Tag Archives: Brooklyn

Jane Jacobs Meeting Robert Moses in New Orleans

Protest where people dressed in their Jane Jacobs eyeglasses

New Orleans    For decades Robert Caro’s Power Broker, a biography of New York City’s parks, ports, bridges, and roads czar Robert Moses, has been required reading for community organizers interested in understanding how power works in cities.  Jane Jacobs of course was the author and planning aficionado best known for her advocacy of human scale community development.  Roberta Gratz, our neighbor, wrote a book (The Battle for Gotham:  New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs) about their conflict some years ago and was going to give a lecture on how their shadows could still be seen on the New Orleans landscape, so it was bound to be an interesting hour at the Historic New Orleans Collection on Royal Street to hear her remarks.

I had been attracted to the lecture because I had thought she was speaking about shrinking city footprints, which is a critical organizing issue these days.  That turned out not to be the real drift of Roberta’s remarks though it was fascinating to hear her point about a Brooklyn land survey finding more than 500 acres of undeveloped property in the city, making that amount larger than Prospect Park!  The real sharpness of her critique was on the Moses-like attempts to create state authorities over local land use and development without any accountability.

She correctly drew direct comparisons in New Orleans to some of the controversial Moses strategies of public control that authorizes the Bio-District developing a so-called medical corridor for the new Veterans’ Hospital and replacement for Charity Hospital.  The outsized footprint of the hospitals she argued would create a suburban-like city center competitor driving businesses and services out of the core central business district to the magnetized health facilities.  She predicted that they would end up requiring subsidizes and would not deliver new jobs or enterprises as promised. The virtually all-white French Quarter and uptown crowd wildly applauded these remarks.  They were equally enthusiastic about her critique of a newly state proposed Tourism District that would not involve the immediate planned destruction as the Mid-City hospital district had, but amassed $11 million for marketing that was seen as unnecessary and she warned that an unaccountable authority in the Moses-model could keep annexing more area and power having already claimed even the Treme neighborhood as part of its footprint.  She argued that this district was little more than a hotel development stalking horse.

One of the key components of the Moses-model was the ability to control public revenue streams which Gratz did not mention.  The authority may have been the Moses hammer, but the money from his ability to control bridge tolls and other streams provided the muscle that moved the tools.  In a city where one of the proposals for renaming the local basketball team is to call us the New Orleans Poor Boys and in a state which is not hesitating in its guerrilla war against the city to transfer power and control, revenue is still the delimiting factor in plans no matter how grand.

Gratz had the dignified crowd whooping when she raised the Jacobs arguments against one current streetcar plan that would extend the line for tourists near the behemoth Morial Convention Center and not farther downtown along St. Claude in our Bywater neighborhood.  She related an Jacobs-like development axiom:  “…do it for locals, visitors will come…do it for tourists and the locals will leave eventually.”  That’s worth thinking about some more.  Another line about “authentic regeneration” is also intriguing along with a Jacobs term she cited about something called, “cataclysmic money,” all of which I need to consider longer and weigh harder.

The contradictions and ironies in the crowd were hard to avoid.

Gratz took incoming hits during the question period for her criticism of the cloistering of Armstrong Park and her comparisons to the earlier planning disaster of Grant Park in New York City.  She made an interesting point about letting people decide by waiting to build sidewalks until it was possible to recognize the “desire paths” that people chose to walk.

She let the crowd off easily by not defining the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act as having been specifically passed in 1978 by ACORN and others to end racial discrimination in lending, but soft pedaling it more as something that moved the banks to lend more to neighborhoods.  Also unspoken was the obvious points that might have lost her the support of many in this particular room had she pointed out the fact that nowhere is an unaccountable and undemocratic state control in the city in more dramatic evidence than the usurpation of the local school system which still goes largely unchallenged and in power almost eight years after Katrina.

Nonetheless, anyone listening carefully would be hard pressed to escape the conclusions and the dire warnings that hung from Roberta’s words at almost every turn.

Jane Jacobs


Deficit Commission’s Assault on Workers and the Poor

hillman_bio_portraitNew York Staying in the guest room of an old ILGWU coop near Grand and FDR with a view of Brooklyn and the Williamsburg Bridge from one window and across the street the sprawling Hillman complex named after Sidney Hillman the old Amalgamated Clothing Workers leader, I could remember the vision of unions – and even government – to provide life to death strength for our members.  I say government, because these coops were all built as worker and retirement housing through federal financing programs in the 1950-60s.  To complete the cycle I was the guest of Sam Mitchell, a retired Canadian professor from Ottawa, who had inherited the place from an uncle, who had far outlived his father, my old friend and colleague, H. L. Mitchell, founder of the historic Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) in eastern Arkansas almost 100 years ago.

There were some brief moments over the last 100 years where it was not politic to victimize the poor and workers.  Reading the propositions of the bi-partisan Deficit Commission and its total assault on citizen wealth, if there was any doubt, it’s crystal clear that at least many of the blue ribbons on this commission think those times are long gone.  The headlines have focused on spending cuts and adjustments, but this is much, much more and much, much less, and I don’t say this because all of the adjustments are wrong.

Sitting with my view of Brooklyn, I could read the morning paper, the New York Times, and its chart on the cuts which mislabeled some of the most severe anti-poor attacks as “tax increases.”   I assume they mean revenue increases, since the point was to eliminate entitlements like the critical ones for working families and low income workers, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the child tax credit, both of which have long enjoyed total bipartisan support whether Clinton or the Bushes or Obama at the top.

They want to save $24 billion by freezing federal and non-combatant salaries for three years moving the concept of an “all voluntary” army bias to public workers without reckoning with the impact there on families, communities, or anything else.   In the same spirit this commission’s leaders argued for cutting social security benefits for retirees, and remember those of us who need social security the most are lower income workers without fancy salaries and benefit programs.  Reducing automatic cost of living increases also would guarantee that we impoverish senior citizens depending on social security for their subsistence living.  I hope Mexico is read for all of the undocumented seniors that will be swarming across the border looking for lower living costs.

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