It is shocking to consider that Greenwich Village, one of the most beloved neighborhoods in the world, might not exist today had New York City’s most powerful developer had his way in the 1960s. Robert Moses wanted to put a roadway where Washington Square Park is today and in those days what Robert Moses wanted, in terms of reshaping New York, he usually got. Contrary to popular legend, Jane Jacobs did not singlehandedly frustrate Moses’ plan—a sizeable opposition rose to this particular piece of “urban renewal,” but Jacobs was one of its leaders and as a writer of considerable influence on the subject of urban planning—and a charismatically homespun contrast to the imperious Master Builder—she proved a formidable opponent.
Jacobs’ battles with Moses and New York City fell into three campaigns: the Battle for Greenwich Village in the mid-1950s in which she and others killed that four-lane freeway entrance through Washington Square Park; the Second Battle for Greenwich Village in the late 1950s in which she organized a coalition to stop New York’s Housing and Redevelopment Board from declaring a large portion of the Village “blighted” (and therefore eligible for demolition); and the Battle for Little Italy in the 1960s in which a years-long resistance prevented much of Soho from falling to a 10-lane expressway. That such projects could even have been considered seems unfathomable in the context of how we think about cities today—but it is partly because of Jane Jacobs that we think the way we do.
She lived in Greenwich Village in an apartment above a candy store at 555 Hudson Street—the location from which she formulated many of the theories that made her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” an instant classic. It was her combination of keen social analysis and the common sense of a New York City “housewife” that made her writing so impactful—and her activism so effective. Though the word was often used as a pejorative by her critics in the urban planning establishment, this housewife brought the pragmatism of daily life to debates which had become increasingly abstract.
Nor did she restrict herself, when the stakes were high, to orderly point and counterpoint. In 1968 Jane Jacobs was arrested on charges of riot and criminal mischief for being part of a group that disrupted a public meeting on the expressway by rushing the front and trying to rip up the stenographer’s transcript. She later explained that polite opposition wasn’t working.
Disorderly conduct was, in some ways, key to Jacobs’ world view and the philosophy of city planning she espoused. “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” rushed the conventions of modern city planning and ripped up its pieties in ways that some in the field found presumptuous and ill-informed. And yet the book has endured. Who reads Lewis Mumford now? Who reads John Burchard? Jacobs’ work has outlived the experts who dismissed it and her vision of how cities thrive contributed to the urban renaissance we see flowering all over America.
And her example endures. Jacobs’ ability to do battle—and win!—against entrenched power and long odds makes her story endlessly relevant. The most recent retelling, Matt Trynauer’s new documentary film “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City,” opened this spring, but it has also been the subject of two books, “The Battle for Gotham” by Roberta Brandes Gratz and “Wrestling with Moses” by Anthony Flint; a book for young people, “The Genius of Common Sense” by Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch and even an opera, “A Marvelous Order” by Judd Greenstein and Tracy K. Smith.
Why does this story continue to enthrall? Because it is one of those episodes in history when plain values and clear thinking stood up to power with the modest tools at hand and derailed a massive engine of malignity that, had it succeeded, would have scarred a treasured corner of America and made life worse for generations to come. Next time you’re walking in Greenwich Village whisper a word of thanks to Jane Jacobs.