as everyone called it, was to be an eight-lane elevated highway that would cross the island in an east-west direction over Broome Street, cutting through an industrial neighborhood just south of the Village. The bout lasted six years, winding its way through several different postponements and a few variations on the original plan to a now legendary climax: a 1968 public meeting in which Jacobs exhorted her allies to destroy the record of the hearing, thereby voiding the meeting. "Listen to this! There is no record!" she reportedly shouted into the microphone. "There is no hearing! We’re through with this phony, fink hearing!" Not long after that, the highway project was abandoned and Jacobs’s reputation sealed.

However gratifying Flint’s ringside account of jabs, counterpunches and head butts, his dogged devotion to the hoary David and Goliath story makes for myopic history. Most important, his account of the resistance to Moses’s brand of urban modernism is especially slight. The truth is that a loose movement to unseat Moses had been gathering since the 1940s. Across New York and other cities, a host of protesters–dissident liberal city officials and urban planners, opportunistic Congressmen, left-wing tenant organizations, crusading lawyers, East Harlem social workers, and local residents and business owners–had begun to coalesce around slum clearance sites and urban expressway routes. These groups were often focused on individual neighborhoods, split by varying degrees of opposition or commitment to the ideals behind slum clearance and urban renewal, or divided along left and liberal lines by cold war-era suspicions. By the mid-’50s, however, some of these groups had begun to create citywide networks and to advance not only defenses of imperiled neighborhoods but subtle evaluations and informed revisions of Modernist planning orthodoxy. By the late ’50s Jacobs was wading into a cresting flood tide.

A few of these folks surface in Flint’s story, but only fleetingly, as in the case of Jacobs’s East Harlem allies, or as isolated failures or eccentrics awaiting the triumphant arrival of Jacobs. Their most important achievement is overlooked entirely. In 1959, a few avenues east of Jacobs and her Village allies, a group of tenant organizers defending the Cooper Square neighborhood launched a successful effort to turn back Moses’s bulldozers. The organizers made common cause with social workers like the future historian Staughton Lynd, and recruited a planner named Walter Thabit, who produced an alternative plan for the area. Thabit’s scheme, which scaled back on demolition, proposed a gradual program of phased relocation and offered rehabilitation and new housing at various income levels, was unevenly implemented in the years to come. Nevertheless, the Cooper Square struggle jump-started the formation of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, the organization that did the most to advance the New York wing of the "advocacy planning" movement and other 1960s efforts to give residents a say on urban development. It’s undeniable that Jacobs and her book had an immense effect on this gathering movement. But Flint oversimplifies the rich history of how she came to enjoy that position of influence in the first place.

His account of the politics of urban renewal is similarly hampered. Flint takes pains to reveal Moses as "the man behind the curtain" pulling the strings for every machination Jacobs confronted. There’s no doubt, of course, that Moses masterminded the Washington Square roadway project and Lomex, but it’s a significant misreading of history to argue that he ran urban renewal in the Village. By the early ’60s, faced with a citywide upheaval against displacement and Modernist planning, Moses had willingly retired from housing and slum clearance, opting to focus on highways and a job running the 1964 World’s Fair. The two men Mayor Wagner appointed to run a reorganized urban renewal bureaucracy, James Felt and J. Clarence Davies, were critics of Moses. Once allies of the master builder, they had been disturbed by the unrest slum clearance had stirred up. In the late ’50s, years before Moses retired, they had persuaded Wagner to let them run an alternative urban renewal project on the Upper West Side, one that would consult with the community, do less bulldozer clearance and more rehabilitation.

Flint repeatedly portrays Felt and Davies as little more than Moses lackeys. He even goes so far as to suggest–with no evidence–that it was "entirely plausible" that Moses "steered his successors right to Hudson Street" in order to get revenge on the Village. The truth is, that section of the West Village had long been seen as "blighted" by everyone involved with urban renewal in the city. Felt and Davies honestly wanted to reform urban renewal; they hoped their plans for the West Side and the Village would save it from Moses’s excesses. Felt and Davies were by no means allies of the resistance, but their revisions of business as usual were, in effect, testaments to the resistance’s effectiveness. And yet, despite their well-meaning aims, resistance to urban renewal had far outdistanced Felt and Davies. Ironically, they found themselves simultaneously belittled by Moses and pilloried by Jacobs and her allies, who believed, probably correctly, that the two officials were simply gilding the spoiled lily of urban renewal. Felt and Davies never got to present their fully realized plans for the Village. Jacobs and the Villagers convinced the mayor and the public that no matter how the officials tinkered with the urban renewal formula, it would destroy their neighborhood.

This episode might lead one to suspect Flint’s portrait of the master builder himself. It is something of a cut-and-paste affair, owing much to Robert Caro’s biography The Power Broker, published in 1974. Flint, like Caro, portrays Moses as "an independent actor, beholden to no one, and largely insulated from opposition, dissent, and outside influence," who cared little for city life. Caro’s account, while a great read and largely persuasive, has been the object of much revision over the years. Historians have shown that Moses depended heavily on a whole swath of urban liberals, from politicians to union officials, with whom he cultivated a form of symbiosis. Also, Moses was not the heedless city destroyer we have come to imagine. He supported building housing for as many people as possible, and he was something of an urban conservationist with all the parks and beaches he developed. Indeed, he had a vision of city commerce, just as Jacobs did, but one focused on the circulation of goods and services on a regional scale rather than a local or neighborhood one. Flint’s interpretation of the struggles between Moses and Jacobs takes none of this into account–which makes it all the more odd that at the very end of his book, he seems to change his mind. Moses, Flint writes, was "a product of his time" and "appreciated the mix of uses that Jacobs advocated." Indeed, "his methods…have overshadowed the legacy of effective city building." This is somewhat deflating, both for the reader, who has just been led through an epic showdown between good and evil, and ultimately for Flint’s story. It’s a final cue that the Moses-Jacobs cage match can’t stand in for a full history of these events.

Flint’s shopworn tale will satisfy readers looking to revisit some of the details of a battle royal they’ve long cherished; but by more or less ignoring the world outside the ring, the book supplies little of the revelation that Jacobs’s writings still hold. It’s Sorkin, spinning a rich urban world from his short walk downtown, who instead most vividly reminds us that Jacobs is still our contemporary, asking us to see that our city stories must refuse some of the easy lessons of received lore if we are to learn to live wisely with both city "desires" and "demands."


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