No rivalry will ever serve as a better representation of New York City itself than that of the ruthlessly ambitious Robert Moses and the community-minded Jane Jacobs. Moses, the mercurial, all-powerful “master builder” responsible for everything from the Cross Bronx Expressway to Jones Beach, found his near-absolute power overthrown by urban activist Jacobs, whose book The Death and Life of Great American Cities and successful protest of Moses’ planned elevated thruway in Soho almost single-handedly destroyed the vision of cities as characterless, efficiency-driven monoliths that Moses had successfully propagated.
In The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs (out now in paperback), urban advocate—and longtime friend of Jacobs—Roberta Brandes Grazt examined the impact of Moses and Jacobs on the city in which she grew up and still resides, while also looking at the current state of New York City’s urban battles through the lens of both visions.
You come down pretty strongly in favor of Jane Jacobs over Robert Moses in Battle for Gotham.
Roberta Brandes Grazt: They are totally incompatible, and the only people who find “On the one hand this, and on the other hand that,” are the people who don’t have the guts to find that they are incompatible. You have to fish or cut bait. People always cite Moses’ parks [as positive outcomes of his work], but my point is a) there are beautiful parks all over this country that were not built by Robert Moses and b) look at all the beautiful waterfront parks we’re building today without Moses. Moses was about power, not about design. Unlimited power. There’s no room in unlimited power for what Jacobs is about.
If Moses was about the Big Idea, what was Jacobs about?
Jacobs is about process, not just about short blocks and mixed use. Those are the easy concepts of Jacobs. I have no patience for people who try to do a little bit of each. And the only way to do a little bit of each is to misinterpret Jacobs. She’s not about small-scale, period. She has nothing wrong with big-scale, if it’s done right and on the right thing. A skyscraper in the right place was fine!
Is there nothing redeeming about Moses for you?
Zip, zero, zilch. My main point is there was nothing Moses accomplished that couldn’t have been accomplished without the destruction and displacement of people, businesses and places with dictatorial power. Plenty of cities across this country wiped out neighborhoods with highways and city renewal, and they did it without Moses but with Moses’ example. Moses helped write the early laws; he was first in line for all the big funding; New York got the lion’s share of the funding and then he was hired by cities across the country to design highways and systems—some of which got built and some that didn’t. He set the pattern for the country.
The reality of how destructive it was is borne out in how many places are undoing that pattern today, and the vibrancy that is coming back because of that. The fact that we defeated Westway and have an over-the-top, highly developed, interestingly developed whole West Side. You can go to San Francisco, you can go to Milwaukee—I cite all these places in the book to show that the undoing of Moses’ pattern is what is helping cities today. The very undoing of it underscores the invalidity of it in its original form.
What Moses projects here in NYC would you like to see undone?
I think it would be a very interesting challenge to figure out how to reweave the isolated projects, like the towers in the park public housing projects, into the urban fabric so that people are connected and not isolated. The biggest sin of that era—and Moses was not the only one extolling it—was the separation of uses. I think there needs to be a way to bring back the corner store and mixed uses in the public spaces. And perhaps building some low-rise senior citizen housing on those sites so some tower residents can comfortably move in so they don’t have to leave the neighborhood. Undoing the BQE that so split South Brooklyn. These are big challenges!
As far as power is concerned, we fool ourselves into thinking there’s no Robert Moses today. The big developers are the power, the partnership of big developers with city government. You can’t stand in the way of [Bruce] Ratner; our planning structure is an expediter for big development. It’s another form of overwhelming top-down power.
What do you think about the proposed Upper East Side waste transfer station?
Nobody wants those things in their own backyard. The fact is, they have been over-concentrated in neighborhoods, and until they are fairly distributed so that neighborhoods are responsible for their own garbage, where’s the equity? I also think that if people are so concerned about waste transfer in their neighborhood, then what they should really be concerned about is a massive recycling program to sensitize people to the fact that if they aren’t more recycling-minded, they’re going to have more garbage trucks in their neighborhood. There are ways to diminish the garbage.
And how do you feel about bike lanes?
They’re the best thing to happen to this city since sliced bread! And if you want to talk about undoing Moses! I’m always amused when I see Janette Sadik-Khan referred to as a Moses because she’s done bike lanes on a big scale. Well, excuse me, that’s Jane Jacobs on a big scale! Moses had no interest in any form of transportation other than cars, but streets were supposed to be for people.
Transportation is a multimodal kind of thing, and we have so let the population assume cars have the most important right that it’s very hard to accept. I find it particularly outrageous of areas in Brooklyn where former or present officials want their official car privileges and they live within walking distance of perfectly good subway service. They don’t have to ride bikes, they can ride the subway—they shouldn’t be so dependent on their car. I have no patience for people who think the car should be dominant.
Above: Robert Moses with the Battery Bridge model. Right: Jane Jacobs.
Creative Commons photos
Tags: book reviews
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