Culture, Justice

Jane Jacobs and The Power Broker

“To show power truly you not only have to show how it is used but also the effect on those on whom it is used. You have to show the effect of power on the powerless.”  — Robert A. Caro 
power broker.gifAs Ari wrote, urbanity itself took a hit this past week with the passing of Jane Jacobs. Her writing is certainly a critical perspective on how not to rebuild cities.
But one story of her own life is possibly the greatest tale of David and Goliath in American urban history.
Once there was a godless Yekke named Robert Moses.  He had the power.  All of it. Mayors and governors dared not stand up to him.  Even as president, FDR, who hated the bastard, could not block his continued amassment of power, which he sought to curb for damned good reason.  
And then things got much worse.  At his peak, he held twelve city and state executive positions concurrently, none of them elected.  When you have twelve concurrent positions, you have a lot of friends, because you are in charge of allotting contracts, permits, and lots and lots of money. 
So Robert Moses did what he wanted, which was to build roads and road and more roads, lots of slums and schlock, and prevent public transportation at all cost.  That’s why no new lines were added to the subway.  For decades. 
Fortunately, he only would bulldoze those neighborhoods he considered slums. Unfortunately for tenants, “slum” was defined by being in the way of his planned road.
He usually got his way.  Pretty much always.  Until his slum clearance for Broome street, through the “depressed” neighborhoods of Soho, Little Italy, and the Lower East Side.
But a heroine named Jane Jacobs mobilized the neighborhoods, faced him down, and successfully led an uprising to transforming Manhattan into a city around the automobile.
For those of you who don’t have time to read the book, I invite you to watch chapter seven of New York: A Documentary Film by Ric Burns. 
For those of you who want to read the book, I would refer you to the masterpiece about Robert Moses by Robert Caro, The Power Broker.
There is only one problem.  Jane Jacobs’ story is not there, though it was written, and certainly well written.  Better than anyone will ever be able to write it, since even if there was another as talented as Dr. Caro interested in this story, many of the primary contacts are gone. 
Dr. Caro was a young writer at the time, and this was before he was recognized as an eminent biographer. 
According to his assistant, Randal Tracy, Dr. Caro had to cut a third of his book in order to get it down to its skeletal size of a mere 1162 pages, excluding notes and references.
Among that which was cut was the story of the Lower Manhattan Expressway and Jane Jacobs, and her fight against “Mr. Moses” as she would call him.
The research was done.  The story needs to be told in its entirety.
We are the people of the book, and Dr. Caro is a member of our community, and is certainly aware of the importance of his book, and the sections which were cut. 
I suspect that if we would plead our case strongly enough, he will probably agree to eventually release a full edition of The Power Broker.
It seems proper that the Jewish community demand that he do so. 

5 thoughts on “Jane Jacobs and The Power Broker

  1. Interesting that both parties in this conflict were of Jewish parentage, but did not identify as Jewish. Moses was actively hostile to Jewish identification. He joined the Episcopal Church and did not want to be even reminded that he had come from Jewish roots.
    Jacobs simply wasn’t religious, although she appears to have been nominally Catholic as an adult according to one person who has emailed me. In the only interviews I have been able to find in which she talks about religious identify, she identifies as “atheist”. When I met her at a klezmer concert, she did talk about a recent Jewish holiday (passover? I can’t remember), but that had more to do with familiarity with what she grew up with – not with what she practiced.
    I have mixed feelings about the release of a full “The Power Broker”. On the one hand, I want the story of this fight to be made public. On the other hand, by the time you get to the part in “The Power Broker” when this happened, Caro’s loathing for Moses has become so clear, and his fall has been so foreshadowed, that it is likely that if the section were added as part of the original book, it would detract from the overall narrative. We need a nice, long article, or a simple monograph. =That= would be wonderful.
    It is seldom that someone manages to accomplish as much that could have been good as Robert Moses, in ways that render it so foul and useless. Buses still can’t use many of his roads. And the slums he created so that he could build the roads (or in his ludicrous guise as urban renewalist) are still there.

  2. There is an interesting paper on urban sprawl from a Jewish perspective:
    Ari, Toronto where I think you live, is in the midst of big Jewish urban endeavours –“[t]his is our opportunity to help transform a great city”:
    It would be interesting to hear more about whether this kind of perspective has been incorporated — or, indeed, if the planners had thoughts on it.

  3. “…urban sprawl from a Jewish perspective.”
    Wow. Sounds like reaching to me.
    But I will read the article, especially with an abstract which includes:
    “…the article argues that the automobile dependency and class division exacerbated by sprawl conflict with Jewish ethical and environmental values and impede observance of Jewish law. In addition, the article rebuts libertarian objections to anti-sprawl policies by pointing out that Jewish law encourages public regulation of land use…”
    “…Jewish law encourages public regulation of land use…”

  4. Wow. Sounds like reaching to me.
    Best to read first then judge second, though, no?
    I think some of the dissonance comes in from the idea that Jewish law can be related to the modern world. What people don’t always get is that halakha is a relatively complete legal system which has no less to say about how we regulate our social relations than does, say, the Napoleonic code — the most widespread system of law in the world — or, for that matter, the British common law.
    In particular, what still seems surprising is the idea that Jewish law could have anything to say which isn’t anachronistic, backwards-looking, etc. I’m slowly learning that that’s just not true.

  5. Jewish law encourages public regulation of land use
    Dude, what are Leviticus 25 and a big chunk of the book of Joshua, if not regulation of land use?

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