The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs
Roberta Brandes Gratz
Nation Books, $27.95 (Hardcover)

For half a century, rich men have talked about building a stadium at the tangled intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues in Brooklyn. Walter O’Malley hoped to construct a stadium for his Brooklyn Dodgers there, but Robert Moses—New York’s “master builder,” the bureaucrat through whom nearly all of the city’s major projects ran—refused to play nice. O’Malley took his ball and went home; the Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles in 1958.

But last March a new stadium project broke ground at Flatbush and Atlantic, where I live, and it promises to bring Brooklyn its first major sports franchise since the Dodgers’ departure—the NBA’s New Jersey Nets. In the 50 years since O’Malley’s stadium was thwarted, much has changed in the head-butting politics of American city building—and much has not.

Walk down Atlantic Avenue from Flatbush as I often do—carefully, because panel vans and car services menace pedestrians from all sides—and you will be in the footprint of the projected arena, the Barclays Center, anchor of the 22-acre Atlantic Yards project. Atlantic Yards is a familiar urban story: surrounding neighborhoods are braced for upheaval; architects have come and gone; redesigns have been announced, lambasted, tweaked, disowned; lawsuits multiply like kudzu; millions of dollars are all but blowing through the air; and the likely date of actual completion is anyone’s guess (Forest City Ratner, the developer, contends the Barclays Center will be finished by 2011, but the Web site does not give a timetable for the rest of the project).

Though I have closely followed the Atlantic Yards scuffle for years, I barely know what the project is anymore, what it will look like, or what it will contain. My guess is you would find city officials who are similarly unsure. I doubt even the executive vice presidents of Forest City—who tout a “vibrant addition to a thriving borough”—could offer more than a guess about how many apartments and how many office buildings, let alone how many residents and businesses, eventually will be located within the project footprint.

At least one part of Forest City’s scheme I find fairly easy to defend: it calls for “infill” development—the renovation of underused urban areas—at a valuable node of the city. Eight acres of the Atlantic Yards footprint currently are taken up by rail yards, sunken below street level, where Long Island Rail Road commuter trains idle between journeys to Ronkonkoma and Montauk. This barren swath of land in the center of downtown Brooklyn is one subway stop from Manhattan and right between Fort Greene and Park Slope, two of the most desirable neighborhoods in a resurgent real estate market. If we oppose sprawl; if we recognize the environmental, social, and economic benefits of dense urban living; if we see the virtue of public transit over private cars, then reclamation of city spaces like these rail yards is exactly the answer.

The question, of course, is what form that development should take. Should new additions be in scale with the surrounding neighborhoods? Should they be done piecemeal or all at once? Do we need several architects or is one sufficient? How much attention should the city and borough pay to the interests of local boards? Should new construction be limited to the rail yards, or should the development be bigger?

To me, these questions always have been theoretical. It was never hard to see who would prevail. Despite the lawsuits, protests, and holdouts spearheaded by the major opposition group—Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn—Forest City was simply too rich and too shrewd, and its political support was too deep. Its large-scale approach to development would not meet any serious challenges. Atlantic Yards will be a Robert Moses throwback: a massive project, done all at once, unsparing of existing structures, with a skyline soaring above the rooftops of the three and four story brownstone buildings that make up much of the surrounding neighborhoods.

• • •

It is impossible not to notice that the tenor of the debate over Atlantic Yards has been right out of the mid-twentieth century street fights that pitted Moses-style “urban renewal”—demolition and rebuilding—against the Jane Jacobs model. Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, advocated on behalf of local, self-organizing neighborhood regeneration around what already exists. She resisted the overreach of any city planner, developer, or administrator who thought of the city as a simple machine rather than a complex ecosystem. “You can’t build the ovens and expect the loaves to jump in,” Jacobs said.

In her new book, The Battle for Gotham, activist and veteran urban critic Roberta Gratz contends that decades after the biggest clashes between Moses and Jacobs, their disagreement is still at the heart of fights over urban life.

The scale of clearance and displacement may be less than the heyday of urban renewal, but the destructive worship of bigness is no less now than it was then. What Jacobs identified as ‘the belief in bigness as a solution’ is still central to official planning and development policies in New York City and elsewhere.

New York might have been Moses’s primary staging ground, but if indeed bigness is his legacy, the lingering consequences of Moses-ism are being played out across the country, from San Diego’s efforts to repopulate downtown and revive light rail after years of freeway-first sprawl, to Boston’s “Big Dig.”

For Gratz, Moses was a singularly destructive urban aggressor, still administratively present long after his death. His ideas dominant in the corridors of power: “What we actually have is the ghost of Moses haunting the ‘system.’”

Well-functioning but unlovely places are under the gun of newly expanded powers of eminent domain and private developers who want to demolish and start over.

Moses’s rise and fall has, of course, been elegantly chronicled elsewhere, notably in Robert Caro’s doorstop analysis The Power Broker, but also in a more recent re-evaluation, Robert Moses and the Modern City, edited by Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson. In the latter book, Moses’s re-appraisers make a stronger case for his public works than Gratz is willing to allow.

