The Woman Who Saved New York

Issue 224

There is still much to learn from the pioneering and visionary work of Jane Jacobs.

Mark Read Apr 30, 2017

So, a film producer walks into a theater and asks the audience if they have any questions. The only problem is that the movie hasn’t started yet.

This isn’t a joke. Robert Hammond, the producer of Jane Jacobs: Battle for the City and a founder of the High Line elevated park in Chelsea, said he’d gotten confused about the time of the film’s screening. He didn’t stick around to answer questions later.

There is still much to learn from the pioneering and visionary work of Jane Jacobs. Her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, almost singlehandedly undermined the modernist, one-size-fits-all, top-down philosophy of urban planning that dominated the world after World War II. Instead, she celebrated human-scale neighborhoods, where people could make the connections that weave together a community. She insisted on fundamental values like democracy and broad participation in the city planning processes. She stood up and helped lead the successful resistance to New York City development czar Robert Moses’ 1950s scheme to build a ten-lane “Lower Manhattan Expressway” from the Williamsburg Bridge to the Holland Tunnel, and bulldoze Washington Square Park for an onramp connected to Fifth Avenue.

“Jacobs saw the value of unity against those who had grand plans that were divorced from the reality of tenants in small apartments, parents wanting walkable streets for kids, and corner grocers who really knew their customers,” Jeff Gold wrote in Tenant/Inquilino, the Metropolitan Council on Housing’s newspaper, after Jacobs died in 2006. “She knew the value of rental housing and of the safety that comes from eyes on the streets.”

Director Matt Tyrnauer engagingly lays out the opposing ideologies and personalities that came into conflict during this period, using clear and concrete stories to trace the history and development of abstract and complicated ideas. He brilliantly uses one simple anecdote to sum up the modernist school’s vision of a city filled with massive blocks and towers of steel and glass: Le Corbusier, the French architect who was its most influential figure, had an epiphany as he was flying above Paris. From that height, he could see all the apparent chaos and disorder of the city streets and envisioned a symmetrical, sensible ordering of them, like a painter imagining beautiful designs to inscribe upon a canvas.

Robert Moses, who ruled virtually all public-works projects and major private developments in New York City from the 1930s to the 1960s, followed this philosophy. The film shows archival footage of him and urban planners standing around a room-sized model of the city, moving pieces here and there as though playing a game of chess or Monopoly. This illustrates the fundamental problem of the modernist dogma of urban design: perspective. If one is planning from 1,000 feet up, what is left out of your view? People. When a city is an abstract arrangement of objects and corridors, rather than a place where people live and work, communities and neighborhoods are shredded. One such neighborhood was East Tremont in the Bronx, where more than 1,500 households were evicted in 1954 to clear the way for the Cross-Bronx Expressway.

That is the legacy of Robert Moses, by and large, and the film minces no words about it.

Jane Jacobs wrote her observations on the effects of centralized urban planning at the height of Moses’ power. These observations, and her propositions on how to plan differently, acted like a kind of radical virus, wending its way into the body politic of New York City, ultimately turning the city against Moses’ concepts. She started with very simple questions: How do people use the city? What makes a neighborhood safe? Who should get to decide how cities are planned? Her answers turned the prevailing norms on their head, and directly challenged the power of elites with the very radical and simple proposition that we ought to expect and demand democratic rule.

The film, however, doesn’t even raise the subject of how democracy is circumscribed by the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few. It presents the tragedy of the Cross-Bronx Expressway and the victory against the Lower Manhattan Expressway as simple David vs. Goliath stories, bemoaning that Goliath won the first and celebrating that David won the second. East Tremont was a working-class neighborhood, heavily Jewish with a small but growing black and Latino population. Its denizens didn’t have the social capital and political connections to fight off the most powerful man in the city. In The Power Broker, his epic biography of Moses, author Robert A. Caro speculates that if the community hadn’t been decimated for the expressway, it might have become a model for peaceful racial integration. In the struggle against the Lower Manhattan Expressway, Greenwich Village’s upper-middle-class residents did have the social capital and political connections. They joined up with the working-class people of the Lower East Side, perhaps the most fiercely organized and radical neighborhood in the city.

To tell this story and not bother to make this very basic observation about power is not merely an oversight. It erases the more radical implications of Jane Jacobs’ insistence on democratic rule.

What do such omissions leave us? What happens when the neighborhoods closest to Jane Jacobs’ human-scale ideal are affordable only to the rich? Will the problems of inequality and bad urban planning be solved by a more enlightened managerial class, a benevolent cabal of well-heeled architects that merely offers better design? More community input?

City residents trying to sustain their communities face problems of power and resources, not merely design. As cities embrace public-private partnerships to fund the basic upkeep of parks — what should be the very definition of the commons — we cede control to elites. Design won’t fix this. The High Line is beautifully designed, but who truly owns it if it’s 95 percent funded by private individuals? One reason it was built, after all, was to stimulate luxury housing on the far West Side. Developments like Atlantic Yards are imposed from above as though Jane Jacobs never existed. Such injustices will continue as long as power remains concentrated in the hands of the few — the very problem that Jacobs addresses in her work. I wish that the filmmakers had chosen to examine this most fundamental and profound implication of Jacobs’ writing and activism.

I also wish that the producer had stuck around because there is one question that I would have liked to ask him: “What do you think Jane Jacobs would have thought about public-private parks such as the High Line, a park that you helped to found?”

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is playing at the IFC Center at 323 6th Ave.


Photo: Library of Congress. 

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