It’s been nearly three months since the modest but important new exhibit, Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York, opened in two rooms at the Municipal Art Society’s Urban Center, but there’s still time to see the exhibit (extended to January 26) and to grapple with the issues it raises—and doesn’t quite address.
Notably, the exhibit—funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, which supported Jacobs’s classic 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a reminder and reaffirmation of the book’s key message: successful cities need mixed-uses, dense concentration, short blocks, and varied buildings.
Formidable yet folksy, Jacobs’s book countered the modernist superblock urbanism that was the consensus of American planners (and government funders) at the time. To a good degree, Jacobs’s principles have become accepted by the planning and building professionals of the current generation, even if they do not always follow them. (We’re all Jacobsian now, as I wrote, except when we’re not, as with Atlantic Yards.)
So the more pressing question is the application and relevance of not only those principles, but also much more of Jacobs’s wide-ranging urban analysis. Much of that "future" issue remains to be addressed.
Jacobs fought to affirm urban virtues when the city was under assault by urban renewal megaprojects and auto-driven suburbanization, and to empower local activists. “Experts at the time did not respect what foot people knew and valued,” Jacobs wrote in the 1993 Foreword to the Modern Library edition of Death and Life.
Now, as nearly all of the seven public programs associated with the exhibit suggested, there are anxieties about a city that has grown too expensive for “ordinary” dwellers and shopowners. Indeed, another set of panels would be worth convening to analyze and debate specific solutions.
So some larger questions also evoked by the recent Robert Moses reassessment linger. “How can big plans and big projects and infrastructure co-exist with community participation?” asked Anthony Flint, director of public affairs at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, MA, echoing a question highlighted by Robert Caro in The Power Broker. (Flint's writing a book on Jacobs and Moses.)
“Has NIMBYism led to paralysis that threatens to turn the city into a museum?" he continued. "How can affordability stay marbled into the urban neighborhoods that Jacobs knew the wealthy, in droves, would begin to value? Those are some of the trickier questions raised in the juxtaposition of Jacobs and Moses that are left open to discussion.”
Gentrification the solution?
One Jacobs solution in 1961 was essentially gentrification, though not (she hoped) gentrification that priced people out. If “the demand for lively and diversified city areas is too great for the supply,” she wrote, then the supply must be increased.
That especially made sense when there were neighborhoods with good housing stock within a brief commute from the city center. At some point, after decades of what Jacobs termed “unslumming,” they can’t all be equal. The lively and diversified neighborhood of Bay Ridge may be more affordable and thus Jacobsian than Brooklyn Heights these days, but it’s much closer to the periphery.
Jacobs’s solution made more sense when New York was not growing but shrinking. However, the city, with its limited supply of land to build, today experiences numerous pressures on housing. Among the phenomena she didn't have to confront: well-heeled Wall Streeters buying more space for their families, recent college grads willing to install fake walls in a one-bedroom, wealthy foreigners buying second homes made cheap by the exchange rate, and impoverished immigrants willing to suffer fire code violations for a shot at a better life.
[See comments posted below by Benjamin Hemric, and my response.]
(Photo from New York Times slideshow.)
As for housing the poor, the solution, Jacobs wrote with her libertarian bent, was not building projects but supporting rents--essentially a blueprint for the Section 8 program federal housing officials ultimately adopted. But Section 8 at this point seems inadequate, with too few vouchers available for those who seek them, and the increasing unwillingness of landlords, seeing more opportunity in the open rental market, to accept vouchers.
So a full reassessment of Jacobs must deal more with how and whether her principles address the current realities. That’s worth more discussion. (Scroll to the end for a few examples.)
A democrat, if not a prophet
A reconsideration of Jacobs—less the exhibit than some essays in the accessible but challenging companion book of essays, Block By Block, as well as other commentary about her—reminds us that her observations are principles rather than prescription, and that she was hardly infallible. For example, in that 1993 Foreword to her book, Jacobs described London’s “grandiose but bankrupt Canary Wharf project set in isolation.” That was then, but Canary Wharf has since recovered, and grown, a sign to many of London’s capacity to plan for growth.
