Jacobs led New York out of the urban wasteland
Author: - December 5, 2009 - Updated: December 5, 2009
“Wrestling with Moses,” Anthony Flint’s book, does not discuss the Israelites crossing the desert from Egypt.
“Wrestling with Moses” tells the gripping story of how Jane Jacobs took on New York’s Robert Moses and changed the American city forever. It is more the story of David fighting Goliath, the humble and lowly neighbors locked in combat against their own arrogant politicians and city planners. Jacobs got her start by leading the fight against the Lower Manhattan Expressway expansion into her neighborhood, Washington Square and Greenwich Village.
Jane Butzner was born in Scranton, Pa., and moved to New York armed with her high school diploma. She moved to New York City in 1934 and hoped to break into journalism. After all, she did have a few months of experience writing for her hometown newspaper, The Scrantonian.
She wanted to progress to higher education and applied to several schools. But because of her lackluster high school record, Columbia’s college for women informed her she would have to take additional courses to be accepted. She walked away and decided to educate herself. She researched the founders of the Constitution, spending hours upon hours at Columbia Library.
She met and married a Columbia architect, Robert Hyde Jacobs, and they bought a townhouse at 555 Hudson in the Village. Every year, on the anniversary of her death, people bring flowers to the address — unfortunately now a business of some sort.
Readers will remember her magnificent book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” published in 1961. The Random House publishers put the following headline on the advertisement for the book: “The City Planners are Ravaging Our Cities!”
I had just graduated from Regis, and I agreed with Jacobs as I watched my parents and neighbors in North Denver fight I-70 plowing through the Berkeley Park, Sunnyside, Globeville, Elyria and Swansea and Northeasterly neighborhoods. I-70 laid waste to thousands of homes, torn off their foundations. Thousands of families were disrupted and removed from their neighborhoods. Northwest Denver is finally beginning to recover from this disruption caused by the federal bulldozers. But fragile Globeville and the neighborhoods east of there are still struggling.
Jacobs’ book hit a responsive chord with me as I watched Denver Urban Renewal tear out the heart of our city by destroying hundred of historic structures in downtown. After reading her book, we all mourned what Paul Goldberger, architectural critic of The New York Times, called the “unrelieved plainness and basic dreariness of what turned out to be nondescript, big red boxes.”
Does anyone wonder why folks like Lodo so much? It’s the part of downtown where urban renewal left off. It is not healthy when neighbors pray for a recession to block certain excessive developments around town. Does God hear such prayers?
Let’s cut to the end of the story. Jacobs won. She beat back the Gotham Goliaths that won in many cities across our nation. She and the neighbors beat back the plans for expansion of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. But her book changed city planning in America forever. I actually saw a copy of Jacobs’ book in the Denver Planning Office not too long ago.
Are there still wrestling matches to be waged across the neighborhoods of Denver? What would Jacobs say about our city’s new zoning code? Would she “ooh” and “ah” over the Union Station plans? “Wrestling with Moses” inspires me to get Jacobs’ book off my shelf and remember why Denver can be a great city.
“To your tents, Oh, Israel.”