"The Death and Life of the Great American City" By Jane Jacobs

In 1961 the Modernist movement which had long been theoretical and dormant in America’s architecture began to manifest in our cities and effect people's lives. Europe’s Modernist architecture blossomed after World War 2 as an optimistic thriving economy emerged and as people craved a new modern lifestyle.

America has always relied on pragmatism and individuality. The new technology and engineering possibilities served to fulfill the dream of a home and car for each American family. American families abandoned the cities and moved out to the suburbs.

Jane Jacobs moved to New York City from a small town and wrote about her experience in the city as this movement gained steam. Jacobs said that her jobs in the working district “gave me more of a notion of what was going on in the city.” As the modernists starting influencing how cities were planned, Jacobs met them with contempt and became outspoken in her criticism.
The Death and Life of the Great American City attacked New York City’s new Planning Commission led by Robert Moses. Devoid of theoretical training or higher education, Jacobs wrote from a city-dweller’s perspective, and painted a picture, but without outlining a scheme for implementing her ideal.

A major criticism of Jacobs is that she fails to suggest how the politicians and those who control real estate could be influenced or forced to move toward her ideal. Jacobs does suggest, for example, that politicians want to appease dense neighborhoods that hold more votes and cities thus control the purse strings. And Jacobs suggests that such communities be activists in order to prevent the schemes of modernists like Moses.

After the book was published Moses sought an expressway that would dig through Jacobs' neighborhood in the Village, and Jacobs led a successful opposition rally that actually led to her arrest. Jacobs’ other published works focus on economics and the city’s role in world economies, so it is conspicuous that she doesn’t suggest further how economy might be used as a weapon for implementing her vision. Rather than leading a crusade, Jacobs painted a vision which we thought was practical and feasible for the greater economic good and health of the nation. It became up to the politicians and real estate people to figure out how to implement it.

Jacobs begins by disproving Modernism and revealing their shallow promises. Jacobs claims that the failure of modernism’s involvement in the city was made manifest in urban renewal. She claimed that urban renewal policies destroyed communities and created isolated, unnatural urban spaces. While modernist planners thought deductively, Jacobs was consistently inductive in her logic and reasoning. In the search for attractive spaces, she said, “Handsome is as handsome does.”

The know-it-all modernists weren’t smarter than the simple city dwellers. Using models of successful Urbanism, like Greenwich Village, and by pointing out how certain conditions have been successful, she makes a strong case for her ideal city. She goes on to show that urban renewal and other modernist debacles hurt the economy and health of the occupants by compromising these conditions.

As she turned her back from what was widely considered the wave of the future, Jacobs presented herself as a traditionalist but not as a conservative. She valued tradition and the conservative family, but she didn’t perceive threats as coming from outside, from the Modernism of Europe. Rather, she recognized that America’s ideals and pragmatic solutions for success needed to change as society expanded at a quicker pace and new technologies shaped our future. She said that the greatest “threat to the security of our tradition, I believe, lies at home. It is the current fear of radical ideas and of people who propound them.” She sought a more sophisticated liberalism through dichotomy and challenged visions of the future by PHd big-shots. Without any formal training, Jacobs successfully authored several attacks on the ideas of many well-established authorities. These attacks consistently championed the city and promoted a denser, more vibrant urban community.

In The Economy of Cities, Jacobs challenged the idea that agriculture precedes the city. She convincingly asserted that the city is actually the root of a region’s economic growth, not agriculture. She challenged the fundamental beliefs of some of the greatest economists in Cities and the Wealth of Nations as she suggested we should consider the city first and the nation-states second in macro-economics.

One of Jacobs’ most dominant themes in The Death and Life of Great American Cities is the benefits of mixed-use architecture. In a diverse community of people there is more learning to be had. One culture can learn from another culture, one industry from another industry, a higher level of income from a lower level of income. She loves meeting strangers on the street and doesn’t find any danger in such an environment.

Jacobs harshly criticizes the separation of uses in the city. She advocates mixed districts with various industries and people of various levels of income. Blocks should be smaller and streets shorter so that people cross paths more. There should be no blank walls and no cars, with which people isolate themselves from others. A larger police force doesn’t keep things safe, but safety comes by the observation of “public actors,” store-keepers, onlookers, vigilant neighbors. To demonstrate this, Jacobs points out that larger parks experience more crime. If a park can sustain itself with its own activities, when people can get lost in it and see all the way across to the other side, if there are always people there because of the mixed-use environment, there will be less incentive and more vigilance from the community to prevent for crime.

Jacobs said we crave a more interesting and bizarre atmosphere. Projects that segregate occupants by income in homogeneous cores lend towards more crime and boring communities. In her book “System of Survival,” she narrows down two “moral syndromes” of people: the commercial (business owners, farmers, scientists) and the guardian (government, charities, religions.) These two moral syndromes should be kept separate but should be invariably included in our spaces and everyday lives in a great variety. When the two are combined, inefficient entities result, like mafia or communism. When there isn’t a great enough variety, one becomes too dominant and takes away the freedoms of the people.

The street should be considered as a positive space in the city because that’s where people interact while buildings are in the background. As various building types are situated in chaotic and unexpected places, the positive space becomes more interesting and healthier. The neighborhood, says Jacobs, is a sentimental idea. It can be defined in three ways: the city as a whole, a street or block, or a district. This displays a variety of social extensions which are reduced by the suburbs. In the gilded age of rising income, Jacobs resents that people flee from this diversity. She goes on to address gentrification, when urban development makes an old neighborhood too expensive for the old population to keep on living in, as a “self-destruction of diversity” which must be overcome. Jacobs only paints the picture and leaves it up to the reader to figure out how to overcome such obstacles.

Jacobs’ second major theme is resentment that the government tears down old neighborhoods for new idealized projects. These projects stifle diversity and clear away the established history and culture of the city. New buildings should be mixed with old ones, she says. The new idealized projects are some of the worst construct of the “car people” designers, and promote further separation from other human beings and more dependence on the automobile. By inserting new buildings “among old ones to knit up holes and tatters in a city neighborhood so that the mending is all but invisible,” a community can actually un-slum itself. With a sufficiently dense population of people, many of which are residents, a city can only be un-slummed by such means.
The city should be considered as a lattice, not a tree, Jacobs says. The interconnections make it impossible to simply transplant a whole major part of it.

“Nothing is static,” observes Jacobs. It is perhaps valuable to consider ourselves as only parts of this lattice-work and not be presumptuous enough to think that we can hold back a deluge of water as we try to implement an ideal that denies simple human nature and methods of progress.

A city excels by the coming together of different views. A city that is connected to other cities, whose occupants have access to cultures that excel each in their own way, these are the cities that lead economically, socially, and politically. Jacob’s eye for the good ol’ days combined her fearless consideration of liberal ideas makes her a suitable planner of such an environment. The circumstances behind her ideas should be a reminder of the folly that arises in times of optimism, and we should continue to be vigilant and allow those solutions that actually work, even if we love to complain about them.

See: New York Times Review
See: Summary

^Image by claugeo27 on flickr

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