Street Brawl

Tackling one of New York City’s giants—on his own turf.

Often the most illuminating books of social history serve two purposes: They dissect past events with clear understanding, and they reveal how those events inform the present day.

So it is with Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City (Random House, 2009), an engaging and instructive work by Anthony Flint ’84. While focused on a compelling conflict over the fate of a few blocks of Manhattan in the late 1950s, this book also establishes a context for today’s battles over how—and especially where—the U.S. economy grows. Flint, a longtime reporter at the Boston Globe now working for the Boston-based Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, reveals how preserving communities enables both strong local economies and a flourishing local spirit.

The Moses of the book’s title is not the leader from Scripture. But in the realms of urban development following World War II, Robert Moses was something of a minor deity. His city of the future was all streamlined modernism, sleek towers and efficient highways. Moses dominated the field of city planning and provided structures that stand to this day, especially in New York City: the Henry Hudson Bridge, the Triborough Bridge, the Cross Bronx Expressway, and more.

This medicine for urban congestion, however, had side effects. Neighborhoods were butchered, communities broken, and thousands of families driven from their homes. As head of an independent transportation agency, Moses had the power to designate properties as fit for condemnation, build projects, and levy tolls without government oversight or public accountability. As Flint convincingly argues, Moses answered to no one.

He therefore found an unexpected nemesis in Jane Jacobs, a writer on architecture who with her husband had purchased and restored a simple home in Greenwich Village. Moses proposed building a highway through nearby Washington Square Park, with the demolition of 130 buildings, elimination of local streets, and forced relocation of 150 families and countless businesses. Jacobs went to work, organizing neighbors, printing pamphlets, and winning friends in the city’s political organization (including a young Ed Koch, the future mayor, who sometimes played his guitar in Washington Square Park).

When Jacobs thwarted the highway, Moses returned with a grander scheme—an urban renewal for the Village that would drive 600 families from their homes for what he called “the larger good” of new housing towers. Having seen identical displacement when Moses built Lincoln Center, Jacobs redoubled her efforts to ignite community opposition.

With that framework, Flint’s story becomes about more than two development adversaries; it reveals a unique moment in history. America was used to following the lead of powerful white men like Moses, who scoffed that the opposition was only a bunch of, well, mothers. The nation was unaccustomed to reckoning with smart, determined women like Jacobs. In fact, her resistance led, predictably, to investigation for possible communist sympathies. And yet, by invigorating a community on its own behalf, she defeated the urban renewal plan—
a success that presaged the outspokenness that soon swept America. Only five years later, those same streets Jacobs had rescued birthed a blend of creativity and protest that redefined the individual’s relationship to institutional authority, rewrote the rules of public discourse, and led a young troubadour to conclude that the answers to life’s uncertainties were blowing in the wind.

Flint’s narrative is convincing in part because his reporting is thorough. His characterization of Moses’s ego, for example, is supported by quotations from his unpublished poems (so horrible they’re guaranteed to make a reader cringe and grin). Likewise Flint captures Jacobs’s gift for protest symbolism, for example holding a ribbon-tying ceremony at a site where the community hoped to prevent new construction.

One of the book’s strengths is that its position is not absolute, noting for instance that history has been kind to Moses. Methods aside, his roads and bridges continue to serve millions of people. Similarly Jacobs’s activism never fully addressed New York’s chronic shortage of affordable housing.

Still, their conflict offers meaningful lessons for today. America is littered with big-box stores in former farm fields, while downtowns struggle to remain economically viable. New urbanism seeks to reaffirm the notions of sustainable economy and colorful community that Jacobs espoused. The streets Moses called “blighted” are now homes to NFL quarterbacks and their supermodel girlfriends. Community, as Flint ably proves, is worth the inefficiency.

**

“We all live in two worlds: the world we physically inhabit, and the world we carry within us,” muses author Stephanie Saldaña ’99. The newly minted Harvard Divinity School graduate arrives in Syria in September 2004 for a year’s residence as a Fulbright Scholar. The Iraq War has thrown the entire Middle East into turmoil; Damascus teems with refugees. The city of outcasts and exiles seems a good fit for the 27-year-old as she flees fresh heartbreak and starts to question her own belief system.

In The Bread of Angels: A Journey of Love and Faith in Damascus (Doubleday, 2010), Saldaña beautifully details how she navigates two odysseys simultaneously. She confronts the external challenges of living as a stranger in a strange land, while facing even more daunting inner trials. Threads from her family’s dark past, woven into the story of her year in Syria, illuminate how the shy Catholic girl from Texas ends up a restless voyager who feels “at home in countries with a history of war.”

Buzzing with religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity, Damascus welcomes the young American woman warmly. Saldaña’s nuanced portrait of the vibrant Middle Eastern city contradicts stereotypes of Syria as anti-American and Islam as intolerant. As she explores the tangle of ancient religions and modern politics, she befriends a fascinating array of people. From them, she gains strength and wisdom that help her along a difficult emotional and spiritual path.

Her Fulbright mission is to study the Muslim view of Jesus. (In Islam, Jesus is a much-loved prophet who is human, not divine.) She must tackle practical matters first, however: finding lodgings, improving her knowledge of Arabic, and preventing her mind from wandering back to Boston and the man who suddenly stopped loving her.

She rents a room in a sprawling Ottoman-era house in the city’s old Christian quarter. Her landlord becomes a grandfatherly protector, her 73-year-old “knight in shining polyester pants.” At Damascus University, she joins the post-9/11 flood of foreign students—from American Mormons to radical Iranians—taking Arabic language classes. (At $200 a month, its intensive immersion program is the world’s fastest, cheapest path to fluency.) Chatting with local street vendors becomes a way to practice vocabulary and to make the loud, energetic city feel like home.

But Saldaña also seeks refuge in the desert, at the remote Christian monastery of Mar Musa. Although she and God are “for the most part . . . no longer on speaking terms,” she decides to undertake a grueling program called the Spiritual Exercises. During a month of silence and prayer, the desert becomes a mirror for deep inner reflection. She tries to understand why she carries “the broken world inside of [her] heart.” Abbot Paolo and novice monk Frédéric patiently support Saldaña through her spiritual journey. When she returns to Damascus to study the Qur’an, she shares her lessons in letters to Frédéric.

The memoir encompasses “a year of such impossible richness” that it needs “no embellishment,” the author notes. Saldaña has published previously as a poet and journalist, but this is her first book-length project. Her grace, wit, and unsparing honesty make The Bread of Angels a compelling chronicle.

Insights tumble forth as Saldaña witnesses history, learns Arabic’s subtle gradations of meaning, and discovers surprising compassion and beauty in the Qur’an. Most moving is how profoundly she longs for a “partner in loneliness.” And how God answers her prayer in a most unexpected way.

Saldaña’s sweeping tale would work gloriously as fiction. Poignant and powerfully told, the story takes your breath away because it is true.

Elisabeth Crean

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