How Jane Jacobs saved New York City’s soul

Jane Jacobs in 1961NEW YORK—E.B. White claimed that this city could absorb anything without inflicting the event on its inhabitants, even a thousand-foot ocean liner. As he wrote those words, New York was in fact absorbing hundreds of oceans liners. They were not, as in White’s beloved 1949 essay, floating majestically if unnoticed into the harbor. Rather, as if hurled from the air by a party of Cyclopes, they were smashing into one neighborhood after another, knocking buildings to the ground.

I see the wreckage every morning from my office window. Just uptown of the Brooklyn Bridge, for example, stands Alfred E. Smith Houses. Completed in 1953, Smith Houses is 12 cruciform towers, stacked north in a line, surrounded by 20 acres of parking lots, playgrounds, and grass. To make room for them, every structure within 12 blocks—the equivalent of a small city—was demolished. Today, as you look west from Brooklyn, Smith Houses still dominates the Manhattan foreground.

Despite the towers’ prominence, New Yorkers today barely even know that they exist. For practical purposes—that is, for purposes of talking to anyone who lives, visits, or writes about New York—Smith Houses is invisible. If you strolled uptown from the southern tip of Manhattan, you might pass Wall Street and South Street seaport before reaching the Brooklyn Bridge. There you would stop. The absence of any sign of life on the other side, other than thousands of apartment windows, would whisper to you as if by instinct: There, pent up in those towers, lives fear, hatred, crime, and squalor. Not even knowing why, you would turn back.

Don’t miss TAC‘s symposium on the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, featuring contributions from Ryan Avent, Philip Bess, James Howard Kunstler, Christopher Leinberger, William Lind, Lewis McCrary, Mark Mitchell, John Norquist, and Randal O’Toole.

The creators of Smith Houses were not Cyclopes but public officials. They hurled not ocean liners but plans for urban renewal. For two decades, with little protest, they leveled enough city blocks to fill a large metropolis. Smith Houses adds just a dozen high-rises in New York’s vast archipelago of 2,600 public-housing projects, nearly all erected at mid-century.

Housing projects are almost universally loathed today, not least by their residents. Still, one can understand the vision that inspired them. City life is crowded and, at first glance, messy. Even if the middle and lower classes cannot afford their own backyards, we can at least provide them a simulacrum of suburban life. Sixty years ago, lacking the benefit of hindsight, planning officials honestly believed that by bulldozing neighborhoods and replacing them with modern towers, highways, open space, parks, and playgrounds they could cure poverty and save the city.

The woman who proved that it wouldn’t work was an eccentric freelancer named Jane Jacobs. In her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs assaulted a century’s worth of received wisdom in urban planning. Jacobs read voraciously; she would test her ideas by imagining dialogues between herself and thinkers from Plato to Thomas Jefferson. But she was no academic. In Death and Life, she cited not one paper nor analyzed one set of data.

What she did do was observe. Jacobs had a knack for spotting patterns in commonplace things. Social scientists sometimes call it “field study.” When it works, field study makes what once went unnoticed seem obvious. (Have you ever noticed that people usually laugh just to be polite and not because anyone said something funny? If not, you will now.) Death and Life’s popularity is still growing in part because so much of what Jacobs wrote is confirmed in daily life.

For example, she famously argued, the safety of a city street depends on the number of eyes watching it. The more pedestrians and storefronts a city street has, the more inviting it is to other pedestrians. Casual passers-by contribute more sets of eyes, making the street even safer, and so on in a virtuous cycle. Death and Life develops this simple idea in rich detail.

A mix of residences and stores, for example, creates safety and comfort by giving more people more reasons to use the sidewalks. Parks, playgrounds, and open spaces, by contrast, create menacing vacuums attractive to criminals and perverts. Narrow streets and short blocks, even if inconvenient for cars, enliven a neighborhood by increasing the flow of foot traffic.  Large works such as “cultural centers,” by contrast, blight their surroundings by imposing artificial barriers to pedestrians. On page after page, Jacobs showed how the physical environment either facilitates or hinders what she called the “sidewalk ballet.”

The architects of urban renewal saw none of this. Instead of preserving short, narrow streets, they were combining blocks into “superblocks” with parks and “promenades.” Instead of permitting shops and stores, they were segregating residents in towers and forbidding “incompatible” commercial uses. Instead of expanding sidewalks, they were adding playgrounds and planting grass.  Instead of nurturing small-scale street life, they were erecting freeways and public centers.