Jacobs has not always been treated fairly, since she’s often been invoked by critics and supporters who see her as the tribune of small-scale local neighborhood preservation. She was much more than that, but there are many fewer easily-assembled Jacobsian constituencies for the “big projects” she might have supported, such as investment in mass transit.
In Death and Life, Jacobs pointed to three urban entities: the street neighborhood, the city as a whole, and a district of at least 100,000 people. This passage is worth noting:
Districts have to help to bring the resources of a city down to where they are needed by street neighborhoods, and they have to help translate the experiences of real life, in street neighborhoods, into policies and purposes of their city as a whole. And they have to help maintain an area that is usable, in a civilized way, not only for its own residents but for other users--workers, customers, visitors--from the city as a whole. A district has to be big and powerful enough to fight city hall.”
Such an observation points out the continued poverty of participation in New York City. The votes of Community Boards in land use decisions, part of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) adopted after the Moses era, are merely advisory, though they do have a role in shaping public opinion, and the City Council does get to vote. When projects, such as Atlantic Yards, bypass even ULURP for a state review, there’s even less of a local voice.
If Brooklyn is the equivalent of a city, with the fourth-largest population in the country, why can’t its districts have a meaningful voice at city hall? That’s a fundamental Jacobsian question.
What does the exhibit say about Atlantic Yards? Nothing much directly—an understandable if debatable curatorial choice—but the principles it raises, especially Jacobs’s insistence on neighborhood voices, do call the project into question, even as the project has been proferred as a solution to some challenges of growth Jacobs may not have fully confronted. (More on this in Part 2.)
Beyond the West Village
Jacobs chose her West Village street to exemplify the urban principles she identified. Now, nearly half a century later, after the designation of a Greenwich Village historic district and the city’s steady revival, Hudson Street is no longer merely “unslummed.” Rather, the “ballet” she cited of ages and incomes, retail and manufacturing, has been replaced by relentless gentrification.
In a New York Observer article on the exhibit, headlined What Would Jane Jacobs Think?, exhibit co-curator Christopher Klemek described the West Village as “not a neighborhood that can support that broad swath of social diversity [that Jacobs cited] any longer.” Interestingly, Roberta Brandes Gratz, a founder of the Jacobs-inspired Center for the Living City, declared, “Jane did not see the Village as being gentrified in a negative way,” saying Jacobs was exhilarated “by the continued commitment and energy of the local citizenry.”
Well, sort of. Let’s go to the audiotape. In a 9/6/00 interview in Toronto, James Howard Kunstler asked Jacobs what she thought of Greenwich Village. Her response:
Oh, it has done very well. If other city neighborhoods had done as well there would be not trouble in cities. There are too few neighborhoods right now so that the supply doesn’t nearly meet the demand. So they are just gentrifying in the most ridiculous way. They are crowding out everybody except people with exorbitant amounts of money. Which is a symptom that demand for such a neighborhood has far outstripped the supply.
The multiple potential readings of Jacobs recalls how Francis Morrone, in his recent New York Sun essay on The Triumph of Jane Jacobs, noted that she subtly altered her apparent message for her audience and led an enormous range of people—conservative and liberal, technophile and doomsayer—to claim her as their own. (See for example Howard Husock’s City Journal article, Urban Iconoclast: Jane Jacobs Revisited: “Though culturally associated with the Left, Jacobs dared to follow the logic of her own observation in ways that lead her to oppose much that the Left stands for.”)
Morrone wrote that she “was both a libertarian and a communitarian, or else neither,” a critic of government and also an embracer of it. He concluded:
As much as, if not more than, any other public intellectual of the last half century, she taught that good ideas are good ideas, wherever they come from.
