Book review: “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs

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Book review: “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs

A half century after its publication in 1961, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is a complex document to read.

I approached the Jane Jacobs masterpiece with a bit of guilt since I’d never previously read it, even though I’d spent a career as a newspaper reporter covering urban planning issues and am now writing a history of Chicago.

But then an urban affairs expert I respect told me, “Oh, nobody reads the whole thing.”

I tried, and did….sort of. I have to admit that I skimmed much of the last third of the book, chapters in which Jacobs proposes techniques to bolster the vitality of city blocks and eliminate or, at least, blunt the results of bad planning.

The complexity of the experience of reading “Death and Life,” for me, was due to three questions I was trying to answer:
• How well or poorly did the Jacobs book respond to the world of large cities in 1961 when she wrote it?
• How did the ideas that Jacobs expressed in the book affect the way cities were planned and developed over the past half century?
• How useful are her ideas today for anyone planning or developing a major American city?

Not about how to

In the last third of the book, Jacobs is getting very nuts-and-bolts about ideas for improvement, such as tearing down high-rise public housing and creating fast-track city licensing procedures, that seem to have been germinating in many minds for a good while. She’s gathering these ideas together and making a case for them, but, to me, this how-to section is more like an appendix to her main arguments and assertions.

The aim of this book isn’t so much about how to, but about what.

Robert Moses

“The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is a radical redefinition of a large city — why it exists, what makes it work well, what needs to be taken into consideration when planning for its improvement.

In 1961, it was a startling, powerful challenge to generations of city planners, government officials and architects, of whom the epitome was Robert Moses, the dictatorial political bulldozer and subject of Robert Caro’s magisterial “The Power Broker.”

Acting like urban gods, Moses and the others had sought to enliven cities by scouring away neighborhoods so that they could impose a seeming order and clarity on the cityscape through superblocks containing towering structures and vast plazas.

A prophet’s call

Jacobs’s book is a prophet’s call against this bird’s-eye-view arrogance. And stupidity.

She argues that:
• Planning for a city needs to take place from a street-level perspective.
• The goal of planning needs to support, promote and ignite the vitality of city streets.
• The vitality of a city street or block is the result of a mix of building types, including commercial and residential spaces and a mix of people from a variety of economic levels and backgrounds.
• Any planning effort needs to respect the ideas and desires of the people of the blocks or neighborhood affected, even if these people are poor and uneducated.
• A city is organized complexity. It’s messy. Everything is inter-related. Everything is related to everything else. Any attempt to simplify things — to make them more orderly — will hurt the city and its people.
• A city is not a work of art and cannot be dealt with as if it were another form of architecture.
• A city, unlike a small town, is filled with people who are strangers to each other, so any plans have to find ways for strangers from within a neighborhood and from without to be able to co-exist and maybe even learn a little about each other.

A classic

These insights — stated aggressively and clearly and, truth be told, arrogantly — are what make this book a classic.

Plans for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (never built), an example of top-down planning.

Back in 1961, they were a breath of fresh air in a world of decision-making dominated by overstuffed good old boys. They were a declaration of independence from wrong-headedness.

And, for the past 51 years, they’ve provided inspiration and insight that have reshaped the way planning is done in the United States

A poet

Not only did Jacobs preach, she was also, in her way, a poet of city street life.

Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes [to avert trouble or stop it when it starts]…The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.

The stretch of Hudson Street where I live is each day the scene of an intricate sidewalk ballet. I make my own first entrance into it a little after eight when I put out the garbage can, surely a prosaic occupation, but I enjoy my part, my little clang, as the droves of junior high school students walk by the center of the stage dropping candy wrappers. (How do they eat so much candy so early in the morning?)

While I sweep up the wrappers I watch the other rituals of morning: Mr. Halpert unlocking the laundry’s handcart from its mooring to a cellar door, Joe Carnacchia’s son-in-law stacking out the empty crates from the delicatessen, the barber bringing out his sidewalk folding chair….

Jane Jacobs was adept at using guerilla politics to move the powers that be.

This paean to street-level city life continues for five pages (from page 50 to 54 in the original hardcover edition), and it is perhaps the most important statement ever written of what it means to live in a large American city.

To be read for centuries

That statement and the key assertions that Jacobs makes ensure that “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” will be read for centuries.

But the book isn’t perfect. And maybe it’s wrong to expect a prophet to be perfect.

