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A History Of Robert Moses And Jane Jacobs History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The profession of urban planning is nearly as old as civilization itself. It is constantly changing in terms of its practice, theories, and practitioners. There are many different forms ranging from: economic development, community revitalization, and transportation planning. The two theories most prevalent today are rationalism and advocacy planning. These theories and the state of the profession today are a product of a historic clash between two of its most polarizing figures: Robert Moses, the master builder; and Jane Jacobs, the neighborhood champion.

The Tammany Hall machine was infamous for utilizing a system of: backroom deals, kickbacks for government contracts, and buying votes with patronage as well as allowing ballots to be cast twice. Moses attempted to implement his PhD dissertation that proposed a merit-based system with a flowchart evaluation system that provided quantitative measure of performance. Unfortunately, the Tammany machine proved too strong at the time and Mitchel lost re-election in 1917 and Moses was fired abruptly (Flint, pg.40).

In 1918 Moses would receive a phone call that would mark the start of his ascent to power. The call was from a woman named Belle Moskowitz who was a reformer with a close relationship to incoming Governor Alfred E. Smith. Having heard of Moses’ dedication and intelligence he offered Moses an opportunity to run a newly minted commission entrusted with reorganizing the states government structure from top to bottom. A 419 page report was instituted that consolidated 175 state agencies into 16 departments, extending the gubernatorial term from two to four years while also giving the governor the power to appoint and remove officials. (Flint, pg.41)The outcome was a government that could act more quickly and decisively. It became a precedent that is widely utilized in most American cities.

The Tammany machine proved to again be too strong, resulting in Smith’s lose for re-election in 1920. However many of the monumental changes Moses implemented could not be overturned. Over the next couple years the Tammany Machine dissolved and Smith was able to get re-elected in 1922. This time around Moses had gained Smith’s utmost trust and respect. Smith called Moses the “most efficient administrator I have ever met…He was the best bill drafter in Albany…I know he went to Yale and Oxford, but he didn’t get that keen mind of his in any college” (Flint, pg.41).

Smith immediately put Moses in charge of several projects. Of them they included: the reorganization of the state’s prison system, and the implementation of railroad grade crossings. Smits was so pleased with his work that he offered Moses any state position he desired. Moses told him that he wanted to be in charge of all of New York’s Parks (DeWan).

Moses was an avid jogger and on one early morning outing in East NYC he discovered hundreds of acres of public land and beachfront that was almost impossible to access. After returning to his office he discovered there was no formal system for the state to maintain, develop, or acquire lands. He decided to implement such a system and give the city a world class park system to be easily accessible (Flint, pg.42). He brought a $15 million proposal to Smith who was hesitant about the price tag. Smith gave it a shot though as public parks were good propaganda come election time. The results were astonishing. The park actually got built, despite the efforts of some of Americas wealthiest families, including the: Morgan’s, Vanderbilt’s, Winthrop’s, and Carnegies (Flint, pg.43). Its greatest success was its economic sustainability and popularity; attained through a 25 cent toll charge. Lower class residents from all of New York State came to visit this park on Long Island. The park was named Jones Beach (Flint, pg.46). Shortly after its opening, Smith promoted Moses to head of several state agencies. Robert Moses ascent to power was complete (Flint, pg. 47).

Jane Jacobs was born in the economically challenged town of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Growing up she had witnessed the decline in her town gradually and set out to establish a better life in New York City. Her only professional training was as a stenographer from a vocational school. She moved in with her older sister in Brooklyn and set out to gain employment. This was during the Great Depression however and jobs were scarce and it was sometime before she got a job. In the meantime however, she spent her time exploring her new city by riding the subway and getting off at random stops (Flint, pg.5). During these explorations she began observing different things she saw. They often included the types and conditions of buildings, activities she saw, and other instances she bore witness to. One area stuck out most to her. She instantly fell in love with this areas street life and sense of places. She loved that the area had its own concentrated small-scale economy equipped with its own “rules” to ensure competitiveness. She loved seeing it rise at 6a.m and go all night. Even for New York City this place was special in her eyes (Flint, pg. 6). This place was known as Greenwich Village, better known as SoHo today.

Eventually she gained employment but also began writing article about her observations and submitting them to various magazines. The magazine Vogue was the first to purchase as well as employ her as a freelance writer. They loved her sense of straightforwardness and her ability to write uncomplicatedly. Her first writings were of Greenwich’s floral and diamond districts (Flint, pg.6). During this time it was suggested that she go to University to study journalism for credentials (Flint, pg.8). She ardently refused exclaiming that academics are too curriculum based and pretentious.

