For the 50th anniversary edition of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her publisher remembers the urban activist
To use a much abused term, Jane was a conservative, indeed a radical conservative, mistrustful of abstraction, suspicious of large ideas and concentrations of political and economic power: a genius of common sense, as far from an ideologue as it is possible to be. Toward the end of her life Jane was fascinated by urban traffic tangles as evidence of bureaucratic idiocy resulting in perverse, even deadly, outcomes: the man-made difficulty of getting safely where one wanted to go when one wanted to go there. Jane herself used a bicycle. She thought of these tangles as fractal versions of Soviet five-year plans. But she preferred to expose such faults in her own country than indulge in anti-Soviet bombast. I never asked Jane if she admired Edmund Burke but I believe that Burke, were he alive, would admire her. Predictably Jane’s book was praised by the libertarian right and denounced by the social engineers of the left. Jane took little note of either group.
Jane thought of herself primarily as a writer and was happiest and most productive at her Remington. Events, however, made her an activist, a role she excelled in but that she resented as a distraction from her writing. Her adversary was Robert Moses, who had amassed what amounted to dictatorial power over the physical development of New York City and its environs by appointing himself, with the help of complacent politicians, to the chairmanship of various public authorities. From the 1930s to the ’60s these high positions provided him the money and the power to reshape the area according to his vision, in which the automobile and its infrastructure were the necessary engines of modernity. Ruthlessly he uprooted long-settled neighborhoods to build his expressways; erected high-rise slum clearance projects, which almost overnight became deracinated vertical slums; built bridges and parkways that shaped the city’s northern and eastern suburbs, creating traffic tangles that made access to and from the city at rush hour a nightmare to which suffering commuters, breathing carbon monoxide, are inured as if this planning disaster were a natural phenomenon and not a human error. Moses’ tools were raw political power, vast financial resources, and an exhausted, Radiant City ideology. By the 1950s his power to damage New York City appeared limitless.
His fatal error was to make Jane his enemy by proposing to extend Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park, at the center of Greenwich Village, as far south as Broome Street in what is now Soho, where it would join a projected multilane, elevated crosstown expressway linking New Jersey via the Holland Tunnel to the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges to Brooklyn. Since the proposed Broome Street Expressway qualified as an interstate highway it was eligible for 90 percent federal funding though Canal Street, the existing link between the Manhattan Bridge and the Holland Tunnel, was and is to this day adequate. Nevertheless, Moses knew that with his federal bonanza he could count on the complicity of politicians, developers, construction unions and their minions who had supported his previous depredations. The uprooted residents of these impoverished neighborhoods believed they were powerless. The residents of Greenwich Village suffered no such delusion.
Washington Square Park, two blocks wide by three blocks long, is an urban masterpiece with a long history and many cultural associations from Henry James to Bob Dylan, a place where children and dogs safely play and city dwellers catch their breath, a place, as one writer said, “to enjoy grass and trees in a city that could feel very paved and gray.” The Fifth Avenue extension would destroy the treasured park and devastate the thriving Village streets to the south as it bulldozed a two-mile swath to Broome Street and the projected expressway. Furious Village residents distributed circulars and posters, held meetings, and appealed to City Hall as Moses went ahead with his plans. Jane wrote to the mayor that she and her husband had restored their old house on Hudson Street, which she said had been a slum, and wondered why the city would now destroy the park where she took her children to play. “It is very discouraging,” she wrote, “to do our best to make the city more habitable and then to learn that the city itself is thinking up ways to make it uninhabitable.” The mayor didn’t answer and Jane joined the protesters who appealed for support to their local politicians.
Since their careers were in the hands of the Village voters and not in those of the City Hall politicians and upstate power brokers on whom Moses depended, the local politicians joined the struggle. So did the two Village newspapers until the fight for the park became a citywide issue. Moses, facing for the first time an articulate and politically sophisticated community, capitulated on the Fifth Avenue extension but retained the major, and undisclosed, part of his plan—the federally funded Broome Street Expressway. He also retaliated by declaring the West Village area where Jane and her family lived a slum eligible for clearance, “the cheerful hurly-burly” of whose street life Jane celebrated in Death and Life as the very essence of cityness. Her house at 555 Hudson Street was right in the cross hairs. This time Jane conceived an ingenious guerrilla strategy, and once again the villagers upended Moses, who was unprepared for opponents who could not be bullied. Jane returned to her Remington unaware of the great battle that lay ahead.
The successful struggle by the threatened communities, with Jane’s help, to defeat the monstrous Broome Street Expressway would last nine years, send Moses into retirement, and convince Jane that if she wanted to be a writer she had better pack her Remington and leave New York. She settled in Toronto, where her husband, a distinguished hospital architect, joined a local firm, and then their two sons joined them to escape the Vietnam War, the crowning absurdity of a political establishment as dangerously out of touch with reality as Moses. Later Jane said that “I just wasn’t cut out to be the citizen of an empire.”
The Broome Street Expressway would cut Manhattan in two just below the waist and with its ramps hollow out the entire nine-block area between Houston and Canal from river to river. The utter insanity of this scheme was breathtaking. Because Jane was now well-known for her previous encounters with Moses, the Broome Street neighbors asked her to help. For six years, until victory was assured and only the mopping up was left to do, Jane devoted herself to this last great battle, sensing that if Moses lost again the city would be rid of him.
With the expressway’s defeat, the area, with its handsome old cast-iron facades, came spontaneously to life as artists moved illegally into the vast lofts that had been abandoned by their industrial occupants, who had fled the area believing that the expressway would come and they would be evicted. With the artists there soon came the galleries, and with the galleries came the restaurants and trendy shops. Today the area known as Soho is perhaps the most vibrant of New York’s many vibrant neighborhoods. The artists have left, priced out of their lofts, but the cultural echo remains. Soho is New York’s Left Bank.
Agenda: Leni Riefenstahl screens in Manhattan, I.L. Peretz revived in L.A., caricatures by David Levine at the Met, and more