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Cities up close

Books | Jane Jacobs fought to save cities from the destruction of 'urban renewal'

Issue: "Cities of God and Man," March 27, 2010

From a distance we all have enough, and no one is in need. And there are no guns, no bombs, and no disease, no hungry mouths to feed. . . . God is watching us. God is watching us, from a distance."

Those are key words from a song Julie Gold penned 25 years ago: "From a Distance." Nanci Griffith sang it first in 1987, but Bette Midler made it a No. 1 hit 20 years ago. Gold has said she believes in an immanent and benevolent God, but many others have taken her lyrics as an indictment of a far-off god who doesn't grasp street-level devastation.

Anthony Flint's Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City (Random House, 2009) shows how Jacobs, an intellectual housewife, led the fight in the 1950s and 1960s to stop Robert Moses, then the powerful czar of New York City's urban renewal. The back cover has a photo of Moses looking over a model of a city featuring skyscrapers, a bridge, a park, big residential blocks, all in their places with bright shining faces. He watched from a distance.

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Jacobs, though, lived in Greenwich Village and its jumble of old buildings, crooked roads, and diverse street life. She fought the conventional wisdom of the time, which emphasized euthanasia for elderly buildings and construction of modernist apartment towers surrounded by plazas. Her prescription could be summarized in three Ds: density, diversity, and dynamism.

Moses liked cars and was known for building highways that cut through neighborhoods, displacing many city residents and leaving those who remained in vivisected communities. Jacobs loved walking (made more interesting by a variety of storefronts and less interesting when buildings were set back) and subways (which deteriorated as transit money went into highway-building). She showed her love in the 1961 book that has become the seminal work for today's urban planners, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House).

Moses watched from a distance, as Robert Caro showed brilliantly in his biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (Knopf). That 1,300-page book won the Pulitzer Prize 35 years ago. Another Pulitzer-winning writer, David Halberstam, calls it "the greatest book ever written about a city." (I agree, and if it seems long, compare it to a book I recommend even more heartily, Shelby Foote's The Civil War, in three volumes, about 3,000 pages.)

The Power Broker is about a city, but it's also about watching from a distance. Caro writes how Moses had a Slum Clearance Committee that put to death three score years ago the upper West Side neighborhood known as Manhattantown. From a distance that seemed good and right, but then some members of the Women's City Club decided to see for themselves what was going on.

Here's Caro's summary on Page 970: "Manhattantown taught the good ladies of the Women's City Club something about slums that they hadn't learned in their textbooks. In the textbooks, 'slums' were synonymous with 'dirt' and 'blight.' But, recalls Mrs. Black, 'the thing that hit me was that most of the apartments you went into were well kept, clean.'. . . 'What hurt the most,' Mrs. Black says, 'was just the feeling of people trying to make a decent place for their family to live in these conditions.'. . . Many of these women volunteers, who had read the textbooks, now learned for the first time: to the people who lived in them, slums were home."

The 20th-century Moses saw dirt and didn't get close enough to see decency. He watched from a distance. The Bible's Moses got close enough to see more dirt-but he still loved his people. At WORLD, we try to avoid articles with Olympian theorizing. We emphasize pieces based in reporting. Luke, with his emphasis on eyewitness reporting, is our model here. If we start watching from a distance, let us know.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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