Friday, December 4, 2009

Wrestling With Moses

Wrestling with Moses, Anthony Flint's book does not discuss the
Israelites crossing the desert from Egypt.

Wrestling with Moses tells the gripping story of how Jane Jacobs took on
New York's Robert Moses and changed the American city forever. It is
more the story of David fighting Goliath, the humble and lowly neighbors
locked in combat against their own arrogant politicians and city
planners. Jane got her start by leading the fight against the Lower
Manhattan Expressway expansion into her neighborhood: Washington Square
and Greenwich Village.

Jane was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania and moved to New York armed with
her high school diploma. She moved to New York City in 1934 and hoped
to break into journalism. After all she did have a few months
experience writing for her hometown newspaper, "The Scrantonian." She
wanted to progress to higher education and applied to several school but
because of her lackluster high school record, Columbia's college for
women informed her she would have to take additional courses to be
accepted. She walked away and decided to educate herself. She
researched the founders of the constitution spending hours upon hours at
Columbia Library.

She met and married a Columbia architect, Robert Hyde Jacobs, and they bought a townhouse at 555 Hudson in the Village. Every year on the
anniversary of her death, people bring flowers to the address,
unfortunately now a business of some sort.

Readers will remember her magnificent book, The Death and Life of Great
American Cities, published in 1961. The Random House publishers put the
following headline on the advertisement for the book: "The City Planners
are Ravaging Our Cities!" I had just graduated from Regis and I agreed
with Jane as I watched my parents and neighbors in North Denver fight
I-70 plowing through Berkeley Park, Sunnyside, Globeville, Elyria and
Swansea and Northeasterly neighborhoods. I-70 laid waste to thousands
of homes, torn off their foundations, thousands of families disrupted
and removed from their neighborhoods. Northwest Denver is finally
beginning to recover from this disruption caused by the federal
bulldozers. But the fragile neighborhoods of Globeville and
neighborhoods east of there are still struggling.

Jane's book hit a responsive chord with me as I watched Denver Urban
Renewal tear out the heart of our city by destroying hundred of historic
structures in downtown. After reading Jane's book, we all mourned what
Paul Goldberger, architectural critic of New York Times, the "unrelieved
plainness and basic dreariness of what turned out to be nondescript, big
red boxes." Any one wonders why folks like LoDo so much. It the part
of downtown where urban renewal left off. It is not healthy when
neighbors pray for a recession to block certain excessive developments
around town. Does God hear such prayers?

Let's cut to the end of the story, Jane won. She beat back Gotham's
Goliaths that won in many cities across our nation. Jane and the
neighbors beat back the plans for expansion of the Lower Manhattan
Expressway. But her book changed city planning in America forever. I
actually saw a copy of Jane's book in the Denver Planning Office not too
long ago.

Are there still wrestling matches to be waged across the neighborhoods
of Denver? What would Jane say about our city's new zoning code? Would
Jane "ooh" and "ah" over the Union Station plans? Wrestling with Moses
inspires me to get Jane's book off my shelf and remember why Denver can
be a great city. "To your tents, Oh, Israel."

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