15
Oct
09

Book review: Wrestling with Moses

Hello again, everyone. It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here, other obligations (namely a certain other publication that I write and edit for)  having taken up a fair amount of my time lately. However, I recently finished reading Anthony Flint‘s Wrestling with Moses, and felt I needed to share my thoughts, as it’s a fascinating read on the roles of both citizen activism and top-down development schemes in North American cities.

Wrestling with Moses, by Anthony Flint. Image copywrite Random House, Inc.

Wrestling with Moses, by Anthony Flint. Cover image copywrite Random House, Inc.

As you can probably tell from the cover, the book has nothing to do with Ottawa in any direct sense, but it’s an interesting read nevertheless. It tells the story of famed urbanist Jane Jacobs‘ battles with urban development czar Robert Moses during the 1950s and 60s in New York City. Jacobs and Moses squared off several times, notably over the redevelopment of Washington Square Park and Greenwich Village, and over the construction of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Flint recounts the history of these conflicts by interweaving biographical details about the lives of both Jacobs and Moses with the details of each of the fights.

The contrast between the two figures is incredible, with Moses epitomizing the auto-centric, developer-friendly attitude that reached its height during the period following the Second World War, and Jacobs the grassroots, community-first urbanist theories which many people—myself included—subscribe to today. Flint is able to tease out how both of these figures came to their influential positions (Moses through careful political maneuvering, Jacobs  through cultivating the support of her fellow city-dwellers) and how their came to their respective beliefs. We’ve seen both these forces act upon the history of Ottawa, as well, with the National Capital Commission taking on a Moses-esque role—witness the destruction of LeBreton Flats, and the vast network of “parkways” that criss-crosses the capital region—and Jacobsian community forces leading to the rise of neighborhoods like the Glebe and Westboro.

What I find truly interesting and refreshing about Flint’s approach to this somewhat-familiar urban conflict is that he does not vilify Moses to any great extreme, nor does he deify Jacobs, both of which are far too easy to do. Instead, he presents them as people—neither was perfect, and neither was entirely right nor wrong. In the case of Moses, Flint makes the interesting point that while it’s easy to focus on his large-scale failures, like the aforementioned battles with Jacobs and the Cross-Bronx Expressway, he also did a lot of good for New York City, opening hundreds of public parks and swimming pools, and it’s impossible to deny that even amidst the backdrop of the Great Depression, he was able to get infrastructure built. Of course, he did so while railroading it past communities and with little regard for things like public transportation, but Flint is still able to elevate the man beyond a two-dimensional cartoonish urban villain.

On the Jacobs side of the equation, while it is impossible to deny her far-ranging influence on urban planning and urbanist thought, Flint still acknowledges some of the weaknesses in her ideas, like the fact that she was never able to truly deal with the problem of gentrification. In addition, he also makes the case that Jacobs-style community activism can sometimes go too far, blocking projects that would otherwise be good for cities and neighborhoods, or neutering them so that their impact is thoroughly mediocre, and neither positive nor negative. Ultimately, Flint argues that the best way to plan cities may be by reconciling the two viewpoints—those in charge of developments need to work with communities, but communities must also work with those in charge to ensure that projects meet and adapt to their own needs.

Overall, Wrestling with Moses is an engaging read, and an excellent history of how Jane Jacobs was able to change the face of urban planning through her work in New York City. Flint’s own viewpoints are mostly unobtrusive until the final chapter, where, his history complete, he allows himself to ruminate on the impact of Jacobs and Moses. If you’re at all interested in the history of urban planning in North America, and are curious how these now 40-year-old ideas apply to the modern city, then I highly recommend picking this one up—you won’t regret it.

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3 Responses to “Book review: Wrestling with Moses”


  1. October 29, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    Will read.
    But, I feel like Ottawa has a lot more to do with Moses than Jacobs. The facts are their:
    – King Edward
    – St-Patrick
    – Vanier Parkway
    – DFA Building
    – Bronson
    – Queensway
    – The War Museum and the 8-lane urban bvld in front
    – more…

    What is sad is that some of those “realisations” are not that old and we post-Moses area. As if nobody has learned from their mistakes. I guess it is because they don’t see them as mistakes…

    • 2 David McClelland
      October 29, 2009 at 9:18 pm

      All good points. There’s definitely some appalling, Moses-esque urbanism in this city, isn’t there? I think certain parts of the city (and definitely communities) have embraced Jacobsian ideas, the problem lies in getting more people on-board, and getting people on the planning level interested in these ideas as well. I think that’s where we have our greatest failings.

  2. October 29, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    Indeed! I know people with the best intentions of all that tried to help and have been discouraged by the system that is already in place.

    And you are right, the more people know about those issues, the better it will get. You are doing your part here, I am doing mine with Ottawaurbain.ca. Sometimes, I feel it is pointless, but we might be close to a tipping point, who knows!


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