Preservation Reads: “Wrestling With Moses”

Jane Jacobs was many things: writer, urban critic, community activist, mother, wearer of a thick glasses. But after reading Anthony Flint’s fascinating “Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City,” I contend that public relations strategist should top that list, and the strategies she used in her showdowns against Robert Moses and his surrogates can serve as blueprints for preservation efforts today.

Flint first details the background of the book’s two protagonists: Jacobs and Robert Moses. Moses, born in 1888, grew up as a patrician Upper West Side and attended Yale and Oxford. Yet his Jewish heritage excluded him from certain activities in his youth, and Flint says this desire to yield power and never feel left out led him for the rest of his life. Moses gained esteem as an urban visionary, and he reshaped New York and other American cities with his park, bridge, tunnel, and roadway projects. While his political ambitions were left unrealized, that did not prevent him from holding power in his many appointed roles throughout his lengthy career.

In contrast, Jacobs had humbler roots in Scranton, Pennsylvania. She relocated to New York in 1934 at the age of 18 and worked as a secretary and low-level journalist as she married and started a family. Meanwhile, she fell in love with her neighborhood, Greenwich Village, and studied architecture and urban planning as postwar urban renewal gained popularity across the country. Jacobs was one of the few to openly oppose this movement and wrote the famed “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” in 1961 in rebuttal.

The bulk of “Wrestling With Moses” is dedicated to three planned projects either led or influenced by Moses:

  • the construction of a four-lane extension of Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park;
  • the demolition of 14 blocks in the West Village in the name of urban renewal; and
  • the construction of 10-lane elevated highway–named the Lower Manhattan Expressway or Lomex–through SoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown, and the Lower East Side.

Spoiler alert: none were built. Here is what I think can be gleaned from Jacobs and her fellow activists.

Set clear goals, and don’t bend

In the three showdowns addressed in the book, Jacobs and her fellow preservationists took a firm stance early on and then didn’t budge. Their messages were simple from the start: don’t extend Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park, don’t raze a section of the West Village in the name of slum clearance, and don’t build the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Compromise, they believed, showed weakness and would not get them exactly what they wanted. This was especially true when plans for the park were revised to make the roadway less obtrusive. Yet the park preservationists held firm because their goal was not a less obtrusive road through the green space, but no road at all.

Gain a range of supporters

Preservation campaigns don’t go anywhere without support beyond the base. Jacobs and her colleagues gained support from all residents, from rugged dock workers to powerful voices such as New York Times architecture critic Lewis Mumford, anthropologist Margaret Mead, and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, whose support was key in the Washington Square Park battle.

Stay in the forefront

Short attention spans are nothing new, and Jacobs knew interest would wane if there were large gaps between coverage. So Jacobs used the press to her advantage and constantly fed them bits of information to maintain a presence in the public’s eye. She even had her own young children hand out flyers during the quest to save Washington Square Park–a news photographer’s dream shot.

Deflect every punch, then counter punch

Whenever Moses and company would attack Jacobs’ positions, she did not allow the message to resonate within the public’s mind. She quickly denied the accuracy of the charge and explained why. To top things off, she then lobbed a critique Moses’ way.  When all was said and done, Moses was left on the defensive.

Force politicians to take a position early

It’s hard to ignore a loud, well-organized contingent. Jacobs used this to her advantage when she nudged political leaders to publicly support her efforts before it was their decision to make. Then, if somewhere down the road the politicos had the authority to make a difference, they would have to side with Jacobs lest they be branded a flip-flopper.

Gain support from up and coming leaders

Along those lines, Jacobs and her crew attracted young politicians eager to make a name for themselves. Future NYC Major Ed Koch was an advocate for the preservation of Washington Square Park and John Lindsay backed the opposition to the Lower Manhattan Expressway when he was in Congress. Support from the latter paid off when Lindsay was elected mayor in 1965 and effectively ended the initiative–despite Moses’ best efforts.

It’s not over when you think it’s over

Moses was appointed–not elected–to his multiple positions, so he could simply wait out public opposition to his projects and try again later when the spotlight was off. Jacobs recognized this with the Lower Manhattan Expressway; when it appeared dead in 1962, she did not celebrate. Moses pushed it again the following year and it didn’t go away completely until 1966.

For more on “Wrestling With Moses,” read the New York Times’ review.


Filed under Preservation media

2 responses to “Preservation Reads: “Wrestling With Moses”

  1. Good conclusions. Jane also used to say, “You can’t win by trying to persuade; you can only fight them.”
    Roberta Brandes Gratz, author, “The Battle For Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs,” (Nation Books, 2010).

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