The Forgotten Heroine

History Lesson

By David Kelsey

Published August 18, 2006, issue of August 18, 2006.
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According to news reports, New York is taking steps to honor the late Jane Jacobs, the heroine who saved the city from a Lower Manhattan Expressway. A street, as well as perhaps a playground, seems likely to be named for her, memorializing this iconic urban activist for generations to come.

But Jacobs did not appear out of a vacuum. There were, in fact, others who made a stand against Robert Moses, the powerful — though never elected — civil servant who shaped the city more than any other person, invariably in favor of his perceived needs of the automobile, at the intentional expense of public transit and the poor. Of these fights, one of the most tragic was led by a woman named Lillian Edelstein, of the East Tremont section of the Bronx. Moses was famous for doing what he pleased with those areas he deemed slums. And in 1953 in the Bronx, what Moses wanted was a road. A very big road. The Cross Bronx Expressway, to be exact. But at the time, East Tremont, like many neighborhoods declared slums by Moses, was anything but that — it was, in fact, a vibrant, lower-middle class Jewish community. But Moses had no appreciation for such neighborhoods and decided to bisect it.

Edelstein was the leader of the resistance to Moses, and the one who fought the hardest, often alone. The Jews of Tremont were a less activist sort than the Jews of the Lower East Side, who would mobilize in the 1960s under Jacobs’s leadership. Edelstein understood that she could not stop the construction of the expressway; what she fought for, instead, was to prevent it from being placed in the middle of East Tremont and alternately move it to two blocks away alongside the park, where it would be less invasive — and a straighter line to boot.

The alternate route wasn’t even considered. The residents were not given adequate time or adequate compensation for their forced eviction. Those who remained had to contend with massively debilitating construction. Tremont soon became a real slum. Edelstein failed.

Or did she?

Edelstein lost the battle, but she may have directly helped win the larger war. Edelstein’s battle may have helped guide Jacobs’s strategy to victory in her defeat of a planned Lower Manhattan Expressway.

In the Bronx, Moses effectively forced all public officials to reverse their position of supporting an alternate route for the expressway, utilizing the power of his numerous positions and contracts as leverage to enforce his will. The final defeat was with the vote of the Board of Estimate. If Jacobs had been watching — and one imagines that she must have been — she would have seen Moses reveal his tactics for imposing his will, as well as his true nature and contempt for communities of modest means. If Jacobs was watching, Edelstein’s fight would have helped Jacobs prepare for her own.

Only one man knows: historian Robert Caro, author of the famed biography of Robert Moses, “The Power Broker.” Though Caro is responsible for detailing Edelstein’s fight, the story of Jacobs’s fight was cut from “The Power Broker” (along with a third of the book, down to a svelte 1,162 pages). But these cuts were made when Caro began his career. Today he is the eminent biographer of his generation. It is long past time for Caro to release a full edition of “The Power Broker.” Among the many things that it may reveal is the extent of influence Edelstein’s battle for East Tremont had on Jane Jacobs.

And yet, even if it turns out that Edelstein did not directly pave the way for Jacobs, she still offers an important lesson: Even if you never had a chance — sometimes it is still worth fighting, in the hope that others will take note and fight, as well.

But she is a heroine, as well, for standing up for her lower-middle class Jewish community. Edelstein insisted that in fact, her neighborhood was no slum at all, but a good neighborhood. A valuable neighborhood.

For all this, I would like to propose that we name a block after Edelstein, as well. But a Lillian Edelstein street should not be chosen on a block in East Tremont, where she was defeated, but on a street on the Lower East Side, a neighborhood in the destructive path of Moses’s planned expressway, which was finally foiled.

David Kelsey is the associate director of business development at Heeb magazine, and an editor at Jewschool.com.






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