Sunday, August 19, 2007

Superblocks, a massacre in Newark, and Jane Jacobs

I haven't read of anyone blaming the superblock design of some housing towers in Newark for the August 4 massacre of three young people and the severe injuries to another, but a New York Times article on Wednesday hinted that an outmoded modernist design contributed, at least, to an atmosphere of lawlessness.

The Times article was headlined In Newark Murder, a Mixed Band of Men and Boys. While it focused on the perpetrators and their drift into crime, it explained the setting: the Ivy Hill Park Apartments were built in 1952, the superblock supremacy era, and include ten 15-story buildings over a wide plain with no intervening streets.
(Graphic from New York Times)

While the area has improved, some crime persists, and in places it apparently flourishes:
And they lurked in a place known as “the bushes,” a garbage-strewn thicket of high weeds behind two of the buildings where they could set upon anyone who used a dirt path as a shortcut to a nearby shopping center, according to residents and several of those who said they had been victimized.

There are no streets between the buildings, obviously, and a photo in the Times shows no retail or community facilities at the bases of the buildings. So there's little reason for there to be "eyes on the street," in the phrase of the late urbanist Jane Jacobs.

AY's superblock

Atlantic Yards has been criticized for its superblock design, and that design has in turn been defended as a better superblock than Stuyvesant Town, as it would include retail and managed public space, and pathways that aim to extend the street grid from Fort Greene.

And there's no reason to think a luxury housing complex like Atlantic Yards would be a crime magnet like the Ivy Hill Park Apartments.

Still, the superblock design, if implemented, might still have some unintended consequences. And the AY complex, if publicly accessible space is closed as projected by 8 pm during part of the year, might steer "drunken sports fans," in the words of one project opponent, to be "peeing on the stoops of the rest of us.”

Jacobs and crime prevention

In an obituary posted 5/1/06 on The Nation's web site, headlined Jane Jacobs's Genius, Roberta Brandes Gratz & Stephen A. Goldsmith pointed out how the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) web site offered a tribute to Jacobs, a sign of how far her teachings extended.

CPTED prizes "eyes on the street," which is the term that Jacobs devised for her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). Apparently there weren't more such eyes on that fateful night in Newark.

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