Tag Archives: Robert Moses

good riddance to urban renewal

 

 

 

 

IMG_3427 (3).JPG

former residence of Jane Jacobs, 555 Hudson Street, New York, NY; photo by Roger W.  Smith

 

 

The following is an email of mime from today to Lizabeth Cohen, a professor of American Studies at Harvard University.

 

 

Dear Professor Cohen,

I read the review in The New York Times Book Review of your Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age. As I said to my wife, it looks like an excellent and very informative book.

I appreciate what was said about it by the reviewer: that it is an even-handed treatment of Logue.

If I may, I would like to share a few thoughts, memories, etc. with you.

I grew up in Cambridge. We lived on Mellen Street near Harvard Square. My parents moved us to the suburb of Canton on the South Shore in my adolescent years, which was in the late 1950s.

In the 1960s, I recall seeing articles in the papers about Logue all the time. As the reviewer notes that your book notes, Logue was revered and received almost unvarying praise. At that age, being the son of liberal, educated parents, I thought that slum clearance was, unquestionably, desirable.

I was an avid Red Soc fan, I regularly read the sports pages in the Boston Herald. I read many articles stating that it was high time Boston had a new park. It was regarded as not even worth or needing proof that Fenway Park was too small (mainly in terms of seating capacity), old, and shabby. The endless refrain was, when are we going to get our new stadium?

No one remembers this, and Friendly Fenway is regarded by one and all as a jewel of a ballpark. A landmark that will never be torn down.

I moved to New York City for good in my young adulthood. After some adjustment, I grew to love it. I made a good friend who was a nonconformist and lived an alternative lifestyle. He was cultured and articulate but lived very modestly in a walkup apartment with a bathroom in the hall on East Fifth Street between Avenues A and B. He helped me to appreciate Manhattan and to begin to think differently. He was prescient. He said to me, at a time when urban renewal and slum clearance were in the air: “I live in a slum and I like it.” He pointed out that PEOPLE were living in these buildings. (And could afford them.)

I am attaching a photo I took on one of my walks recently of Jane Jacobs’s former residence on Hudson Street in Manhattan. I became familiar with her writings in my adult years after moving to Manhattan. I think she is an example of someone whose plain writing and lifestyle, and lack of academic credentials, may make it likely that she gets less recognition than she deserves (which is not to say that her importance and genius are not acknowledged; and I think she was actually a genius). In my opinion, she is up there with some of the great thinkers and writers who very simply take a fresh look at prevailing opinions and wisdom, go back to square one — or “first principles” — and, in plain language, without overtheorizing — looking with their own eyes — get us to see the world anew. It’s sort of like an Emperor’s New Clothes phenomenon.

How did she manage to defeat Robert Moses? At the outset, I am sure it would have been regarded as quixotic to try. If Moses had rammed an expressway through the Village and Soho, it would have ruined Manhattan — is the word rape too strong?

Jane Jacobs did not like Lincoln Center. I don’t like it either. I recall when I was in high school and Jacqueline Kennedy and others on television were providing a virtual tour of our “wonderful” new arts center, Lincoln Center. I assumed it must have been so, and who cared about the gritty (then) West Side neighborhood where Jets and Sharks did battle? I hate to go to Lincoln Center now. Aside from the concert halls, which I find dark and unwelcoming, the whole center is a horrible place to hang out in, should anyone care to. The buildings are ugly.

Usually, the plaza with its fountain is pretty much deserted, and it’s unwelcoming, as is the Center. The surrounding neighbored now has no life; there are a few rip off restaurants across the street. The few blocks behind the Center (between it and the river) are deadly, or better said, dead.

I go back to Boston occasionally. I was too young to remember Scollay Square before Government Center was built (though people often mentioned it). The Government Center complex has a Lincoln Center-like feel, and I found it very unpleasant and unenjoyable to walk or spend time in or around it.

 

 

Sincerely,

Roger W. Smith, Maspeth, Queens, NY

 

 

— posted by  Roger W. Smith

    November 17, 2019

a significant (glaring) omission

 

 

 

 

 

'The Power Broker' - cover

 

 

 

I recently saw the documentary film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, about urban theorist and activist Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) and her epic battle during the 1960’s against city planner Robert Moses (1888-1981) over urban renewal projects in New York City.

I was surprised that a film that would seemingly be of great interest and relevance to New Yorkers was not better attended. The theater, the Lincoln Plaza Cinema on Manhattan’s West Side, was practically empty.

The New York Times gave the film and a more or less favorable but lukewarm review.

There was an interesting article about the making of the film in Vogue:

“Citizen Jane Is a Primer on How to Resist Authoritarianism” by Julia Felsenthal, Vogue, April 21, 2017

http://www.vogue.com/article/jane-jacobs-documentary-citizen-jane-matt-tyrnauer

The article was based on an interview with the director, Matt Tyrnauer.

Felsenthal: “Jane Jacobs isn’t mentioned in Caro’s book [a biography of Robert Moses]. Is that an erasure? Why would he leave her out?”

Tyrnauer: “It’s unclear. Caro has spoken to this, and he’s said that the manuscript when he turned it in was double the length of the published book. He has said there had been mention of Jacobs that was cut out. Whether it was a purposeful erasure or not, it is in a way an erasure. She was an important figure who had written about this city in that period. She probably wrote the greatest book about the city [The Death and Life of Great American Cities], and she’s not mentioned in this other book [Caro’s biography] about power and the city. She was involved in key battles against Moses and not mentioned as an activist either. So I think this film serves as another part of the narrative of the period that you don’t find in The Power Broker [Caro’s book about Moses] for whatever reason. I think it’s important to have that history told, to have it be accessible. [italics added]

 

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Robert A. Caro wrote a groundbreaking, award winning book about Moses: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974).

Caro is known as the consummate investigative journalist, an admired biographer who leaves no stones unturned in his research, which is exhaustive and prodigious. He writes massive tomes that answer every conceivable question about his subject. (He has done the same thing with Lyndon Johnson.) He unearthed incriminating information about Robert Moses that was unlikely to have otherwise ever been discovered.

So, I keep asking myself, how could Jane Jacobs have gotten completely left out of his 1246-page biography of Moses? She is not in the index.

Jacobs was the key figure in organizing opposition to and defeating Moses’s plans to extend Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park in Manhattan; to designate the West Village as a “slum,” which would have meant essentially razing the neighborhood; and, most importantly (and most frightening), to build a Mid-Manhattan Expressway that would have destroyed the character of much of Lower Manhattan and, in the final analysis, of Manhattan itself. It was the beginning and then the apotheosis of Moses’s downfall.

As one film critic has observed, “Jane Jacobs was the David to Robert Moses’s Goliath.” She succeeded against what seemed to be impossible odds.

What is the excuse for Jane Jacobs not even being mentioned in Caro’s book?

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 2017