Book Review: The Battle for Gotham

This book is about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs and their storied clashes, but it’s also about how those conflicts defined the city. And, threaded into that public history, it’s an account of author Roberta Gratz’s own life in New York.

At first glance, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything exemplary in the layout of Willets Point, Queens, with its jumble of auto repair shops, junkyards, and the cars, broken down and not, that litter the spaces between buildings. The city hasn’t built sidewalks there—neither has it installed sewers—so the main drag is both street and sidewalk, and the neighborhood looks more like Mumbai than Queens. When Roberta Brandes Gratz makes that observation in her new book, The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, she means the comparison as a kind of praise, a compliment to the neighborhood’s industriousness and gritty entrepreneurship. Willets Point, like the infamous Dharavi slum outside Mumbai, might be messy, but it’s also, in the best sense of the word, urban.

The reference to Dharavi is a rare instance where Gratz’s focus leaves New York City, if only briefly. The Battle for Gotham, as its subtitle suggests, is a book about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs and their storied clashes, but it’s also about how those conflicts defined the city in the years following Moses’s retirement and Jacobs’s departure for Toronto, in 1968. And, threaded into that public history, it’s an account of Gratz’s own life in New York: as a child in the city and a teenager outside of it, and as a mother, reporter, and preservationist. Those experiences, informed by a friendship with Jacobs that began in the late 1970s and continued until her death in 2006, ultimately make Gratz’s perspective both reportorial and deeply personal. Rarely is her tone equivocal; Moses, who some revisionist histories have sought to partially vindicate, she calls “undemocratic, arrogant, ruthless and racist.”

If the “master builder” is the villain of this story, Jacobs is clearly its hero. And yet, as Gratz sees it, Jacobs’s message is today widely misinterpreted as favoring an anti-growth and anti-change agenda; if they could, her critics say, preservationists would embalm the city. But Gratz argues that Jacobs’s ideas were never meant as narrow prescriptions of architectural type, or to impede new development unconditionally. She suggests that Jacobs’s teachings are less specific design formulas than general guidelines.  They encourage the development of preexisting communities and industries, mixed uses, complexity, mutually reliant businesses, and, above all, a respect for social and historical context.

Which is how we get to Willets Point, via a narrative path that passes first through Soho, the Upper West Side, Red Hook, Long Island City, and other rising, or risen, communities. Tracing the history of these places, and their recent successes, requires Gratz to survey 50 years of public, private, and grassroots development efforts.  Included are the failed projects — like the Lower Manhattan Expressway (or LOMEX), whose realization would have destroyed the valuable housing stock and fragile local economies that ultimately yielded modern Soho, a neighborhood that was once considered a slum.

This version of events isn’t new, but Gratz’s interpretation, and its application for future development, is. For the past two decades or so, and particularly since 2001, the city has pursued two alternative and somewhat contradictory paths in its efforts to grow the municipal economy and increase available housing. On the one hand, megaprojects like the new Yankee Stadium, Atlantic Yards, and Columbia University’s proposed Manhattanville campus expansion recall an old-fashioned top-down planning approach, development subsidized by the government and pushed through over local opposition. These projects’ economic gains are conjectured, and almost never examined after their completion. On the other, initiatives like the DOT’s recent expansion of bike lanes and the creation of Hudson River Park, which reclaimed fallow city land and unused piers, invest in the adaptive reuse of existing infrastructure and allow local neighborhoods to flourish. Gratz lauds those projects, condemns the ones she sees as out-of-scale, and suggests an approach to future development that hews closely to her interpretation of Jacobs’s work. In that spirit, she proposes modest infill development to increase density—building on empty lots and changing zoning regulations to encourage growth in the city’s less populous areas.

For some, this approach will be a hard sell. There exists a reasonable question about whether the city can accommodate its growing housing needs with infill development, and while Gratz isn’t against building big, neither does she provide clues about where those buildings might go. Moreover, you could ask, what about otherwise good ideas—the insertion of miles of bike lanes for one, the pedestrianization of Broadway for another—that encountered substantial public resistance even as they were implemented? Those projects may have accorded with the spirit of low-impact, people-first development promulgated by Jacobs, but plenty of people, including local business owners, objected to them, just as many objected to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion-pricing scheme, which Gratz correctly cites as a potential boon to the city. In the end, balancing local preferences and city needs is less an objective science than a subjective art.  Somebody’s always unhappy.

Nonetheless, Gratz’s essential recommendations—an adherence to principles of considered, context-driven design—still stand, shored convincingly by a half-century of history, public and personal. The result could seem like several books combined into one, but with adroit narration it avoids feeling claustrophobic. The Battle for Gotham is an account of the past crafted to support a claim about the future; an homage to a friend who, when it comes to cities, happened to be one of the most influential thinkers of the past century; and a cogent argument for revisiting her ideas and adapting them to a different time and, inevitably, a different New York.
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Related: Last July, Beane reviewed Anthony Flint’s Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City. In 2006, Karrie Jacobs finally read The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Paul Goldberger warned of the danger of “Jane-washing.” In a 2000 interivew, Jacobs herself talked about Robert Moses, the atrocities of urban renewal, and the resiliency of cities.

Categories: Cities, Planning

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