Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City by Anthony Flint

Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City by Anthony Flint (cover art)

Jane Jacobs’s four recommendations for successful neighborhoods (p. 124):

  1. Streets and districts should serve a variety of industries and purposes.
  2. Blocks should be short and feel comfortable to pedestrians.
  3. Buildings should vary in age, condition, and use (a.k.a. “mixed use”).
  4. Population must be dense.

In a place like Denver, Colorado–where I live, and which, at the moment, is growing by leaps and bounds, especially in the urban core–Jacobs’s recommendations are commonplace in discussions about what the city should look like, now and in the coming decades. But her ideas weren’t always a given, in fact they were initially viewed as crackpot, dangerous, and unfounded. Having a chance to glimpse of the origin of these ideas, and to examine their first major applications, is reason enough to pay Wrestling with Moses a visit.

Luckily, Anthony Flint’s text is also a lively biography of an astounding person: a woman without a college degree who, beginning in the 1950s, exposed political, financial, and intellectual fraud at the core of some incredibly powerful institutions and individuals. Most famously, Jane Jacobs defeated Robert Moses, New York City’s “master builder,” multiple times at a point in his career where he was more or less untouchable. It was a fight that was about as David versus Goliath as it gets.

But Jacobs’s legacy had a much larger impact than saving her community from the wrecking ball. In the process of battling Moses’s widespread brand of urban renewal, Jacobs pioneered public participation in urban planning, proved that ordinary citizens can successfully challenge authority, and exposed the democracy-undermining practice of funneling public money into private ventures. Echoes of her community activism would resonate broadly in the civil unrest of 60s.

However unwittingly, though, Jacobs’s approach did lend itself to gentrification–take look at Greenwich Village today–and Flint is careful not to gloss over this, and other, critiques. Likewise, he shows that, for all of Moses’s missteps and heavy handedness, he was very much a product of his era, and, even then, some of his projects have paid dividends (the creation of New York City’s extensive park system is one example). It’s this complexity that gives both Jacobs and Moses a well-roundedness and, in turn, renders their relationship–which provides the backbone of Wrestling with Moses–all the more intricate, substantive, and fascinating. So, while this is a biography about a humble visionary who took on a giant and won, it’s also a book about how we live now, and, with the majority of the world’s population now found in cities, how we will live.