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Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City [Hardcover]

Anthony Flint
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Book Description

July 28 2009
To a young Jane Jacobs, Greenwich Village, with its winding cobblestone streets and diverse makeup, was everything a city neighborhood should be. The activist, writer, and mother of three grew so fond of her bustling community that it became a touchstone for her landmark book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But consummate power broker Robert Moses, the father of many of New York’s most monumental development projects, saw things differently: neighborhoods such as Greenwich Village were badly in need of “urban renewal.” Notorious for exacting enormous human costs, Moses’s plans had never before been halted–not by governors, mayors, or FDR himself, and certainly not by a housewife from Scranton.

The epic rivalry of Jacobs and Moses, played out amid the struggle for the soul of a city, is one of the most dramatic and consequential in modern American history. In Wrestling with Moses, acclaimed reporter and urban planning policy expert Anthony Flint recounts this thrilling David-and-Goliath story, the legacy of which echoes through our society today.

The first ordinary citizens to stand up to government plans for their city, Jacobs and her colleagues began a nationwide movement to reclaim cities for the benefit of their residents. Time and again, Jacobs marshaled popular support and political power against Moses, whether to block traffic through her beloved Washington Square Park or to prevent the construction of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a ten-lane elevated superhighway that would have destroyed centuries-old streetscapes and displaced thousands of families and businesses.

Like A Civil Action before it, Wrestling with Moses is the tale of a local battle with far-ranging significance. By confronting Moses and his vision, Jacobs forever changed the way Americans understood the city, and inspired citizens across the country to protest destructive projects in their own communities. Her story reminds us of the power we have as individuals to confront and defy reckless authority.

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Quill & Quire

Over the last couple of years, it has been nearly impossible for any Torontonian to avoid the presence of Richard Florida, the author, “lecturer in creativity,” and well-compensated University of Toronto professor. Specifically, one regular Globe and Mail feature recorded Florida’s musings on different Toronto neighbourhoods. As tedious and self-indulgent as those Globe stories and accompanying videos were, they loosely replicated the methodology of Jane Jacobs, another transplanted American. In 1968, decades before Florida came north to accept his sinecure, Jacobs moved from New York to Toronto with her family (she had a draft-age son). Before leaving the Big Apple, she published her seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and famously did battle with legendary New York city planner Robert Moses. In Wrestling with Moses, former Boston Globe reporter Anthony Flint focuses on Jacobs’ improbable journey from Scranton, Pennsylvania, to New York’s Greenwich Village – a neighbourhood she would fight to save from Moses’s proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway. Jacobs (née Butzner) moved to New York in 1934 intending to become a journalist. While working as a secretary and living with her sister, she began writing stories on spec, the first of which were published in Vogue. As Flint notes, Jacobs’ early pieces, like a 1937 article about Lower Manhattan’s flower market, seem to presage her mature style, which was observational verging on ethnographic. For his part, Flint’s own style is highly readable, a function of his many years as a newspaper reporter. He adheres to the basic credo “show, don’t tell,” which, in the case of a story more than four decades old and with both of the main characters dead, is no easy task. For the most part, Flint avoids sentimentalizing the key figures in his story. As a result, when he puts Jacobs’ work during this period in context, his arguments are worthy of attention. For example, he writes that The Death and Life of Great American Cities, first published in 1961, was the first of a series of book-length journalistic investigations – which also included Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Michael Harrington’s The Other America, and Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed – that successfully managed to “identify flaws in American politics, policy, and culture in the postwar period.” And more importantly, those works inspired people to act. It is not clear who will be inspired by Jeb Brugmann’s Welcome to the Urban Revolution. Brugmann, a Toronto resident and a faculty member of Cambridge University’s Programme for Industry, is now the founding partner of The Next Practice, which, despite sounding like a shadowy organization in a J.J. Abrams production, helps corporations such as Barclays, Nestlé, and Visa better serve low-income markets. His argument, supported by copious examples from all corners of the globe, is that the whole world is being organized into one big City. (Brugmann capitalizes “City” when he refers to it in this sense.) The available data are certainly on Brugmann’s side. Statistics show that a rapidly growing proportion of the world’s population lives in urban centres. This will create unavoidable logistical and political concerns in the developed and developing worlds. The more curious part of Welcome to the Urban Revolution is Brugmann’s notion that the people who emigrate to the world’s cities (or, I suppose, the City) are society’s most entrepreneurial individuals. Brugmann claims these people come to the city seeking the economic and social advantages of modern urban life: density, scale, association, and extension. In some ways, this idea is an extrapolation of the work of German scholar Max Weber, who argued over a century ago that the moral underpinnings of Calvinism were a significant factor in the economic development of the West. Except Brugmann can’t even point to something as intangible as faith to bolster his argument. His emigrants are a self-selecting group of high-achievers lured to the city by dreams of streets paved with gold – or, at least, paved streets. While Welcome to the Urban Revolution employs examples from cities around the world, Brugmann spends a lot of time writing about Dharavi, a slum on the edges of Mumbai. He notes that entrepreneurs in Dharavi took advantage of cheap labour, the slum’s proximity to slaughterhouses, and the growing demand for leather goods to build a flourishing industry. Brugmann believes that government planners need to avoid interfering in such areas except to provide infrastructure, health care, and security.  Brugmann’s belief in the enterprising nature of slum-dwellers is a narrow-minded and overly optimistic leap of faith that has similarities to Florida’s insistence that the size of a city’s “creative class” correlates positively with its economic development. While the slums of Mumbai, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, and the housing projects of Toronto may be home to thousands of entrepreneurs, they also teem with poverty and desperation. In the absence of easy solutions, the public will increasingly turn to urban gurus like Brugmann in the hopes of finding the next Jacobs. But her replacement is not here yet.


