For decades, Robert Moses (1888-1981) wielded immense authority as an unelected New York City “urban planner”. He is a perfect example of how power corrupts, for the longer he hung around, the more dismissive he was of dissenting opinions.
His “renewal” projects were punctuated with arrogance. When he used the city’s eminent domain powers to wipe out whole neighborhoods, he spoke derisively of the citizens whose property he bulldozed. The “city” in his mind was not composed of its living residents so much as the concrete structures he envisioned in their place. The residents were the city’s “jungles” that he would use city government to “clear out.”
Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), on the other hand, was a heroine of urban culture if ever there was one. Incredibly intuitive and observant, as well as courageously outspoken, she knew cities from the bottom up. Whereas Robert Moses looked down on cities from above and saw jungle, Jacobs proved that, in her words, “The real jungle is in the office of the bureaucrats.”
Moses, who labeled himself a “progressive,” held degrees from Yale, Wadham and Columbia. Jacobs’s one degree was a high school diploma. His head was stuffed with “information” and ideology; by contrast, hers was full of wisdom. No one is an expert on cities if he isn’t aware of what she believed, what she wrote, and what she did. Except for the damage he did, Moses is mostly forgettable and unlamented.
At the height of his power and influence, Robert Moses ripped at the heart of New York City’s vibrant and often ethnic enclaves. He devastated colorful street and sidewalk culture and erected lifeless hi-rise public housing in its place (which even its residents resented). He loved his bulldozers but Jacobs preferred people.
Professionally, Jacobs was a journalist. Her competence derived not from any university degrees, but from her street-savvy understanding of people and city life. She proved to be a brilliant strategist in taking on Moses when she led citizens in killing his plans to build a road through a beloved city park. When he proposed to construct an expressway across Lower Manhattan, forever blighting life in Greenwich Village and Soho, Jane Jacobs played the role of David to Moses’ Goliath. She wrote,
There is nothing more inert than a government bureau. There is nothing more inert than a planning office. It gets going in one direction and it’s never going to change of its own accord…The citizens are going to have to frustrate the planners. I thereupon began to devote myself to frustrating planners, and so did the whole neighborhood.
Her amazing story is told in a terrific documentary on YouTube, titled Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. Her classic 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, remains a must-read for anyone in city government anywhere.
ANNOUNCEMENT: The Newnan Carnegie Library Foundation will host a “Lunch & Learn” featuring AJC journalist and author Chris Joyner on Friday, June 2, 12 noon at the Library. Titled “Clarence Henderson: The Restorative Power of History,” his talk will focus on his journey unearthing the trials of a Carrollton sharecropper and the impact on the area. Register for the free event at https://www.newnancarnegie.com/nclf-events.
(Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education. His most recent book is “Was Jesus a Socialist?” He can be reached at email@example.com.)