The Battle to Reshape New York Gets the Opera Treatment

Jane Jacobs, left, and Robert Moses
Jane Jacobs, left, and Robert Moses

The story of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs is almost Shakespearean. Moses was the super-powerful planner who built pools and parks for New Yorkers but also engineered a car-based future for the region. He met his match in Jacobs, a mother of three living in Greenwich Village, who went on to write the highly influential book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Now their epic battle has been dramatized in an opera.

“It’s a story about how decisions get made about what gets built and who makes them,” said Joshua Frankel, director of the opera “A Marvelous Order.”

A performance of "A Marvelous Order" at National Sawdust on Nov. 2, 2015
A performance of “A Marvelous Order” at National Sawdust on Nov. 2, 2015

“Moses represents a form of decision making that is top down. Moses looks at the city from the air or from a map, where he can see how it connects to the full metropolitan area. But from that point of view, you’re so far away that you can’t even see people. Whereas Jane Jacobs, her point of view is on the street, walking down the sidewalk where you can look someone in the eye. Which is the whole point of living in a city.”

“It’s hard to imagine New York City without so many of the things that Robert Moses built for it. Before Moses if you wanted to drive from the Bronx to Queens you had to take the 59th Street Bridge and drive along local roads to get to it. And at the same time, thank God we had Jane Jacobs to help slow and eventually help stop Moses’ seemingly endless, almost mannerist drawing of highway upon highway upon highway,” Frankel said.

The opera’s music is composed by Judd Greenstein and the libretto is by Tracy K. Smith. Read an article about the making of the opera here, and see an excerpt from the opera below: