Best of 2009: What would Jane Jacobs do about the Viaduct?

The patron saint of livable, walkable cities is being invoked on both sides of the debate over Seattle's Viaduct solution. Would Jacobs be a tunnel supporter, or a surface option fan?
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A story of epic dimensions, still reverberating today.

The patron saint of livable, walkable cities is being invoked on both sides of the debate over Seattle's Viaduct solution. Would Jacobs be a tunnel supporter, or a surface option fan?

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.

He also loved the way Jacobs made a habit of studying street life in the neighborhoods, stopping to reflect on what was really happening at the level of the individual. "It's easy to get lost in the skyscrapers," Burgess says, and forget about life on the sidewalks. Burgess said it's inspired him to pay more attention to the streets, to watch what's going on, how people are using their neighborhoods. You often see photographs of Robert Moses looming over models of a miniature New York, a giant surveying his domain from 20,000 feet. Jacobs had her feet firmly planted on the ground. In my reading of the book, Jacobs comes across as kind of an urban John Muir, with Greenwich Village as her Yosemite.

On the policy front, Burgess says that reading the book made him more certain that the deep-bore tunnel was the better option for the waterfront. That seems counter-intuitive, because Jacobs fought against highways. Doesn't a multi-billion-dollar road project seem more like a Moses boondoggle? Doesn't the surface option, which would limit vehicle traffic, sound like more like a Jacobs kind of solution?

But Burgess worries that the surface option will be destructive at the street level, especially to the businesses that rely on Highway 99 and waterfront access. Both blue-collar industry and tourism would be heavily disrupted during the construction and street rewiring process. The fear of the damage that disruption could do is shared by many tunnel backers. That's partly how the deep-bore tunnel became the kind of have-our-cake-and-eat-it-too solution: We keep the cars and trucks rolling out of sight and underground, and still have a new, Viaductless waterfront to make pretty. Expensive, yes, but in the passing Greg Nickels era, it was often claimed that the money could be found. It's only a billion extra (if we're lucky).

In a recent session with Crosscut writers, Port of Seattle Commissioner Bill Bryant said that if Seattle went with a surface-only option, with no tunnel or rebuild of the Viaduct, the city would lose half of the businesses that rely on the highway, a huge chunk of the city's tax base. Seattle would be committing, Bryant said, "municipal suicide."

If true, the surface advocates such as Mike McGinn can be painted as rather Moses-like in their willingness to break eggs and make omelets. Moses thought nothing of shutting down business and retailers, leveling warehouses and factories if need be. Union jobs could be lost — to be replaced by a busy waterfront thoroughfare to create views for wealthy condo owners. The tunnel boosters paint surface advocates as unrealistic, out of touch with the needs of industrial, freight-moving Seattle. Like Moses, they are interested in modern urban theory, even if it hurts working people.

Burgess says that the pressure to add surface lanes means that Western Avenue would turn into a heavily trafficked arterial (a word Moses popularized, by the way) and the waterfront could end up with as many six lanes, creating a new dividing barrier. Seattle's odd hour-glass shape, bound by the isthmus we sit on, requires a north-south route in addition to I-5, he argues, making the bored tunnel an exception to the wisdom about restraining highway development. Invoking Jane Jacobs, Burgess says he's concerned about the impacts at the street level, for pedestrians and workers and business owners, for the damage the no-tunnel option would do to the fabric of the city.

The fabric worries everyone, and Burgess talks about it, so too did Jacobs and Moses. And Cary Moon speaks of it too, she of the People's Waterfront Coalition, prime boosters of the surface option, tunnel or no. Moon herself has been likened to Jacobs, and certainly admits to being inspired by her. A citizen activist and a woman in the male-dominated arena of urban planning and development, she says she admires the fact that Jacobs understood the complexity of the urban fabric, that it could sometimes defy "planning," that it had a life of it own. "You can't create cities out of whole cloth," was one of the lessons Moon learned from Jacobs' writing.

When I tell Moon that that Wrestling with Moses reconfirmed Tim Burgess' sense that the bored tunnel was the best waterfront option, she snorts, "That's really funny. How you can take someone's body of work and misinterpret it so thoroughly?" The surface option is very Jane Jacobs. Why? Because Jacobs was one of the first to realize that if you build for cars, more people will drive, and that puts you on the road to Los Angeles or worse. (Telling New Yorkers that they were in danger of becoming Los Angelesized turned out to be a very effective anti-highway strategy, Jacobs found, and LA has long been a dirty word in Pugetopolis). Highways are the problem, not the solution.

Read Jacobs and you learn that people adapt; they're creative, inventive, practical. Do compact development, support transit, and folks will get out of their cars. Jane Jacobs might have started the trend of stopping new freeway projects, but her heirs have taken to removing freeways and rewiring cities to be more eco-friendly. The Washington Department of Transportation's own studies, Moon says, show that the surface option works fine. "People are flexible, they'll adjust," she says. Make improvements on surface streets and I-5, boost transit service and you can keep freight and people moving, but you also create a situation where traffic is reduced. The goal is fewer vehicle miles traveled per person, and the surface option will do that. "You can't just bury the problems highways cause in cities; the additional car trips they attract have to emerge somewhere," Moon writes in an email.

