Discussing the Legacy of Jane Jacobs

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City directed by Matt Tyrnauer was release in the spring of 2017. The film details the life and work of the author and activist Jane Jacobs. After seeing Citizen Jane at IFC this summer, Gallatin Students and Urban Democracy Lab Student Advisory Board members Arielle Hersh and Luis Aguasviva sat down to discuss the film and the contradictory legacies of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. The film can currently be watched on Amazon Video or iTunes.

Mrs. Jane Jacobs, chairman of the Comm. to save the West Village holds up documentary evidence at press conference at Lions Head Restaurant at Hudson & Charles Sts. Credit: Library of Congress
Mrs. Jane Jacobs holds up documentary evidence at press conference at Lions Head Restaurant at Hudson & Charles Sts. Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Luis Aguasviva (LA): Let’s begin by addressing the narrative presented in Citizen Jane Jane: The Battle for the City of Jane Jacobs (the hero) vs. Robert Moses (the villain).

Arielle Hersh (AH): Yeah, it’s very prevalent.

LA: It was framed as a David vs. Goliath story. The film directly attributes Robert Moses’s “demise” to Jacobs’s organizing efforts that stop Moses’s building projects in Washington Square Park and the West Village.

AH: I definitely agree that it oversimplifies what’s going on and breaks it down into that dichotomy, but at the same time I felt like it was a really good lens for someone coming to this story for the first time. It’s kind of the way I was introduced to urban planning – I remember hearing the story and seeing it set up as “Moses bad, Jacobs good, they go to battle, Jacobs wins, now we have planning.” We know that that’s not really what happened, but if you’re framing it for someone who isn’t really familiar with the story or with Jacobs, then it seemed like a good primer.

LA: I agree. Jacobs’s achievements remain extraordinary. She did not finish college, yet she went on to change the way we approach urban planning by emphasizing that neighborhoods are an integral part of cities. What Planners during the post-war years viewed as slums Jacobs saw as vibrant enclaves that should be protected.  One of the aspects of the Citizen Jane that I found very entertaining were the archival interviews of Moses. In the footage Moses reference to slum management and infrastructure construction to simplistic terms. He addressed most of the problems afflicting the city as cancers and/or virus.

AH: Yeah, it seems like an exaggeration but it’s not. It’s just him.

LA: Moses is quoted for stating “when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.” What do you think about this as a philosophy for urban renewal? If we try to look at the problems that urban planners, like Moses, dealt with when working in New York City in the first half of the 20th century was this a justifiable approach? He obviously had a vision though it was not inclusive of minorities and low-income New Yorkers.

AH: If you want to talk about the connectivity of infrastructure, major public works planning, and taking advantage of public money, there’s something to be said that he did it where many people would not have done even a fraction. Hilary Ballon wrote an interesting article that explores the way he worked as an intermediary between large swaths of public money that were being given out in the form of block grants and Title 1, and the many city services that had to be aligned to get the projects running. Her critique is that because of his very effective role and demeanor as a middleman he was able to create these projects. And, some of the things we fault Moses for, like his heavy-handedness, tear-down and build-anew mentality, is not necessarily all him, but also because of the policies that he was working with. That applies specifically to Title 1 and the Urban Renewal Act.

LA: One of the things that Moses is revered for, even after the release of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, is that he got stuff down. He built massive infrastructure projects. This should not be understated and when we consider all the political maneuvering necessary just to name a street in New York City this becomes even more impressive. In hindsight, another of Moses’s achievements was his expansion of green space throughout the city.

AH: But parkland for whom? There’s a difference between talking about Washington Square Park and Crotona Park. Those are two different places. They provide different things for different people for different reasons.

LA: If Jacob’s has a model for planning, it is very community centered, which is great, but the communities that Jacobs fought to protect from Moses are now gentrified. What she idealized in The Life and Death of Great American Cities –diverse neighborhoods– are fading across New York City.  In contrast, parks in New York City are places where a large number of diverse people congregate; consequently, parks also provide many free services in the way of entertainment and events that bring people together from across the city.