Even then, political scientist Marshall Berman suggests in an essay in Block by Block, Jacobs’s stoop-side vision was perhaps more pastoral than pragmatic, overlooking some of the inevitable conflicts in urban life. After all, as tensions over gentrification show, “loud music on the street” or “drinking on the street” can be as much a part of life as much as the “eyes on the street” that Jacobs taught us to prize. Then again, Jacobs was also practical enough to remind us that “[t]he bedrock attribute of a successful city district is that a person must feel personally safe and secure among all these strangers.”
The urban archetype of… Bay Ridge?
Before mounting the exhibit at the Municipal Art Society, the curators sought to film another urban ballet, in a latter-day mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood. To do so, they had to leave Manhattan and go beyond Brownstone Brooklyn, already well-unslummed, all the way to Bay Ridge, a neighborhood that is indeed urban, but as much the gateway to suburban-ish Staten Island than a place with umbilical ties to midtown or downtown. (Here’s a report on the filming.)
Yes, another neighborhood that gets high Jacobsian marks, Astoria, is closer, and juxtaposed photos in the exhibit compare Broadway in Astoria with the more monolithic stretch of West Houston Street in Manhattan that now houses condos and a Whole Foods.
Exhibit co-curator Klemek, who teaches at George Washington University, won’t call Third Avenue between 82nd and 83rd Streets in Bay Ridge the perfect block, but, he says, “it adheres to the four primary principles to a significant degree.”
The choice of Bay Ridge symbolizes how much has changed in the 46 years since Death and Life was published. Now, among the chief challenges is affordability and, Klemek acknowledges, “It’s not a coincidence we had to go further out to find more of that socioeconomic mix.”
Principles above all
The Jacobs exhibition inevitably provokes reflections on the trio of exhibitions mounted earlier this year that aimed to revise the reputation of Moses, the master builder and power broker. It’s a challenge to curators, because Moses left an enormous legacy of built examples, while Jacobs, famously, chose not to include illustrations in Death and Life. (She wrote: For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see.)
So the curators must illustrate principles, both to illuminate history and to provide a lens for current examination. “What would Jane Jacobs do?” asks one installation near the entrance, and the answer is to tell us to think for ourselves. (That suggests the value of a permanent, and oft-augmented, Jane Jacobs exhibit.)
Framing the entry portal to the exhibit is a bank of video loops containing interviews with a cross-section of New Yorkers about their neighborhoods. There are words of satisfaction, and criticism, but the underlying message is one of anxiety in the face of looming “over-success” (a term used in association with the exhibit but not in Death and Life).
Beyond that, a panel advising, “Please Look Closely,” reminding us that our observations are what’s crucial. Then we get a good introduction to the Jacobsian principles: Mixed Uses (why Carnegie Hall beats Lincoln Center); Frequent Streets (Fort Greene is the subject of a resident’s street diary); Concentration (Jacobs’ Greenwich Village still trumps Red Hook and Flushing beats Forest Hills, though homeowners in the latter might protest); and Varied Buildings (that Astoria vs. Lower East Side example).
(Photo from New York Times slideshow.)
Some choices have been challenged. In his 9/25/07 New York Times review, Jane Jacobs, Foe of Plans and Friend of City Life, Edward Rothstein suggested that “[n]eighborhoods like Forest Hills, zones of aspiration and private retreat, have always been part of a city’s life.” Indeed, in a 10/11/07 column in the New York Sun headlined A Success in Community Planning, architectural historian Morrone acknowledged Jacobs’s criticisms of “garden cities” but delivered a gentle remonstrance: We can be Jacobsians while also noting — as she herself did down the years — that the successful modern city may comprise a range of urban visions.
Rothstein also argues—piggybacking on observations made by his colleague, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff—that while “single-use construction of arts centers” often don’t work, a criticism aired by Jacobs, Lincoln Center “has transformed the entire Upper West Side of Manhattan.” (Then again, it’s getting a much-needed facelift that will help connect it better to the neighborhood.)