Moses built countless public pools, parks, and playgrounds during his long tenure. He facilitated the 1939 World’s Fair in New York and was behind still- admired public spaces such as Jones Beach and the more criticized, but still more-or-less successful, Lincoln Center. Because Moses built so much for so long, from his first government appointment under Governor Alfred E. Smith in 1919 until a dispute with Governor Nelson Rockefeller led the builder to resign in 1962, his work is hard to dismiss in one breath.

Gratz, though, has no patience for re-evaluation: “[Moses] was probably the most undemocratic, arrogant, ruthless, and racist un-elected government official of the twentieth century,” she writes. She makes ample use of Caro’s account to demonstrate again that Moses’s art of getting things done was inseparable from violence: “When you operate in an overbuilt metropolis,” Moses said, “you have to hack your way through with a meat ax.”

Moses often acted as though the meat ax was the only tool at his disposal. Linger on some of his most shockingly misconceived plans and one begins to intuit how tendentious his reading of the city really was, and how many viable, or potentially viable, neighborhoods were lost under his bulldozers. Large sections of the South Bronx, for example, are either gone or have never recovered from Moses’s road-building and blockbusting.

SoHo, once a “blighted” neighborhood, is a counter-example, where Moses’s knock-down plans were defeated. The neighborhood may well be less interesting than it used to be—the artists who crowded downtown Manhattan in the 1980s are mostly a memory, the once-cheap converted warehouse lofts in Cast Iron buildings cost millions, and large retail chains and tourists are ubiquitous—but if Moses had his way, there would be no gentrification or tourist traps to lament. He proposed to bulldoze 45 acres of Cast Iron buildings (this was before the days of Landmark Protection) and give the city, voila, the Lower Manhattan Expressway.

Moses is perhaps most famous for the fervor with which he loved his roads. He saw vehicular traffic as the key to New York’s long-term success. He was far from alone in this belief. At least since the dizzying polemics of the Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier in the 1920s, making way for the automobile seemed synonymous with making way for the modern city. Moses had little of Le Corbusier’s flair, but he did seem to share the belief that the decaying, crowded city would not survive without major improvements in its circulation, without more highways and parkways to bring goods and services to it and through it.

Moses’s missing term, of course, was the pedestrian, and for this reason his road-building suffered from chronic overreach. He wanted to put a road through New York’s Washington Square Park and, less often remembered, a highway through New Orleans’s French Quarter. If these mere suggestions boggle the mind now, that perhaps illustrates how far we have come, how successful Jacobs’s vision, among others, has been at inculcating in city-dwellers a historical consciousness, a desire for preservation, a vision of the city as more than a machine for producing efficient car traffic.

Gratz’s book is invaluable at demonstrating how a slow accumulation of bitter, contentious struggles eventually gained some traction against Moses’s model of clear-cut urban-renewal schemes. Still more important, though, is to remember how precarious those fights were and are, how close New York and other cities came to losing what are today some of their most prized spaces. She is utterly convincing about how vigilant we need to be so as not to lose any more.

Well-functioning but unlovely neighborhoods find themselves under the gun of newly expanded powers of eminent domain and private developers who want to demolish and start over. These demolitions do not fall equally across the population, either: the highway that was blocked from the French Quarter was eventually run through Tremé, a predominantly black community with extensive historical roots.

Despite its dubious benefits, the highway solution Moses championed remains a favorite of city and state officials eager for federal funds. Gratz points to a study of California’s urban areas showing that for every 10 percent increase in roadway carrying capacity there is a 9 percent increase in car traffic over the next five years. And yet nothing seems to stop the clamor for more roads. Even the way public officials speak about these things reveals an unconscious bias: why is it, Gratz observes, that we so often hear about “investing” in highways, but “subsidizing” mass transit?

The Atlantic Yards project indulges our desires for magisterial urban dreamscapes, for a city of the future, like an exhibit at some bygone World’s Fair.

While many American cities at mid-century had real problems—street crime, underworld rackets, pollution, inadequate housing—there was also a push-pull effect whereby federal and state governments effectively subsidized mass migration away from troubled cities and out to the suburbs. As Gratz notes, “the amenities of the suburbs—the roads to get there, the low-interest loans to finance homes, the modern schools, the shopping centers to lure city businesses” all had the benefit of government investment at a time when “no comparable programs were investing in cities.”

On this issue Gratz is out to correct misinterpretations of Jacobs’s city thinking while countering the reappraisal of Moses’s reputation. Jacobs’s vision of a city neighborhood did not involve an endless succession of tiny, surpassingly charming streets. A neighborhood didn’t have to be beautiful, it just had to work. Jacobs’s writing often showed how allegedly blighted neighborhoods were in fact extremely organized economies of interdependence. Jacobs wanted planners and architects to build in ways that showed they had taken the same care observing the city as she had and were actually thinking about how people use city space.

