Robert Moses Vs. Jane Jacobs, The Central Drama Of Urban Planning, Will Be An Opera

New York City's seminal 1960s urban design battle will be turned into an opera, with a libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winner poet Tracy K. Smith. Here's why that is not such a weird thing.

A legendary 1960s battle over the urban design of New York City is getting its dramatic due. The struggle between urban planner Robert Moses and journalist/activist Jane Jacobs over Moses's proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway will become an opera, thanks to composer Judd Greenstein and director Joshua Frankel.

Moses and Jacobs had deeply divergent visions of New York City's future. Moses was the powerful planner behind a swath of New York City expressways that displaced half a million people during his reign as the city's master builder. He envisioned a city built for easy driving. Jacobs, who popularized the idea of eyes on the street—the notion that streets are safer and more vibrant when there are pedestrians on them—vehemently opposed Moses's plans to raze Washington Square Park and much of Greenwich Village, where she lived, to build yet more miles of highway.

Panorama of the City of New York, a scale model of NYC conceived by Moses to celebrate municipal infrastructure. Photo of the model by Joshua Frankel.

Greenstein and Frankel decided to collaborate on an opera after working on Plan of the City, their 2011 animated short film depicting the architecture of New York City blasting off to Mars. Both grew up in New York City and have personal connections with the spaces Jacobs and Moses clashed over, places that would have been radically altered if history had gone differently.

"It's very much a 20th-century story," Greenstein explained at a recent panel discussion that was organized by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

The opera grapples with opposing visions of what a city should be. Moses's ideals of a clean, orderly city where cars took priority was not unlike the model many American suburbs were built upon. Jacobs, on the other hand, embraced the messiness of urban life, preaching density and diversity of neighborhoods and arguing against top-down, high-handed methods of city planning.

It was an epic David and Goliath struggle and is certainly ripe fodder for the stage. Moses was one of the most influential men in New York. Jacobs was dismissed as a simple housewife who didn't have a college degree. "Robert Moses wasn't a person who really lost very often," Greenstein noted at the panel. Jane Jacobs wasn't the only person to best him, but "she was one of the first."

"But the main character of our opera is New York City itself," the creators explain on their website, "represented through a combination of the nameless people who make up the bulk of history, telling its truest stories, and a visual palette of found and designed images, turned into animation and incorporated into a three-dimensional set that will bring the transformations of New York to life.

The project is still very much in the initial planning stages—Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith has come on board as the librettist—but the piece is still referred to as an "Untitled Opera about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. It will likely be a few years before it premieres. Until then, urban design aficionados will just have to be content with the Broadway interpretation of city planning.

Find out more here.

[Images: Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses via Wikipedia]

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  • Kevin Balmer

    https://vimeo.com/3314950 Jane Jacobs: Parting Words captures urban thinker, writer, and activist Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) in her final public appearance in Portland, Oregon. On tour to promote her book, DARK AGE AHEAD (2004), Jacobs discusses the imperative for culturally diverse and innovative cities, among numerous other issues. Exploring passages from her seminal work, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF GREAT AMERICAN CITIES (1961) and looking at Jacobs through the eyes of leading Oregon planners, the film highlights Jacobs’ clear-eyed perspectives on the problems and opportunities facing American cities. Parting Words demonstrates Jane Jacobs’ long and abiding influence on urban design and planning.