While attempting to establish herself as a journalist she quit her day job and tried to get a media job. She ended up getting a job with the Office of War Information writing material for the USSR. (Flint, pg.15) This work would later come to torment her during Senator McCarthy’s infamous Red Scare Investigations. She was targeted as a communist sympathizer for choosing to write material for the USSR as well as the view that some of her opinions were sympathetic to communism and socialism. After being fired she began working for a magazine entitled Architecture Forum where she would get her first true big break. One day a pastor burst into the offices demanding to know more information about development going on in Harlem where he assisted Italians, African-Americans, and Latinos. Urban Renewal was in full swing in the area and people were being displaced. He found a willing listener in Jacobs and essentially told her the major problem was people do these projects and do not follow up on them to gauge success, especially when they are not wanted in the first place (Flint, pg22). This awakened Jacobs to a whole new way of viewing the city she had not seen

Her editor William Kirk was to give a speech at an urban design forum at Harvard however he fell ill, and asked Jacobs to take his place. Jacobs reluctantly agreed. She spoke of how neighborhood stores are not being rebuilt in renewed areas, and how neighborhoods were living things, and any visit to a “renewed” area would show that there was very little life going on. Seeing as the audience included Edmond Bacon, Jose Sert, Victor Gruen, and Hideo Saski; she did not expect a friendly response. The audience erupted in applause (Flint, pg.25).

As word of her presentation spread an editor named William Whyte of Fortune magazine caught wind. He had to have her write for Fortune. He told her of a series of articles he was working on to cover the modern metropolis and asked her to write an editorial. This editorial came to be known as “Downtown Is For The People” The main points of the critique were that down town redevelopment efforts were misguided, and exhibited no understanding of how people actually behave in cities. She pointed out that they will no re-energize the downtowns but “deaden” them. She claimed they would be no than a clean, impressive, monumental and well dignified cemetery (Flint, pg.27). Jane Jacobs was now an official respectable urban commentator.

In this article Jacobs also fired the first “shot” at Robert Moses – attacked the widely popular and personal pride of Moses, the Lincoln Center. The Lincoln Center project eradicated 18 blocks and serves as a world class performing arts center, campus for Fordham University, as well as a high school and many cultural institutions. Her criticisms were that Moses didn’t understand how streets worked and what purpose they served – “a unifying force that gives places life”. She criticized that he didn’t understand how people behave in their environment and that Moses was so intent on grandeur that he didn’t care whether these new places were pleasant or functional. She said that the street will be able to give the Lincoln Center no support whatsoever (Flint, pg.28). Moses never responded to this criticism perhaps relying on the fact that the Lincoln Center was wildly popular and nobody, not even Jacobs’s colleagues, completely understood her criticisms basis.

The first true battle between Moses and Jacobs would spark over Moses attempt to alter Washington Square, in the neighborhood of Jacobs’s residence. His plan called for an extension of 5th Avenue straight through the park running perpendicular to its famous arch (Columbia University). This road would continue all the way to Lower Manhattan and be named 5th Avenue South. At the time Greenwich Village was characterized by aging buildings mainly occupied with immigrants and manufacturing workers. He therefore classified it as a blighted area and thus qualified for urban renewal. The area had deteriorated extensively after World War I (Flint, pg.62).

Moses vision was to build high rises with rooms that could be rented for as low as $65 per month. He also envisioned the roadway to be a new gateway to Washington Square Village as well as a replacement of the crazy intersections set in place due to original Dutch settlement. It also would’ve sped the flow of traffic in the area. The Federal Housing Act of 1949 provided a great amount of federal backing in terms of financing and legality. Jacobs and her neighbors loved the Park for its history as many generations before her had protested previous development on it. Also many famous people had once frequented its grounds such as Edgar Allan Poe and Jackson Pollock. Most of all, it provided a sense of green open space in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world. Moses tried to appease by promising new well-developed green space on both sides of the street. It was not enough for the Greenwich residents. They wanted their park in its historic entirety. He then tried a new tactic: to portray the protesters as NIMBY elitists and threatening to withhold all improvements within the village if they would not cease protests (Flint, pg.62-65).