After all, Jacobs was not, as the book and exhibit remind us, a champion of stasis and the solely small-scale, as some of her more “conservative” acolytes stress, and as some critics--notably Ouroussoff—suggested after Jacobs’s death last year. He wrote, in a 4/30/06 essay headlined Outgrowing Jane Jacobs and Her New York, that "her death may also give us permission to move on, to let go of the obsessive belief that Ms. Jacobs held the answer to every evil that faces the contemporary city."
Ouroussoff suggested she “had few answers for suburban sprawl or the nation's dependence on cars,” that “she never understood cities like Los Angeles,” and that Robert Moses’s “however flawed” vision, unlike Jacobs’s, was about infrastructure to build.
That statement, as well as Ouroussoff’s contention that Jacobs “argued for a return to the small-scale city she found in Greenwich Village and the North End of Boston,” drew the most pushback. Gratz, in a City Limits essay headlined NOW IT'S JACOBS' TURN: A LOOK AT HER LEGACY, wrote:
Jacobs believed in big projects: mass transit, and the boulevards and greenways that strengthen a city, not massive highways through neighborhoods that weaken it; transit-accessible big parks and neighborhood-based little parks that are gathering places, not acres of fenced-in green space with towers in the middle and signs admonishing “Keep Off the Grass”; vast school and health care systems; singular cultural venues, not clustered in centers, that spread regenerative potential around the city and help anchor neighborhoods; and economic development that works expansively by encouraging innovation and new local business formations, rather than depending on large construction projects.
OK, but it’s been far easier to invoke Jacobs in hailing small-scale but not economically diverse neighborhoods--witness New York magazine this week on the Upper East Side--to block rather than to build. Architectural historian and Moses exhibits co-curator Hilary Ballon expressed a typical view in her critique of Nathan Glazer’s new book on modernism, From a Cause to a Style:
Although implicitly sympathetic to Jane Jacobs' model of urbanism, Glazer is disappointed by the modest urban strategies -- preservation, New Urbanism, and community advocacy -- it bequeathed.
Stuy town then and now
In the MAS exhibit, Stuyvesant Town gets low marks for diversity, an example of the much-reviled towers in the park. While it is hardly an urban paradigm—witness how its privatized open space is invoked by BrooklynSpeaks as an example of what not to do regarding Atlantic Yards and how that space is now misnamed as a “park”—Stuy Town, despite its history of racial exclusion, was recently hailed, in the face of a corporate real estate deal housing advocates could not stave off, as a last bastion of middle-class affordability in Manhattan. Does affordability today trump some Jacobsian virtues?
An ingenious feature of the exhibit is a glass frame emblazoned “What do you observe?” pointing out the window of the MAS’s headquarters to the corner of 51st Street and Madison Avenue, an active street by day, which, by night—as an attached time-lapse video informs us—becomes much less busy, the casualty of buildings of varied age devoted to predominant office use. (Should the exhibit move to another city, as it should, this frame deserves another urban perch.)
In a second room, we learn more about Jacobs, including that she was hardly the housewife-outsider of folk legend. While she didn’t go to college, she was married to an architect and an established writer for Architectural Forum when she attracted the attention of Fortune and other magazines and approached the Rockefeller Foundation for funding.
As Peter Laurence explains in an essay called Jane Jacobs Before Death and Life in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (JSAH), she desired not to taint her employer with her views, hence her decision, in Death and Life, not to mention her immersion in the world of architects and planners.
We also learn about Jacobs’s battles, fighting against the Lower Manhattan Expressway—an imaginative rendering shows Broome Street invaded by an elevated highway—and fighting for the West Village Houses, contextual affordable housing, five stories, which the exhibit declares a “hard-won but mixed victory.” (Julia Vitullo-Martin, in the New York Sun, offered more skepticism.)
