Friday, September 18, 2009

City Living

In a recent issue of The New Republic, Edward Glaser reviews the latest book by Anthony Flint called Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City. While reading Robert Caro's monumental biography of Moses called The Power Broker and Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities certainly helps in understanding this article, it is not required. In the process of reviewing Flint's book, Glaser takes the opportunity to discuss the seminal role that Jacobs' book played in redefining how we view our cities and the influence of Caro's biography of Moses. The link to the article is,1.

Weighing in at 1,336 pages, The Power Broker is substantial enough to stop any door in any storm, but it is also offers an outstanding portrayal of a masterful politician and urban planner. While one may not approve of the manner in which Moses used massive infrastructural projects to shape New York, one cannot deny his lasting imprint on the American City. Caro describes the manner in which Moses built NYC movingly, and when one finishes this tome, s/he is bound to look at any city differently than before.

Similarly, The Death and Life of Great American Cities forces the reader to see his/her urban neighborhood with new eyes. Jacobs' emphasizes that for city neighborhoods and streets to feel safe and vibrant they must contain a variety of people working, strolling, and playing at all times of the day. In turn, this makes one consider the wisdom of certain districts being devoted to one function, i.e. an arts district. Perhaps what makes Jacobs' book feel so prescient is the fact that it was published in 1961, yet so many of the problems she identified still remain.

While Moses focused on the integration of the various parts of a city through transportation networks or the creation of public works projects to enliven areas, Jacobs concentrated on the ways that cities allow individuals to come into contact with one another and ensure that urban streets remain humane places.

Glaser's review of Flint's book attempts to reconcile what are considered two diametrically opposing views on American cities by showing that while both approaches are necessary neither concept is sufficient. The titanic struggle between Moses and Jacobs makes for fascinating and exciting reading, but a nuanced approach to urban planning would argue for a combination of Moses and Jacobs (as biblical as that may sound.)

Glaser says, "Successful cities need both the human interactions of Jane Jacobs and the enabling infrastructure of Robert Moses. Anthony Flint has done a fine job describing the battles between these two great figures, but unlike the Louis-Schmeling fight, their conflict should not be resolved. An absolute victory for Moses leads to heartless cities, built to accommodate cars but not pedestrians, with high-rise buildings that are disconnected from their streets. An absolute victory for Jacobs means a city frozen in concrete with prices that are too high and buildings that are too low. New building is needed to welcome the diversity that makes urban magic. No city can survive without the personal engagements beloved by Jacobs, but no city can thrive without master builders such as Moses. Mumbai and Shanghai had better take note."

As the Head of the only independent secondary school in the City of St. Louis, I think often of the role we play in the independent school world in the metropolitan region and the benefits we can provide for the City. We often say that Crossroads College Prep has more in common with urban independent schools in other cities than we do with our competing schools in the suburbs of St. Louis. As a school committed to diversity, sustainability, and social justice, we must consider how we fulfill our core values in an urban area. Would we be a different school if we were located in the suburbs? Absolutely. Our population would most likely be less diverse, our students might be less committed to the cosmopolitan vision that characterizes cities, and the climate of the school would feel very different.

Nevertheless, we must continue to study how we can meet our mission of being an academically challenging college preparatory school with a wide array of strong extracurricular activities that is not only "in the city" but is also "of the city." Like great cities that attract a diverse population engaged in different ventures, Crossroads College Prep should be an academic marketplace where a mixture of people come into contact with and learn from each other.