How Jane Jacobs Fought to Save New York
A new documentary shows how the activist successfully battled planning supremo Robert Moses over his plans to put highways through Washington Square and Lower Manhattan.
Now comes a documentary, Citizen Jane: Battle For The City, about Jacobs’s ultimately successful battles to see off first Moses’ plan to build a road through Washington Square Park, and then later the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a 10-lane highway that would have razed swathes of SoHo and Little Italy.
The documentary, elegantly directed and produced by Matt Tyrnauer (with Robert Hammond as co-producer)—and with fascinating archive film and a score by Jane Antonia Cornish, played by the Hungarian Studio Orchestra—delineates the arguments and competing visions of the pair.
Citizen Jane will be shown this Thursday, as the opening night film of the Doc NYC festival.
Moses was a proponent of clean-lined modernity, while Jacobs insisted planners had to take account of the physical and emotional life on the streets, of New York itself. Take the life of the street away, put people in high-rise towers, and the city itself would die, Jacobs said.
That isn’t to say, as the many expert voices gathered by Tyrnauer concede, that Moses’s vision of “homogenizing clarity” didn’t have a point.
Inner cities—not just in New York, but other urban conurbations—had a significant slum problem. Post-war architectural thinking was to demolish those slums and replace them with cleaner, simpler living, or—as one expert says in the documentary—“taking a carving knife to clear away the cancerous tissue and replace it with the shiny implements of modernist planning.”
Jacobs (whose writings are voiced by Marisa Tomei in the documentary) had “very little faith in the type of person that takes a large overall view of things.”
For her, the radical cleansing of the inner cities of the modernists was emblematic of a prudishness, a fear of life: the key to improving life in the city was to work with the raw materials of it, and its population—and to keep that population active and present on the streets.
The same battles are still being fought today, the documentary says, and the conflict in New York first formed in the 1930s. After a golden age of skyscraper building, including the construction of the Empire State Building—completed in 1931 and for almost 40 years the world’s tallest building until 1970 when the North Tower of the World Trade Center was completed—the backwash of the Great Depression bought with it slums that were “overcrowded, harsh, dirty, dangerous, and infested with disease,” says architectural critic Paul Goldberger. Moses’ plans were intended as a solution to this.
Jacobs, who lived in the West Village at 555 Hudson Street, saw the opportunities of the city as it was, the people its wellspring and pulse. New York, for Jacobs, was a place of potential for everyone who came there: you didn’t have to be rich to do something interesting or make something of yourself.
Jacobs would later set out her vision in her seminal 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she decried the planners who “mitigate their vanity with vulgarity” by creating detached cities in the sky which cannot support cultural centers or bookstores. “This is not the rebuilding of cities, it’s the sacking of cities,” Jacobs wrote.
She had started her writing about the city aged 18, and at Vogue wrote about areas of New York, like the Garment, Flower and Jewelry Districts. The best way to plan downtown New York was to see how people use it, she said. “No logic can be superimposed on to a city,” Jacobs believed. “It is people who make it.”
Jacobs’s critical eye roved all over—to the look of manhole covers, to renewal projects in other cities like Philadelphia. She built her reputation, and got “cozy with planners.”
When, in New York, high-rises were built in Harlem, Jacobs saw what was lost in the community itself, and this cemented her view that while cities looked like chaos, they were their own self-made ecosystems.
“To see complex systems of functional order as order, and not chaos, takes understanding,” Jacobs wrote. “Leaves falling, the interior of an airplane engine, the entrails of a dissected rabbit, the city desk of a newspaper,” all can look chaotic, she said—but once they are seen as systems of order they look different.
In a similar way pedestrians, residents, and shopkeepers come together to form neighborhoods. “If you can understand a city, then that city is dead,” Jacobs wrote. “Living cities are frustrating, but at the same that’s where dreams come true.”
Moses (voiced in the documentary by Vincent D'Onofrio), and architects like Le Corbusier, thought different, with visions of stark buildings and superhighways—although Le Corbusier, as one of the contributors points out in Citizen Jane, thought of his buildings as containing businesses rather than people.
Moses realized that modernist buildings could be built quickly and cheaply. For Jacobs, however, an unused street with such buildings built high on it was dangerous, where as a well-used street, with people always around, sitting on stoops and chatting on the corner, was safer. For Jacobs, the community provided a basis for its own security.
When it came to fighting the plan to build the road through Washington Square Park, Jacobs was not deferential to power. For her, the park was a symbol of a diverse neighborhood, with kids, students from nearby New York University, and a cross-section of the city population using it.
She enlisted famous names like Eleanor Roosevelt and Susan Sontag, and her campaigning seems modern by today’s standards—grassroots in gestation, civil disobedience-focused, and with colorful and snappy buttons and banners.
Moses dismissed the campaigners ranged against his plan as “a bunch of mothers,” as Jacobs later wrote. His dismissiveness was not just insulting, but a fatal underestimation: Moses’ plan was scrapped.
When he was sent a copy of Jacobs’s book, he returned it to the publisher with a note saying it was “intemperate and inaccurate” and also “libelous. Sell this junk to someone else.” A sore loser too, then.
Another of his plans to earmark the West Village as a slum ripe for urban renewal also provoked Jacobs to “frustrate,” as she put it, the planners at every turn. Again, she won. The slum designation never happened. (Moses wasn’t wholly unsuccessful in his planning projects: he was behind bridges like the Henry Hudson and Verrazano-Narrows, and the Cross-Bronx Expressway. He was instrumental in the building of Shea Stadium, Lincoln Center, and the UN.)
Tyrnauer posits that Jacobs’ activities happened simultaneously with pivotal moments in the early moments of the modern environmental and feminist movements: The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published in 1961, Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring in 1962, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963.
Jacobs’s last New York battle, whose legacy—like Washington Square—lives on today was against Moses’s plan for a Lower Manhattan Expressway. It would have destroyed not just historic buildings, but also communities, said Jacobs. Again, she was successful: by 1970, the plan was dead, and her model of resistance was used in other “freeway revolts” across America.
Moses died in 1981, aged 92. Jacobs wrote eight more books, and died in Toronto in 2006, aged 89.
Moses may emerge as the loser in his battles with Jacobs, but his vision—"on steroids,” as one expert puts it—can be seen in the skyscrapers of modern China (and even in today’s midtown, one could say, and in the new World Trade Center.)
New York is still scaling up—and even in neighborhoods where Jacob’s ideal of buildings persists visually, these are now too expensive for a socially and economically mixed population to live in.
The brute economics of New York have proved exclusionary, and glassy high-rises are now peppering all parts of the city, most visibly now at Hudson Yards.
Jacobs’s idealism—that people should be able to shape their own cities—has proven to be fundamentally flawed because of the mechanics of hyper-capitalism, and Manhattan’s exorbitant rents and house and apartment prices.
Yet Jacobs’s vision remains persuasive at least in spirit and as an ideal to aspire to. She would have observed today’s city population, heads down in their cellphones or locked away to the city’s sounds by their headphones, not as balefully as you might expect.
The city for her was a complex order, “all composed of movement and change” that we might “fancifully” call “the art-form of the city and liken it to the dance—not a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking off at the same time, but to an intricate ballet in which individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and comprise an orderly whole.”