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Learning Adventures in Citizenship
Episode 7Topic 3: Urban Renewal and ExpresswaysLandmark Preservation
Landmark Preservation



Jane Jacobs circa 1968

Jane Jacobs circa 1968.
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The Cross-Bronx Expressway was just the beginning in Robert Moses' plans to create highways that flowed through the city itself. Moses envisioned creating three highways that would bisect Manhattan, the Upper Manhattan Expressway, the Mid-Manhattan Elevated Expressway, and the Lower Manhattan Expressway.

In 1961 Robert Moses initiated plans to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Condemning Greenwich Village as a slum, he proposed a vast urban renewal project that would level fourteen city blocks and create the eight-lane highway that would slash through the Village, Soho, and Chinatown, from the East River to the Hudson. It would displace almost ten thousand residents and workers and destroy thousands of historic buildings. He condemned the Village as a slum and argued, in an interview, that, "Cities are created by and for traffic. A city without traffic is a ghost town."

With his immense influence over government and industry, Moses had, for decades, remained undefeated in his plans and projects. But this time around he found himself contending against someone who could, and did, defeat his goals. In the same year Moses started working on the Lower Manhattan Expressway project, Jane Jacobs, a 45-year-old journalist and mother, and a Greenwich Village resident, published a book, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF GREAT AMERICAN CITIES, in which she made the claim that "urban renewal" projects were destroying cities like New York, her home of thirty years.

The neighborhoods and the brownstones, she argued, were more than valuable -- they were the vital center of urban life. Demolishing and replacing them with the monolithic superblocks of Le Corbusier and Moses was destroying the city. She argued that run-down neighborhoods should be cleaned up, and that public funding should be used to aid residents to continue living in their neighborhoods by helping to insure that their walkup buildings were restored and maintained. From Jacobs' point of view, these brownstones give residents a sense of continuity and attachment. Surrendering the street to the automobile and placing people into isolated superblocks creates a city of people removed from one another: when people spend all their time in private spaces and leave public space behind, cities decline. Jacobs remarked on the changes that had taken place as a result of Robert Moses' postwar highway and housing initiatives by saying, "This is not the rebuilding of cities, this is the sacking of cities." Her writing made people see that the street was a focal point of urban life and of the wonderful particulars that create the spirit of a city.

Moses derided Jacobs in the press, saying, "The current fiction is that any busy housewife who gets her expertise from television, radio, and telephone is endowed to plan in detail a huge metropolitan arterial complex good for a century." No matter how much Moses publicly scoffed at Jacobs' knowledge and understanding of urban problems and solutions, nothing could undermine the strength of her ideas. Demonstrators against the Lower Manhattan Expressway were armed with her philosophy. The depth of thought and reason that underlay their objections made these protests forceful and threatening to Moses' plans in a way that public actions against the Cross-Bronx Expressway had not been. Not only did Jacobs' book give protestors insight into their own convictions, it also gave them support from a wider public. Readers who did not live in the area targeted for destruction gained an ability to understand the residents' concern and their anger. Jacobs' thinking helped turn empathy into a political force in the sixties.

On December 11, 1962, for the first time in almost a half-century of power, Robert Moses was defeated. Assemblyman Louis DeSalvio summed up the new feeling that the people of the city had toward its master builder: "Too many of his dreams turn out to be nightmares for the city." In a subsequent interview, Moses revealed that he had yet to accept his glaring defeat. Responding to a question of whether this is a triumph of public opinion against Robert Moses, he responded, "No, no, no, there hasn't been any triumph for anybody yet." But ultimately Moses accepted that he had been a failure in Manhattan, where he was unable to get the support he needed for his super-projects. Manhattan natives resisted his idea of "flow." To this day, residents can still live their whole lives in Manhattan without cars. Neither of the two other Manhattan expressways projects came to be built.




Life in the Slums | Slum Clearance | Suburbanization and Highways
The Destruction of Neighborhoods | Jane Jacobs and Landmark Preservation

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