Book Review: Wrestling with Moses

Anthony Flint tackles the lives and legacies of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses.

It’s unclear from Anthony Flint’s Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, whether Jacobs and Moses ever actually met, face to face–which is remarkable given the role each one played in the other’s life and legacy. If, at times, Flint has a hard time resisting the now-typical David versus Goliath narrative, it might be because the story, and its protagonists, lend themselves to that characterization: Moses, the Yale- and Oxford-educated master builder, beloved by one generation of the city’s public, then vilified by the next; Jacobs, the self-educated reporter from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who, as Flint tells it, fell in love with Depression-era Greenwich Village and then, almost by accident, fell into four decades of reluctant activism on its behalf.

It’s a smart way to contextualize Jacobs’s clashes with city government over the fate of her West Village neighborhood. Flint also inserts intimate personal details to make his story more compelling–Jacobs’s relationship with her husband, or the notes she wrote to her mother after every victory–but he sequences the book according to the three largest battles of Jacobs’s professional life: clashes, starting in 1955, over Washington Square Park, the West Village Urban Renewal plan, and the Lower Manhattan Expressway (or Lomex). Eventually, by weaving historical narrative into the personal narratives of his characters, Flint begins to describe the way the established rules of how a city works–the top-down approach typified in Moses but representative of the entire planning profession in 1950s and ‘60s America–were reshaped into the gentler techniques advocated by Jacobs in her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Jacobs’s views won out in the end in large part because the victories described in Wrestling with Moses resonated with other threatened communities within New York, and then in other cities throughout the country, and inspired hundreds of local groups to mobilize against the urban-renewal projects imposed by heavy-handed local governments. But Flint does not shrink from the mixed legacy of Jacobs’s efforts, nor does he fall into the trap of questioning the motives of Moses or his cohorts (who are otherwise the clear villains of the story). Clarence Davies, the director of the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Board, the successor to Moses’ Committee on Slum Clearance, and a leader in the effort to raze and rebuild large parts of the West Village, is quoted as saying, “if the Village area is left alone and if no middle-income housing is projected by the board, which is the only way it can be, eventually the Village will consist solely of luxury housing… This trend is already quite obvious and would itself destroy any semblance of the present Village that [Jacobs and her allies] seem so anxious to preserve.”

Forty years later, it’s hard to argue with Davies’s prediction, even if his solutions now seem hopelessly flawed. While condemning the paternalistic philosophy and often corrupt implementation of urban renewal, we might be reminded that, at its core, renewal was designed to create more and better affordable housing, a goal the city is still struggling to realize today. Similarly, the history might imply that, at its worst, Jacobs’s success has had the unintended consequence of inspiring rampant community NIMBY-ism, paralyzing even the government’s smallest efforts at neighborhood change, and preserving the status quo even when the status quo really isn’t very good.

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