Robert Moses Vs. Jane Jacobs: The David-Goliath Dynamic

Jane Jacobs, in her novel The Death and Life of Great American Cities, describes a monotonous ‘new’ New York City, stripped of its former vitality by pedantic urban planners, who are unable to consider the rich network that keeps these neighborhoods thriving. As a woman of the West Village herself, Jacobs is part of the world she describes, and in stark contrast to Robert Moses, she argues for a city for the pedestrian. Jacobs’ position opposed that of Moses’ so much so that I wondered how they would react should they find themselves on the same battlefield. It turns out they had been on the same turf, fighting on opposing sides. The PBS documentary Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses: Urban Fight of the Century illustrates the interactions of the two well—from the clash between their policies, to the David-Goliath dynamic to which the two are compared.

The documentary largely follows the developments towards Moses’ cross-city expressway. Robert Moses had been continuing on his path of urban modifications, with his latest plans of the late 20th century focusing on the construction of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. This project would have cut through modern-day Soho and would have essentially destroyed Washington Square Park. While Moses viewed his ambition as an advancement—creating crucial roads for his beloved automobiles, and clearing unessential neighborhoods for the growth of middle class and the city’s cultural preeminence—Jacobs saw this as a detriment, perhaps even an attack. Rather than tearing down these valuable brownstones, Jacobs believed in assisting the creation of diversity. Referring back to her novel, Jacobs would have seen great misguidance in the destruction of parks, as she deemed them crucial to the development of ‘demand goods’ that less-developed neighborhoods needed in order to flourish (108). A once decrepit park could later become the center for live performances, or sports events—take for example, Morningside Park near Columbia University. The feared park could be transformed into a hub of music, and sports among other events with the right state funding and guidance (109). Marshall Berman, an urbanist, explains in the documentary, that her words enabled others to see her block and surrounding blocks more personally rather than this plan on an urban planner’s schemes (9:07-9:29). This enlightenment extended to Senators and policymakers, who voted unanimously to reject the proposal to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway (17:02-17:15).

What made the biggest difference though between the movements of say, the neighborhoods in the Bronx and those of Greenwich Village though? Was it simply that Jane Jacobs had joined the fight? Perhaps Jacobs’ literature provided the spark, but Frances Goldin, a part of the activist team, argues that it was their ability to organize, gain necessary publicity, and form coalitions (12:46-13:00). There was an awareness of the intricate networks, the ‘beehive’ or rather the ‘ballet’ of the system as Jacobs would describe it. As opposed to Moses who tugged the strings behind private sponsors, wealthy developers, and politicians, Jacobs harnessed the power of the district. In fact, she states in her novel that a district should be characterized by more than 100,000 people, with the ability to stand up against City Hall (131). Filled with the vigor of the people, and the personal touches Jane Jacobs brought to the table, when placed on the same playing field, Robert Moses was forced to accept defeat.

Works Cited 

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Modern Library, 2011.

Burns, Ric, director. Jane Jacobs vs Robert Moses: Urban Fight of the Century. 1999.

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