The Woman Who Saved Lower Manhattan From Becoming a Highway
What makes a city? It’s not the buildings (skyscrapers) or the streets (traffic), or the banks and government offices and shopping districts sandwiched between them. It’s the people. This is obvious nearly to the point of tautology, yet in the middle of the 20th century, the men in charge of making cities better paid very little mind to the behavior of those who actually lived in them. In 1958, when Fortune published Jane Jacobs’s essay “Downtown Is for People,” the following was almost revolutionary: “The best way to plan for downtown is to see how people use it today; to look for its strengths and to exploit and reinforce them. There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”
Beginning in the decades before World War II and gaining widespread acceptance afterward, the philosophy of urban renewal sought to cleanse American cities of their slums. This program was repeated throughout the country, but the archetypal example is the New York iteration, where it was spearheaded by the city planner Robert Moses. Moses, who was later immortalized as “The Power Broker,” wanted to replace New York City’s notorious squalor with new developments. Entire neighborhoods were razed, with residents moved to large public housing buildings—projects—often on the outskirts of town. Massive highways like the Cross Bronx Expressway were constructed and literally divided the city. While there was definitely some truth to the belief that New York’s poorest were living in abhorrent conditions (see Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives or Luc Sante’s Low Life), there were also thriving neighborhoods in their midst. Moses’s top-down development program would annihilate these communities with no input from the people who belonged to them.