Against Moses

by Tom Cornell, April 15, 2010

Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City, by Anthony Flint. Random House, New York, New York 2009.

This fast-moving and gripping story, summed up in the subtitle, recalls an epic battle waged by a woman without credentials and no college degree, against a very powerful bureaucrat with very special and powerful interests behind him. Robert Moses “was responsible for 13 bridges, two tunnels, 637 miles of highways, 658 playgrounds, 10 giant swimming 17 state parks... cleared 300 acres of land and constructed towers that contain 28,400 new apartments... built Lincoln Center, the United Nations, Shea Stadium, Jones Beach and the Central Park zoo... the Triborough and Verrazano Narrows bridges, the Long Island and Cross Bronx Expressway.”

At one and the same time Robert Moses held 12 different state and city offices. He saw his proposed lower Manhattan Expressway as the capstone of his career to remake New York City, completing a web of high-speed roadways up and down and across Manhattan and eliminating “ unsightly slums“ with high-rise residential towers. He had had his way for decades, through five mayors and six governors.

Jane Jacobs was an amateur. How would this “little old lady” from Scranton even dare to stand in his way? To Robert Moses the very idea seemed ludicrous. But Jane Jacobs and the people she mobilized saved our neighborhood, Little Italy, Chinatown, the lower Eastside, as well as Greenwich Village, starting with Washington Square Park. And she turned the orthodoxy of city planning on its head.

Our pastor at that time, Father Gerard LaMountain, of Most Holy Crucifix church on Broome Street, first approached Jane Jacobs with a plea to do for our neighborhood what she had done for Washington Square and the West (Greenwich) Village. Our parish church became the meeting place for plans to protest and turn back the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Father LaMountain gathered the most diverse coalition, including Communists, Socialists, Democrats and Republicans, Catholic Workers and Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), an extreme right wing group. Anthony Flint mentions Rosemary McGrath of YAF as particularly effective. Rosemary and her husband Bob, a surgeon, are particularly fond of Catholic worker. They disagreed with almost everything we advocated, but Rosemary said, “You're not like the liberals. You never know where they really stand. We know where you stand. You don't hide a thing. You're honest!” It was nice to hear her say that because we are careful never to blow our own horn.

Anthony Flint is kinder in his judgment of Robert Moses than Robert A. Caro in his massive 1974 study “The Power Broker: Robert Moses And The Fall Of New York.” After all, New York City, like any city, outgrew its original scheme and horse and buggy roadways. But Robert Moses's main interest in the city was traffic control, to facilitate private vehicular traffic for cars and trucks even at the expense of public transit and the loss of neighborhoods with historical value and unique character. He intended to extend Fifth Avenue south through Washington Square Park right down to Broome St., essentially destroying the park, then to link Brooklyn with New Jersey by a ten-lane east-west highway 350 feet wide above ground level at Broome Street.

Robert Moses was also intent on eliminating those neighborhoods which he and the modernist school of architects and city planners saw as congested and unsanitary, and to replace them with sleek high-rise towers, open space, air and light. Sounds grand, but it doesn't work. The Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Robert Taylor complex in Chicago were prime examples. The open spaces were empty. People felt, and were, vulnerable in them, and in the corridors and elevators, alone in a crowd. Crime burgeoned. Pruitt-Igoe and Robert Taylor were both blasted down to be “replaced by Greenwich Village style streetscapes of smaller individual houses with front porches.”

In our old Catholic Worker neighborhood, Little Italy, there was hardly any crime on the street because Grandma, somebody's grandma, was always looking out her window, ready to sound the alarm. People knew each other. They looked out for each other. Jane Jacobs looked out on her very similar neighborhood at the west end of Greenwich Village and saw a similar vibrant mix of apartment houses, small businesses, a bakery, a drugstore, grocery stores, churches, synagogues, a library, as well as a little park, and the White Horse Tavern (where the 50s happened: see Dan Wakefield's “New York in the 50s”). So it is to this day. Except for gentrification, of course.

The law of unintended consequences (one might even say Original Sin) entered the picture. Those who were able to stay and chose to do so, who didn't “escape” to the suburbs when the neighborhoods were still low rent, are sitting pretty now with rent control, or if they owned their own buildings, they are really cashing in. Renovated apartments that had gone for as little as $20.68 a month (my first rent) now go for $2,600 a month! The poor are squeezed out, and only well-heeled newcomers can think of living in what Robert Moses not long ago thought of as slums. Of course, a stratum of the very poor remains, more isolated than ever. That's why we stay. And in the course of things, today's prize is tomorrow's trap. Re-gentrification eventually leads to degentrification.

Today, Jane Jacobs’ views are the new orthodoxy. Her major book, “The Death And Life Of Great American Cities,” is a classic. Jane left New York City and the United States in 1968, for Toronto. She feared that her sons might be drafted to fight in Vietnam, in a war she thoroughly detested. They might have qualified for conscientious objector status, but that is another story. She died in Toronto in 2006 at the age of 86. The story is one of personal responsibility, localism, decentralization, direct action, community organizing… Good to see how it all comes together and how it can work.

Tom Cornell is a member of the Most Holy Crucifix Church in New York and an active member of Catholic Worker in New York City.

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