Editor's note: This is another in our Best of 2009 series, a story originally posted on October 1, 2009.
Roger Sale, retired University of Washington professor and author of one of the city's best urban biographies, Seattle Past to Present, has written about the career of Jane Jacobs. Sale has pointed out that Jacobs was among the ranks of other influential amateurs of the 1960s who turned America on its head. She did for urban planning what Rachel Carson did for the environment, Ralph Nader for consumers, and Betty Friedan for feminism. Her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) steered urban planning away from cars and the bulldozers of "urban renewal" toward nurturing the walkable, dense, and diverse cities most urbanists covet today.
Like so much in the '60s, her work helped shake up a values system that had allowed power and authority to over-ride the grassroots. The city, as she saw it, was not a blank slate to be remade but rather a place teeming with life, history, and diversity. She championed the life of the streets. Today, Jacobs is a patron saint for those who want saner urban development, and she has influenced even those who have never read her classic book or the ones that followed.
A terrific new book, Wrestling with Moses (Random House, $27) by Anthony Flint, is a must-read for anyone interested in cities and their future. It's a short course in a struggle of Biblical proportions and that demands Biblical comparisons. In addition to being a writer, Jacobs was a community activist, some would say a NIMBY, who lived in New York's Greenwich Village and fought several campaigns to stop major highway and "renewal" projects that would have flattened or slashed some of New York's most treasured neighborhoods, including hers. She was the David of the Big Apple's vital orchards.
Her Goliath was Robert Moses, the man who tried to lead New York to the promised land of modern progress with massive infrastructure projects. In addition to being Moses, he was Pharaoh who could build at will, and on a scale hardly imaginable today, fueled as he was by toll revenues, New Deal spending, and federal highway money. At the time he and Jacobs clashed over the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway in the 1950s and '60s, Moses had, according to Flint, built "13 bridges, two tunnels, 637 miles of highways, 658 playgrounds, 10 giant public swimming pools, 17 state parks....He had cleared 300 acres of city land and constructed towers that contained 28,400 new apartments. He built Lincoln Center, the United Nations, Shea Stadium, Jones Beach, and the Central Park Zoo." And that's just a partial list.
Moses was determined to see New York modernize and renewed with expressways and high-rise apartment complexes. He was determined to erase the slums and knock down whole districts, displace thousands of people with little relocation assistance if need be. If folks, like the residents of Greenwich Village or Soho or the Bronx, lost their homes, jobs, businesses, well, so be it. Giant concrete apartment blocks were the best way to create affordable housing, and big road projects were the lifelines for city commerce. Moses loved to remind people that eggs needed to be broken to make an omelette, and he was the master chef.
Jacobs, on the other hand, was a writer, a housewife, a mom who, with her family, had renovated a home in the Village and she was captivated by the life she found there. She studied and wrote about the remaking of America's cities, and where Moses saw progress, she often saw destruction. To compete with the suburbs, planners wanted to make the city more like them, with highways to accommodate the automobile, and more air and daylight provided by vast plazas and tall towers.
But what Jacobs saw wasn't a modernist utopia but rather the demolition of an ecosystem where real people lived and worked and played. She saw, before most, that building more roads would create more demand for them, that it would bring more pollution and congestion to neighborhoods now divided by expressways. She and her neighbors engaged in several long wars against Moses' juggernaut, and they won. Wrestling with Moses tells the stories of those battles.
Seattle has been part of the Jacobs revolution for years. Urban renewal projects were mostly nipped in the bud here, though arguments about blight helped build Seattle Center and revamp downtown. Some freeway projects split the city (I-5), but later ones were also stopped in the '60s and '70s (R.H Thomson Expressway). The famed "off-ramps to nowhere" were, for a time, a Seattle icon.
Victor Steinbrueck, the closest thing Seattle has had to a Jacobs-style activist, led the fight to save the Pike Place Market. The preservation of Pioneer Square stood as a rebuke to eastern cities that had set the wrecking ball loose on their heritage, like the destruction of New York's Penn Station — an architectural tragedy that helped launch the historic preservation movement. Jacobs, who fought to save the station, was an early promoter of adaptive reuse which is gaining favor among greens today. Seattle also has a history of grassroots civic activism on behalf of urbanist projects. Her spirit and ideas have influenced the city and the visions for its future for nearly half a century.
Seattle's major civic battles are often about land use, real estate and transportation, the issues over which Jacobs and Moses fought. Light rail, bike lanes, highway expansion, tunnels, bridges, Viaducts, streetcars and trolleys, affordable housing, transit-oriented Development, parks, the Mercer Mess, tolls, skyscrapers and high-rises, the redevelopment of the Waterfront, Allentown, protecting industrial lands, up-zones, re-zones, rewriting neighborhood plans, skinny houses, six-packs, backyard cottages, and strip malls: This is the stuff of local politics. What flows from these debates are bigger arguments about values, about who this city serves, and why.
This is evident in the current mayor's race as Joe Mallahan and Mike McGinn lay out what kind of city they envision, and confront their disagreements over expanding city streetcar lines, or how to deal with Vulcan's Mercer Street plans, and most especially about the deep-bore tunnel under downtown. The latter is, so far, the defining factor in how the race is evaluated and handicapped, and who supports which candidate. As Seattle wrestles with growth, change, and economic development, the ghosts of Jacobs and Moses are looking on.
A big fan of Wrestling with Moses is Seattle city council member Tim Burgess. I had lunch with Burgess recently and over turkey sandwiches at Bakeman's, the legendary downtown cafeteria where Burgess has been eating since he was a Seattle beat cop in the '70s. He told me that he'd purchased copies of the book for every member of the city council and his own staff.
Burgess loved the book on several levels. One, he was struck by how Jacobs and a small and of ordinary folk were able to have such a huge impact. She not only stopped big projects pushed by Moses, but she changed the way people see cities, and the way urban activism is conducted. "She moved mountains and never gave up," he says.
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