Green issues & new activism
There’s also a segment about Omar Freilla and Barry Benepe, the two Jacobs medalists. Notably, both Benepe, the lifetime award winner, and Freilla, the newer activist, both espouse green principles. Benepe founded the Greenmarket program in 1976, helping bring a new sensibility about food to New York City. (A byproduct was that the new activity at Union Square helped reclaim that urban space from drug dealers and other ne’er-do-wells.) Freilla founded Green Worker Cooperatives with the goal of creating a construction-waste recycling co-op in the South Bronx.
Such green sensibilities point to a new wave of Jacobsian activism. Beyond the principles Jacobs laid out, a new challenge, in the battle between today’s “foot people” and “car people” is sustainability.
So activists like Transportation Alternatives (which Benepe helped found), new media like the valuable Streetsblog, and enlightened public officials like new Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan are doing important Jacobsian work in trying to emphasize public transportation and the role of walking and biking in the city today.
Advocacy then and now
With Moses, the revisionists’ challenge was to engage the decades of debate and the damning portrait in The Power Broker, but with Jacobs, Klemek observes, “The challenge for us is to re-evaluate her ideas and relevance to contemporary New York. It’s not the canonization of Saint Jane.” Well, yes and no. It’s hard to fault the choices within the two rooms of space, but there’s insufficient space to address all the relevant issues.
While placing Jacobs in historical context, the curators didn’t want to create merely a history exhibit but portray advocacy then and now. The exemplars of latter-day advocacy are UPROSE (United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park), NAG (once Neighbors Against Garbage, now Neighbors Allied for Good Growth) of Williamsburg-Greenpoint, and Nos Quedamos, which protested and then improved the city’s renewal plan for the Melrose neighborhood in the Bronx. The three, in fact, now work in coalition.
While those are all worthy choices, Atlantic Yards and similar megadevelopments exemplify new sophistication on the part of proponents and pose new challenges to activists, and thus deserve their own analysis, as I’ll discuss in Part 2.
In the Block by Block book, Klemek argues that the call we hear from some for a synthesis of Moses and Jacobs is false, because “she advocated a democratically responsive battle of private and public interests,” thus representing “the synthesis we now seek.”
Well, maybe, and maybe not. In fact, Klemek offers more skepticism outside the exhibit, in an essay titled “Jane Jacobs’ Urban Village: Well-Preserved or Cast Adrift?” published in the JSAH. Klemek suggests that Jacobs’ greatest battles were not with Moses but his successors, who were actually more conciliatory. He wrote:
If we seek a dramatic trope about the fate of ‘great American cities,’ instead of Jacobs successfully warding off the villain Moses, we might better envision Jacobs and these other adversaries locked in mortal combat, going over the falls together.
Jacobs, he notes, did not oppose the designation of the West Village as a historic district, but it was not her priority, considering it “no guarantor of dynamic, heterogenous urban life.” Her advocacy for the West Village Houses, faced with “a decade of resistance from city agencies,” left the project “effectively stillborn into bankruptcy,” another gloss on the “mixed victory” asserted in the exhibit.
Indeed, Klemek in his article concludes that Jacobs contributed to “the broader paralysis in urban planning in governance… no more public megaprojects that engender mass displacement, but also no defense against incremental gentrification pressures, or even the large-scale private actors.”
Note that Jacobsians like Gratz and Ron Shiffman suggest that there were, in fact, large projects—albeit different ones, like the restoration of abandoned housing—that were achieved in New York pre-Bloomberg.
Outside the U.S.
Klemek suggests that Jacobs’s reputation in New York as an opponent of plans does not credit her more constructive influence elsewhere. In an essay titled Placing Jane Jacobs within the Transatlantic Urban Conversation in the Journal of the American Planning Association, Klemek notes that her ideas drew on a British movement already in process and were taken seriously, if not fully embraced, by West German planners.