Wrestling with Moses is an epic tale filled with nuanced lessons. Flint is passionate in supporting Jacobs’s once radical but now commonly shared views, yet he deftly leaves room for Moses. This is an indispensable read for anyone interested in the shaping of cities.”—Alex Krieger, professor of urban design, Harvard University

“In this gripping and inspiring story of one woman who galvanized her community against powerful, destructive forces, Anthony Flint gets to the heart of what makes neighborhoods–and cities–thrive.”—Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class and Who’s Your City?

“Jane Jacobs, the crownless queen of cities, defended New York against the assault that would have destroyed its pattern of the daily life. Wrestling with Moses is a masterly tale of how her mandate endures.”—Jane Holtz Kay, architecture critic for The Nation and author of Asphalt Nation

“Anthony Flint has written a riveting account of a struggle between opposites that forever redefined the American city. With no formal training in urban planning, Jane Jacobs had the audacity to take on Robert Moses and the passion to save old New York from the wrecking ball.”—James L. Swanson, Edgar Award—winning author of Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer

“Beautifully written, Wrestling with Moses is a step back in time to the bohemia of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, when Bob Dylan’s music filled the streets and revolution was in the air. As a woman standing up to power, Jane Jacobs blazed a trail. This is a remarkable book.”—Brad Matsen, author of Titanic’s Last Secrets

“Anthony Flint has not only captured the life and times of the remarkable Jane Jacobs but, more important, he has delineated the amazing cast of characters–politicians, design professionals, neighbors, and citizens–that populated her life and her city. Wrestling with Moses will soon become classic, essential reading for anyone concerned with cities, past, present, and future.”—Eugenie L. Birch, Lawrence C. Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research and Education, University of Pennsylvania

“Reporter Flint offers a fascinating history of the two combatants as well as an architectural history of New York City.”—Booklist

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Backgrounder Oct. 11 2009
This is a decently written non-fictional work about the well publicized battles between the quintessential modernist Robert Moses and his arch-nemesis and modernism's grandest critic in Jane Jacobs. Although Anthony Flint offers no new analytical insight into modernism, Flint does a good job in weaving in between stories to deliver a well-written biography.

Written to the level of the average reader, I am sure this book will be of interest to anyone studying postwar urban development.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting! Feb. 1 2010
By Pierre Gauthier TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This short book details the protests inspired and led by Jane Jacobs against various projects spearheaded by Robert Moses in New York's Greenwich Village in the 1950's and 60's.

It is extremely well researched and much more substantial than the biography of Jane Jacobs by Alice Alexiou. Actually, it deals not only with Jane Jacobs' life but also with Robert Moses'. Anecdotally, it even includes poems written by Jacobs and Moses in their student days! The photographs add significantly to the contents and are very revealing of the times.

The essence of the book is narrative but the analytical epilogue is of the greatest interest with respect to the true impact of both protagonists on our cities and our ways of thinking. It could actually be read quite separately from the rest of the work.