Jacobs called their practices “bloodletting,” after the discredited notion of treating disease by draining the patient’s blood. The theory of bloodletting—that destruction must precede the cure—recurs all too frequently in the West. Idealists and reformers find it irresistible. Just a few years ago, many thoughtful people argued that to rid the world of terrorism, we must “drain the swamp” of the Middle East by toppling every government within it. So too, 60 years ago, many thoughtful men believed that to eradicate poverty and social dysfunction, we must raze the cities where they persist.

The arch-bloodletter was a public servant named Robert Moses. He matched a stolid faith in public works with a genius for bureaucracy. As master of multiple agencies at every level of government, he amassed nearly dictatorial powers, which he used to build thousands of public-housing projects and 13 expressways that now coil around New York City like an anaconda. He had plotted for years to build three more expressways straight through Manhattan, including a Lower Manhattan Expressway in Jacobs’s own Greenwich Village.

The choice of route was his fatal mistake. Jacobs organized a coalition of residents and businesses who demonstrated, petitioned and protested. Her quixotic, grassroots—or, as it were, cobblestone—campaign culminated in a 1962 vote to withhold funding for Moses’s proposed expressway. (It took another decade to kill LOMEX altogether; one unused spur exists to this day.) Never forget: But for Jane Jacobs, Greenwich Village, Soho, and the Lower East Side would all have been reamed by a 10-lane, double-deck superhighway.

Since her death in 2006, Jacobs’s reputation has continued to soar. Folk hero and philosopher, author and activist, she has entered the pantheon of beloved Americans, a mid-to-late 20th-century Mark Twain. (Though in fact, she expatriated to Canada to protect her sons from the draft.) Inevitably, her apotheosis has provoked a reaction. Even her admirers feel compelled to distance themselves from uncritical worship of Saint Jane.

The skeptics are worth listening to, if only to put Jacobs’s achievement in proper context.  On the left, some are disturbed by her choice of protagonists. Jacobs’s evocation of the “sidewalk ballet” sounds like nostalgia for the good old days of white middle class America; her “eyes on the street” like a technique of enforcing conformity; her loathing of rowdy misbehavior like fear of difference. Her writing and activism, meanwhile, killed off federally financed programs to house the poor. Though she lived in Greenwich Village in the 1950s, Jacobs never mentions the countercultural heroes, such as the Beat poets, who lived next door. She does, on the other hand, have kind words for housewives and shopkeepers. Put it all together, and Jacobs sounds suspiciously reactionary, a Bohemian Ronald Reagan.

Well, yes. Jacobs was reactionary. She fought to preserve a certain way of life—city life—that had come under attack. Like any good reactionary, she romanticized it somewhat. Further, she loved cities not because they harbored the poor but because they welcomed entrepreneurs, middlemen, and small manufacturers. In her peculiar book-length dialogue Systems of Survival Jacobs contrasted the commercial values (honesty, thrift, initiative, enterprise, collaboration, trade, and optimism) found in cities to the “guardian” values (tradition, hierarchy, loyalty, largesse, love of fate) found anywhere that territory requires defense. While Jacobs admits that civilization requires both sets of values, and even adopts the Platonic solution of segregating the “guardians” from the “traders,” she clearly admires commercial values the most. She was bourgeois in every sense of the word. She even voted against Franklin Roosevelt.

A second, more serious complaint is that Jacobs overrated the importance of the physical environment. In Death and Life, she focused almost single-mindedly on the effects of such spatial features as the length of blocks, the width of sidewalks, the distance between museums and concert halls, and the placement of train tracks and waterfronts. As insight piles onto insight, the book seduces the casual reader into believing that the physical shape of a city is all that matters. Naïve Jacobites sometimes take her writings as a sort of recipe for creating a hip urban environment.

Jacobs’s focus on the physical, it is true, is often abused. Advocates of traditional town planning or New Urbanism, for example, have taken her ideas to a new extreme. In their zeal to cut the thick cake of regulations and codes that mandate suburban sprawl, New Urbanists and their allies sometimes equate the loss of features such as sidewalks and corner stores with a loss of virtue, even decency. If only houses had front porches, one hears, they would restore a sense of “place” and community.

Jacobs herself had almost nothing to say about the design of towns. Her passion was cities. In the introduction to Death and Life, she warns, “I hope no reader will try to transfer my observations into guides as to what goes on in towns, or little cities, or in suburbs which are still suburban. Towns, suburbs and even little cities are totally different organisms from great cities.” Even within cities, she focused in Death and Life on a surprisingly narrow issue: namely, safety. Death and Life does not address broader questions of human happiness.

