Citizen Jane

Last night we went to see Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary about the legendary battle between the journalist, author and activist Jane Jacobs and the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) New York city planner, Robert Moses.

In the scale of his ambition to impose modernist order on the chaos of the city, Moses’s only historical peer is Baron Haussmann, the planner appointed by NapolĂ©on III to transform Paris from the warren of narrow cobbled streets in which radicals could foment revolution, into the city of wide boulevards we know today. (Among the advantages of said boulevards was that they afforded military units a clear line of fire in the event of trouble.)

Behind the film lie two great books, only one of which is mentioned in the script. The first — and obvious one — is Jacobs’s The Life and Death of Great American Cities, a scarifying attack on the modernist ideology of Le Corbusier and his disciples and a brilliant defence of the organic complexity of urban living, with all its chaos, untidiness and diversity. The other book is Robert Caro’s magnificent biography of Moses — The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. This is a warts-and-all portrayal of a bureaucratic monster, but it also explains how Moses, like many a monster before him, started out as an earnest, idealistic, principled reformer — very much a Progressive.

He was educated at Yale, Oxford (Wadham) and Columbia, where he did a PhD. At Oxford he acquired an admiration for the British civil service, with its political neutrality and meritocratic ethos — but also a rigid distinction between an ‘Administrative’ class (those engaged in policy-making) and the bureaucratic drones (whose role was merely to implement policy). When he returned to the US, Moses found that the political machines of American cities had zero interest in meritocracy, and eventually realised that his path to success lay in hitching his wagon to a machine politician — New York governor Al Smith, a brilliant political operator with an eighth-grade education. Moses started by building public parks, but quickly acquired such a wide range of powers and authority that became was, effectively, the ‘Master Builder’ who remodelled the city of New York.

Because Tyrnauer’s film focusses more on Jacobs, Moses’s Progressive origins are understandably ignored and what comes over is only his monstrous, bullying side — exemplified in his contemptuous aside that “Those who can, build; those who can’t criticize”. In that sense, Moses is very like that other monster, Lyndon Johnson, to whose biography Caro has devoted most of his career.

My interest in Moses was first sparked by something written by a friend, Larry Lessig. In an essay that was a prelude to Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, his first major book, Lessig discussed the role of architecture in regulating behaviour and wrote:

“Robert Moses built highway bridges along the roads to the beaches in Long Island so that busses could not pass under the bridges, thereby assuring that only those with cars (mainly white people) would use certain public beaches, and that those without cars (largely African Americans) would be driven to use other beaches, so that social relations would be properly regulated.”

In later years, this assertion — about the effectiveness of the low underpasses as racial filters — has been challenged, but Lessig’s central proposition (that architecture constrains and determines behaviour) is amply demonstrated in the film. The squalid, slum-like conditions that Moses sought to demolish did indeed enable and determine behaviour: it was the rich, organic, chaotic, vibrant life that Jacobs observed and celebrated. And when those slums were replaced by the ‘projects’ beloved of Moses, le Corbusier et al — high-rise apartment blocks set in rational configurations — they also determined behaviour, mostly by eliminating vibrancy and life and creating urban wastelands of crime, social exclusion and desperation.

A second reflection sparked by the film is its evocation of the way the automobile destroyed cities. Moses believed that what was good for General Motors was good for America and he was determined to make New York automobile-friendly by building expressways that gouged their way through neighbourhoods and rendered them uninhabitable. His first defeat at Jacobs’s hands came when his plan to extend Fifth Avenue by running a road through Washington Square was overturned by inspired campaigning by women he derided as mere “housewives”. But in the end the defeat that really broke him was the failure of his plan to run a motorway through Manhattan.

A third reflection is, in a way, the inverse of that. The film provides a vivid illustration of the extent to which the automobile changed the shape not just of New York but of all American cities (and also positions in intercourse, as some wag once put it; American moralists in the 1920s used to fulminate that cars were “brothels on wheels”) But those vehicles were all driven by humans. If autonomous cars become the norm in urban areas, then the changes they will bring in due course could be equally revolutionary. After all, if mobility is what we really require, then car ownership will decline — as will demand for on- and off-street parking. Pavements (or sidewalks, as they call them in the US) can be made wider, enabling more of the street life that Jacobs so prized.

The final reflection on the film is gloomier. Towards the end, the camera began to pan, zoom and linger on the monstrous cities that are now being built in China, Asia and India — the areas of the world that are going to be more dominant in coming centuries. And as one looks at the resulting forests of high-rise, soulless towers it looks as though the ghosts of Le Corbusier and Moses have come back to earth and are gleefully setting about creating the dysfunctional slums of the future. Which reminds me of a passage in a book I’m currently reading — Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism. “History does not end”, Luce writes. “it is a timeless repetition of human folly and correction”.

Amen to that.