Sadly, the layout in the hardcover version is blandly traditional with the strictly black and white photographs grouped together in unnumbered pages towards the middle of the book.

Worse, the writing style is hampered by an organization that is thematic and not strictly chronological. This leads of course to some repetition from one chapter to another. The lack of chronology sometimes also confusingly occurs within a single paragraph. The High Line Park of 2009 is for instance introduced in the discussion of freight transportation in the 60's.

Overall, however, this book is warmly recommended to those curious and concerned with the development of cities and its history.
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  19 reviews
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lessons for today from yesterday Sept. 11 2009
By Albert V. Lannon - Published on Amazon.com
"Wrestling With Moses" is the true story of how a small group of neighbors challenged, and stopped, rampaging development in New York City, led by Robert Moses. Jane Jacobs formed her ideas for her brilliant "Death and Life of Great American Cities" in the struggles to save Washington Square Park, and many neighborhoods, countering Moses's approach of total demoition and replacement by roads and instant slum housing projects. It is hard today to comprehend how Moses held so much power, staying in charge through five mayors, but Jane Jacobs and her neighbors offer lessons for taking on today's stone-wall bureaucracies. Anthony Flint clearly likes the late Jane Jacobs, but gives Moses his full due. A good read for anyone interested in politics, urban studies, or involved in fighting wrong-headed development (like the proposed I-10 Bypass in my rural Arizona neighborhood).
30 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too Elaborate a Plan, Too Lame an Execution Aug. 28 2009
By Jiang Xueqin - Published on Amazon.com
According to the urbanist and civic activist Jane Jacobs, author of the modern classic "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," a city is made great by the diversity of its neighborhoods, which are in themselves the organic growth and interactions of buildings, streets, and people: cities are not planned, but grown and nurtured by the people who live in them. That's the completely opposite approach of the master builder Robert Moses, who saw New York City as wild, sprawling, and restless, and which needed to be tamed, structured, and controlled by the sheer power of his will and imagination. It is the epic struggle between these unlikely enemies -- one a fiercely ambitious Yale graduate who controlled most of the city's construction and a soft-spoken self-educated mother of three -- that the former Boston Globe architecture correspondent Anthony Flint chronicles in "Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City."

In the epilogue Mr. Flint writes that Jane Jacobs offered help and information to a young Newsday reporter by the name of Robert Caro while he was researching his epic "The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York." The book was much too long, and Robert Caro had to cut out the chapter on Jane Jacobs. Mr. Caro was writing a book about Robert Moses, and there is little reason to suspect that, so busy with his epic battles with American President Franklin Roosevelt and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller as well as overseeing his vast empire that could at any time be responsible for over two thousand construction projects, Mr. Moses paid any attention to a committed but ultimately powerless urban activist by the name of Jane Jacobs. By the time of Jane Jacobs' ascent, culminating with the 1961 publication of her classic tome on what makes a city great the seeds of Robert Moses' decline had already been planted: his arrogance, his pride, his absolutely loyalty to his corrupt functionaries, his disregard for and contempt of his fellow beings, and his relentless power-mongering all caused his spectacular descent from power after spending a lifetime methodically and meticulously rising to the top. To suggest that Jane Jacobs or one book or one movement could take down this titan as Anthony Flint and many thinkers suggest is slightly ridiculous. Robert Moses made too many enemies, and his ideas didn't work: his highways and transportation grids caused more problems -- mainly traffic -- than they solved, and his urban renewal plans destroyed neighborhoods, livelihoods, and lives. Living in and witnessing the Age of Moses, an intelligent observer such as Jane Jacobs could see exactly what was wrong.

Mr. Flint's book draws on shamelessly from other works, and there is very little original research that the author himself conducted. On his section on Robert Moses Mr. Flint breathlessly summarizes "The Power Broker." Yet, ironically, even though Mr. Flint's book is ostensibly about Jane Jacobs, and Mr. Caro's book is about Robert Moses, it's Mr. Flint's book that best captures the spirit of Robert Moses and Mr. Caro's book that captures best the spirit of Jane Jacobs.

Robert Moses liked to plan big projects and construct them as quickly as he could, and "Wrestling with Moses" certainly feels that way: it sounds like an excellent story, but the story of the struggle reads too artificial and mechanical. Like most of Robert Moses' structures there's no life and soul in "Wrestling with Moses": it's just there.