To be sure, she did prize city life for its own sake. After Death and Life, she offered more speculative theories of how cities incubated wealth and innovation. Yet at no point did she imply that the built environment can produce better citizens. On the contrary, she mocked the belief that city neighborhoods should foster a sense of “togetherness.” Jacobs claimed merely that certain spatial arrangements made people more comfortable within cities than others. Her “physical determinism” was more modest than it appears, and certainly more modest than that of some of her followers’.

However aesthetically deplorable the spatial arrangements the suburbs may be, it does no good to portray them as swamps of depravity. If anything, a close reading of Jacobs suggests that the spatial environment becomes less important once one leaves the city. City dwellers, she observed, thrive on collaboration with strangers. (The freedom to live among strangers, she noted, gives city dwellers their privacy.) By contrast, residents of towns and suburbs need to know their neighbors well enough to trust them. Whether a suburb or town boasts good schools and high levels of civic participation will tend to have little to do with how it looks and much to do with the quality and homogeneity of the people who live there. There is virtually no non-sprawling place in America that is both decent and affordable. Yet affordable and decent places do exist among the sprawl.

Even Jacobs’s modest claims for the physical environment can be oversold. The Bedford-Stuyvesant district in Brooklyn, with its rows of pre-war brownstones, front stoops, and mixed uses, adheres almost perfectly to Jacobite principles. In movies such as “Do the Right Thing,” Bed-Stuy native Spike Lee fondly recreates its street life, replete with old men lounging on curbsides, children playing in the streets, mothers watching from windows, and local characters exchanging gossip. Nevertheless, for decades, strangers have not felt safe within it.

The reason is as straightforward as it is unmentionable in polite society: Bed-Stuy is the home of a high-crime population hostile to outsiders. Even so sympathetic an observer as Lee depicts their businesses getting torched and windows shattered. Human capital overwhelms the influence of neighborhood design every time. On the other hand, Bey-Stuy is physically so attractive that it is now rapidly un-slumming, thus proving Jacobs’s points all over again.

A final criticism of Jacobs is that she furnished a convenient ideology for NIMBY-ism (that’s “Not-in-My-Back-Yard-ism”). She so thoroughly discredited top-down planning that even the most benign developments have become all but impossible to realize. Whether NIMBY-ism counts as self-interested obstruction or laudable citizen activism depends on whether one approves of the project in question. Jacobs certainly played the NIMBY in her day. Those who accuse her of rationalizing NIMBY-ism in general, however, are confusing her activism with her writing. In fact, she wrote little about questions of public choice. She was interested more in results than process.

October 2011 IssueThat said, Jacobs’s categories can usefully account for NIMBY-ism. The morass of public hearings and environmental-impact studies that impedes development in any older, denser area betrays fear of change and distrust of outsiders. In short, NIMBY-ism reflects guardian values and the defense of territory, or what Jacobs called “the institution of Turf.” As America’s ethnic diversity increases, social trust will continue to diminish, and NIMBY-ism will increase. New development, meanwhile, will continue to be displaced to the far exurbs that remain undefended by locals.

The triumph of Turf helps explain the otherwise baffling politics of traditional neighborhood design. That government at all levels mandates sprawl so conflicts with conventional ideological frameworks that it goes unrecognized. On both left and right, the false equation America = capitalism = sprawl (Boo! Hiss! if you’re a liberal and USA! USA! if you’re a conservative) seems impossible to dislodge. The libertarian Cato Institute even employs as its transportation expert an indefatigable apologist for land-use statism.

Once one sees development conflicts as turf wars, however, the equation makes sense. Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians defend sprawl, despite the massive interventions in the free market it entails, because their people live in the suburbs. Democrats and liberals, by contrast, attack sprawl because their people live in cities. Democrats may appeal to environmentalism and Republicans to individualism—meaning big cars and lawns—but both are defending their own turf.

Fortunately, America still has vast hinterlands to absorb refugees from the low-level territorial conflicts that increasingly characterize American life. The remaining urban places that Jacobs adored will be well husbanded by the superrich who can afford them. For everyone else, the future does not hold some Götterdämmerung-like collapse. Life will get uglier and less convenient, but it will still be bearable.

Austin Bramwell is a lawyer in New York.

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