The reaction was mixed. The president of the neighborhood and Jacobs stood their ground; however, many residents saw it as a fair tradeoff for badly needed improvements to the neighborhood. However with the onset of World War II, he was forced to back off the project. He did however proclaim that it was a shame the neighborhood of the village had to suffer due to the selfishness of a select few who live around the square, for which he had a point (Flint, pg.73). They were essentially claiming ownership of a public space and seemed to oppose any changes at all.

In 1952 Moses came back with new funding. However the Mayor, Robert Wagoner had the project ceased for further study. In 1954 the project was Okayed and progress resumed. By that time Jacobs had time to enlist powerful Greenwich Village residents, including Eleanor Roosevelt. One was integral to the efforts however: Carmine De Sapio. De Sapio was one an integral piece of the Tammany machine, the type of politician both Jacobs and Moses wanted to rid the city of (Flint, pg.75). However his influence was too important for Jacobs not to pass up. De Sapio would campaign for saving the park and succeeded. Moses had been trumped and he knew it. The neighborhood celebrated with a carnival at the base of the Washington Square arch on November 1st, 1958 (Flint, pg87). They were celebrating Moses’ efforts to alter the park since 1935.

Moses worried that the loss would embolden other neighborhoods during future proposals. Aside from being publicly embarrassed, he resigned as the New York Parks commissioner, responsible for adding 35,000, 658 playgrounds, and 17 miles of beaches, zoos, recreation centers, and ball fields (Flint, pg.90). Washington Square Park was one of only a few dozen projects not to be completed.

The second battle between these two would be brought back to Greenwich Village in 1959. This time however Moses had specifically targeted the area that included Jacobs home. The area was known as the West Village, the very village she had just championed as the model community in her book, Death and Life of Great American Cities. Moses justified it by classifying it as a bare industrial zone with dilapidated tenement housing and a low number of easily moveable families (Flint, pg.100).

Local government was weary however. Moses had started to give urban renewal a bad name principally for being too “heavy-handed” according to Mayor Wagoner. There was a growing sense that private developers had grown too powerful as well. It had become a public relations nightmare that everyone had grown wary of. In an effort to alleviate these concerns Wagoner ordered Moses to work hand in hand with the new planning commission chairman James Felt. Felt brought a hope for a more fair process and even recoined urban renewal as community renewal. He however shared Moses distaste for citizen participation (Flint, pg.101).

Jacobs countered by filing a lawsuit in state supreme court regarding the justification of classifying the neighborhood as blighted. The court ordered government officials to justify the classification (Flint, pg.113). When it could not the neighborhood ridiculed Moses and Felt, eventually forcing Felt’s resignation. Shortly after that the city removed the West end from its list of blighted areas. The village then pushed for historic district status to prevent any further encroachments of Moses (Flint, pg.128). However in doing so it ceased all new construction and resulted in almost instant gentrification. This outpriced many longtime residents. The neighborhood tried to counter this unexpected outcome by applying for permit for its own version of renewal. However the forces that be made it nearly impossible to attain the necessary permits (Flint, pg.134).

The third and final battle would be waged over the Lower Manhattan Expressway; what Moses had intended to be the crowning masterpiece of his career. It was a highway system to elevate through Manhattan that would unify much of what he had done earlier in his career. Moses had intended to use the newly signed National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, signed by President Eisenhower, himself a champion of highways. The act called for a vast network of superhighways in and around the countries major cities extending deep into suburban and rural areas (Flint, pg.138). The act resulted in over 47,000 miles of highway still in use today and was funded by a penny increase in national gas tax. Moses became enthusiastic and exuberant when it was announced Washington would fund 90% of any expansion or completion of a network. Thanks to Moses’ infamous grant writing abilities, New York City was the first major metropolitan area to receive funding.

Moses’ proposal would not only connect the inner city with outer suburbs but would also connect separate parts of the city. To do this he planned an elevated highway that weaved around skyscrapers and also had housing on top, much the same as first envisioned by Le Courbusier. The final estimated total cost was $77 million Flint, pg.144).

Outside of Moses and new Governor William O’Dwyer, most people saw the highway as too intrusive and radical. The regional Planning Association recognized this and suggested a tunnel instead that would have cost more than twice as much. Moses would hear none of this. He knew what he wanted and was going for it. However it faced fierce opposition from the start. Several neighborhood and labor associations united (Flint, pg.145). The entire fur district located along 30th Avenue would have been relocated and possibly destroyed. Neighborhood associations thought it would decrease property values due to its unsightliness and noise creation.