Such apocalyptic rhetoric as "municipal suicide" has been used before by developers and planners, like Robert Moses, to push their beefy building projects. New York would be "doomed" without the Lower Manhattan Expressway, said Moses's pr machine which predicted the "slow strangulation of the city" if it weren't built. The pressures to do so were enormous, backed by federal highway funds that could pick up 90 percent of the cost. That era is over, despite the Obama-era's stimulus funds. No one's inking earmarks of the size that fueled Moses' dreams, not even Congressman Norm Dicks and Sen. Patty Murray. Besides, today's greens would argue that it's the building of new highways that's the road to suicide, via gridlock and global warming.

New York has flourished without more of Moses' roads. Portland once brought in Moses as a consultant, and has thrived without taking his advice to build and expand highways. New York neighborhoods that were called slums were saved and have become the engines of a new era of urban prosperity. Jacobs was an advocate of livability, and that is what New York has to sell today, a safer, greener city of exciting (if very expensive) neighborhoods, not vast modernist plazas made for planners, not people.

Moon essentially asks that Seattle continue to make a leap of faith, but it's one that many cities have taken: New York itself is now seeking to restrict cars; so too London, Paris and Stockholm. Other cities have knocked down their freeways, like San Francisco or, she cites, Seoul, South Korea where, Moon says, they've removed a highway and replaced it with a five-mile-long, 1,000-acre park. The surface option will work with or without a tunnel. People and commons sense will make it work.

I asked Roger Sale for his thoughts. Would Jacobs be a surface option supporter, or a tunnel backer? "What I'm sure of about the tunnel is that she would not have been strongly on one side or tuther. The Viaduct itself, of course, would have been anathema to her," he writes. Why is he so certain that she would be indifferent? Because the waterfront, after all, is no Greenwich Village with its 400 years of history ranging from Dutchmen to jazzmen, Edgar Allan Poe to Bob Dylan.

Remaking it might make sense. Says Sale: "We're not talking neighborhoods here, after all. Jacobs was never against cars as such, but she also wasn't thrilled by pedestrian malls or anything that made it hard for trucks to deliver their goods. The basic rule here: if you want to invoke Jacobs on anything, provide chapter, verse, context, reason for needing her, etc. Think what horrible things got named in the name of Freud or Marx by people who were ignorant of same. And Jacobs is finally smarter than either or them. Easier to read, easier to love, but no patsy either."

Part of the Jacobs legacy, as Sale implies, is that she continues to inspire people on all sides of urban debates, from NIMBY activists to big-time developers to urban greens and historic preservationists, as well as liberals (who like her broad-minded, city-centric views) and conservatives (who admire her distrust of central planning and the powers of eminent domain).

In Seattle's mayor's race, Mike McGinn carries on in much the spirit of Jacobs' activism, opposing highways and pushing for denser, more amenity-rich neighborhoods. When I asked McGinn at a Crosscut editorial brown-bag lunch what he was reading these days, he said The Power Broker, Robert Caro's huge take-down of Moses. It was an unflattering portrait in many ways, exposing a power-hungry tyrant. But, like other bios of big urban figures (Mike Royko's Boss about Chicago's mayor Richard Daley comes to mind), even an expose can confer a legendary status and fuel nostalgia for larger-than-life characters who did great deeds. Plus, Seattle often yearns for a strongman to save us from our civic process, known as gridlock.

In recent years, Moses has been admired for his civic accomplishments, if not for his contempt for the little people. Needless to say, if McGinn reads The Power Broker one hopes he'll find a profile of hubris, not a role model.

As for Joe Mallahan, the forces who usually backed Moses (developers, big business, unions) are endorsing and donating to the pro-tunnel guy. He's taken the pages of Nickels' playbook, which are a mix of Jacobs' and Moses' worlds: Do everything, from skyscrapers to sidewalks. Mallahan is a self-styled business-minded community organizer inspired by Obama, but can a better city really be built with the kind of "have it all" policies of Nickels, the builders and the city's power brokers?

New York, of course, is an amalgam of both visions, and the two forces still tussle and entwine in municipalities across the country. City planning is strong in Jacobs-like cities (Portland, Vancouver), yet Jacobs was skeptical of urban planning. Nevertheless, she examined urban ecosystems, including their economics, and saw how connected and complicated they were, and how the blank-slate, think-Big approach has serious downfalls.

In an era of recession, environmental-rethinking, and a new attention to scale, McGinn seems to have a sensible message: making a city is about vision and choices. The have-it-all era is over. At the same time, Mallahan and the pro-tunnel crowd ask: Can we afford the risk of damage an industrial and transportation infrastructure that means jobs, at a time with Boeing is buying tickets to fly to South Carolina?

We're all wrestling for the right answer.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.