'Wrestling With Moses': How We Saw Our Cities Anew

Jane Jacobs, a writer and activist with no formal urban planning training, changed the way people envision cities. Host Liane Hansen chats with author Anthony Flint about his new book, Wrestling With Moses, which chronicles her life and work.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Coming up: how the city of Atlanta is changing the image of public housing. But first, to New York City.

If you've ever visited the Big Apple, then you've probably driven down, walked through, sat in or sailed under something built by Robert Moses. Some 50 years ago, he set out to get rid of what he considered to be cluttered New York neighborhoods, like Greenwich Village and Soho. He wanted to complete his grand plan for a major highway, which would slice through the heart of these neighborhoods.

This car-first approach to urban planning was dominant until a woman named Jane Jacobs challenged Moses, proposed a new vision for the city and won. The story is told in a new book by Anthony Flint called "Wrestling with Moses."

And Mr. Flint joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ANTHONY FLINT (Author, "Wrestling with Moses"): Thank you. It's great to be here.

HANSEN: What would New York City look like if Robert Moses had gotten his way?

Mr. FLINT: Well, just take the crosstown expressways for a minute. There would've been these major highways all across Manhattan. In the area of urban renewal, there would've been more of housing, sort of drab housing towers and slabs surrounded by fairly useless open space. So it would've been a very - a different place without the fabric of Greenwich Village that we see today.

HANSEN: Along comes Jane Jacobs. She has no formal training in the field of urban planning. She only has a high school diploma. How did she end up taking on a man who practically had his own kingdom in New York?

Mr. FLINT: Yes, and someone who just up until that time where Jane started to clash with him, really had never been defeated. And she came to it by settling in Greenwich Village, falling in love with the city, writing about the city. But it was really a very personal experience. When she moved to Greenwich Village, she took her kids over to Washington Square Park and her kids played there. And then she learned that Robert Moses wanted to run a roadway through Washington Square Park to extend Fifth Avenue. And so Jane Jacobs got involved in community activism to try to thwart this roadway plan through the park.

HANSEN: She was someone who actually got some of her best ideas from sitting at her window and watching people go by.

Mr. FLINT: Yes. While this was going on, she was writing the seminal book "Death and Life of Great American Cities." She wrote for a magazine called "Architectural Forum." And she had gotten a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and some time off to write this book planning and the nature of cities. And she made very keen observations about what a good urban neighborhood is really all about.

And she looked out her window from 555 Hudson Street and saw what she called the sidewalk ballet, a number of different kinds of people and business owners and families and others on the stoops in a very human-scaled neighborhood with short walkable blocks and buildings of three or four stories. And it was that built environment that suggested to her, you know, really contained the ingredients of a well-functioning city neighborhood.

HANSEN: Did her ideas in "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" actually have any effect on urban planners?

Mr. FLINT: Well, it's extraordinary. At the time, you know, here is a woman coming in and critiquing a profession completely dominated by men, like Robert Moses. She was taking on, really, the modernism of the time. And that was pretty audacious. It was sort of in the mold of Rachel Carson and "Silent Spring." It was a challenge to the establishment.

Today, her ideas and principles have really been embraced by the planning profession. You can't find a city planner these days who doesn't really basically agree with Jane Jacobs and her recommendations for good urban planning and design.

HANSEN: Her neighborhood, Greenwich Village, which she believed to be the model of the perfect neighborhood, one of the things that resulted from her movements to retain that idea of neighborhood, is that those neighborhoods became gentrified. And soon after, people really couldn't afford to actually live in them.

Mr. FLINT: Yes, it's really a central dilemma of her work, and she was very much aware of it. Now, in a way, this makes sense if you think about what Jane Jacobs was saying about cities was that, yes, they are very desirable places to be. And, really, the place that's where you can raise a family, where you can walk to the park and don't need a car and there's a mix of uses. And so, naturally, it's going to be very much in demand.

Her idea was that, well, it's an issue of supply and demand: We should make more of these great neighborhoods and pretty soon we'll get to a place where the prices begin to stabilize because there's a lot of supply. That hasn't really happened yet, although certainly you look at places like Brooklyn or even Newark, New Jersey that are beginning to undergo this kind of transformation. Gentrification continues to be a vexing problem for cities.

HANSEN: Have any of Robert Moses' ideas been redeemed?

Mr. FLINT: I think there's an appreciation for the importance of infrastructure in a city. He created or rehabilitated hundreds of parks that were central to the lives of New Yorkers and made it possible for New Yorkers to enjoy open space and recreation. And then, of course, we, to this day we get around using the Triborough Bridge or the Henry Hudson. So I guess you might say that we could use a little bit of both.

HANSEN: Anthony Flint is the author of "Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City." Anthony Flint joined us from member station WBUR in Boston. Thank you very much.

Mr. FLINT: Thank you.

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