In with the old, out with the new

Before she became a Toronto urban icon, Jane Jacobs defeated New York’s master builder

When Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses went to war in the early 1960s over Lomex, the 10-lane elevated Lower Manhattan Expressway—to Moses, it was the crowning jewel in New York’s modernization; for Jacobs, urban planning’s worst abomination—few would have picked her to win. Moses, an upper-class Manhattanite who controlled planning for the city and many adjacent areas, was the incarnation not just of bureaucratic power but of contemporary wisdom: cities needed to be rationalized and segregated into distinct areas of use (housing here, work sites there). Above all, they had to accommodate the car. Jacobs, a writer at Architectural Forum magazine, was an essentially self-educated migrant from Scranton, Penn., with some fringe ideas about traffic flows and how cities actually work, economically and socially.

But when the dust settled years later, it was Jacobs, later an urbanist icon in Toronto after she left the U.S. in 1968 in protest over the Vietnam War, who emerged the victor. Instead of racing across Moses’s neighbourhood-devouring expressway, visitors to New York’s Lower East Side now flock to the shops and galleries of SoHo.

That’s the simplified, urban legend version, of course. As set out in Anthony Flint’s fair-minded account, Wrestling With Moses (Random House), Jacobs didn’t act alone, even if she was a tenacious and media-savvy grassroots organizer—conventional wisdom was already facing the same revolutionary assault over urban renewal as it was over every other sphere of life in the sixties. Nor was Moses an entirely destructive force. New York’s master builder was brutally indifferent to neighbourhoods he considered slums, but he gave his city more of its monumental structures than anyone else, building, among much else, Lincoln Center, the UN, Shea Stadium and Central Park Zoo. Still, for most observers, SoHo beats Lomex hands down as an urban amenity, and Jacobs’ role in stopping the latter was pivotal. Besides, as Flint also makes clear, it was an epic fight.

The first skirmishes were over Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park, one of the city’s most historic green spots. Once a gravesite for paupers and yellow fever victims (the remains of 20,000 people still lie underneath), it later became a haunt of Henry James and—crucially—Jane Jacobs’ children. In 1956, Moses wanted to continue Fifth Avenue as a four-lane road through the park, opening the way to razing much of the “substandard” Village, and opening the way for new arterial roads leading to his ultimate dream, Lomex. (The expressway would link New Jersey to Long Island, relieving pressure on existing bridges.) Jacobs took over media relations for a defence committee, and insisted on putting children front and centre in the protests, knowing they would prove irresistible to news photographers. Her own kids paraded through the park with sandwich boards reading “Save the Square,” an in-joke in the heart of beatnik New York. Politicians slowly came onside. Moses was almost incoherent in his rage when the project died. “There is nobody against this,” he sputtered, “nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers.”

By the time the expressway war began in earnest in 1962, Jacobs, who a year earlier had published her landmark work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a scathing critique of everything Moses stood for, was not a cog in the opposition, but its very face. Moses pulled out the big guns for Lomex— business leaders like David Rockefeller, the New York Times, the Automobile Club—convincing them that traffic snarls would choke the city’s economy. Even among the 2,200 families about to lose their homes, Jacobs was virtually alone in her dismissal of traffic concerns. (Her idea that new roads only incite traffic volumes to return to congestion levels is now itself conventional wisdom.)

Jacobs fought back with roomfuls of angry residents at every hearing, and theatrical protests, like a funeral march for the neighbourhood. The see-saw battle carried on for years, but when Jacobs was arrested for inciting a riot in 1968, the backlash finally drove the last spike into Lomex’s heart. Moses, whose vast projects had done so much to feed New Yorkers’ centre-of-the-universe self-image, had reached too far with his colossal highway. His defeat left New York a curiously un-American city, with a new-found emphasis on neighbourhoods and an anti­pathy for cars. Soon, the same war, with Jacobs again in the forefront, would be fought—and won—again, in Toronto.

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