Some of these imperfections, I think, would have been evident when Jacobs published the book. Others have become clearer after the intervening half century.

For instance, throughout the book, she rails against “the Great Blight of Dullness” which, for her, includes superblock buildings, high-rise developments, the suburbs, any city streets that don’t have a mix of building uses and people. She writes off all of the Bronx for this reason.

The semisuburbanized and suburbanized messes we create in this way become despised by their own inhabitants tomorrow.

Well, not really. After forty years of writing about cities, I am pretty certain of one thing — there are people who love the city and its clangorous activity, and there are people who love well-sodded suburbia.

Snobs

In a way, Jacobs and Moses had the same problem. They couldn’t see the world from the other side’s perspective. Both were snobs, believing that their perspective was the only perspective. Indeed, throughout “Death and Life,” Jacobs argues that, in fighting for a Hudson Street vitality, she’s fighting for civilization. Anything else, she asserts, is barbarism.

There is no question that most superblock designs undercut and often kill street life, and, because of the way they hurt neighborhoods in this way, I’m all against them.

But the fact still remains that many people like to live in such isolated towers or groupings of towers. They have no interest in seeing Mr. Halpert unlock his laundry’s handcart or watching Joe Carnacchia’s son-in-law stack empty crates. They might even find those empty crates unsightly. There are ways for a city to have such places for people to live that don’t harm the streetscape quite as much as a superblock although, in “Death and Life,” Jacobs doesn’t see it that way.

Hudson Street today

Similarly, few streets in any city are as constantly active as her Hudson Street.

Hudson is a product of the density of Manhattan population and the verticality of their homes. In all streets on the island, the vast majority of buildings have ground-level commercial establishments with several or many floors of residences above. In Chicago and other cities, by contrast, most streets are either predominately commercial or residential.

Three types of neighborhoods

Her fixation on Hudson leads Jacobs to contend there are only three types of neighborhoods: (1) the street neighborhood, a la Hudson; (2) districts of 100,000 people or more, such as East Harlem; and (3) the city as a whole.

Certainly, she’s right when she notes that a street neighborhood is easy for the movers and shakers of a city to push around. She contends that large districts are neighborhoods because they have a unified identity that gives them political clout.

In Chicago, the communities of Rogers Park, Edgewater and Uptown have a combined population of about 150,000, but, as a group, they don’t fit the definition very well since each of the three has a separate identity as one of Chicago 77 community areas. However, the city uses community areas as a way of distributing services so each of these three has at least some structural clout even though each has only about 50,000 residents.

And, aside from this structural clout, the political system in Chicago gives the local alderman virtual control over the distribution of city services in a ward. It’s a lot easier for the roughly 50,000 people of a ward to get the attention of their alderman than it was for Jacobs and her neighbors to be heard by New York’s more centralized government.

(It should be noted that, in Chicago, the boundaries of a ward and of a community area are vastly different — one way the powers-that-be undercut the clout of neighborhood people.)

Beyond this, there is another sort of neighborhood in most other cities that “Death and Life” ignores. This is a community which includes some commercial streets and some residential streets.

The history of community organizing in Chicago has shown that such neighborhoods, even when very poor, are able through public protests and other techniques to put pressure on the powers-that-be to obtain at least a seat at the decision-making table.

“An unplanned gold rush”

An example of the gentrification of Hudson Street and Greenwich Village is this store that sells $45 cups, located in the first floor of Jacobs's former home. For more information, see http://untappedcities.com/newyork/2010/09/28/jane-jacobs-house-at-555-hudson-street/

Back in 1961, the word “gentrification” hadn’t been invented. Yet, Jacobs was aware, at least dimly, of the possibility.

The districts that are effective enough to defend themselves from planned disruption are eventually trampled in an unplanned gold rush by those who aim to get a cut of these rare social treasures.

To be sure, a good city neighborhood can absorb newcomers into itself, both newcomers by choice and immigrants settling by expediency, and it can protect a reasonable amount of transient population too. But these increments or displacements have to be gradual.

The irony is that Jacobs’s own Hudson Street has been gentrified.

The diversity of people that she loved on Hudson Street and throughout Greenwich Village is long gone. Skyrocketing housing prices have meant that few but the very rich are now able to live there, people such as actors Emma Stone, Uma Thurman and Edward Norton; Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour; CNN anchor Anderson Cooper; and golfer Tiger Woods.

I doubt there are many crates on the sidewalk any more.

Patrick T. Reardon
11.18.12

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