Tuesday, August 04, 2009

When David Fought Goliath in Washington Square Park

Books of The Times From: New York Times ... Moses and Jacobs clashed during the 1950s and ’60s over three of the huge public works projects Moses tried to force on Manhattan. It is hard even to list them now without cringing — or nearly weeping with gratitude that they never came to pass. There was his plan to build a four-lane highway through the middle of Washington Square Park. Another project would have razed 14 blocks in the heart of Greenwich Village under the guise of urban renewal. There was also a plan to plunge a 10-lane elevated superhighway, to be called the Lower Manhattan Expressway, through SoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Each of these projects is, from today’s vantage point, clearly insane; each would have had cataclysmic effects on the quality of life in Manhattan. But their flaws were less obvious to many at the time. It took an accidental activist, Jacobs, and her ability to marshal popular support and political will, to stop them. The battles over all three projects form the spine of “Wrestling With Moses.” Robert Moses (1888-1981) and Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) were almost perfect antagonists. He grew up wealthy on East 46th Street in Manhattan, attended Yale and Oxford and, after becoming a close aid to Gov. Alfred E. Smith of New York in the 1920s, held a series of appointed positions that allowed him to become, for more than four decades, the driving and nearly omnipotent force behind the rapidly changing physical environment of New York. ... Mr. Flint neatly summarizes all three battles between Jacobs and her forces and Moses and his. He captures Mr. Moses’s pique at being stymied. “There is nobody against this,” he sputtered about the Washington Square Park plan. “Nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers.” Mr. Flint describes how “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” came to be written, and puts it in context amid the classics of dissent in the early 1960s, books that included “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan, “The Other America” by Michael Harrington and “Unsafe at Any Speed” by Ralph Nader. Jacobs became famous (she was photographed by Diane Arbus for Esquire), but she ultimately grew tired of the spotlight and of public battles; she wanted to spend more time writing books. She and her family moved in 1968 to Toronto, partly for the peace and quiet (though she was dragged into urban planning issues there) and partly so her sons would not be drafted to fight in Vietnam. About her years on the barricades, she later told one interviewer: “I hate the government for making my life absurd.” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/05/books/05garner.html?_r=1&hpw

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