Saturday, June 16, 2012

Book Report

I  finally finished "Wrestling with Moses"  the Jane Jacobs/ Robert Moses book that I alluded to earlier.

I really enjoyed the first 50 or so pages, although they underscored the daunting nature of advocacy, and how there are always powerful forces pushing projects and what seem like puny resources to fight them.   The story of how Jane Jacobs became an advocate, and her gifts for strategy and tactics in fighting the bisection of Washington Square by a highway was inspiring.  In my own advocacy, I would like to be more cognizant of tactics and ways of advocating for bike and ped improvements that are proactive, not just reactive.

The middle third of the book felt repetitive, chronicling the subsequent fight against "Urban Renewal" both literally in the West Village, and theoretically as a larger planning movement.  The descriptions of the fight against the Lower Manhattan Expressway (Lomex), which would have eliminated all the charming cast iron storefronts of Soho, were historically interesting, but started to feel a bit repetitive.

I wish that I'd skipped directly to the last 40 pages, especially the Epilogue,   which I think would have stood well on its own as an interesting essay about the legacy of Jacobs and Moses.

Jacobs, in taking on the ultimate insider, Robert Moses*, was part of a revolution in public process.   In the 50's  government planning decisions (and many other decisions) were an opaque process, which if anything was announced to the public only as the plan was in motion.  The fight against urban freeways, such as Lomex, and the Boston's Inner Belt,  in parallel with civil rights struggles, the environmental movement and the anti-war movement, led to both a distrust of the motives of goverment, and a demand for more openness.   The demand for "sunlight"  and transparency has really transformed the way that public agencies work.

I attended a series of lectures this spring about the fight against the Inner Belt, and it was surprising and somewhat disheartening that we are fighting many of the same battles now, and that the transportation planners in charge still seem to feel that the freeway is the right way by default. However, I do feel that while the mindset behind the decision making process may not have evolved as much as I'd like to think it had from the 60's, the process has definitely changed.

As an advocate, I still sometimes feel that there are always surprises, and we are constantly reacting to new and potentially problematic projects.  But mostly that's because we feel spread too thin, not because Mass Dot is trying to hide things or do things behind our backs.  The idea of public process has really become ingrained in government planning, even if planners are rolling their eyes a bit at hearing the "amateur's" opinions.

What was intriguing about  this final essay last, is what drew me to read the book initially (guided by the review I read in the NY Times).   In many ways, the commitment to public process has become a double edged sword.  NIMBYism, which can be a very destructive force, is a direct result of the empowerment of citizens in the process.   Government, when forced to respond to the will of the people, has often found itself stymied by the voices of a few.  The same power of advocates to resist repairing an overpass, has also become the power of vocal citizens to fight against bike lanes.  It does seem like government needs to be more empowered to make regional decisions which might discomfit a local few, but which might indeed serve the vaunted "greater good"

My thought on this is that there needs to be a new equilibrium where government does have the power to override naysayers in order to achieve regional goals.   But as an advocate, I want to make sure that "government"  is not just thinking of people in cars when they do their planning.  I am hopeful that there might be some middle ground,  with a combination of progressive planning and radical regionalism to move forward.  I don't want to be constantly saying "NO, "  but would rather be talking about "What if?"

* Somehow I never realized that "The Power Broker"  about Moses was written by LBJ biographer Robert Caro.  I might need a bit of a vacation from Moses, but I'm definitely putting that on my list.


  1. Thanks for the review. I've read the classic Jacobs book and may put this one on the list to get to at some point.

  2. My friend at Get the Flick points out that Caro's books are all about power - titles include The Power Broker, The Path to Power, The Passage of Power
    cheers, V.

  3. You point out the double-edged sword of empowerment - if the advocates take a narrow view, they only benefit themselves and their ilk when they succeed.

    Caro is good reading but very long. Still, his 90 page aside in the first LBJ volume on what it was like to be without electricity long after the city dwellers had it in the Texas hill country was deeply illuminating. It was an explanation why Congressman Johnson was such a fierce advocate for rural electrification.

  4. Just mailed you a piece from yesterday's WSJ about Moses the pedal pusher. Apparently he was, among other things, a bike path pioneer. I'm piqued to read the book now.