Friday, January 08, 2010

A Note on Wrestling With Moses 
Wrestling With Moses by Anthony Flint

In the 50s, Jane Jacobs led a fight to prevent 5th Ave. from being allowed to run through Washington Square Park (and thereby bisecting it and greatly reducing its size). This was Jacob's neighborhood, and she thought such a move would ruin the park (which it obviously would). Her main adversary was the man who had managed to become the planner of New York City in all but name, Robert Moses. Moses was used to getting what he wanted--he was a master bureaucrat, and it helped that for the most part, his projects were very popular. But this one ran into stiff and determined resistance, and he unexpectedly lost the battle.

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Now if you read The Power Broker by Robert Caro, you might be wondering about this. (And if you haven't read The Power Broker, stop right here and go read it!) This battle isn't mentioned at all in this biography of Robert Moses. And you may be recalling that The Power Broker is something like 10,000 pages long. give or take, and seems to cover every second of Moses' life! So what the--?

Apparently Caro did write a hundred pages or so about the battle of Washington Square, but The Power Broker was deemed too long by his publisher, so he cut it out.

Wrestling Moses is a completely readable book about Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses, and the soul of New York (and all cities). And if, like me, you've read The Power Broker (a truly great biography) and read The Death and Life of Great Cities (Jane Jacobs' seminal book on the economics and functioning of cities), Wrestling Moses is really perfect in connecting the two and completing a picture that was implied by the two. Moses and Jacobs represented two opposing philosophies, and it is useful to discover that they actually did battle over the practical application of those philosophies. At the time of the battle, Moses was already used to getting his way--he had been exercising his vision of the city for decades. Jacobs hadn't yet fully formed her ideas, although she was on her way through her journalistic work, particularly her work on urban renewal, the heavy-handed reformist/developer-friendly philosophy that gripped American cities in the 50s and 60s.

Wrestling Moses fills in a lot of biographical details for Jacobs and allows us to see how her thoughts developed, and how her battles with Moses (over Washington Square Park and over the never-built freeway through lower Manhattan) influenced her thought. Flint mostly just sketches in Moses--perhaps he thinks that interested readers should just read The Power Broker to get the full picture there.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in urbanism.

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