Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City Hardcover – Jul 28 2009
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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
Top Customer Reviews
Written to the level of the average reader, I am sure this book will be of interest to anyone studying postwar urban development.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
An Inspriational Read... and its all true.
In Wrestling with Moses, Flint provides a dramatic account of the stand-off between the much revered Jane Jacobs and the oft vilified Robert Moses during a period when slum clearance and urban renewal dominated the field of planning as a means or urban improvement. Moses, hell-bent on leaving a lasting legacy on New York City accumulated unprecedented power through incestuous wrangling of bureaucracy and absolute mastery of the system. Jacobs, an unlikely writer from Scranton, Pennsylvania sought to protect urban areas from unnecessary intervention in order to allow the orchestra of city life to play out in peace.
While this story has been retold many times in countless public meetings around the country as a testament to the power of activism, Flint provides a remarkable amount of depth in his vivid account of the battle between Jacobs and Moses. Flint speaks of Jacobs's early life and how she molded herself into one of the country's most renowned critics of architecture and urban planning. Similarly, he tells of the near fanaticism with which Moses engaged his many titles, all of which gave him varying degrees of influence over New York's infrastructure.
Flint does an excellent job of providing a sense of balance in a series of events where most accounts depict a clear battle of good versus evil. Although Jacobs is certainly the hero of the story, Flint has no qualms with telling of some of her more questionable techniques. Flint also provides an unparalleled level of details of the political teeter tottering that occurred behind the scenes of Jacobs's efforts to save Washington Square Park. With all of the complexities of community organization intact, Wrestling with Moses provides insight into the nature of such fights.
I was most impressed with Flint's closing of Wrestling with Moses. Rather than taking the opportunity to take a cheap shot at Moses for all of his failed attempts at urban planning, Flint takes the time to explore some of Moses's positive contributions as well as to point out some of the areas where Jacobs's theories were lacking. This book is a definitive resource for anyone interested in learning about some of the most formative moments in how we conceptualize the modern city. Flint provides a context for Jacobs's writing, and I found that it stimulating my interests in returning to some of her writing knowing the sheer emotion behind her thoughts. Flint's ability to navigate through a difficult narrative while somehow making the bureaucracy of local government appear exciting speaks volumes for his talents as an author.
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