555 Hudson Street, New York, the former home of Jane Jacobs
On a recent trip to New York City, I went looking for Jane Jacobs and found the Gay Pride Parade.
My little excursion was incongruous on several levels, but, first, let me set the stage.
In Chicago, before travelling to New York, I had the idea that it would be fun to spend an afternoon on a sort of pilgrimage to the home at 555 Hudson Street where Jacobs lived for 21 years (1947-1968).
I say “sort of pilgrimage” because it’s not like I’m an acolyte at Jacobs’ altar.
I recognize she was immensely important to assert, as she did in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that urban planning must be approached, at least in part, from the ground up. From the street level. From the sidewalk level where people see and greet each other, pass each other, build a community together — or not.
She single-handedly changed the midcentury debate about cities and about municipal development and, in her way, became as powerful as her nemesis Robert Moses, the epitome of the slash-and-build school of urban renewal.
In her book, Jacobs stated her insights about cities aggressively, clearly and, no question about it, arrogantly. And that’s where, to my mind, she tripped up. She thought that she could take her experience on a Manhattan street and extrapolate it to the rest of the nation, to the rest of the world.
Saving Hudson Street
She worked hard to save Hudson Street and its Greenwich Village neighborhood as a place where people of various incomes and backgrounds could live together. And it worked!
Until it didn’t.
The buildings and the streets remain, but the diversity is gone. Her neighborhood has been gentrified to the point that only the rich and very rich live there, people such as actress Emma Stone and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper.
I’ve written about this twice — once in 2009 in “Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs: A question of power,” one of my postings on the Burnham Blog, and again in 2012 on my own blog in an in-depth review of Death and Life a half century after its publication.
New York is New York, so I figure that every corner will be clotted with people waiting to cross the street, but, as I approached Broadway, it dawned on me that the crowd wasn’t looking to get to the other side but waiting to watch this year’s Gay Pride Parade. When the cops let me and some others cross Broadway, I could see to the north the first contingents of the parade approaching.
Making a mental note to return to watch the parade, I went on to Hudson, only to find two ironies — one I expected and one I hadn’t. Continue reading