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Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City

by Anthony Flint

Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities Are Changing the World

by Jeb Brugmann

Over the last couple of years, it has been nearly impossible for any Torontonian to avoid the presence of Richard Florida, the author, “lecturer in creativity,” and well-compensated University of Toronto professor. Specifically, one regular Globe and Mail feature recorded Florida’s musings on different Toronto neighbourhoods. As tedious and self-indulgent as those Globe stories and accompanying videos were, they loosely replicated the methodology of Jane Jacobs, another transplanted American. In 1968, decades before Florida came north to accept his sinecure, Jacobs moved from New York to Toronto with her family (she had a draft-age son). Before leaving the Big Apple, she published her seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and famously did battle with legendary New York city planner Robert Moses.

In Wrestling with Moses, former Boston Globe reporter Anthony Flint focuses on Jacobs’ improbable journey from Scranton, Pennsylvania, to New York’s Greenwich Village – a neighbourhood she would fight to save from Moses’s proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway. Jacobs (née Butzner) moved to New York in 1934 intending to become a journalist. While working as a secretary and living with her sister, she began writing stories on spec, the first of which were published in Vogue. As Flint notes, Jacobs’ early pieces, like a 1937 article about Lower Manhattan’s flower market, seem to presage her mature style, which was observational verging on ethnographic. For his part, Flint’s own style is highly readable, a function of his many years as a newspaper reporter. He adheres to the basic credo “show, don’t tell,” which, in the case of a story more than four decades old and with both of the main characters dead, is no easy task.

For the most part, Flint avoids sentimentalizing the key figures in his story. As a result, when he puts Jacobs’ work during this period in context, his arguments are worthy of attention. For example, he writes that The Death and Life of Great American Cities, first published in 1961, was the first of a series of book-length journalistic investigations – which also included Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Michael Harrington’s The Other America, and Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed – that successfully managed to “identify flaws in American politics, policy, and culture in the postwar period.” And more importantly, those works inspired people to act.

It is not clear who will be inspired by Jeb Brugmann’s Welcome to the Urban Revolution. Brugmann, a Toronto resident and a faculty member of Cambridge University’s Programme for Industry, is now the founding partner of The Next Practice, which, despite sounding like a shadowy organization in a J.J. Abrams production, helps corporations such as Barclays, Nestlé, and Visa better serve low-income markets. His argument, supported by copious examples from all corners of the globe, is that the whole world is being organized into one big City. (Brugmann capitalizes “City” when he refers to it in this sense.)

The available data are certainly on Brugmann’s side. Statistics show that a rapidly growing proportion of the world’s population lives in urban centres. This will create unavoidable logistical and political concerns in the developed and developing worlds.

The more curious part of Welcome to the Urban Revolution is Brugmann’s notion that the people who emigrate to the world’s cities (or, I suppose, the City) are society’s most entrepreneurial individuals. Brugmann claims these people come to the city seeking the economic and social advantages of modern urban life: density, scale, association, and extension. In some ways, this idea is an extrapolation of the work of German scholar Max Weber, who argued over a century ago that the moral underpinnings of Calvinism were a significant factor in the economic development of the West. Except Brugmann can’t even point to something as intangible as faith to bolster his argument. His emigrants are a self-selecting group of high-achievers lured to the city by dreams of streets paved with gold – or, at least, paved streets.

While Welcome to the Urban Revolution employs examples from cities around the world, Brugmann spends a lot of time writing about Dharavi, a slum on the edges of Mumbai. He notes that entrepreneurs in Dharavi took advantage of cheap labour, the slum’s proximity to slaughterhouses, and the growing demand for leather goods to build a flourishing industry. Brugmann believes that government planners need to avoid interfering in such areas except to provide infrastructure, health care, and security. 

Brugmann’s belief in the enterprising nature of slum-dwellers is a narrow-minded and overly optimistic leap of faith that has similarities to Florida’s insistence that the size of a city’s “creative class” correlates positively with its economic development. While the slums of Mumbai, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, and the housing projects of Toronto may be home to thousands of entrepreneurs, they also teem with poverty and desperation. In the absence of easy solutions, the public will increasingly turn to urban gurus like Brugmann in the hopes of finding the next Jacobs. But her replacement is not here yet.