What Jane Jacobs didn’t say

As asinine and predictable as Ouroussoff’s cheap shot against New Urbanism was in the Sunday NY Times, at least he had a realistic view of Jane Jacob’s scope. The Death and Life of Great American Cities isn’t the end-all book about urbanism; from the title on down, it simply doesn’t concern itself with the less-than-great cities (like Ouroussoff’s native L.A.). Neither does it mention gentrification. Sure, gentrification is a Bad Thing that destroys neighborhood diversity, but _Death and Life_ (1961) was written before Ruth Glass coined “gentrification” (1964), and long before “yuppie” entered the lexicon (1982). Paul Goldberger in Metropolis notes this internal conflict — that Jacobs prized the small in an age which has merely tilted further towards gigantism:

Has the city simply become too big, and too gentrified, to continue to operate as Jacobs wished it to? So far as a great deal of Manhattan is concerned, and particularly Greenwich Village, the answer is probably yes. Jacobs could not afford to live on her beloved block of Hudson Street today. The real limitation of Jacobs’s thinking is in her belief that since a relatively natural process gave us the city we love — the old neighborhood-rich, pedestrian-oriented, exquisitely balanced New York — then planning would not be of much use in the future. Today, however, the natural order of things yields something very different from the vibrant street-oriented and highly diverse world Jacobs taught us to admire. The natural process of growth now gives us sprawl, gigantism, economic segregation, and homogeneous, dreary design.

So simplistic dispatches like this, from the Beachwood Reporter, strike me as ham-handedly not seeing the forest for the trees:

[S]till more sterile castle condos, inhabited by invisible people hostile to corner taverns and other less-than-shiny storefronts, replacing the humble working-class home or venerable three-flat… I see a city whose neighborhoods once so unique in character are melding into one giant honeypot for a select few whose pull gives them imperial imperative to push others around like chess pieces… the policy makers[‘]… hidden hands instead drive processes such as gentrification that you are led to believe are “natural”… The mixed use of light industry, entertainment, small business, and residential dwellings that Jacobs so (rightly) pegged as a key to urban neighborhoods and which once in part defined not just Wicker Park but many city neighborhoods, has largely been vanquished in Chicago, as everything and everyone is put in their place. It is a mistake. The money people are the means, but not neither the beginning nor the end. We are disposing of that which ought to be most valued, and replacing it with that which is most disposable.

Well, no. Jacobs could praise the industrial-era city because she lived in it, and for better or worse the industrial might that created Greenwich Village, Wicker Park, the Plateau, et al has fled for warmer, cheaper climes. (Sectors like steel were particularly hard hit in the past 10-20 years.) I resolutely believe in economic integration as a goal — I’ve posited that economic diversity is the determining factor of a good neighborhood — but our post-industrial economy, constantly retrenching state apparatus, and (wholly unsustainable) globalized drive towards gigantism bring with them nearly unprecedented levels of economic inequality. Economic integration, already barely tenable when Jacobs wrote at the midpoint of the thirty glorious years, would take Herculean feats to accomplish today. Accusing “the policy makers” of “fearing” the “ordered disorder of street life and the dynamism it brings to urban living” when, in fact, the city perpetually teeters on the edge of bankruptcy strikes me as awfully foolish. As Vincent Scully, an equally unimpeachable observer of cities, wrote, “it is all very well for stylish architectural critics to write that the center city ought to be deliciously gritty and tough. Its inhabitants prefer it gentle and calm.”

Remember that Jacobs actually did get to enact a dream zoning ordinance, for the King-Spadina area just west of downtown Toronto. The code obliterated use and FAR restrictions, imposing some performance measures and building-envelope controls instead. The result? “[D]evelopers have surged into the King-Spadina area,” says John Sewell. As she said in an interview with Bill Steigerwald,

Manufacturing was moving out to where they had more room and where it wasn’t as expensive. There were a lot of small developers who saw that these nice old buildings were just ideal for converting into apartments. They were lofts, mostly, and you know how popular they’ve become. But they were blocked from doing anything about it because of use zoning that said it should be industrial. So you can change that use zoning and allow residential… It’s magical, it’s wondrous, how fast those areas have been blossoming and coming to life again.

Jacobs also praised Portland’s gentrification: “People in Portland love Portland… They really like to see it improved. The waterfront is getting improved, and not with a lot of gimmicks, but with good, intelligent reuses of the old buildings. They’re good at rehabilitation.”

Later, when asked about the zealous gentrification of San Francisco (such that a lawyer could not afford to live there), all she could muster was “it’s gotten so popular.”

(Further, the Beachwood Reporter falls into the classic Chicago trap, likely borne of living under the machine’s benevolent dictatorship, of attributing too much to politics. Otis White [scroll to end] notes that “the three great forces shaping cities — 1. economics, 2. demographics and 3. politics — unfold in roughly that order.” Note the primacy of economics; Jacobs certainly did.)

