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Jane Jacobs, even better at 100

The fourth of May marks the centenary of the birth of Jane Jacobs, patron saint of contemporary urbanism, at least for most urban planners, architects and local political officials in the US and for many of us who live in cities as well. Both by her writing and her activism, Jacobs promoted livable cities—walkable, enjoyable, sociable places where communities provide distinctive experiences and locals have a say in determining what goes on.

Jacobs’s primary text is The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which was published in 1961.  But her life—for at that time, she was a feisty New Yorker—provides a complementary text about the virtues of fighting the machine. With fellow community activists in Greenwich Village, Jacobs successfully challenged plans of the city’s urban renewal bureaucracy that would tear neighborhoods apart by building highways and massive public housing projects. Her main opponent was Robert Moses, a public sector development czar whose control of federal government funds allowed him to reshape infrastructure, including parks, bridges, and tunnels, cultural complexes, and public housing, from the Great Depression until Jacobs’s book came out.

Jacobs’s ideas reflect the time in which she wrote, when government still seemed all powerful in cities yet was unable to counter the suburban flight of the middle class and the growth of an urban working class that was poorer, less educated and largely African American and Hispanic.  However, Death and Life is not concerned with the economics of a declining tax base or racial ghettos. Instead, Jacobs confronted the existential crisis of older cities by focusing on their physical fabric and the ways it can encourage social interactions.

She praises cities for their dense, complex physical environment, built more or less to human scale. She expounds on the experience of both density and diversity in crowded streets, short blocks, and distinctive neighborhoods. She enumerates the shopkeepers who own small businesses on her street, who create a lively sense of public space and also watch out for public safety. Thinking of her female neighbors who carried out informal surveillance by watching passers-by through their windows, Jacobs coined the term “eyes on the street.”

“Jane Jacobs” by orionpozo. Creative Commons via Flickr.
“Jane Jacobs” by orionpozo. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Jacobs rejected state-led urban renewal, personified by Robert Moses; postwar architectural modernism, embodied by faceless “towers in the park” designed by Le Corbusier; and market-led mass suburbanization, symbolized by middle-class rejection of the city’s diversity and squalor. Unforeseen by Jacobs in the 1960s, these points became the touchstones of gentrification.

It’s not hard to see how Jacobs’s appreciation of urban authenticity was shared by a small but growing number of highly educated men and women who also rejected the “great blight of dullness” that the postwar growth machine imposed on both cities and suburbs. Whether they nurtured an anti-modernist romanticism or a third-generation yen for ethnic roots, people wanted to live in “historic” neighborhoods and buy in “local” shops. These tastes were expanded by the counter-culture of the late 1960s and 1970s, and gradually found resonance with artists, writers, and college professors who talked and wrote about the virtues of social diversity, neighborhood scale and historic context, all features of full-blown gentrification by the 1980s.

The tragedy is that the capital investment that followed the first wave of gentrification refused to follow Jacobs’s rule that a community should manage its own “unslumming.” First, individual gentrifiers founded their own communities based on social homogeneity and shared aesthetic tastes. They developed polarized landscapes, gradually displacing longtime residents and stores.  Then, seeing the appeal of these gentrified neighborhoods, larger real estate developers entered the fray. They built new housing at higher rents and turned rental apartments into condos. Unslumming requires capital that longtime neighbors often lack.

In our era of market-led development, it is crucial to celebrate Jacobs for speaking truth to power.  But it is also crucial to devise a more effective politics of controlling capital investment and enabling communities to stay in place.

Featured image: “Love Graffiti in Gramercy Park” by Jeffrey Zeldman, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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