AH: There’s something to be said about Jacobs that in the modern planning and architecture fields she is looked at as an icon, as someone who redefined the way we think about planning. What doesn’t always creep into that discussion is her role as an activist. She was an activist and a community organizer far before she was an urban theorist. It’s also interesting to contextualize when she writes “Death and Life of Great American Cities” in coincidence with her Washington Square activism because those are within a couple years of each other. So, she’s writing this as she’s just figuring out these things, when she’s just starting to think about this.

LA: Jacobs against “Modernist Urban Planning,” presented by Moses. These Planners were not taking into account what made a city a city; for them cities had to be picturesque. Urban renewers did not take into account how people would get to the parks and how people were going to interact in the city. These same practices drastically limited mobility in newly built cities in the South and West.

AH: The film points out the way American planning took the Corbusier model and adapted it was a misinterpretation of the model itself. That misinterpretation, that a car-centric city means a vast swath of spread-out land becomes American planning. This is also happening at the same time as the Highway Program, which Moses capitalizes on with the Expressway. It’s happening all over, with many different planners at the same time, and earlier.

LA: Citizen Jane used the example of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City and showed many of the exhibits and advertisements, which present modernist planned cities. There was something really soulless about those models/exhibits. The physical models of these future cities seemed utopian/dystopian (what is the difference really).

AH: The utopian ideal city model ties back to World War II and the need to rebuild, and create a brand-new world after mass devastation. There are so many post-war European cities, like Berlin, that use Bauhaus and modernism as the ideal. That translates to the US.

LA: That is interesting because the United States did not suffer widespread destruction of infrastructure during World War II.

AH: But in the post-war period the US does become a superpower by embracing its role as modern, new world center by creating these future-driven projects.

AH: When Moses starts building projects in New York City, he can tear down a couple blocks, a patch of land. Even with eminent domain, it’s only so powerful. So, you have these high rises in stark contrast to the city fabric around them. In the developing world, and especially in many of these new Chinese cities, huge high rises for blocks and blocks with nothing else around (as shown in the film), and what is around is all rural. That, for me was the most interesting thing because it’s not going from medium density to high density, it’s going from no density to extremely high density. I don’t know if that’s ever been done before.

LA:  Is this sustainable? When that image was presented at the end of the film it raised many questions. For example, are these buildings being built with the best materials? Are the regulations put in place by the Chinese government upholding the best building practices? A constant image of modern China is infrastructure collapsing due to shabby construction and/or natural disasters.

AH: There are two interesting responses to that. One, to look contextually at what’s happened in large Southeast Asian cities already – places like Singapore and Hong Kong, specifically, for micro-examples of how dense high-rise development happens with a strong state push. 80% (check) of Hong Kong’s population lives in public housing, about the same for Singapore, and those public housing complexes are high rises. Yet, these are some of the most productive economies in Southeast Asia, especially in terms of the banking industry in Singapore. That concentration of people ultimately seems to help.

LA: Those are two interesting models and the Chinese state under Deng Xiaoping modeled Chinese entry into the global economy after Singapore. Still, it is difficult to find hard parallels between these two Asian Tigers and China since no one is building on that scale.

AH: The second point is that we’re facing exponential population increase, which has been happening since 1950 and will continue to happen. When we’re thinking about how well cities are adapting to fit those roles, New York City is pushing to add more and more housing, but can only do so much. In China, maybe that’s the one example of a state that’s actually pushing to meet the demand for the amount of people we’ll have.

LA: The Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke documents many of these changes taking place in modern China since the implementation of Deng Xiaoping Theory. Jia documents how Chinese urban and rural communities are affected by the economic boom, and also what changes are occurring amongst the Chinese people. In his films you see the loss of community, and he is constantly asking what is the “Chinese Dream.”

