A Conversation with Jane Jacobs

You take some things as given: you don’t want a city that’s built for automobiles and not people first.



In the end, will Westway be remembered as but a symbol of abstract and competing concepts of urban renewal—the automobile against mass transit; the slow-growth philosophy of targeted renaissance against the glamour of grand-scale construction? Indeed, will it be remembered at all?



“Battle of the Westway: Bitter 10-Year Saga of

a Vision on Hold,” New York Times

Jane Jacobs sits at the dining room table of her three-story Victorian house in the leafy Toronto neighborhood known as the Annex. It is 1978. She is pondering the news I am bringing her from New York City, primarily the latest chapters in the ongoing fight over the Westway—the massive replacement of the West Side Highway along the Hudson River—then raging in New York. Her white hair and large eyeglasses give her an owlish look that can turn from severity to impishness at the switch of urban topic. “Why aren’t you writing about this, Roberta?” she asks in her most challenging voice. Her unrelenting gaze remains fixed on me.


8.1 Jane loved to sit and chat on her front porch, which we did many times. Herschel Stroyman.

This is my third or fourth visit since being introduced to her earlier that year by the first editor of my first book, Jason Epstein, Jacobs’s editor. 1 We had just begun a long friendship from which I benefited enormously. Over twenty-eight years, she nurtured, nudged, challenged, and enriched my own thinking, writing, and activism. She reinforced my skepticism of official city planning precepts, occasionally rescued me from acceptance of a misguided notion, and showed me the universal lessons of Toronto’s enduring urbanism. Her willingness to take controversial stands and to contradict conventional wisdom was an inspiration for my own activism. We had our differences that only made our conversations more lively. Jacobs and her family had moved to Toronto in 1968. She, more than anyone, opened my eyes early to the defining impact of transportation and manufacturing issues on cities.

On this occasion, our mutual friend Mary Nichols was also visiting. Nichols, a resident of Greenwich Village and former columnist for the Village Voice and then an assistant to Mayor Kevin White in Boston, had kept the expressway in the news through her Village Voice coverage when the mainstream press was less interested and editorially supportive.

Both Jacobs and Nichols were intensely concerned about the Westway progress. They both saw a direct link to the Moses Lower Manhattan Expressway. Jacobs and her family had moved to Toronto in 1968 during the Vietnam War when her two sons were draft age. The final defeat of the Lower Manhattan Expressway occurred after her 1968 departure. Nichols was working and living in Boston and would return to New York soon to work for her old friend and mayor-elect Ed Koch. Yet both urban activists still cared deeply about New York.

On this particular visit, Jacobs and Nichols both grilled me about the Westway fight and persuaded me to write about Westway—the twelve-lane highway proposed to be built on landfill along the West Side of Manhattan—when criticism of it in the press was rare.2 Did I know how critical it was to the future of New York? Did I realize how important to a city its public transit is? Did I realize that so many American cities were dysfunctional because they had spent decades investing in automobile access while destroying the neighborhoods, downtowns, and transit systems they all once had? Did I realize that New York could go in the same direction? No. I had not realized any of these things to the extent they were presenting them. My focus was on neighborhood and downtown regeneration around the country: the South Bronx, Savannah, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, San Francisco, Seattle, and elsewhere. I had just started research for my first book, The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way (1989).

I had been coming to Toronto to explore causes of recent urban decay with Jane, as well as to share with her the signs of rebirth that I was observing in my research but that conventional observers and professionals were dismissing as ad hoc and too inconsequential. She was so enthusiastic about what I was describing as the early rebirth of the South Bronx generated by community-based improvisations that she insisted I take her there when she was next in New York. We subsequently visited the People’s Development Corporation and Banana Kelly in the South Bronx in 1978, led by Ron Shiffman, then head of the Pratt Center for Community and Economic Development, who first took me there in 1977.

She was, however, relentless in pushing me to stop and write about Westway. In many ways, the most important aspect of our expanding relationship was her willingness to be critical of what I was saying or thinking. My slowness to recognize the significance of Westway was one of those occasions. Sure, transit was an important issue in the urban regeneration story, but I did not yet view it as an overarching one. Jane and Mary turned my head on this topic. Transportation, they convinced me, was central to the economic, physical, and social life of all of urban America.

Persuaded, I decided to switch gears. Michael Kramer, then an editor at New York Magazine, liked the subject, if I could get Jane to consent to an interview on it. A few months later, she agreed. These kinds of interruptions were intolerable when she was writing. Consenting to this interview, however, was not just rare but sudden, and I asked why. “Westway is different,” she said. “I just think it’s the single most important decision that New York is facing about its future and whether it can possibly reverse itself, or whether it’s hopeless,” she explained. “This is in part because of the practical damage that Westway will do to the city. And it’s also very important as a symptom of whether New York can profit by the clear mistakes and misplaced priorities that it’s had in the past or whether it just has to keep repeating them.”

Her son Jimmy, who lives down the block, told her she was crazy to agree to this interview. “But I told him, ‘Jimmy, this is important for the fight, and what if that Westway is built and I think, ‘Maybe I could have made some difference; I can’t live with that.’ And he said, ‘Ah yeah, sure,’” she laughed.

We spent many hours over several visits discussing this subject, all of which was taped (the tapes were transcribed).3 The substance went way beyond Westway. She talked a lot about recent New York development history, providing tales and tidbits she had never written or spoken about.

Jacobs’s art is to accessibly outline a specific issue while making clear the broader implications of the substance. So much of what she covered when referring to either the Lower Manhattan Expressway or Westway—like every other issue she wrote or talked about—can be applied to highway and urban renewal fights anywhere.

At its simplest, Westway was just another piece of the Interstate Highway System, stretching from Forty-second Street down to the island’s tip. The complexities are not visible at first. No neighborhoods would have been bisected or erased, although plenty would suffer through the increased traffic of the expanded highway. No land would have been taken away. In fact, land would be added with landfill under which the highway would partially go through a tunnel. Together with the six-lane inland service road, Westway would equal twelve lanes. On top of the landfill, two hundred acres of new city would be created for housing, parks, and commercial development. New highway proposals across the country often looked that simple. Sometimes they still do. Deceptively, the Westway route was drawn as a straight line on all maps. The highly land-consumptive on-and off-ramps were rarely shown. Only two ramps were apparently planned, but it wasn’t clear if more would have been added.


8.2 Jane took special pleasure in the view from her porch down through the whole row of porches. Herschel Stroyman.

As she proceeded through this conversation, Jacobs primarily explained the damage Westway would inflict on New York City and how it would transform the city. But she went way beyond this as well. Most significantly, Jacobs illustrated the importance of any highway debate to the future shape of all cities of any size. This was long before this fundamental debate went mainstream. Essentially, how one views a highway proposal directly relates to one’s fundamental understanding of how a city functions best.


Two fundamental points formed the heart of her argument against Westway. The first is that Westway was part of the same original overall highway network plan of 1929, as was the Lower Manhattan Expressway, thus their intrinsic connection. That plan for all of Manhattan, she argued, improperly favored development geared toward the car, not mass transit or the pedestrian. The second point was the internal contradiction between economics and the environment evident in the argument for both highways. “These are really very obvious things, but I don’t think they’re obvious to most of the public,” she said. “The first point is that Westway is only part of the 1929 plan. Just think of that. It’s almost fifty years old, almost half a century old. New York prides itself on being up to date, but it’s being run by a half-century-old plan. Only pieces of it keep surfacing. Nobody would ever consent to the insanity of doing the entire thing. And yet, if, piece by piece, it gets done, the whole thing is inevitable, because each part depends on another.”

In this case, if Westway were built, the same expanded highway would inevitably be necessary from Forty-second Street north and from the Battery south around and up the East Side. Robert Caro, she pointed out, illustrates well in The Power Broker the Moses technique of building a bridge without saying there’s got to be a new or wider highway on either side. “And the bridge gets built,” she said, “and aha, now the wider highway becomes necessary. Or he builds a road and says nothing about a great big bridge that’s going to have to come, and aha, all of a sudden, the bridge is necessary. It’s piecemeal. People would have a fit if they saw the whole thing.” But, she said, that’s the way these highways have been pushed and not just in New York but everywhere. “In essence, the plan is a ring, an oval really, all around the outside of the island, and then it has lacings across the middle. It’s a net, catching Manhattan. The Lower Manhattan Expressway was one of these crosstown lacings for the whole system.”

During the fight over the Lower Manhattan Expressway, opponents had seen the 1929 Regional Plan, both the maps and the written volumes. This put their effort in perspective. The existing West Side Highway (six lanes) was the first piece of the plan, originally called the Miller Highway. The East River Drive (six lanes), built in the 1930s, was also part of it. “The plan ran into trouble when it began to involve the lacings across the city and the ramps off of them,” noted Jacobs. A crossing at Thirtieth Street was the first defeat, she said, because it would have destroyed the Little Church Around the Corner where many theatrical weddings took place. It had a loyal constituency.

“The story is told,” Jacobs recalled, that “an actor and an actress wanted to get married at, I think, Marble Collegiate, and they got short-changed there, and somebody said, ‘Go to the little church around the corner.’ It had a different name [Church of the Transfiguration]. They were treated there with dignity. It became the church of theater people and became known as ‘The Little Church Around the Corner.’ This was either before the war in the ’30s, or right after, not long after the Regional Plan was proposed. That would have been the first lacing across Manhattan, but because of the church, they hit resistance. So that piece was dropped. Then there was the hiatus on construction during the war.”

Early tunnels, bridges, and ramps, Jacobs pointed out, were on the periphery of Manhattan. Few viewed them as affecting the city center. “There’s a certain logic, you see, to drawing this through traffic over to the edges,” she said. “But the plan always presupposed these lacings, this whole net, to get cars into the city expeditiously and across town. A Los Angelizing of the whole city.” The “Los Angelizing,” Jacobs said, is what traffic engineers want to do to all cities, a one-size-fits-all approach to any city.

This is probably what they all are taught, that no place within a city should be more than a quarter of a mile from a ramp onto an expressway. Los Angeles comes closest to that. Everywhere in Los Angeles is fed by expressways. This is the basic idea.

And this was always the plan for New York. But you see, it wasn’t evident when it was just on the outside. The 1929 plan did not show entrance ramps, nor do Westway maps. Ramps require enormous demolition to create. The minute the real plan for Los Angelizing Manhattan ever goes into operation, it alarms the hell out of people because the destructive implications become very vivid. The Thirtieth Street crossing got that kind of opposition. The Cross Bronx Expressway did too, but that opposition didn’t succeed.

The road through Washington Square would have been one of those ramps. Yet it wasn’t clear to people for a long time, she said, that it would connect to the expressway.


“Some people,” she said, “would like New York to turn into a Los Angeles, or don’t have any sense of the highway’s impact on the fabric of the city, or are like Robert Moses, and there are plenty of people like this. There is no use—we found out in these fights—trying to convince these people. You fight them. If you spend all your time trying to persuade the people who really want this, instead of fighting them, you lose. This is the way to get defeated.” This is a key Jacobs principle: cultivate your constituency rather than trying to persuade your opponents. “You could spend all that energy on trying to bring reason to Robert Moses, or people like him, showing him how he was harming the city, and you would waste it all because his idea of improving the city is really to wipe it out and start over with big projects.”

8.3 This cover story of my interview with Jane about Westway gained a lot of attention in 1978. Jane’s voice had not been heard in New York for a number of years. New York Magazine.


People meet with officials at City Hall, hear expressions of empathy, even maybe agreement, think they have made their case, she said. When it doesn’t go their way, they get discouraged. “That’s where the expression ‘You can’t fight City Hall’ comes from. But you can fight City Hall if you understand that trying to fight it is different from trying to persuade. You can’t persuade them, but you can fight them.”

The viability or regenerative potential of some areas is often not easily evident to the casual observer. Thus, officials declare blighted a neighborhood that is anything but. Deterioration along the Westway route was obvious. Buildings had been neglected for a long time in anticipation of the highway. Few people recognized it as a classic condition, like SoHo had been, where the plan for the highway decades earlier made possible the assumption that nothing else could occur there, an illustration of “planners’ blight,” as described in the SoHo chapter.

The question arose about what would happen to traffic without Westway. It would either continue south around the tip of the island or find its way across the streets, Jacobs predicted. But “the faster you make it for the traffic, the more of it will use these facilities, and also, the less money you have for other kinds of transportation. It’s no accident that transit has gone down, while enormous amounts of money have been spent on highways in New York.”


Driving down the West Side revealed the many things that were happening to make the area look bad. Aside from derelict and neglected buildings, landlords had readily rented to raunchy nightclubs, like the Anvil. Nevertheless, Jacobs insisted, “no defense is needed of how good the area is, or why it seems so bad. This highway can’t be justified on the grounds that it’s so bad there that things need to be taken out. What a ridiculous idea that you put in a billion-dollar highway to manicure a place!”

I raised a larger issue, arguing that the pattern of designating one area after another for renewal or a highway, as Moses did, caused the constant uprooting of people. Jacobs grew a little impatient:

I know, but that’s still a very peripheral argument against the expressway, because plenty of expressways have been put into areas—or proposed for areas—chosen precisely so that that will not happen. They’ve been put through parkland, through ravines, along old railroad tracks. They’ve been put through all kinds of places where they will not uproot people, or where displacement is minimal. And it still does enormous damage to a city. And it’s still the wrong priority for the money.

This is a wrong way to treat transportation in the city. And it’s an uneconomic way and it’s a polluting way, and it’s got internal contradictions that cannot be justified. And it is a national problem. It doesn’t mean that, aha, if you can, in another city, find an expressway that actually doesn’t uproot anybody and doesn’t cut off the waterfront, and doesn’t do one of these specific things, yet cuts through the city, that it’s okay. It’s not.

For Jacobs, it all boiled down to certain irrevocable givens. One of those givens is that if the plan brings more cars into the city, it is wrong. And, she added, it was “cutting down the amount of money, inevitably, to deal with city transportation in other ways.”


Neighborhood traffic has long been a sore point in many places, but most people assume that providing more parking opportunities takes moving cars off the streets. Yet, just as critics argued and showed in the Washington Square Park fight, the more you provide for cars, the more cars will come. The easier to park, the more people will drive. But how traffic cripples, if not kills, a neighborhood is not always understood.

In Death and Life, Jacobs summed up the problem as she had done in our interview—the erosion of the city in favor of the automobile. Roads become wider. Sidewalks are narrowed. Noise, pollution, danger increase. It’s a process of erosion of everything else. When too many automobiles start coming into a neighborhood, deterioration inevitably occurs. When every other amenity of the neighborhood, or of the city, is sacrificed, and inordinate proportions of transportation money are devoted to cars, then you’re eroding the city.

Jacobs was not anticar, just against transforming the city primarily for cars. “There are people who must have this metal cocoon,” Jacobs added.4 “If they will accept some of the disadvantages of it—that it’s a very slow way to get about, very aggravating to be caught in traffic, and so on—okay, they make their choice. But when they want the whole city remodeled to accommodate their phobia, that’s the problem. And furthermore it’s an impossible thing. You cannot do it. You just can’t, especially in dense and large cities, accommodate all the potential cars. Inevitably, you’re eroding things.”

And, of course, it came back again to priorities. “Westway is a prime example of not only, my God, the cost,” Jacobs said, “but also the vision of what the waterfront will be, and what it will do to the rest of New York streets.”

This becomes the first step in a new erosion process. “And a very big one,” she added. “A very big step. The amount of money involved is sort of a measure of that.”


This was where her second fundamental point came in. The first was that Westway was part of the same network as the Lower Manhattan Expressway, all first provided for in the 1929 Regional Plan. The second point, similar in both fights, was the internal contradiction of the proponents’ argument.

