Urban Planning Inspires an Opera

A new opera seeks to capture the conflict between two of the 20th-century titans who shaped American cities.
by | September 2015
Producers staged some scenes in May. (Production Team of Moses/Jacobs Opera)

The world of urban planning is filled with epic conflicts and larger-than-life characters: The villain developer who bulldozes poor neighborhoods and tosses destitute residents out into the street. The band of misfit neighbors who join together to rise up and fight to save their community.

It’s dramatic. It’s impassioned. It may even be operatic.

At least that’s the idea behind a new project from director Joshua Frankel and composer Judd Greenstein. They want to turn the conflict between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, the two biggest titans of 20th-century urban planning, into an opera. Frankel, who grew up in the New York City neigborhood of Hell’s Kitchen and frequented the same park as Jacobs, still sees tension between outsiders looking to redevelop an area in the name of some utopian vision and the people who call it home. With the acceleration of urban development in the United States and around the world, “this is a story that is important now,” Frankel told The New York Observer in May.

The conflict between Moses and Jacobs certainly makes for high drama. At one point, Jacobs literally defended her home from Moses, the country’s most prolific builder of public works at the time. He wanted to pave a highway through Washington Square Park and Greenwich Village, which would have displaced Jacobs and thousands of families. The plan was typical of Moses and other so-called master builders of the era who sought to reorganize urban neighborhoods around the automobile.

The story is helped by larger fault lines between Moses and Jacobs. It wasn’t just about one roadway. On a personal level, Moses and Jacobs were a study in contrasts. He held degrees from Yale and Oxford and enjoyed being addressed as “Dr. Moses.” She took courses at Columbia, but considered it a badge of honor that she never finished college. He was a government insider, at one point holding 12 appointed positions on city and state commissions. She applied pressure from the outside, both as a journalist and neighborhood activist.

The biggest difference between them, though, was philosophical. They disagreed on every aspect of urban living, from transportation to policing to the designs of parks and homes. Moses oversaw grand infrastructure projects that embodied urban renewal in the 1960s -- housing towers, parks, tunnels and bridges. He wanted to bring elements of the suburbs to cities, with residential communities disaggregated from the workplace and connected by car-centric roadways. Jacobs rejected Moses’ vision for cities and helped usher in the principles of new urbanism -- dense, mixed-use development and streets designed for pedestrians and bicyclists, not cars.

The as-yet-untitled opera is scheduled to debut in Williamstown, Mass., next year, with a New York premiere in 2017. To drum up public interest and financial support, Frankel and Greenstein held short scene presentations in May and are documenting their progress through Twitter and Tumblr. The story is set in 1960s New York, when Jacobs organized several successful grassroots campaigns against projects Moses had planned.

The production is the latest in a series of recent attempts to reflect on the twin legacies of Moses and Jacobs. Two books in recent years -- Anthony Flint’s Wrestling with Moses in 2009 and Roberta Brandes Gratz’s The Battle for Gotham in 2011 -- both explore Jacobs’ challenge to Moses’ power. One reason for this interest in their dynamic may be the complete omission of it in Robert Caro’s definitive 1974 biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. The 1,300-page Pulitzer Prize-winning book is silent on Jacobs; much later, Caro revealed that he had written a chapter about Jacobs, but it was a casualty of the editing process.

Frankel and Greenstein say they’ll present their opera as a love triangle between the city and two visionary urban theorists vying for its affections. Nowadays, it seems that Jacobs won that courtship. Her seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is required reading for city planners. The American Planning Association, at first critical of the bottom-up approach to community planning advocated by Jacobs, has since adopted many of her principles in its charter. “Death and Life changed how the world viewed cities,” says Gratz. Traces of Jacobs’ ideas are alive today in highway teardowns, the proliferation of bike lanes and the walkability scores by which many neighborhoods are rated. “We are undoing Robert Moses,” Gratz says, “and bringing in more of Jane Jacobs than ever before.”