A Lesson for Bernie: How Jane Jacobs Saved Washington Square

Bernie Sanders had a star-studded rally in New York’s Washington Square Park. In the 1950s, a grassroots movement similar to his, led by author Jane Jacobs, saved the Square from being destroyed.

04.13.16 4:58 PM ET

Washington Square Park in New York City’s Greenwich Village is perhaps the quintessential site for today’s rally in support of the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Long the cultural heart of progressive New York, Washington Square has been a major gathering place for artists, musicians, activists, and protesters challenging the status quo. Sanders’s rally there today, and the bottom-up, power-to-the-people message of his campaign, echoes this legacy.

As Sanders brings his message to Washington Square Park and the roughly 17,000 people who’ve RSVP’d for the rally on Facebook, it’s fitting to remember that this park once faced destruction in the 1950s only to be saved by one of his predecessors in bottom-up grassroots activism, Jane Jacobs—author, community organizer, and eventual poet laureate of urbanism, who wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Jane Jacobs poses for a photo in this July 11, 1962 file photo. Jacobs, an author and community activist of singular influence whose classic "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" transformed ideas about urban planning.


In the face of developers and the overzealous parks commissioner Robert Moses, who, in the 1950s, wanted to run a four-lane highway through the middle of the park, Jacobs and other Greenwich Village residents and activists organized a formal opposition to the city’s plans.

Through community-driven support, a large neighborhood coalition, a series of public protests, and a years-long letter-writing campaign to officials at every level of city government, Jacobs and her compatriots eventually triumphed and Moses’s park-destroying plan was shelved.

It was a battle much like the one Sanders’s campaign has framed today: a grassroots coalition of regular people fed up with the top-down impositions of the powers that be running roughshod over regular citizens.

Jacobs, whose centenary will be celebrated on May 4, is something of a spiritual soul mate to Sanders. The parallels between their underlying ideologies are striking. And as Sanders’s popularity and fame continues to skyrocket, it’s time to give his fellow New Yorker, Jacobs, her due.

Jacobs’s fight for Washington Square Park—and for the people’s right to the city—is a story I tell in my forthcoming feature documentary film (which is produced by one of New York’s newer grassroots activists, High Line co-founder Robert Hammond).

Like the modern-day opposition to the role of big banks and the political influence of the wealthiest one percent, Jane Jacobs and the Greenwich Village community members were fighting against a power structure that valued its own perseverance over the public it was ostensibly serving. She, more than anyone else of her era, deserves credit for unmasking this unseemly cabal.

The cabalist’s ring leader was one Robert Moses, the formidable “power broker” of Robert Caro’s Pulitzer-prize-winning biography of the same name, whose unelected rise to numerous positions in the government of the city and state of New York resulted in the creation of widespread public works, but also vast population displacement, urban demolition, and inurbane development.

The plan for Washington Square was to build a road through the middle of the park to connect Fifth Avenue at the north of the park with West Broadway at the south, a street that, under this scheme, would be rebranded “Fifth Avenue South,” mostly for real estate marketing purposes.

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Moses, by this time, was also serving as chairman of the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance, and his approach to so-called “urban renewal” was absolute: Old, diverse neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, in Moses’s mind a slum, needed a fresh start, and bulldozers were the tool.

In fact, in addition to tearing down large swathes of the West Village, he had been plotting a dramatic intervention in Washington Square since 1935, and it eventually became a critical piece of his broader plan to route traffic to a massive freeway he proposed to connect the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges across Manhattan to the Holland Tunnel, dubbed the Lower Manhattan Expressway, or LOMEX.

The freeway would have routed through what became Soho, in addition to Little Italy, Chinatown, and the Lower East Side.

By the mid-’50s, Jacobs was a successful writer covering urban issues, and she saw Moses’s plans as devastating to the neighborhoods through which LOMEX ran. And as a mother who would regularly take her own children to play in Washington Square, the impact on her local park was particularly upsetting.

In a letter to the mayor opposing the plan, Jacobs wrote, “My husband and I are among the citizens who truly believe in New York … It is very discouraging to do our best to make the city more habitable, and then to learn that the city itself is thinking up schemes to make it uninhabitable.” Jacobs was not alone in her opposition, as Anthony Flint deftly lays out in his 2009 book Wrestling With Moses. She joined an ongoing effort to oppose Moses’s plans, and was soon one of its leaders.

Moses knew he needed to deal with the neighborhood opposition. His strategy, as Flint writes, was to portray the neighborhood opponents as “not-in-my-backyard elitists, standing in the way of progress.

But he took his tactics one step further—threatening to withhold all improvements if the Greenwich Village residents would not cooperate.”

Moses held the purse strings to significant public funding available through New Deal-era programs, and he had used this financial power to impose his own vision in numerous other neighborhoods throughout the city.

The Joint Emergency Committee to Close Washington Square to Traffic and its very specific charge eventually gathered thousands to oppose Moses’s plan, including fellow Greenwich residents such as former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the anthropologist Margaret Mead.

Speeches, rallies, and photo ops were arranged to show the neighborhood’s broad opposition to Moses’s plan and the negative effect it would have on Greenwich Village and the city as a whole, an idea Jacobs would explore in her April 1958 article in Fortune, “Downtown is for People“ (and soon after in her seminal 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities). Thousands of fellow New Yorkers agreed with her.

By October 1958, the prospect of Moses’s highway through the park was dead. “There’s nobody against this,” he famously told the Board of Estimate that fall, in an effort to bring his long-held plan back to life. “Nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers.”

On Nov. 1, 1958, the Greenwich Village community held a victory party at the base of the Washington Square arch, as the park was closed to traffic for good.

This is essentially the same type of support that’s propping up the Bernie Sanders campaign—not just “a bunch of mothers” but a bunch of individual people who are tired of being overlooked and overpowered by billionaires and the top one percent of Americans who are using their wealth and influence to control the country’s politics and economy for their own benefit.

With more than 3.5 million individuals donating to his campaign at an average donation of about $27, Sanders has tapped into a collective of people who think the president and the systems of power in this republic should be more concerned with the country’s people rather than its billionaires.

Sanders’s supporters—like Jacobs and her fellow Greenwich Village activists—are individuals coming together into a network to achieve their goals, not simply bowing to plans imposed from above.

In Jacobs’s case, the fight was for the just city, where there is a cross subsidy between the rich and the poor. In Sanders’s case, the fight is for a just country, where the interests of the many are not drowned out by the power of the few.

Jacobs, I believe, would be fascinated with the sudden rise of Sanders and his crowd-funded campaign. It might remind her of her observations of the self-organizing, bottom-up city, which she saw as a big and very complex network of individuals—seemingly chaotic on the surface—but spontaneously coming together to form an orderly whole. A crowd-funded movement is not dissimilar. I think Jane, along with the Beatniks in the Washington Square of her time, would dig it.

The Sanders message is a revival of Jane Jacobs’s spirit, of the individual against the self-interested one percent who will take over our society if we don’t mobilize and act.

Washington Square Park stands today is physical proof of the power and importance of this fight—and its viability.

Find out more about Tyrnauer's documentary about Jane Jacobs here and here.