Thursday, November 29, 2018

A Marvelous Order

I've written in this space before about Jane Jacobs, the writer, activist and visionary whose work, including her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, helped set in motion the revival of urban America that continues to this day. Less often have I menntinoned her chief nemesis, Robert Moses, perhaps as close to an oligarch as this country has ever produced. He was a man who wielded the kind of unchecked power that folks like the current president could only acheive in their most perverse dreams.

As the chief builder of the greater New York metropolitan area between the 1920s and the 70's, Moses held a number of positions as president or comissioner of several New York State authorities and commissions, holding many of those posts concurrently. Much of his rise to power came during the early years of the Great Depression where he was in the position, where others weren't, to set into motion great public works projects with the funding of federal relief projects such as the Works Progress Administration (the WPA). During that time, Moses was responsible for the creation of several of the recreational amenities that New Yorkers continue to enjoy including millions of acres of public parks and beaches, and hundreds of playgrounds in the city of New York. But what Moses is probably most remembered for today are the thousands of miles of bridges and highways that were built under his watch.

For a time, Moses could simply will his projects to completion as in addition to his vast political acumen, he was in lock step with the sentiment of the day that progress was the key to building a better world, and that new ways of doing things, were inevitably better than the old ways.

The conflict between Jacobs and Moses arose over Moses' proposal to decimate her neighborhood of Greenwich Village in Lower Manhattan, first with the southward extension of Fifth Avenue which would have bisected Washington Square Park, and then the building of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. The LOMEX would have connected the Williamsburgh and Manhattan Bridges which span the East River, with the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson, which connects New York City to New Jersey and all points west. The expressway would have levelled much of the Village, SoHo, Little Italy and the area now known as TriBecca not only with the roadway, but also the massive high rise apartment buildings that would have flanked it.

Now if you've ever braved New York's infamous crosstown traffic, (heck Jimmy Hendrix even wrote a song about it), trying to get from Brooklyn to New Jersey or vice versa thgough Lower Manhattan, you can appreciate the demand for such an expressway. On the other hand, if you've ever walked through the Village, one of the most urbane neighborhoods in the country, AND have experienced first hand the utter destruction an expressway brings to a neighborhood, you can understand the opposition to it.

Jacobs whose house was directly in the path of the proposed expressway, had already written Death and Life  which itself followed  Jacobs' long and distinguished career as a writer covering a number of subjects including architecture and urban planning. Her thoughts on the subject ran directly counter to the prevailing wind of the new urbanism promosted by a disparate lot from Frank Lloyd Wright, to LeCorbousier, to Robert Moses. Crossing such titans of the industry was no easy challenge, especially given the fact that Jacobs had no formal training in urban planning. Moses famously referred to Jacobs, who became the major thorn in his side, as "that housewife."

By taking on the elite city planners and politicians and eventaully winning the battle, Jacobs has been called David, to Moses' Goliath. On the surface, such a battle is almost operatic in scope. Enter composer Judd Greenstein who is currently hard at work completing an opera on that very subject called A Marvelous Order.

Here is the transcript of an NPR On The Media piece on Greenstein, the opera's librettist, Tracy K. Smith, Jacobs and Moses. In the interview of Greenstein, the composer admits that all opera composers, himself included, are in the myth making business.

But the real stoy is no myth. Jacobs, hardly in the role of the biblical David, was every bit Moses' equal and then some. Perhaps a more likely comparison for her is the character of the girl in Hans Christian Andersen's story, The Emperor's New Clothes. Jacobs understood that progress simply for the sake of progress led nowhere, or worse. She must have thought of urban planners of her day the way Nelson Algren felt about Chicagoans who
live their lives like a drunken 'L' rider; he may not know where he is going, but the sound of the wheels under his feet lets him know that he is going somewhere. 
By the time Moses and Jacobs were battling over the fate of Lower Manhattan, there had already been twenty years or so of lab tests of the new urbanism, and the results were less than promising. Cities all over the country were decimated by well intentioned projects in the name of progress. In central Paris, one of the few neighborhoods to not have been raped by Baron Haussmann's urban renewal project of the mid-nineteenth century, the lovely Marais, was alsmost destroyed with the intention of being replaced by dozens of Corbousian high rises  In New York City, the seed change away from progress at all costs came with the destruction of one of that city's most beloved landmarks, Pennsylvania Station. The McKim Mead and White masterpiece was replaced by the ultimate temple to banality, the current iteration of Madison Square Garden. That event more than any other served as the inspiration for that city's preservation movement. After that, bold new public works projects that sacrificed the city's soul were met with resistance.

By that time, Jane Jacobs' was more than a voice in the wilderness. Hers was the voice of a prophet. And Moses and the rest of the urban planners of his era who shared his vision of a bold and beautiful future of highrises wrapped by superhighways, were in reality, just like Anderson's emperor, altogether naked.

No comments: