Public Turmoil, Then and Now

I’ve been enjoying Anthony Flint’s Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City. Jacobs is one of the seminal figures from the great age of American dissent – The Death and Life of Great American Cities, appeared in 1961, just before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (1962) and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963).

Flint’s book about Jacobs’ assault on bulldozer-led “urban renewal” is an eminently readable re-creation of one of the great controversies of New York City in the 1950s and early 1960s. As an evocation of that period it is much more satisfying than the television series Mad Men. Among other things, it rights a considerable wrong, though not a particularly deliberate one. It also casts some light on what seems to me one of the most perplexing questions of the present day.

The Moses in this case is, of course, Robert Moses, who, as chairman of New York’s Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, for forty years enjoyed a fief that permitted him to serve, as master architect of the city’s public infrastructure, often on nearly equal footing, under five mayors and six governors. Moses had many titles beyond the bridge authority; he held state and city appointments at the same time and, for many years, controlled federal appropriations to New York City.  The great account of his career is The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, for which Robert Caro received the Pulitzer Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize for history in 1975. Politicians ultimately humbled Moses, but more than any other private citizen, Jacobs fought him to a standstill: the defeat of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have run a wide ribbon of superhighway across Manhattan through the warehouse district that is bustling present-day SoHo, may have been his Waterloo.

Yet Jacobs’ name doesn’t appear in Caro’s book, Flint notes – not once! Caro prepared an entire chapter on Jacobs in the original manuscript, Flint reports, but discarded it in the interests of space. (The Power Broker is nearly 1,300 pages long.) Maybe so, but it seems more like simple rivalry, one method set against another. Avenging angels don’t pad each other’s press clips. Future generations of students of city planning therefore will need to read both books, Death and Life and Power Broker, as critic Dwight Garner pointed out last week in The New York Times, and probably Wrestling with Moses, too. Meanwhile, if you are in the market for a graceful recap of a memorable life, or a meditation on what’s so good about cities, Flint’s book will do nicely.

The story itself is organized around four crucial episodes. In the first, starting in 1952, Moses tries to drive a four-lane highway through Manhattan’s Washington Square Park. Jacobs and her friends enlist platoons of children to serve as “little soldiers” to oppose the move to take away their playground. The kids’ picket lines are much photographed by the newspapers. Eventually she wins the day.

In the second, Jacobs learns that Moses plans to use his “slum clearance” authority to demolish fourteen blocks of west Greenwich Village – including her Hudson Street home. She recruits a “mole” at City Hall to warn her whenever Moses schedules last- minute meetings and shows up to contest official views. She turns the spotlight on developers who stand to gain the most, attacks the integrity of the Planning Commission officials who, she says, are in the developers’ pocket, and calls in the newspapers. The Mayor halts the project in short order. (A nearby sites that is thereby spared, a mile-plus stretch of disused elevated railroad track, opened the other day to rave reviews as the High Line, an innovative walking park that is a perfect symbol of Jacobs-style city development.)

The third episode, the Lower Manhattan Expressway (the Lomex), is climactic. Taking lessons from his friend and fellow urban planner Walt Disney, Moses moves to create another ten-lane expressway across lower Manhattan, the better to drive quickly from New Jersey to Long Island, this one requiring the eviction of 2,200 families along Broome Street, from the Holland Tunnel, through Little Italy, Chinatown, the Bowery and the Lower East Side, to the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges.And this time Jacobs resorts to outright civil disobedience. At a crucial meeting in the spring of 1968, activists troop across the stage; a stenographer’s tape is trampled, the record of the meeting is destroyed. Jacobs is arrested. The incident becomes a symbol of the unworkability of the plan, and the next year Mayor John Lindsay declares the Lomex dead “for all time.”

The fourth episode, however, is no contest. With the Vietnam War raging and her two sons approaching draft age, Jacobs and her husband, architect Robert Hyde Jacobs, pack up the family and move to Toronto. As soon as they are settled, the provincial government announces plans to build an expressway through her neighborhood into the heart of downtown. She makes short work of it, and lives out her days writing books, cooking, socializing with her friends and, in a well-modulated way, remaining in touch with the movement that she has started. Meanwhile, “freeway revolts” have broken out in cities all across America; by the early 1970s, a new species of politician has begun to emerge: anti-highway, anti-war, anti-Washington.

Which brings me back to the connection between Wrestling with Moses and events of the present day. I mean, of course, the angry disruptions of meetings held by Congressional representatives to talk about health care. These follow on the abortive “tea parties” of the spring, demonstrations protesting Washington’s response to the financial crisis. Superficially, these actions resemble the demonstrations that Jacobs organized in the 1950s and 1960s. Are they simply more of the same?

I don’t think so. The protests of the ’60s and ’70s – not just in the West, but in the communist countries as well – were mainly criticisms of overbearing governments, dedicated to modernist principles of growth by means of administration and planning, but subject to capture by special interests of every sort, and often completely uninterested in obtaining the consent of the governed. The dissent of that time was remarkably effective. In the end Jane Jacobs and Milton Friedman (and Rachel Carson, Martin Luther King, Betty Friedan and the Stonewall generation, for that matter) had pretty much the same effect. The world has become much more alert to the problems involved when regulation is top-down.

Today, we are in the early stages of very different times – an era of reconstruction of authority. The broad symbols of this are everywhere: an American president seeking to govern by bipartisan consensus, a Russian premier bare-chested on horseback in a Siberian stream, Chinese central bankers chiding their American counterparts about responsible borrowing (while conjuring a worrisome financial asset bubble of their own). The subtler mechanics of impending changes – in health care, in climate change, in national security – are harder to grasp.

To find today a thinker as deep and fresh as Jane Jacobs was in her time, try Atul Gawande, the Boston surgeon who writes for The New Yorker. He has published two books so far: Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science (2002), and Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance (2007).The next one will be more ambitious still). He’s worth the investment of time — he’s young (b. 1965) and, amid myriad opportunities, still finding his voice. The story of the gradual restructuring of the medical industry has a long way to go. Jane Jacobs didn’t need to be an expert to write about cities, but it’s important that Gawande writes as a medical doctor. The physician’s situation is the one we care about most, after our own.

Meanwhile, don’t worry overmuch about those raucous meetings, as unpleasant as they are. They’re a sideshow, further signs of the breakup of the traditional Republican Party. It will take another generation to work out the colossal differences of opinion that exist today within its ranks. Something new and worthwhile will replace today’s GOP, though not without a good deal more travail. But that’s a story for another day.