Here it is, their big vulnerable point: two contradictory things. One is, if they say that what this expressway is going to accomplish is to accommodate a whole lot of additional traffic, then they run into the problem about air pollution. Even if they say the traffic is going to move faster. If it’s going to accommodate over the next twenty years 2 or 3 percent more traffic a year, or whatever, and you begin to convert that into air pollution, it’s horrifying, and it will never meet the air pollution standards. So they have to minimize the increase in traffic and downplay that it is encouraging more and more automobile traffic at the expense of transit.

But these things cost so damn much, how are you going to justify spending billions of dollars on this highway if it’s not going to handle any more traffic than is being handled now? The enormous costs require arguing that there is some commensurate enormous service it will do. And yet that service, carrying and generating increased traffic, implies horrendous damage to the environment. So, in one case they argue the one thing. Then they have to be inconsistent and argue the other one.

Thus, if it’s going to do what it’s supposed to do and justify its cost, more traffic will be created, and pollution will be generated. If you minimize the traffic projection, you’re minimizing the job the project will do, and therefore you forfeit its justification. The cost can’t be justified. “We may think we have problems,” she laughed, “but we don’t have any built-in inherent intellectual inconsistency, terrible inconsistency, ruinous inconsistency, which they do.”

Now, this is the chief thing that I think is alike on both these fights. As far as I know, the Lower Manhattan Expressway fight was the first one, at least in New York, where the citizens fighting it began to focus on this inconsistency. That’s partly because of the much greater awareness of what was happening to air quality than in the past.5 And when you took the figures that were promoted for the expressway and turned them into what it would mean to the air, in Chinatown, for example, it was outrageous.


That’s when suddenly expressway proponents switched the whole argument to the marvelous new housing and parks and all that was going to be put in on either side of the expressway; it was going to be a whole new piece of city.

And the hearing that was held, the one where I got arrested, that’s what that was all about in ’68? [That hearing] was put together very hastily to change the subject. They had to change the subject because they were hung up on this dilemma.

Now, with Westway, here’s how it’s similar: it started with a change of subject. So much about Westway has been about the landfill and what will be built on it, and the proponents of Westway keep trying to talk about that instead of about the highway. And the more they can talk about that, the less they have to face this absolutely impossible thing of trying to justify it. That’s the function of the landfill.

They learned a lesson. They can’t argue Westway on the grounds of how much traffic it will service because the argument then becomes the pollution. They can’t argue how little pollution it will provide because the argument becomes why spend all this money if it’s going to do that little for traffic. But the opponents of Westway won’t let them change the subject entirely.

Now they’re saying, look, even if it was 3 percent—that’s nothing. But you see these are different hearings. They never have a hearing at which the economic justification and the pollution both have to be argued. They argue one thing at one kind of hearing, and then years later when the pollution one comes up they’ll argue something else. And there’s no honesty to any of these figures. And here is the basic inconsistency, the basic impossibility. Actually, it is impossible to deal with the traffic needs of New York in highways instead of transit; it’s an utter impossibility. It’s a contradiction in terms. And it’s not a verbal contradiction; it’s a real one. You can’t do it and keep New York, keep it as a viable city.

I mentioned that the expressway fight seemed to be the first victory of its kind based on environmental reasoning, using the new federal laws passed in 1968. Jane retorted:

Yes, because before there were environmental impact laws—and in this case air quality—they could justify how this enormous amount of money to be spent had a tremendous cost-benefit ratio, because traffic was going to increase 8 percent a year, etc. They had big figures on the record early, because that’s the only part of the argument that they were concerned with at first. There weren’t any laws about air quality. That’s why on Westway, twelve lanes for a 1 percent increase in traffic, a billion dollars for that! That’s the figure that they used at the hearing, and the hearing officer said, in effect, “I can’t see what you’re basing this on.” So, now comes leaking out in the press, if 3 percent more cars were going to use this, it still would come within the air-quality limits? In short, they have figured they could go up as high as 3 percent and not get into trouble. But that’s all. And it’s not enough to justify all that money. Hence the landfill, et cetera. They hope nobody asks the question: “All right, if this landfill and these parks and all these apartments and everything are so great and the city really will have money to run these parks and fill up this many more apartments and so on, why not do it on its own? Would you do it without the highway? Why is it so great with the highway?”6 Well, it’s so great with the highway because it’s meant to sell the highway.


