Friday, September 23, 2016

Jane Jacob's Street Smarts

What the urbanist and writer got so right about cities—and what she got wrong.

Jane Jacobs’s aura was so powerful that it made her, precisely, the St. Joan of the small scale. Her name still summons an entire city vision—the much watched corner, the mixed-use neighborhood—and her holy tale is all the stronger for including a nemesis of equal stature: Robert Moses, the Sauron of the street corner. The New York planning dictator wanted to drive an expressway through lower Manhattan, and was defeated, the legend runs, by this ordinary mom. (...)

Her admirers and interpreters tend to be divided into almost polar opposites: leftists who see her as the champion of community against big capital and real-estate development, and free marketeers who see her as the apostle of self-emerging solutions in cities. In a lovely symmetry, her name invokes both political types: the Jacobin radicals, who led the French Revolution, and the Jacobite reactionaries, who fought to restore King James II and the Stuarts to the British throne. She is what would now be called pro-growth—“stagnant” is the worst term in her vocabulary—and if one had to pick out the two words in English that offended her most they would be “planned economy.” At the same time, she was a cultural liberal, opposed to oligarchy, suspicious of technology, and hostile to both big business and the military. Figuring out if this makes hers a rich, original mixture of ideas or merely a confusion of notions decorated with some lovely, observational details is the challenge that taking Jacobs seriously presents. (...)

Jacobs found her vocation quickly but her subject very late. She spent several years working for a magazine called Amerika, published by the U.S. State Department for distribution in the Soviet Union. Only in the mid-nineteen-fifties did she begin writing about urban issues and architecture, first for Architectural Forum and then for Fortune, which offered a surprisingly welcoming home to polemics against edifice-building.* She married an equally cheerful, nonconformist architect, Robert Jacobs, and they moved—just before the first of their three children was born—into a house at 555 Hudson Street, an address that, for certain students of American originals, has attained the status of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden. (...)

It was against this background of established notoriety that Jacobs published, very much under the guidance of the editor Jason Epstein, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” The book is still astonishing to read, a masterpiece not of prose—the writing is workmanlike, lucid—but of American maverick philosophizing, in an empirical style that descends from her beloved Franklin. It makes connections among things which are like sudden illuminations, so that you exclaim in delight at not having noticed what was always there to see.

A celebration of the unplanned, improvised city of streets and corners, Jacobs’s is a landscape that most urban-planning rhetoric of the time condemned as obsolete and slummy, something to be replaced by large-scale apartment blocks with balconies and inner-courtyard parks. She insisted that such Corbusian super blocks tended to isolate their inhabitants, depriving them of the eyes-on-the-street crowding essential to city safety and city joys. She told the story of a little girl seemingly being harassed by an older man, and of how all of Hudson Street emerged from stores and stoops to protect her (though she confesses that the man turned out to be the girl’s father). She made the still startling point that, on richer blocks, a whole class of eyes had to be hired to play the role that, on Hudson Street, locals played for nothing: “A network of doormen and superintendents, of delivery boys and nursemaids, a form of hired neighborhood, keeps residential Park Avenue supplied with eyes.” A hired neighborhood! It’s obvious once it’s said, but no one before had said it, because no one before had seen it.

The book is really a study in the miracle of self-organization, as with D’Arcy Thompson’s studies of biological growth. Without plans, beautiful shapes and systems emerge from necessity. Where before her people had seen accident or exploitation or ugliness, she saw an ecology of appetites. The book rises to an unforgettable climax in a passage on the Whitmanesque “sidewalk ballet,” one of the most inspired, and consciousness-changing, passages in American prose:
Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. The order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance . . . an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole . . . Mr. Halpert unlocking the laundry’s handcart from its mooring to a cellar door, Joe Cornacchia’s son-in-law stacking out the empty crates from the delicatessen, the barber bringing out his sidewalk folding chair, Mr. Goldstein arranging the coils of wire which proclaim the hardware store is open, the wife of the tenement’s superintendent depositing her chunky three-year-old with a toy mandolin on the stoop, the vantage point from which he is learning the English that his mother cannot speak. . . . When I get home after work, the ballet is reaching its crescendo. This is the time of roller skates and stilts and tricycles, and games in the lee of the stoop with bottletops and plastic cowboys; this is the time of bundles and packages, zigzagging from the drug store to the fruit stand and back over to the butcher’s; this is the time when teen-agers, all dressed up, are pausing to ask if their slips show or their collars look right; this is the time when beautiful girls get out of MG’s; this is the time when fire engines go through; this is the time when anybody you know around Hudson Street will go by.
Reread today, the passage (it goes on for pages) may seem a touch overchoreographed. One imagines that other contemporary Village dweller S. J. Perelman reading it with a wince: where are the desultory dry cleaners and depressed delicatessen slicers in this Pagnol movie version of Village life? Still, anyone who lived on a New York block would have recognized its essential truth: a single Yorkville block, when I moved there, thirty-five years ago, had a deli, a playground, and a funeral home; the guys from Wankel’s Hardware on an avenue nearby gathered for lunch at the Anna Maria pizza place on the corner. The ballet happened.

