The book which has held me captive since Sunday night is titled Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Too On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City, by Anthony Flint.
The reasons I love this slim history are legion. I had never read anything about Jane Jacobs (a longtime New York City resident and activist, and author of the architecutral and urban planning classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities), but she is a fascinating woman. Through the 1950s and 1960s she fought against City Hall (and "master planner" Robert Moses, who was responsible for building numerous bridges, highways, parks, and residential buildings across the city for decades through the middle of the twentieth century), primarily to save Washington Square Park from having a highway built through it, and against the construction of an elevated ten-lane highway across the tip of Manhattan.
I also loved this book because it is a great slice of history. In a succinct 195 pages, it provides information about the history and planning of New York City, controversies about urban renewal and development, the remarkable career of Robert Moses, and the even more remarkable career and personality of Jane Jacobs. Of course I loved this book because it is about New York City, and I wish I had a cool author name like "Anthony Flint." But the front and center attraction of this book is Jacobs herself. Consider her conduct at a sham city hall meeting to gather community feedback about the proposed elevated highway:
"Though the ostensible purpose of the meeting was to collect opinions about the project, it had been hurriedly scheduled--to make sure testimony was gathered before legislation passed that required an even more extensive public approval process...The manner in which the meeting was being conducted--the microphone faced toward the audience, not the officials the residents were nominally addressing--suggested that state officials were just going through the motions...
From the seat she'd taken near the front of the auditorium, Jane Jacobs made her way up the stairs and onton the stage. 'It's interesting, the way the mike is set up,' she observed tartly as she reached the microphone. She was calm, and her expression was matter-of-fact. 'At a public hearing, you are supposed to address the officials, not the audience.'
The chairman of the hearing, John Toth of the New York Department of Transportation, bounded down from the statge and turned the microphone around. But Jacobs turned it right back.
'Thank you, sir, but I'd rather speak to my friends,' Jacobs said. 'We've been talking to ourselves all evening as it is.' The crowd roared with laughter." (pp. xii-xiii.)
From there she went on to call for a silent protest march across the stage, during which the stenographer's rolls of tape documenting the meeting were destroyed (which meant there was no public record, and the meeting couldn't be counted), called it a "fink meeting," and was arrested.
It's a great book, and it has spurred me to consider, again, reading Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I always used to shelve it at the used bookstore, and wonder if I should read it, and then for years I would shelve it at the public library and give it some more thought (it went in and out quite regularly); but it was so thick I never got around to it. Maybe now is the time.