AH: Well let’s bring this back to the human context because we’ve been talking about big ideas and big projects. Displacement is a real process that affects people. Even if you’re being moved into something instead of being forced out, there’s still force. It affects mentally, communally, physically, in so many different respects. How does a person adjust? How are you supposed to deal with that?

LA: All these things do not happen in a vacuum. Citizen Jane uses the example of the African-American population in New York City being moved to newly constructed housing projects— lower income communities were uprooted and forced to move; resulting in a high concentration of poverty in a small area.

Ms. Jacobs’s neighborhood was a middle class. She not only organized the camping [stop the highway being built through Washington Square Park], but also succeed. This is unlike what happened in lower income neighborhoods that faced similar infrastructure projects proposed and eventually executed by Moses. What do economics and access to specific resources have to do with these outcomes?

AH: Having a bunch of middle class white mothers with their kids stand in the middle of Washington Square Park to protest cars looks a lot different than having black families say, “We don’t want a highway here” or “You can’t redevelop our neighborhood.” That also speaks to who feels that they have the civic duty and ability to speak out against their elected officials. We’re talking about a time where redlining is still in its heyday, when low income people of color don’t have a lot of access to resources outside their neighborhoods. What does it look like in that sort of position to challenge the city and say no? Versus what does it look like from Jacobs’s perspective?

AH: What would Jane Jacobs think about her neighborhood today? Multi-million-dollar homes, the High Line. There is the one prevailing critique of Jane Jacobs that she would be a gentrifier. When she advocates for unslumming measures, and for people to improve the places that they live in, it’s not necessarily as community-based as it seems in “Death and Life.”

LA:  I don’t think that the argument that Jacobs is a gentrifier is fair to her. In hindsight, yes, we can see the effects of her campaign against urban-renewal; however, her victory against Moses allowed her neighborhood to remain intact and thrive to the point that it became one of the most desirable places to live in NYC.

LA: We should discuss the Bronx Expressway; that’s a scar on that borough. What are your thoughts on the expressway?

AH: I don’t know if this happened in your showing, but in mine everyone laughed at the point that 15 minutes after it opened there was a traffic jam.

LA: That example exemplifies what is wrong with Moses view of urban planning. He did not take into account the communities that lived there. It is difficult to find a silver lining with that project. To this day one can still see the negative effects of the construction of the expressway. This also highlights one of the major criticism against Moses that he did not care about minority communities. What is interesting now is that the South Bronx is seen as a neighborhood that is currently being gentrified.

AH: The South Bronx is still the landing place for many of the immigrants coming to New York. When you come to New York, those are still relatively accessible and affordable places.

LA: And still with all this stigma the South Bronx is still a desirable location for gentrification. Now, this leads to a very open question– when we look at neighborhoods that followed Jacobs’ model for urban development they still were gentrified and the same could be said of neighborhoods that underwent urban-renewal under Moses– can gentrification be stopped?

AH: I don’t know. Maybe the best way to tie that in is that there are just too many people for the amount of space the city has, and that more and more people are moving. They tend to be young, upwardly mobile professionals. Miriam Greenberg’s idea of New York City as a luxury commodity, which extends not only to Manhattan, but also to Brooklyn, and now Long Island City. It’s going to keep pushing out.

AH: I wonder how that impacts the film, that the legacy Robert Caro leaves—and he has a very specific designation of Moses by the end of the biography—affects the way we set up these paradigms where the film very clearly illustrates that Moses equals evil and Jacobs equals good.

LA: One aspect of Caro’s as a historian is how he tarnished the legacy of Robert Moses. The Power Broker touched me on a very visceral level. The reader witness change within Moses. Moses starts his career as an underdog. He tried to do meaningful work both as a student and as a New York City government employee. However, later in life he becomes an autocratic figure that amasses power and crushes all opposition. These are all things that the film alludes to briefly.

AH: Also, to contextualize, the Robert Caro book was published in 1974 just before the city went bankrupt, and I can never think about the book without remembering that because it really sets Moses up as the person who caused the fall of New York. In 2017 that’s a very different conversation, but in 1974, that says something.

