Saving Cities by Susan Grimsdell
“New York, New York, a wonderful town” goes the song and anyone who’s been there surely agrees completely.
One of the best things about New York is that it’s made up of a lot of villages, each with its own character. Chinatown, Little Italy, SoHo, Greenwich Village, all of them places where people walk, where the dwellings have their own style, where there’s density of living, lots of shops of every type, noise, people, trees, variety in every aspect. Talk about wonderful! I first went there for a weekend at the age of 15 with a friend. I fell in love at first sight and have never got over it.
I was shocked therefore when I heard today that in the 1950s, a powerful city figure planned to put motorways everywhere through the city, including smack through Washington Square Park, a beautiful and legendary green space enjoyed by people such as Henry James and Bob Dylan. This guy, Robert Moses, succeeded in having the whole area decreed as “blighted”, and good for nothing but demolition. He also wanted to extend a 10-lane interstate highway through SoHo and Little Italy, demolishing hundreds of apartment buildings, shops, and small commercial businesses.
Voice for the voiceless
What stopped these draconian plans? One incredible woman – Jane Jacobs. She mobilised local residents, organisations, shopkeepers, thousands and thousands of people who, until she came along, were voiceless. Most importantly, she gained the support of Nelson Rockefeller, a man at least as powerful as Robert Moses. The battle was not easy, but Jane didn’t give up even when at one time she was under arrest facing a penalty of up to 15 years in jail.
Victory for people
As we all know, she and her supporters won in the end. Instead of being a city for cars, New York is a city for people. Over 70% of residents don’t even own a car. How grateful we can all be to her for saving the New York we all know and love, a city that is probably the most beautiful and exciting in the world.
Auckland could take a lesson from her vision and passion before it too becomes the sort of city that planners like Robert Moses would prefer. We need more walkways, cycleways and parks, and not one single more motorway.