During the Westway debate, observers occasionally questioned whether the land-development portion of the plan made sense. And not just because the city had no money to create or run the parks, but also because the plan only included putting in a lot of dirt and maybe a token park and then zoning it for housing and parks. None of the land development would occur at the same time as the highway was being built. If one liked the idea of all the parks and housing, then the question was: why are we letting the parks, already suffering from great budget cuts, that we have go to hell while talking about new parks, and why are we concerned with new space for housing when Roger Starr is talking about shrinking the city?7

8.4 Many people wore this button.


Roger Starr was head of New York City’s Housing and Development Administration from January 1974 to July 1976 and a New York Times editorial writer from 1977 to 1992. Starr’s philosophy of Planned Shrinkage called for the concentration of shrinking urban populations in areas of high density and providing municipal services to those areas, while cutting off services and abandoning or demolishing buildings in the areas with diminishing populations. Create new land and build new housing and office towers while at the same time abandoning areas, where

sewers, streets, parks, schools, electric lines, and more already exist? There is no sense to this, no reality in it at all. This is the reason to change the subject and get behind the pollution issues.

The expressway was a running fight for quite a while. It wasn’t until 1969, after the new pollution regulations had gone in, that the first hearing was held on the plan for all the grand things that were going to be built on either side of this expressway and the marvelous new piece of New York that this money was going to buy. Killing it did buy a marvelous new piece of New York. It bought SoHo. SoHo was already reviving, at least starting to. This new exciting neighborhood was being created. Chinatown and Little Italy would have been devastated too. But nobody in the media confronted this built-in dilemma. I don’t think this has ever been published, or ever said, and I think this is big news. Don’t you?


Public debate over whether to build Westway was really a mirage. No debate occurred about whether to build a highway, just which of five highway plans to adopt: highway alternatives, not transportation alternatives. It was all about cars.

The public has been going through a great learning process in the last couple of decades of how to defeat the highway men. In response the highway people, naturally, have worked up other defenses. The environmental impact and air pollution thing was a new weapon for the public. The changing of the subject was a defense move for proponents.

Now there is a requirement for public participation. The public demanded it and got it. In earlier highway schemes, there was no such requirement. So, the defensive weapon is new ways of manipulating the public and of using public relations to give the impression of public participation. With Westway, they’ve anticipated a lot of the troubles that they had with the Lower Manhattan fight. And this time it’s a harder fight because they know that they can’t give up on Westway and start with another piece of the net.

It was becoming clear that if Westway was lost, the battle and the war were lost for more highways like it. “It’s a much harder fight in that they are much more determined to win this battle,” Jacobs said, “so they won’t lose the whole net. But rather than the various differences mentioned, this is what makes this a much harder battle. The chips are down on this one. And herein lies the future of New York. The stakes for the people of New York are tremendously higher in this one.”

Westway’s defeat would be an incredible reversal. If it was defeated, then maybe, finally, there might be some notion about getting to the real business at hand, Jacobs said. In the transit field this would mean looking at upgrading and expanding transit. In the housing field it would mean rehabbing what already existed instead of first or only building more new projects. Jacobs’s vision was about strategies for rebuilding the city.

The stakes for everybody in the country are high. If Westway were built, it would be a very clear signal that there was no hope for the future of New York, that it could do nothing but repeat expensive, disastrous mistakes, and that it can’t turn itself around, and that it was okay to keep building new or expanding existing highways. Other cities will follow.

New York used to be its people, its citizens and the brilliance of many of its citizens. This was what put it ahead of other places. What’s happened to a city that can have handed to it such a brilliant analysis of what its highway programs did to it, as Bob Caro did in The Power Broker, and it just rolls off? And they just keep obsessively repeating the same mistakes. This is what’s absolutely frightening about Westway, that there’s no way New York can turn itself around. That’s what it would mean to me.

I asked, was this is a classic turning point, then, a crossroads? Jane stated, “Yes, it is. I do think it is that important.”

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