LA: …Those elaborate and ultra-expensive infrastructure projects.

AH: I think the film makes a very good, if not overstated, point about public housing. It goes through the whole series of demolition videos ending with Pruitt Igoe. The one thing that it got me thinking of was the way that you can still create communities in public housing. The public housing that’s survived until now, even what’s in the Moses high rise model, have in some cases thriving communities where people grew up there, and came back to live there. The way we think about public housing in a modern Jacobs planning perspective leaves out the possibility that humans are adaptable and can create community and neighborhoods where it might not seem like it could be so.

LA: Maybe that was the genius of Moses, He knew that this was going to happen that people were going to create communities no matter where they lived [laughs].

In a way Moses’s planning practices are a direct contrast to Jacobs’s democratic model– messier, more inclusive, but how effective is it in the long-run. Moses is dictatorial– things will get done his way; all-in-all not dissimilar to the Chinese State. Initially Moses’s model disrupts, but eventually, people “learn” to live within what is constructed.

AH: Maybe this is stretching it a little bit, but I want to think about the relation between the high rise public housing project and pencil towers. How do you decide what’s desirable and what isn’t? If we’re thinking about the main mode of desirability in housing during the 1950s as suburbia. In New York it was still feasible to own a home, or buy a brownstone. That is very different from what luxury housing means and looks like today, where maybe that is a renovated brownstone, but also a glass-walled apartment on the 73rd floor—the same type of units that Jacobs would have called isolating.

LA: That’s great, now we are looking at this issue from our vantage point (2017).

AH: One thing that Moses probably doesn’t get enough credit for, which is when we talk about the people Moses created his projects for and doesn’t, low income people and people of color are left out, but things like the highway system, roads, connectors, and tunnels are for the middle class.

LA: When we look at Moses legacy within New York City many of his projects have had a negative effect, yet he did connect the greater Metropolitan area via expressways, which he called arteries.

He also played a big role in making cars an essential part of the lives of millions of Americans. Maybe he just believes that cars were going to be an integral part of American life regardless, or maybe he was a “visionary” who had influence and used it to make cars an ever-important part of American society; thus, he pushed his will upon the city. People that lived in Long Island, New Jersey, the Hudson Valley and Connecticut because of cars and expressways are able to live in these places and work in New York City. Maybe because of this they were able to find even better work. One can only imagine the economic impact of these expressways.

AH: If we want to leave on kind of a scary note, we think about orthodoxy of city planning that Jacobs rails against in “Death and Life” and how it was so dominant and really uncontested until she challenges it. I think about the way that we think about planning now, for adaptability, change, accessibility of transit, sustainability, etc. What do those look like 50 or 70 years from now? I wonder what the critiques will be.

LA: Jacobs’s approach to urban theory has been heralded and exalted. How does globalization in its modern state clash with Jacobs’ theories today? For example, look at the number of highly skilled professionals that move to New York City every year to secure employment. These are people that are upwardly mobile. The newly built high-rise apartments are built for them to inhabit.

AH: If you asked in 1950 or 1975, there are a lot of people who wouldn’t want to live in New York, but that’s not the case anymore and it hasn’t been the case for some time now. Jacobs, though, has left her imprint on the area. Washington Square Park still has some of the core attributes that she admired: people, public life, its role as a meeting spot, random occurrences, etc. But her ideas—I don’t know. I think they’re interesting and compelling to question, and they still relate even though there are so many more factors now. Maybe that was a cop out.

AH: I think the film would make the case that China, and maybe India—countries with large, corporate cities that are building super-tall towers and development upon development are likely following the Moses model whether it’s him or the impression of him that’s so pervasive.

LA: What about Moses’ model for planning; are those ideas dead?

AH: I think there’s something very important about Moses’ model that there is an erasure of what was there, and the building of something new in its place. He wasn’t starting out with a blank slate, and he intentionally had to create that blank slate for himself. But if you change that even slightly, you do get something like Dubai.