And if it were a city "The Power Broker" would be Jane Jacob's ideal: each chapter is sprawling, diverse, and overflowing. Each chapter feels like its own neighborhood, with its own collection of diverse people, structures, philosophy, and language. You can roam each chapter of "The Power Broker" at your own pace, feel alive in it, and know that if you come back you'll always find new things to interest you. Like all great pieces of literature and great neighborhoods "The Power Broker" will continue to interact with people in different ways at different times.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A great story, but only a good book - History Lite March 1 2011
By Andrew - Published on Amazon.com
Surprisingly shallow treatment of the two dynamic leaders butting heads over differing visions. The author manages to present a richly dramatic story in a way that robs it of drama and personality. 'Thin' may be the best descriptor for this book - anyone expecting an in-depth understanding of either these people or these times should be made aware that this book will tell you the basic story, but leave you hungry for more. The author tries to rise to the challenge - but he has not spent the time or the energy to write anything definitive. Read Robert Caro's biography of Robert Moses to encounter the real deal.

Special mention should be made of the poor editing - practically identical sentences in consecutive paragraphs was one that made me wince. But a strong editor who sent the author back better comments might have improved this book considerably.

All that said, I did manage to finish it - Jane Jacobs is an interesting figure, and this is the first attempt at her biography I had read. But, of course, you would do better just to read her books.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars people power at its best Aug. 26 2009
By Politera - Published on Amazon.com
Anthony Flint effectively captures the story of Jane Jacobs rise to a civic activist and intellectual leader. Readers learn how Jane Jacobs developed her interest in livable cities and then how she fought the legendary Robert Moses to keep a part of Manhattan liveable. The pace is crisp, and the personalities come through the page. We now have context around the battle to save Greenwich Village. One striking sidenote is the reference to Saul Alinsky, a champion of community organization in Chicago who served as an inspiration for Jacobs' community action. Just reminds us that people can make a difference, even if they aren't powerful and rich.
An Inspriational Read... and its all true.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Solid Introduction to Two Towering Personalities Feb. 6 2012
By David Alden - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
"Wrestling with Moses" contains abbreviated biographies of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses and accounts of the three fields on which they did battle.

The author doesn't pretend to be impartial. Jacobs is clearly his hero and he presents her as the valiant underdog to the shadowy overlord. And, of course, he celebrates when she wins all three battles.

I read "Wrestling with Moses" simultaneously with "The Power Broker" on Moses and "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jacobs. "Wrestling with Moses" s is the most lightweight of the three books. It is a light and easy read. Despite the less intense nature of the book, there are still valuable insights to be gained.

The first is the amount of momentum that can be acquired by someone like Moses. By the time Jacobs first opposed him, he had been the dominant personality in shaping the configuration of New York City for nearly three decades. He had developed an aura of inevitability.

Next, it is insightful to look at the tactics employed by Jacobs. Mostly she and her adherents relied on grassroots organizing and mobilization. But Jacobs was willing to slip into civil disobedience when required and was arrested on multiple occasions as a result.

Lastly, it is interesting to note the story of Jane Jacobs as developer. Following the defeat of Moses' urban redevelopment plan for Greenwich Village, Jacobs and other local residents formed an organization to build housing that they thought would fit better within the context of their neighborhood.

One of their proposed buildings was eventually constructed, but as the costs rose, various building features had to be eliminated. The architectural critics panned the final result and many Village residents were unhappy with the resulting rents. Jacobs fell prey to the same issues that trouble many developers. Even the best-intentioned developer can't avoid the pressure that the marketplace imposes.

One weakness of the Jacobs versus Moses premise is that nowhere in the book do Jacobs and Moses come face to face. Indeed, they probably never met in life. However, we are given two humorous stories of their distant interplay.

Publisher Bennett Cerf sent an advance copy of "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" to Moses for his review. Moses returned it with a note reading, "I am returning this book you sent me. Aside from the fact that it is intemperate and inaccurate, it is also libelous. ... Sell this junk to someone else."

On the other side, Jacobs and her husband Bob received an advance copy of "The Power Broker". They lay in bed, trading sections back and forth, alternating between horror and amusement over the depth of Moses' duplicity laid bare for the first time.

If you have the time, either "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" or "The Power Broker" is worth the effort. But if time doesn't permit, then "Wrestling with Moses" is a fine introduction to the urban planning antipodes represented by towering personalities of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses.
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