Architecture
September 21, 2016

Adam Gopnick on Jane Jacobs – 9

Adam Gopnick in the New Yorker does a reflection on Jane Jacobs’s life and ideas in her centenary year, with so many astute observations that PT will pull out a selection and run one every hour today.

Jacobs seldom gives a good account of the place of politics in city-making. Politics for her is Robert Moses telling moms where the expressway should run. Politics is the planners, and exists as an afterthought to the natural order of cities. And it’s true: politics isn’t a self-organizing system. It’s not a ballet. It’s a battle. But it remains essential to reconcile goods, like free streets and fair housing, that will never reconcile themselves.
Most big ideas turn out to be half right, half wrong—and, as time goes on, the right bits look ever more obvious, while the wrong bits look really wrong. We read Marx and think, Well, of course men’s economic interests shape their ideologies—who didn’t know that? But what about his ignorance of markets and his contempt for mere democracy? This is true of the afterlife of Jacobs’s ideas, whatever flavor we take them in. Before her, a heroic register in writing about cities was completely commonplace: big buildings, big projects, big places were what made cities happen. (There were honorable exceptions, mostly on the right: Chesterton’s love of London villages comes to mind.) Mumford basically complained that in thinking about cities Jacobs loved the small Washington Squares so much that she couldn’t see the splendor of the great Central Parks.
 

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Adam Gopnick in the New Yorker does a reflection on Jane Jacobs’s life and ideas in her centenary year, with so many astute observations that PT will pull out a selection and run one every hour today.

If Jacobs’s micro-observations are still thrilling, at least one of her big ideas now seems just wrong. She believed in that virtuous, reoxygenating circle whereby density—and short blocks and small green spaces—guaranteed diversity. This no longer seems so, at least not in Manhattan. In the past fifteen years, the density of my Upper East Side block has remained constant, and the play of old and new buildings, parks and streets is unchanged. (No one can build without several years of planning hearings.) But we have lost two toy stores, a magazine store, a cigar store, and a stationery-and-card store, and gained two banks, a real-estate office, a giant Duane Reade drugstore, and, to the bafflement of the neighborhood, three French baby-clothes stores. (The best theory is that these are part of the settlement in hedge-fund divorces.)

This pattern is felt everywhere in the city. The old neighborhood is helpless in the face of new pressures, because it had depended on older versions of the same pressures, ones that Jacobs was not entirely willing to name or confront. What kept her street intact was not a mysterious equilibrium of types, or magic folk dancing, but market forces. The butcher and the locksmith on Hudson Street were there because they could make a profit on meat and keys. They weren’t there to dance; they were there to earn. The moment that Mr. Halpert and Mr. Goldstein can’t turn that profit—or that Starbucks and Duane Reade can pay the landlord more—the tempo changes. The Jacobs street, a perfect reflection of the miracle of self-organizing systems that free markets create, becomes a perfect reflection of the brutal and unappeasable destruction that free markets enforce. The West Village may be unrecognizable today, but it is not because the underlying forces working upon it have changed. It is because they have remained exactly the same. The seeming contradiction between the Jacobite Jane and the Jacobin Jane arises from the reality that markets in street frontage, as in everything else, are made and unmade in a moment.
 

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Adam Gopnick in the New Yorker does a reflection on Jane Jacob’s life and ideas in her centenary year, with so many astute observations that PT will pull out a selection and run one every hour today.

Even cities that to a visitor seem to have kept the charms of pluralism within a dynamic whole capable of adapting to novelty—such as the two Portlands, in Maine and Oregon—invariably seem to their natives to have long ago lost their magic, and become subject to the same monotonic devastation. “Keep Portland Weird” (often said in the Oregon one) is an elegiac slogan. The felt civic tragedy is universal, and possibly part of the tragedy of time and change that no rule can alter.
London, Paris, New York, and Rome—whose political organizations and histories are radically unlike, and which live under regimes with decidedly different attitudes toward the state and toward enterprise—have followed an eerily similar arc during the past twenty-five years. After decades in which cities decline, the arrow turns around. The moneyed classes drive the middle classes from their neighborhoods, and then the middle classes, or their children, drive the working classes from theirs. This has been met in every case by a decline in over-all poverty, but also by a stubborn persistence of pockets of poverty, of extreme exclusion. The pattern holds for Covent Garden and Spitalfields as for SoHo and the Lower East Side, for Williamsburg as for the Ninth and Nineteenth Arrondissements. Blaming neoliberalism, as leftists do, or statist bureaucrats, as reactionaries do, is to seek, despite historical, political, and organizational differences, a one-size-fits-all villain, not an actual analysis.

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Adam Gopnick in the New Yorker does a reflection on Jane Jacobs’s life and ideas in her centenary year, with so many astute observations that PT will pull out a selection and run one every hour today.

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.

 

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Adam Gopnick in the New Yorker does a reflection on Jane Jacobs’s life and ideas in her centenary year, with so many astute observations that PT will pull out a selection and run one every hour today.