Moses thought it was sure to be built however, and bought a parcel of land for the highway. The day after the purchase the opposition unites and protested and new Mayor Lindsay announced it would not be built because it was a “boondoggle”, or waste of time and money (Flint, pg.150).

Moses countered by revising his plan and renaming it “Lomex”. This plan would connect midtown tunnels on each side of Manhattan as well as the Hudson River tunnel and two East River bridges that currently dumped traffic into Manhattan. The project would also extend I-78 from New Jersey to Long Island increasing connectivity. This pleased business leaders as it would benefit the local economy and won the support of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce (Flint, pg.156).

However in order for it not to affect central Manhattan, it had to destroy outlying neighborhoods; Greenwich Village included. This led to again fierce opposition which was more readily assembled due to the experience of doing so in years past under Jacobs. At board meetings these protestors would bash it in such a way that the media began reporting and agreeing with them (Flint, pg.165). This was amongst the first times Moses did not have the media on his side.

Moses plan was then to wait for a new mayor. This happened however Lindsay became a state Congressman and therefore more powerful. He became Jacobs’s greatest ally. Over time however it became evident that a solution had to be implemented as traffic problems became unbearable. After consulting with engineers Lindsay met with Moses to restructure the Lomex problem. He then announced on March 28, 1967 Lindsay himself unveiled the new plan for the Lomex. However this one was a true modern superhighway based on what his engineers called a “cut and cover”. It was an enclosed sunken highway that allowed for development on top of it (Flint, pg.167). The public seemed to be exhausted fighting the project. It had been on again off again under two different mayors. Every time Moses had a rebuttal to bring it back to life.

A rally on April 10th, 1968 was scheduled by city officials at Seaward Park High school. It was an attempt to collect transcripts proving that the city heard input. In reality they did not care they just wanted to collect official data to satisfy provisions of the federal highway act. The microphone faced the audience, not the city officials. When Jacobs took the stage she let them know that she knew the true point of the meeting. She then asked the audience to join her on stage. The city officials demanded they remove themselves from the stage. They refused. Eventually things got rowdy and the transcripts were destroyed by protesters in a fit of rage. Jacobs was ordered arrested on sight. She would be charged with inciting a riot (Flint, pg.176).

Moses thought the arrest was the final silencing of Jacobs. He was proven wrong rather quickly. All of New York City seemed to come to the defense of that nationally acclaimed author and urban advocate. Nobody wanted to see a “friend of the city” treated in such a manner (Flint, pg.177). The arrest of Jacobs marked the beginning of the end for Moses. Lindsay declared the project dead for all time and Moses’ Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority was reorganized into the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Moses would no longer be the chair. Instead he was demoted to serve as only a consultant to the agency. Robert Moses’ time as New York’s master builder had come to an end.

In an unrelated turn of events, Jane Jacobs shocked New York City: she was leaving the city. Her husband, an architect, had received a commission to build a hospital in Toronto and fell in love with the city. Jacobs agreed to move. New York City lost both of its historic polarizing figures the same year a few months apart, 1969 (Flint, pg.182) (DeWan, 2006).

There is no doubt that Jane Jacobs was a driving force in the demise of Robert Moses. It is also evident that her impact is still felt today. It can be seen in neighborhood groups across the nation. It can be seen in the lack of large scale infrastructure projects undertaken across the country in the past few years. From my perspective, it is most prevalent in the theories and methods taught in urban planning programs. It has shifted from merely transportation and economic development to practices that seem to only promote environment sustainability, walkability, and tight knit neighborhoods. It has essentially become advocacy planning versus rational planning.

Instead of learning to balance the two theories from this conflict we have chosen to settle at polar opposites, with most opting for advocacy planning. Rational planning is considered evil upon recognition and killed through NIMBY and BANANA groups. Jacobs has essentially been christened a saint while Moses has misguidedly been cast as sheer evil. Cities everywhere are in dire need of new infrastructure; from highways to sewage pipes and everywhere in between.

I believe that the public perception is so much in favor of Jacobs that the actual purpose of Urban Planning has been severely distorted if not changed entirely. There are lessons to be learned from both camps. If we don’t learn the best of both practices and their implementation, our infrastructure will fail, and there will be no tight-knit communities to walk and sustain. I believe we as a society would benefit from a “second-coming” of a Robert Moses type planner. His level of power and efficiency will likely never be matched; but that doesn’t mean his influence and intentions cannot.


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