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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.

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How the built environment instructs us on how to move through it Greene Street Jane Jacobs wrote about the "ballet" of the...

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Greene Street Jane Jacobs wrote about the "ballet" of the street when describing the rhythm of her Greenwich Village neighborhood, which she viewed as a choreographed exchange between resident and sidewalk, and shopkeeper and stoop. Not too far away, Greene Street in New York's SoHo neighborhood pulses with the same syncopated footsteps and echoes of Jacobs's legacy. She prevented this entire neighborhood from becoming the Lower Manhattan Expressway-now cars shudder down the street, forced into submission by century-old cobblestones. The former cast-iron warehouses have been fashioned into frilly storefronts for the well-heeled (and often high-heeled) who stop, gape up at their pillared facades; pause; peer into the jewel-like windows; and are rewarded with detail.

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