How Jane Jacobs Fought The Destruction of New York City’s SOHO Neighborhood

Eric Carlson
May 27, 2020 · 6 min read

Fighting the power isn’t impossible, it just takes grit

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The year is 1968. 51-year-old author and activist Jane Jacobs takes the stage at a local hearing about the new highway proposed to go through the southern part of Manhattan. The project is called Lomex, or Lower Manhattan Expressway, and has stirred controversy ever since it was suggested by the famed public works director Robert Moses.

The event was a formality scheduled by the New York State Department of Transportation so that they could say they collected public opinions. They expected it to be a by-the-book meeting, but it turned out to be nothing of the sort.

Soon the crowd was chanting “We want Jane!” over and over, summoning the famous urbanist to the mic. She denounced the project, encouraging those in protest to join her on stage, where the stenographer’s notes were soon strewn about as the State DOT tried in vain to control the situation. Jacobs would soon be arrested and taken to the police station, even as protestors continued to shout “We want Jane!” outside the jail.

This meeting, and Jane’s subsequent arrest, would turn the tide of opinion surrounding Lomex, a superhighway project that would have cut across Manhattan and destroyed a large chunk of what is now known as Soho (which as then a poor and struggling commercial area). The area was saved because of the efforts of many dedicated New Yorkers, including the well-known author Jane Jacobs.

In the book Wrestling with Moses, the author Anthony Flint recounts the clash between Jane Jacobs and her nemesis, Robert Moses, bringing us front and center into the struggles for urban space and neighborhoods that would define a generation of New Yorkers, and change Urban Planning for years to come.

The battle over Lomex wasn’t the first time Moses and Jacobs found themselves on the opposite sides of a fight. There were several battles between the two in Mid-20th-Century New York, all of which Flint describes in gritty detail. Jacobs had won an early victory in the battle to save Washington Square Park in the late 50s, and then a few years later rescued her own neighborhood — Greenwich Village — from an Urban Renewal project.

The fight over the Lower Manhattan Expressway, also known as Lomex, is the third battle detailed in the book. Lomex was, in many ways, the pet project of the famed public works director Robert Moses, who was arguably the most powerful man during that era of New York City. With the force of Moses behind it, it was very unlikely that any project would be shot down in years prior.

With money promised by the Federal government (thanks to the 1956 Federal Highway Act), Moses thought that it was now or never to build a high-speed expressway that connected New Jersey and Brooklyn across Manhattan Island.

On the other side ideologically was the historic preservation movement, which sought to preserve notable buildings and build neighborhood pride in New York City. With the destruction of beautiful buildings like Penn Station still controversial with locals, it was becoming increasingly easy to garner support in favor of a saving, rather than destroying, older structures with architectural value.

This idea of preservation instead of destruction would take hold in mid-century NYC, uniting people against the perspective of powerful men like Moses, many of whom wanted to modernize New York City by clearing out older buildings — all in the name of automobile traffic and urban renewal.

Historically, the building of interstates would prove to be a monumental and controversial move for the United States at the time. What was once a mess of roads and highways across the continent would now allow for the quick and efficient movement of cars between major cities. Yet these roads had to go somewhere, and where they usually went was through poor, multicultural neighborhoods that lacked the political clout and financing to fight these decisions.

In the 1950s on, a number of cities across the country destroyed historic, often minority neighborhoods to build interstates through downtowns and out to suburban areas. Many of these neighborhoods will never be the same, scarred by the demolition of people’s legacy, tradition, and sense of home. For more on this, check out the Vox video at the end of this article.

By the time that Lomex was officially proposed in the early 60s, Jane Jacobs had grown tired of constantly fighting the system to save urban neighborhoods and stop renewal projects. She was against the highway, that was for sure, but didn’t know if she had the energy for another battle against an ill-conceived public works project.

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Robert Moses, power broker and public works extraordinaire

Nevertheless, Jacobs was brought into the fight against the interstate, which would have destroyed hundreds of structures in the area now known as Soho. One of these buildings was a Catholic Church, which served the local area that had yet to become the hip fashion hub of these modern times. This priest, named Gerard La Mountain, would be the one to convince Jacobs to help them stop Lomex.

The visions of New York drawn up by the designers of Lomex were nothing short of dystopian in style. Coming out of the tunnel, triangular structures would have stretched over the submerged road, possibly serving as apartments and restaurants for New Yorkers. The two crossings on the east side of Manhattan would have featured strange towers lining the bridge entrances. You can see the mockups in the image below.

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So how did they win the fight? Jacobs and company employed many different techniques to help sway public opinion and make people pay attention. One was to flip the narrative of the project. The Lomex protesters referred to the project as the “Los Angelization” of New York, which was quite the insult at the time.

They also appealed to their local representatives, people with the clout and influence to sway local organizations and government action. When local politicians stand up against a project, such as in the case of Lomex, people are much more likely to pay attention.

The protesters also benefited from Jacobs’ fame at the time. With such a famous (and controversial) writer and urbanist on their side, they could be sure that the story would, in the least, garner a lot of attention. Jacobs was also great at organizing people in a common cause and inspiring them to act.

By the 1970s, Lomex was declared officially dead by local leaders, and with the many buildings in the area with official historic designation, is unlikely to ever be revived again.

All these years later, Jacobs influence still rings loudly in American Urban Planning. Not only is New York City preserved for future generations, but Soho is now a prime example of a hip urban neighborhood, attracting the rich and the famous to its cast-iron buildings and wide streets. For better or worse, historic preservation now coexists with gentrification, as the poor are pushed out by money and real estate speculation.

For more on the impact highways and interstates have had on American cities, check out the Vox video below:

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Eric Carlson

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