Gratz: An Urban Memoir

The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, by Roberta Brandes Gratz (Nation Books 2010)

Writers write best about what they know, and what I know best about Roberta Gratz, longtime urban journalist and author of the new book "The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs," is my own relationship with her, which began about 20 years ago now.

At the time I was a reporter for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, stirring up trouble with my stories on urban planning and development. Gratz had once done the same thing at The New York Post. I would call up Gratz, whose first book, "The Living City," had just come out and which I loved, and she would give me great long quotes about the importance of doing things from the ground up, protecting the urban fabric, avoiding mega-projects, and nurturing real urban life.

Gradually over time, I made the same leap Gratz did: from being a reporter on urban planning to a thinker and writer on the subject in my own right. As happens when mentees grow up, I gradually started to disagree with Roberta some of the time, but we were and are still friends.

I say all this as background in reviewing her latest book, because it doesn't seem quite right to leave it out. It's certainly affects my view of Gratz and her writing.

Her latest book is essentially a memoir, although that's not how it is billed, and it is the memoir portions that are best. Gratz's story of six or seven decades in and around New York City, including growing up on Washington Square Park, a move to Connecticut suburbs, back to Manhattan as a young woman, working as a reporter at The New York Post, urban homesteading on the Upper West Side when it was still dangerous, helping out with her husband's light manufacturing business (Gratz Industries), becoming friends with Jane Jacobs and helping persuade her to to go public with her opposition to the Westway highway project, helping renovate a synagogue on the Lower East Side, serve quite nicely as vehicle for Gratz's many insights into ways one should and should not grow a city. It's the perspective of an outsider, even as Gratz herself has become an insider of sorts, serving on the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission and numerous other public bodies.

It's certainly shaped Gratz's viewpoint that a bulldozer and eviction notices have been following her family around for most of her life. New York University tore down her parents' home, Moses' policies shoved out her father's dry-cleaning business on 8th Street, and another urban renewal project in the 1960s tore down the building that housed her husband's metal-working shop on West 32nd Street. (It successfully moved to Long Island City.)

Gratz's stories of her past glide smoothly into her commentary into the present, which is equally valuable. She points out, accurately in my view, that the Empire State Development Corporation has essentially replaced Robert Moses in doing big projects, like Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, with little real public input and which often sit like islands in the city they are nominally part of.

I certainly don't agree with Gratz on everything. She hints that RPA is a bunch of highway-loving stooges to the powers that be, even though this organization has worked tirelessly since the late 1930s on behalf of the region's mass transit system.

But what I see as Gratz's central point I agree with: Moses' style of anti-urban, anti-transit, anti-street style of development has continued in New York, pushed by government, despite Jacob's victory in academic and intellectual circles. It's a point I have made as well. We should figuring out why this is the case, and change it.

What's unfortunate about the book is that it is billed as a story of Robert Moses, the mega builder, versus Jane Jacobs, the champion of the traditional city. The book does recount much of their history, but this story has been told before and better elsewhere. Gratz (or her editors) should have had the guts to bill the book as a straight memoir, rather than hanging her personal story on the overexposed Moses and Jacobs. I would have entitled it: "Gratz: An Urban Memoir."