Faith in the chaos of urban life
Jabobs' work inspired many grassroots community groups to take charge of their own neighborhoods. That certainly was the case of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative when I worked there back in 1993-1999. The African American, Latino, Cape Verdean and white residents of this low-income Boston neighborhood challenged the city officials' "urban renewal" plans and developed their own vision for a vibrant multicultural urban village. (GW)
Nearly a half century ago, at the dawn of an era renowned for its utopian dreams and dystopian diagnoses, a journalist who loved the American city wrote an attack on all the professional planners and idealists who believed they could design the perfect urban habitat, the city beautiful, a metropolitan Eden.
Forget it, was the message Jane Jacobs elegantly hammered home in that 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” There is no utopia to be found. And every fantasy of such a paradise — the Modernist towers of Le Corbusier, the Garden Cities of Ebenezer Howard, the cleared slums and ribboned roadways of Robert Moses — has led to urban desolation and ruin. At the time she wrote her book, cities were beginning to totter like drunken derelicts seeking lampposts for support.
As an exhibition opening today at the Municipal Art Society reminds us, Jane Jacobs did not believe that planners could ever restore life to American cities. Instead she put her faith in the chaos of urban life, in diversity, in people — the grocery store owner, the young mother, the child playing in the street, the watchful busybodies leaning out of windows. Cities were at their best, she wrote, when the “ballet of the sidewalks” was evident, a dance that was intrinsically “spontaneous and untidy.” Her prescription was simply not to get in its way.
With this kind of loose-limbed populism, it is no wonder that in a 1961 letter shown at the exhibition, Robert Moses — with whom Jacobs more than once locked horns — bluntly writes to her publisher: “I am returning the book you sent me. Aside from the fact that it is intemperate and inaccurate, it is also libelous.”
Moses, who more than any other figure had given shape to 20th-century New York, with grand institutional construction projects ranging from Lincoln Center to public swimming pools, from the Henry Hudson Parkway to the Belt Parkway, concluded, “Sell this junk to someone else.”
That is, of course, precisely what was done, and with great success. Jacobs’s book, like other landmarks of that era that jousted with established principles and perspectives, including Rachel Carson’s vision of the environment and Paul Goodman’s vision of education, defined a new populism, transforming the institutions of its time and giving birth to those that thrive in our own. Under Jacobs’s influence, there arose new ways of thinking about cities; community groups became active participants in city planning, and new developments started to take street life into account. Jacobs died in 2006, receiving encomiums from both the political right and left.
But as New York seems to be revving up for another generation of urban development — including the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s environmental projects — as new neighborhoods have taken shape, like Battery Park City, and old ones change in function and status, like Dumbo in Brooklyn, the issues that Jacobs and her opponents raised remain as vital as ever.
With that backdrop, the society’s exhibition — created, like Jacobs’s first book, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation — invokes her as an enduring model, citing not just her ideas but also her activism, hailing contemporary community organizations like the United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, with its emphasis on “social justice and environmental concerns,” as her heirs. In this show the society urges New Yorkers to “observe and recognize the best of their city” and “become citizen activists advocating for positive change.”
The problem, though, is that the issues are more complicated than the exhibition’s advocacy will allow, and more urgent than its modest scope permits visitors to understand. And while last year’s series of major exhibitions about Moses at the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum of Art and Columbia University began to show that he was more complex than his caricature — a visionary as well as a ruthless master builder — this show does not seek to illuminate any ambiguities or difficulties latent in Jacobs’s vision. It leaves her intact, as a populist prophet.
This is still a valuable exhibition, though, because like Jacobs’s ideas, it is grounded not in theory, but in experience. “Please look closely,” urges the introductory panel after you enter the modest galleries through an archway of monitors showing the street life of contemporary New York.
“What do you observe?” another panel asks, next to a 24-hour time-lapse video of Madison Avenue street life outside a nearby window. Another display shows the variety of routes taken by residents of Fort Greene in Brooklyn and Midtown West in Manhattan through their neighborhoods.
As a demonstration of some of Jacobs’s most important ideas, such displays are excellent; they focus on “four key qualities of healthy, vibrant cities”: 1) Streets should have mixed use, with retail and residences mingled. 2) Streets should be frequent, without too many long blocks, thus encouraging interaction and exploration. 3) Buildings should be varied in purpose and design and, ideally, date from different eras. And 4) urban concentration is important and encourages diversity.
“Jacobs’s observations,” the exhibition argues, “remain critical to New York today.”
The show also demonstrates those principles using Jacobs’s own examples, contrasting, for example, the mixed-use variety of 57th Street, where Carnegie Hall stands, with the stark uniformity of street life created by Lincoln Center at the time of its opening. The dead streets outside one of New York University’s stone buildings in Greenwich Village are also contrasted with the 24-hour life displayed on the street outside the new home of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Midtown.
The bustle of Flushing, Queens, with its diverse street life, is juxtaposed with the tree-lined, suburban-style neighborhood of Forest Hills, which, while “undeniably pleasant,” “attracts only residents of a single income bracket and thus lacks the diversity of people and conveniences that tends to give cities vitality.”
But partly because the exhibition is so clear in this exposition, it also inadvertently draws attention to some of the flaws in Jacobs’s vision. She was open to many aspects of urban life, but the “ballet of the sidewalks” tends to overshadow its other features, and the show amplifies her flaws with its narrow focus.
Despite her argument, for example, there are times when “single-use” blocks have their own value, creating, for example, residential neighborhoods in which children really do play in the street; 1960s-era Hudson Street, where Jacobs lived, is not the only vital urban model. Neighborhoods like Forest Hills, zones of aspiration and private retreat, have always been part of a city’s life, making their own contributions to its appeal.
And while there is much to be said against single-use construction of arts centers (which have created eerie, car-centered oases in many dark downtowns), Lincoln Center’s impact over 40 years has transformed the entire Upper West Side of Manhattan, spurring the evolution of many vital neighborhoods in a way that a single concert hall could not.
Moreover, though Jacobs wrote that “there is a basic aesthetic limitation on what can be done with cities,” she has little to say about the impact of beautiful design and public spaces; in the mid-19th century, for example, Haussmann destroyed swaths of medieval Paris, triumphantly reshaping it with his aesthetic ideals. Great ancient cities are unthinkable without ideals of form and beauty that do not interest Jacobs at all.
Even the community activism being heralded here needs a larger context. Despite their achievements, there are times when community groups may have too parochial a vision to be taken as guides to a city’s future.
In fact, despite Jacobs’s own warnings about planners and their doctrines, there is even a whiff of utopianism in the way in which her ideas are being celebrated, with a prescriptive focus on diversity and populism.
One of the virtues of a city is that it allows more diversity than even this exhibition suggests. It allows the creation of neighborhoods that serve single purposes; it allows grand boulevards whose expanses seem to lead the imagination beyond the city walls; it allows figures like Robert Moses to change the geography of the landscape so the city can adapt to technological revolutions.
And finally, it allows a figure like Jane Jacobs to make her own distinctive contributions — warning us against expecting too much from any visionary and expanding our understanding with her meticulous and generous imagination.