May 4th marked the centennial of the birth of seminal urbanist Jane Jacobs. It has been marked by numerous articles. Some of the better ones are here, here, here, and, for a contemporary piece of revisionist iconoclasm, here. The latter aside, Jacobs remains an important figure, perhaps the most influential voice, in explaining the value of cities, how they really worked, and the damage of the planning elite. She begins her most famous work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, bluntly: "This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding."
Written in 1961, the book was the first major refutation of the ideas that had brought urban renewal, dead housing projects, dull suburbia. Her great nemesis was Robert Moses, the powerful city planner and master builder of mid-century New York City. His hubris and the damage he did to New York are masterfully plumbed in Robert Caro's The Power Broker. Entire neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for his freeways and his influence spread nationwide. She led the crusade that stopped Moses' Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have gutted Geenwich Village, SoHo, and Little Italy. At one point in the battle, she was accused of inciting a riot (talk about the Resistance).
Jacobs was not an ideologue. To her, ideology was poison, offering "pre-fabricated answers" that adherents always fall back on. Instead, she was an observer of cities, a chronicler of what worked and what didn't.
Not once is Phoenix mentioned in Jacobs' first book, even though it was a big city by 1961. Still, I suspect she would have found much to like in the old Phoenix, where there was a "ballet of the streets" downtown and much of the city was focused on use by people instead of automobiles. This was before the freeways, before the teardowns. If she were alive today (she died in 2006), Phoenix would represent every horror she could imaging befalling a city. The Papago Freeway inner loop is classic Robert Moses vandalism. Her critique would include a lack of safety, for she documented how much more crime occurred in "thinned out" Los Angeles than in dense New York.
I can understand why she's unfashionable for today's smart set. The "bedrock attribute" of a city and the most important function of city sidewalks was to make people — for cities are full of strangers — feel safe. She decried the "barbarism" that "has taken over many city streets, as well as "hoodum gangs." The smart set today would call that "diversity" and demand primacy for panhandlers, addicts, and vagrants. The latter she labeled "the leisured indigent." Her use of the word diversity referred to a variety of citizens using streets, sidewalks, neighborhoods, and parks at different times of day, bringing life and a healthy stewardship. City sidewalks were far better than suburbia for assimilating children into society. None of this could be "planned" by the mid-century experts.
And it must be admitted that The Death and Life was the product of a specific time in history. Her "eyes on the street" observation of what made for safe and lively neighborhoods depended on a cadre of people who have largely been wiped out by mega-capitalism: small shopkeepers, many of whom live above their stores. Along with residents, they were the essential "eyes on the street," a marked difference from the walls of suburbia. The same sense of proprietorship, of taking care of each other, doesn't come from a city street whose businesses are all upscale restaurants, or nothing at all. She wrote before riots and white flight devastated scores of once wonderful center cities. And, of course, before the sharp and rising inequality of today.
Also, Jacobs is a nuanced and complex thinker. Her books are best read slowly and thoughtfully. This illustration on Curbed is a useful introduction but risks being Jane Jacobs for Dummies, hence dangerously reductive.
Jacobs won the battle in Lower Manhattan but lost the wider war. Most American cities today would be more pleasing to Moses than to her. Policies of All About the Car have been our equivalent of the barbarian sacks of ancient Rome. Now we reap a whirlwind, not only in terms of dull, dehumanizing cities but climate change.
She moved to Toronto in 1968.
Jacobs' last book was the little known Dark Age Ahead. Like her city books, it is a must-read. Richard Florida writes,
In Dark Age, Jacobs focused on the erosion of the key pillars of stable, democratic societies—the decline of the family, the rise of consumerism and hyper-materialism, the transformation of education into credentialism, the undermining of scientific norms, and the take-over of politics by powerful special interest groups, among others. Persistent racism, worsening crime and violence, the growing gap between the rich and poor, and increasing divides between the winners and losers of globalization provided growing evidence of the decay of society, she argued.
Dismissed at the time as the work of a crank, the book is prophetic — right down to seeing the rise of someone such as [the real-estate developer].
Jane Jacobs is dead, just like the best of the era she observed in urban America. Her dark age sounds much like today, where "mass amnesia" causes most people to be ignorant of what was lost. But her city books still offer timeless and essential lessons for successful cities. Want to make the deck park succeed in Phoenix? Read chapter five of The Death and Life. Keep reading and acting against "the planning orthodoxy." Long live the Resistance. Long live Jane Jacobs.
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