Some of Jacobs’s theories were falsified by subsequent history: she expounds on how the block lengths on the Upper West Side keep its streets stagnant, compared with those of her beloved Village, but in fact Columbus Avenue later on became as lively as Hudson Street. Block lengths prove very secondary to attractive rents. Other insights remain evergreen: she shows that bad old buildings are as important to civic health as good old buildings, because, while the good old buildings get recycled upward, the bad ones prove to be a kind of urban mulch in which prospective new businesses can make a start. (One sees this today in Bushwick.)

Two core principles emerge from the book’s delightful and free-flowing observational surface. First, cities are their streets. Streets are not a city’s veins but its neurology, its accumulated intelligence. Second, urban diversity and density reinforce each other in a virtuous circle. The more people there are on the block, the more kinds of shops and social organizations—clubs, broadly put—they demand; and, the more kinds of shops and clubs there are, the more people come to seek them. You can’t have density without producing diversity, and if you have diversity things get dense. The two principles make it plain that any move away from the street—to an encastled arts center or to plaza-and-park housing—is destructive to a city’s health. Jacobs’s idea can be summed up simply: If you don’t build it, they will come. (A third is less a principle than an exasperated allergy: she hates cars, and what driving them and parking them does to towns.) (...)

Books written in a time of crisis can make bad blueprints for a time of plenty, as polemics made in times of war are not always the best blueprint for policies in times of peace. Jane Jacobs wrote “Death and Life” at a time when it was taken for granted that American cities were riddled with cancer. Endangered then, they are thriving now, with the once abandoned downtowns of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and even Cleveland blossoming. Our city problems are those of overcharge and hyperabundance—the San Francisco problem, where so many rich young techies have crowded in to enjoy the city’s street ballet that there’s no room left for anyone else to dance. The first stirrings in Jacobs’s day of what we call “gentrification” she called, arrestingly, “unslumming,” insisting that the process works when a slum, amid falling rents and vacated buildings, becomes slimmed down to a “loyal core” of residents who, with eyes on the street, keep it livable enough for new residents to decide to enter. (This sounds right for, say, Crown Heights or Williamsburg, where the core of Hasidim and Caribbeans, staying out of convenience or clan loyalty, made the place appealing to new settlers.) It now seems self-evident to us, but did not then, that a city can fend off decline by drawing in creative types to work in close proximity on innovative projects, an urban process that Jacobs was one of the first to recognize, and name: she called it “slippage,” and saw its value. We live with the consequences of slippage, called by many ugly names, with “yuppie” usually thrown in for good measure.

The complexity of city housing and city streets becomes plainer if you objectively analyze the career of one of Jacobs’s contemporaries. In her writings, the urban planner Ed Logue is, along with Edmund Bacon, of Philadelphia, a prominent villain. Logue was the author of large-scale urban-renewal projects up and down the East Coast; he fathered Roosevelt Island here. In the new book of conversations, Jacobs speaks of him contemptuously. “I thought they were awful,” she says of his plans. “And I thought he was a very destructive man.” (Her interlocutor, outdoing her, likens Logue to Hitler.)

The reality is considerably more complicated than the caricature suggests, and Logue’s work is more of a challenge to Jacobs’s ideas than we might like. Logue is the subject of an illuminating study by the Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen, who describes him as a man determined “to balance public and private power in order to keep American cities viable, even flourishing.” He may have made bad buildings, but he did it in pursuit of an urban vision in many ways more egalitarian and idealistic than anything that the small-street ideal could encompass. He was a passionate integrationist, and his plan for Boston put a huge emphasis on racial mixing, recognizing that the drive to “protect” neighborhoods most often meant keeping blacks out. In a confrontation at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1962, he accused Jacobs’s anti-planning polemics of winning her too many friends “among comfortable suburbanites,” who, he said, “like to be told that neither their tax dollars nor their own time need be spent on the cities they leave behind them at the close of each work day.” By our usual standards, Logue is the social-democratic, public-minded hero struggling for diversity and equity against the stranglehold of neighborhood segregation, and a progressive ought to side with him against the hidebound defender of organic communities inhospitable to outsiders. (Are there black folks on Hudson Street? Jacobs doesn’t say, and, as Kanigel makes plain, she was impatient when the question came up.) Jacobs pits the small-scale humanist against the brutal, large-scale city planner. But it is just as reasonable to pit the privileged apartment dweller, celebrating her own privilege, against the social democrat trying to produce decent mixed housing for the homeless and the deprived at a price that the city can afford.

By their fruits you shall know them, and by their concrete villages. A cable-car visit to Roosevelt Island is sobering for those briefly inclined to abandon Jacobs for Logue. This is surely not anyone’s idea of successful urbanism. Who would not rather live in the West Village than on Roosevelt Island? If they could afford to. But almost no one can—and the reality is that good housing that will alleviate the San Francisco problem will probably look more like Roosevelt Island than like the West Village, simply because more Roosevelt Islands can be built for many, and the West Village can be preserved for only a few. Refusing to look this truth in the face and think about how the Roosevelt Islands can be made better, rather than about why they are no good, is not to be honest about the challenges of the modern city. The solution can’t be pining for old neighborhoods, sneering at yuppies, and vilifying social planners.

by Adam Gopnik, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Elliot Erwitt