Scrappy neighborhood activist Jane Jacobs faces off against notorious “power broker” Robert Moses in this history of mid-20th-century New York City urban planning.
Jacobs made her name in 1961 with the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a withering critique of that era’s modernist, rationalist approach to urban planning. Her nemesis, the bureaucratically savvy commissioner Moses, has become a symbol of that approach. Moses razed whole neighborhoods in the name of efficiency and progress to build—among other things—hundreds of drab high-rises and more than 600 miles of highways in and around New York City. Longtime urban-policy journalist Flint (This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America, 2006) effectively chronicles Jacobs’s life and career, her emergence as an activist and the development of her philosophy that cities should be eclectic and organic and that urban planning must have a light touch rather than a heavy hand. In accessible prose, the author explains the forces that shaped modern-day New York, through the lens of the key battles between Jacobs and Moses—Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village and the Lower Manhattan Expressway. However, as factually precise as Flint’s portraits of both Jacobs and Moses are, it’s too clear from the start where the author’s loyalties lie. Since history has effectively proven Jacobs “right”—her vision for pedestrian-friendly mixed-use neighborhoods is now the gold standard for urban planners—it seems too easy to play her as the quixotic hero against a power-grabbing, heartless Moses. Jacobs is indeed more likable than Moses—and her populism is a more appealing motivation than his paternalism—but both were complicated human beings with worthwhile ideas, and it’s not until the epilogue that Flint concedes as much.
A one-sided treatment, but a fun read for lovers of cities in general, New York in particular.