The Women Who Saved New York

Two women preserved old New York in the sixties.

Posted Nov 24, 2008

One woman responded to my post, The Bravery of Michelle Obama: "For the first time in my adult life, I can actually say I look up to a woman as a hero. Modern women heroes tend to be celebrities. What have they really accomplished?" But in the 1960s, two women preserved New York so that all Americans can appreciate the city today. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Jane Jacobs differed in background, personality, and demeanor. Nonetheless, the soft-spoken Onassis and the out-there Jacobs both stepped forward to rescue their neighborhoods and what they (and we) love about New York.

If you buy a book about what New York has lost, it will feature Penn Station - the magnificent railroad complex completed in 1910 by the legendary architecture firm, McKim, Mead, and White. It's haunting, vaulting steel and glass train shed; its immense (7 acre) waiting room - the largest indoor space in New York; its monumental Roman columned entrance; were stunning to behold and captured the imaginations of New Yorkers and countless writers and filmmakers.

Captured them, that is, for the first half of the last century. New York's Penn Station was demolished in 1963 - to be replaced by the current atrocious Madison Square Garden. The demolition caused international outrage and left a permanent scar on the psyche of New York. There was at the time no architectural or historical preservation regulation in New York - or the United States.

Across town from Penn Station stands Grand Central Station, which was completed in 1913. Equally stupendous to Penn Station, its immense concourse centers around the information desk, signalled by a clock with four opal faces. (I have calculated that a billiion assignations have occured beneath this clock, one or two of which I contributed myself.) In 1998, the main concourse's original ceiling decoration - a painted astronomical map with astrological figures - was restored after a 12-year effort, creating a panoramic vision from the station's floor. Grand Central is the most magnificent interior space in the United States.

It was almost destroyed in 1968. The most visible opponent of this demolition was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Mrs. Onassis lived on the East Side near the Station. She called the group opposing the demolition to offer her services, and went on to lead a national lobbying effort to preserve the building and to create preservation legislation. Mrs. Onassis described what moved her involvement: "Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children?"

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When a 1344-page volume called The Power Broker wins the Pulitzer Prize and is an instant urban planning classic, as occurred with Robert Caro's biography of Robert Moses, the subject of the book was probably pretty powerful. Robert Moses - who never held an elective office - controlled public construction in New York City and Long Island from the 1920s to the 1960s through a series of interlocking state and city positions, as well as heading the public-private Triborough Bridge Authority.

Among the many, many public projects associated with Moses were the Triborough Bridge, Lincoln Center, the Long Island Expressway, Jones Beach, public housing throughout the city, the 1939 and 1964 World's Fairs, the Verrazano Bridge and more, much more. In the course of these and many other highway, bridge, and building construction projects, Moses divided and destroyed any number of local neighborhoods. After the staggering destruction of Penn Station (for which he was not directly responsible), Moses proposed an expressway through historic Greenwich Village and what is now SoHo.

Living in the Village was Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the classic book published in 1961 about how public spaces and walking corridors had been destroyed throughout the country. Jacobs lauded the diversity and richness of crowded urban spaces, of life on the streets. She agreed with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis that "this is the time to take a stand, to reverse the tide, so that we won't all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes."

Now Moses was coming to destroy her neighborhood. Although Jacobs was a book-writing intellectual, she was also a street-level activist. She commenced to fight Moses over the destiny of New York. Jacobs won - the City rejected the Moses plan in 1964, effectively ending his reign. Jacobs was the opposite of the petite, lady-like Onassis, who preferred polite meetings with political officials in quiet offices and restaurants. Jacobs readily crawled through windows to attend meetings to which she wasn't invited, spoke in a gruff voice, and feared no one.

Without either Jacqueline Onassis or Jane Jacobs, New York would be a worse place, and we would be worse off. So, a toast to these women who cared so deeply - and who made a difference for all of us.