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David and Goliath: Remembering Jane Jacobs' Legacy on Her Birthday

To celebrate activist Jane Jacobs' birthday Saturday, a look at her famous urban spars with Robert Moses.

It’s impossible to tour the streets of New York without Robert Moses eventually entering the conversation. At the mention of his name, many New Yorkers give a distinct eye roll, or a small smirk that says: Whatever you’re about to tell me is going to be bad. Since most people don’t really know what Moses looked like, we imagine they’re picturing Snidely Whiplash, fingers twisting the edges of his waxed mustache.

From 1913 to the late 1960s, Moses was involved in the life of the city, and at the height of his power he simultaneously held twelve different government jobs, managing everything from slum clearance to highways to state parks. He is responsible for Jones Beach, for vast improvements to Central Park, for the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs. Yet despite Moses’s many accomplishments, it’s tough to make the man look good.

In Battery Park, for example, we tell the story of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. (Most Moses stories end up being about cars; he was enthralled with the idea of the automobile as the marker of upward mobility.) As tunnel construction began, Moses attempted to tear down Castle Clinton, a fort from the War of 1812 that had later been used as both a theater and as the spot where 8 million Americans emigrated to the United States. When he ran afoul of preservationist groups, he wrote a scathing editorial in the New York Times accusing his detractors of being “woozy with sentiment,” and declaring that “Castle Clinton...has no history worth writing about.”

Though Moses had foes on all his projects, the person most associated with derailing him, the David to his Goliath (or should that be the the Dudley Do-Right to his Snidely Whiplash?), was Jane Jacobs. In the 1950s, Jacobs began to hone her ideas about what made cities work, concerned that urban planning was destroying the fabric of New York’s neighborhoods. In 1958, when Shirley Hayes successfully spearheaded the movement to keep traffic out of Washington Square, Jacobs saw firsthand how public sentiment could block Moses and his allies.

Jane Jacobs image via Wikimedia Commons

In 1961, Jacobs published her landmark work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, praising people like Hayes and condemning Moses’s “art of using control of public money to get his way.” To Jacobs, this was not merely theoretical: Moses, as head of the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance, had recently declared the West Village—including Jacob’s Hudson Street home—to be a slum to be bulldozed for redevelopment. Jacobs formed the Committee to Save the West Village and—exposing backhanded deals between the city and developers—had the slum designation rescinded. Walking the streets of this so-called slum today, with outdoor cafes and escalating real estate prices, it’s hard to imagine it as anything but lovely.

LOMEX image via Wikimedia Commons

An even more instructive walk is to stroll along Broome Street in Soho on a Saturday afternoon. That is, if you can stroll—the hordes of shoppers often make that impossible. Soho today is booming, an attraction for tourists and locals alike. Fifty years ago, its glorious cast-iron stores were rusting out. Most had been abandoned, and those that housed artists or small-time manufactures were in terrible shape. Fresh off his defeat in Greenwich Village, Moses attempted to clear this slum, too, the centerpiece of which was to be Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX), a ten-lane elevated highway running along Broome Street linking the Holland Tunnel to the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. Once again Jacobs fought Moses—even going so far as to get arrested for rushing the stage at a public meeting—and in 1969, LOMEX was finally “demapped” from Soho.

Haughwout Building image via Wikimedia Commons

As you stroll Broome Street, pause at the corner of Broadway and look up at the magnificent Haughwout Building, a cast-iron marvel on the northeast corner. Erected in 1857, it featured the first commercial elevator in America and is the proto-skyscraper. It may be the most important building of its era left in New York. Jacobs was right to fight for its preservation. Then look at all the traffic on Broome Street, barely inching along as it tries to get across town. Moses was right, too—an elevated highway here would have done a lot to alleviate traffic concerns. This is not to equivocate: Jacobs was more right than Moses was. But it’s important to remember—in a city that is gentrifying more every day—that not every plan was sinister and not every outcome was perfect.

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