Her later books rarely rise to the level of “Death and Life,” except when they recapitulate it. Having bitten off a huge chunk of city life and shared it with the world, she got into the habit of biting off more than anyone could hope to chew. In what was intended to be her masterpiece, “Cities and the Wealth of Nations,” she argued that agriculture began in cities, where seeds could be collected and plants hybridized. It’s a New Yorker’s argument—no Jersey truck farms without Manhattan diners—but it’s not one that has won general assent among historians of early civilizations.
As the years went on, and her halo only brightened, she was encouraged to vent on many subjects about which she was inexpert, and she tended to overrate her gift for ukases and opinions, which increasingly tended toward the fatuous. The book that brought me together with her was a dull sermon on an approaching “dark age”; her conversational aphorisms were infinitely better than the text. (“What will remain of us is cities and songs,” she said, poetically.)
The sad truth is that the saints we revere for thinking for themselves almost always end up thinking by themselves. We are disappointed to find that the self-taught are also self-centered, although a moment’s reflection should tell us that you have to be self-centered to become self-taught. (The more easily instructed are busy brushing their teeth, as pledged.) The independent-minded philosopher-saints are so sure of themselves that they often lose the discipline of any kind of peer review, formal or amateur. They end up opinionated, and alone.

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Adam Gopnick in the New Yojrker does a reflection on Jane Jacobs’s life and ideas in her centenary year, with so many astute observations that PT will pull out a selection and run one every hour today.

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.)
There is an oddity, though. As in the scene of the little girl and her potential molester, the surprising virtues of the street in fighting crime are essential to Jacobs’s vision. Her work, written in the late fifties and the early sixties, seems obsessed with crime, and with insisting that crowded streets don’t make crime happen. Writing at the start of the crime wave that warped and reshaped so much for the next two decades or so, she is fiercely determined to prove that cities are not friends to criminality. One of her most emphatic arguments is that street play is actually safer than playground play, and that wider sidewalks are necessary to keep cities safe.

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Adam Gopnick in the New Yorker does a reflection on Jane Jacobs’s life and ideas in her centenary year, with so many astute observations that PT will pull out a selection and run one every hour today.

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.

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Adam Gopnick in the New Yorker does a reflection on Jane Jacobs’s life and ideas in her centenary year, with so many astute observations that PT will pull out a selection and run one every hour today.

Though Jacobs was later portrayed as an engaged, block-party mom, Kanigel (in the new bio “Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs”) reveals that she was much too busy writing and working to do much real street living; her shopping was mostly done by phone. It was her more abstract experience of large-scale urban renewal elsewhere, particularly in Philadelphia, under the then much praised Edmund Bacon, that really kindled her growing indignation about what was happening to cities.
A paragraph heading in one of her Fortune pieces summed up her new belief: “The smallness of big cities.” Big cities thrived, she wrote, because they were full of healthy micro-villages; small ones became overdependent on one or two businesses, turning into plantation towns with company stores (as Scranton had been too dependent on coal). She became notorious for attacking Lincoln Center, then under construction. A cynosure of everything forward-looking and ambitious in urban design, it represented to her, almost alone, the apotheosis of the “super blocks” that destroyed the “hurly-burly” of city life. Anti-modernist at a time when few progressives dared to be, she was invited to a symposium on cities at Harvard in 1956, and did a Ruby Keeler, going up to the lectern an unknown and coming back to her seat a star.

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Adam Gopnick, one of the New Yorker’s best writers (his book on Paris is a joyful read), does a reflection on Jane Jacobs’s life and ideas in her centenary year, with so many astute observations that PT will pull out a selection and run one every hour today.

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. …

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.

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By Alex Marshall:

Not far from Jane Jacob’s famed home on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village, and the White Horse tavern, and her famous street ballet, lies the West Fourth subway stop at 6th Avenue and 4th Street. It’s a massive thing, one of the largest in the entire system, with eight tracks across four platforms on two levels. Seven subway lines—the A, B, C, D, E, F and M—connect there, and the station pumps thousands of people per hour onto the streets of the quaint village. This stop, and the trains and tunnels it leads to, are crucial to how Greenwich Village functions.

Yet Jacobs makes virtually no mention of this stop nor, amazingly enough, the New York City subway system in her masterpiece and most influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This omission points to something Jacobs didn’t get, which was infrastructure: the big systems that make a city work. …

… let’s look at something she loved, density. How do you get density in an urban neighborhood? You have to make it possible for a lot of people to live well within a small amount of space. This means few or no cars. If people need cars, then they need parking spaces for their cars, and the parking eats up the land and the possibilities for density. So you need subways, streetcar lines and buses. Jacobs didn’t talk much about that in Death and Life, nor did she talk about the other big systems cities rely on. …

I suspect her tendency to not focus on big systems stemmed from her dislike of government, which is necessary to create big systems. Although she is viewed as a woman of the left, she shared with today’s right a deep suspicion of government, particularly big government.  … (But) there’s no escaping that if you love the Great American City, as Jacobs did, you have to love, or at least respect, the big systems that make them possible.

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