One last lovely obituary: the Economist communicates her curiosity and expansive mind, capable of understanding the vastly complex urban organism and of accommodating what would seem to be contradictory views to anyone else:

Though she hated top-down planning and approved of markets, as any city-lover should, pink-tinted Canada proved more congenial both to writing and to campaigning. The government listened to her, as the rulers of New York had only ever half done… Not just the workings of cities, but of things in general were a lasting fascination to her. In Scranton, a sooty mining town, she was miserable when the locomotives were fitted with iron skirts that hid how the wheels and pistons moved.

(Incidentally, despite her love of large cities, she was always suspicious of large regimes and long thought Québec should separate from Canada, so that Montréal could serve as center rather than “Toronto periphery.”) The article also offers a tidy summation of Death and Life and Economy of Cities:

Cities had come first, as the natural eco-system of human beings, and only once the web of work and trade had reached a certain size was there any need for the help of the static, primitive and muddy countryside… Cities should be densely peopled, since density meant safety; old buildings should rub up against new, and rich against poor; zoning should be disregarded, so that people lived where their jobs were; cars should not be banned, but walking encouraged, on pavements made wide enough for children to play. Streets should be short, so that people were obliged to experiment and explore and have the fun of turning new corners, just as she had done when hunting for jobs and apartments in her first months in New York.

Addendum 17 Jul: Karrie Jacobs writes of Jane in the August Metropolis: “Although she wrote with great prescience about the tendency of the most vibrant neighborhoods to be undermined by their own success, I don’t think she could have anticipated how a process she characterized as ‘unslumming’ would eventually play out as a raging real estate boom… The mistake made by Jacobs’s detractors and acolytes alike is to regard her as a champion of stasis — to believe she was advocating the world’s cities be built as simulacra of the West Village circa 1960… The real notion is to build in a way that honors and nurtures complexity. And that’s an idea impossible to outgrow.”

Her later works on economies and nature make the link to complexity (and later, to chaos theory and what’s now called “emergence”) much clearer.

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5 thoughts on “What Jane Jacobs didn’t say

  1. Well said. In a sort of footnote to both this and your earlier post about green real estate funding, the city of Montreal just had Wendell Cox up here promoting sprawl, extolling the virtues of tract suburbs, and dissing TND, all apparently on some sort of economic basis.

    There might be economic activity in strip-mall suburbia, but I ask, is it sustainable for the long term? And does it really promote healthy neighborhoods as opposed to dormitory pods linked by collector roads?

  2. Excerpt from a fascinating essay by Andrew Blum, published in the companion book to the “Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York” exhibit now up at the MAS — it relates to some points from Break Through that I’ll refer to in a future (Dec. 2007, hopefully) post.

    Jacobs fought modernist urban planning’s “dishonest mask of pretended order,” and what concerns me today about cities is a corollary: Call it the dishonest mask of pretended localism. Thanks in great part to Jacobs, we talk a lot about preserving neighborhoods, which most often means keeping them the way they are. But for me, preserving an urban community—not merely its architecture, its open space, or its independently owned stores—now means recognizing what the local is made of, the warp and weft of all its pieces, wherever they come from, near or far. And that requires recognizing the global community behind it—for better or worse, in the face of both nostalgia and change…

    [A] new generation of environmentalists, banded together in organizations such as Worldchanging, has begun to shift its attention to cities and align the concept of “green” with technology and urbanization rather than simplicity and nature. Logically, that shift should be easy. Aesthetically, it’s a lot harder. Thinking of cities this way means seeing their density and grit not as the destruction of the environment but as part of its preservation. The Jacobsean conundrum (and the unspoken subtext of every NIMBY argument) is that the environmental preservation of the future may require the destruction of pieces of the past. But if we can recognize the beauty in its benefit, it won’t be a bitter pill.

    I saw this firsthand while living in Toronto… overrun by cars, eyes tearing from the bad air—I began to sour on Jacobs, not as an observer of the city or an impassioned describer of its life but on account of what struck me as the shortsightedness of her localism, or at least the localism shouted in her name…

    I like how the urbanist Marshall Berman puts it: to be a modernist is to be “at home in the maelstrom.” “To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world—and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.” We can resist the extremes of modernism and all its failures; but that does not free us from facing up to the same challenges and inequities that modernism sought to rectify. I don’t know that Jane Jacobs fully accepted this.

    But to the extent that we can create new solutions, looking to the hearts of neighborhoods—the people and the web of connections found there—may give us reason to be optimistic… in neighborhoods around the country—this one in particular—community online message boards and blogs are thriving, entirely in parallel with news passed stoop to stoop… If the physical form of a neighborhood is conducive to community, so is its virtual form. But the other striking thing about the list was that all the neighborhoods were in a state of change—gentrifying or recently gentrified. It’s certainly demographic: a neat and obvious alignment of hipster and blogger. But it also means that the newly emerging character of these places is being forged, at least in part, online. These are incontrovertibly real-world neighborhoods, but their community is as virtual as it is physical. With each year, we get better at navigating between the two.

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