In other words, do not wave “blight” over what could, with minimal investment, thrive; do not “renew” where renewal means an uncreative, grandiose starting over. The virtue of this approach is that it does not require the vast powers of eminent domain; huge investments of public money; or protracted, expensive legal fights in order to turn a neighborhood around. The drawback is that it is slow, uncertain, and chaotic, and no developer, bureaucrat, or city politician up for re-election can take credit for it publicly.

• • •

This brings us back to Atlantic Yards, and the ongoing attempts to build in the area. Gratz writes:

From day one there was nothing urbanistically right about the proposal to build over and beyond the Atlantic Avenue railroad yards. . . . Almost every aspect . . . is a Moses descendant, a clone of the outdated 1960’s urban renewal model: clearance only; erasure of precursors of regeneration; gigantic scale; a state authority overriding the city planning and zoning review process; absence of democratic process with public input; threat of eminent domain to take private property for a private development; incalculable public funding.

Even if everything is built on-budget and according to plan, a city, Jacobs likely would point out, is a delicate organism: there’s no guarantee the host won’t reject the transplant. Will people be happy living in these 22 acres, built from scratch, without the historic character, or community ties, of surrounding neighborhoods? Will businesses thrive there? Or will the streets beyond where Flatbush and Atlantic diverge be ghostly; the condos half-sold; the offices un-rented; and the arena, for all its draw during the game, shuttered most nights of the year? The supreme irony is that O’Malley departed with the Dodgers in large part because Moses refused to use eminent domain to condemn land at Flatbush and Atlantic for the stadium—something contemporary city officials were not at all reluctant to do.

Like Jacobs’s opposition to Moses, Gratz’s opposition to the Atlantic Yards is not just practical, but philosophical. “A city,” she writes,

is much too complex, too multilayered, too filled with interwoven threads to be sustained by singular, simplistic, self-contained, homogenizing projects. And while many of Moses’s parks and swimming pools were beautifully designed and are much admired today . . . they are inseparable pieces of a whole Moses vision and strategy that sees the city as a series of physical projects, rather than the economic, environmental, historical, social and physical system that it is. (Emphasis in original.)

The contemporary hero in Gratz’s book, then, is someone like Gregory O’Connell, an ex-cop who has spent years reclaiming warehouse space on abandoned piers in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood and restoring and repurposing Civil War—era buildings. His recovered spaces host activities from glassblowing to set-building. Work such as O’Connell’s coexists with established resources and neighborhood buildings, displaces no families from their homes, and proceeds slowly, expanding where possible and where beneficial to the community. O’Connell’s projects need no large-scale private developer working on public subsidy, have helped spur investment in a neighborhood that was for a long time known mostly for high-rise public housing and poor access to public transit.

What O’Connell’s efforts do not do is indulge any of our desires for magisterial urban dreamscapes, for cities of the future. It is easy to be swayed by such dreams, without reference to their practicability. With Frank Gehry’s exotic, undulating designs, the initial renderings of Atlantic Yards were actually exciting. Sure, it was too big, and all the same questions about viability remained, but the plan itself scratched an itch for big urban fantasy, like an exhibit at some bygone World’s Fair.

To skeptics such as Gratz, Gehry was always just political cover, a ruse designed to tamp down public clamor about the project’s scale and cost and capacity for disruption. Enlisting a celebrity architect was a fine move for Forest City. It allowed the company to cast opponents as not-in-my-backyard types who wanted to arrest the dynamic city by mummifying even the most under-utilized acre. It should be noted that there have been big projects that worked—Rockefeller Center, for one—and urban history has plenty of examples of projects that caused great trauma and upheaval but are now widely respected. Medieval Paris is mostly gone, plowed under for Baron von Haussman’s grand avenues, and almost no one thinks Paris is hideous, the boulevards an atrocity.

Forest City, unfortunately, isn’t re-envisioning Paris. It isn’t re-envisioning anything. Gehry was removed from the project in 2009, with the developer citing the economic downturn. The prospect of the project without Gehry is depressing. Brooklyn already houses a great deal of Forest City development, not much of it easy to love. The firm notably gave downtown Brooklyn the MetroTech Center, a spattering of office towers and empty open spaces that yearns for downtown Cleveland. (To be fair, having been to Cleveland recently, I think its downtown is a bit more exciting than the MetroTech Center). The firm is also responsible for a suburban-style enclosed shopping mall parked like an unwieldy container ship on Atlantic Avenue.

This is the lone private developer in whose hands New York City has placed the fate of 22 acres of central city space—far beyond the eight acres of rail yards. The City has underwritten its activities with hundreds of millions of dollars of public money. In this context, Gratz’s central claim is clear, vital, and, it seems, correct: the continuing influence of Robert Moses is a sign that the battle for a Jacobsian city is continuous, and always fought on an unequal playing field.

There is a place for big Le Corbusian dreams—every city should be constantly re-imagining itself and its future—but the most rewarding changes are almost always the small ones, constantly afoot, unnoticed until they are wildly successful. As Jacobs put it, “everything interesting happens on the edge of chaos.”