In Toronto, Jacobs's adoptive home after she and her family left Vietnam War-era America in 1968, a more cooperative administration embraced many of her ideas. Indeed, while she blocked an expressway there, she also helped foster the development of a new mixed-use zoning district.
Second thoughts in Toronto
On the other hand, her legacy in Toronto, some say, is quite mixed. Brooklyn writer Andrew Blum, a former Toronto resident, suggests in Block by Block that the city was “sick at the edges,” in part because of Jacobs’s “shortsighted” localism, unwilling to encourage more density where it was needed, near transit.
“We can resist the extremes of modernism, and all its failures; but that does not free us from facing up to the same challenges and inequities that modernism sought to rectify,” he wrote. “I don’t know that Jane Jacobs fully accepted this.”
It sounds like a defense of large modernist projects like Atlantic Yards; indeed, organizations like the Regional Plan Association have defended the project despite significant dismay about the process behind it and its non-Jacobsian design, suggesting that it fulfills a goal of growth. The RPA is having some second thoughts, however, citing AY as an example of city-making that deserves more oversight.
In Toronto, these days, there are also second thoughts. In the Toronto Star, urban affairs columnist Christopher Hume wondered in October, Is it time for the Great Synthesis? quoting Moses revisionist Ballon: "In the 21st century, we need to think on a big scale. We need strong advocates for the public realm. We must recognize that there are issues that transcend the neighborhood."
And, Hume observes, whether she meant to or not--indeed, Jacobs’s emphasis on districts gets too little discussion today--Jacobs did empower NIMBYs and even ventured into that territory:
Toward the end of her life, Jacobs was lending her name to any number of ill-conceived battles; one was the fight to stop the construction of a nicely designed mid-rise condo at Bloor St. and Bedford Rd., at the juncture of two subway lines. Isn’t this exactly the sort of project that should be encouraged in the 21st-century city?
Hume, after Jacobs’s death last year, wrote an essay in the Star headlined Jacobs’ ideas valid, but we need new solutions:
The problems she railed against haven't gone away, they have been moved to the outer rings…. In the meantime, cities are increasingly becoming enclaves of the rich; even the middle classes are being pushed out, as are the poor and the recently arrived.
And New York faces those challenges as much as Toronto. He reminds us that Jacobs didn’t see the city as a static object but as a complex organism: Change or die, that was her message, one we ignore at our peril.
It’s reminiscent of Sen. Chuck Schumer’s statement about how we must “grow or die,” but, as community planner Shiffman responded, the question is how to do it right. And that’s why the Jacobs exhibit opens up the conversation rather than closes it.
Romanticizing the city?
Some deeper reflections on Jacobs have appeared in academic literature. In an essay in the September 2006 issue of City & Community, the journal of the American Sociological Association, sociologist Herbert Gans suggested Jacobs, a middle-class woman by way of Scranton, PA, romanticized her neighborhood, missing the darker sides of working-class life. He added:
I suspect she never knew that the apartments in the high-rise public housing projects she so disliked were far superior to the five- and six-story tenements from which many residents of New York’s projects moved.
(Yes, the wealthy flock to well-run high-rises. With the poor, is it the design of housing projects, or the impossibility of maintenance and security given current spending? There’s pretty much a consensus that high-rise towers are passé for public housing.)
For one thing, the public and high rise urban renewal which she opposed was followed by privatized low rise urban renewal. That may have unslummed some slums, but not in the way or for the people she discussed in her book. Further irony is that the gentrifiers whom Jane allegedly inspired may have shared her fondness for old working class neighborhoods. However, they did not share her affection for its working class people and institutions, first displacing them and then later, if not always intentionally, also displacing those who remained in the gentrified neighborhoods.
This goes to the enduring question posed by the exhibit.
Planners, developers, or Moses
In another essay in that issue, sociologist Sharon Zukin suggested that Jacobs may have chosen too easy a target:
In contrast to Gans, who blamed the unholy alliance between real estate developers and white ethnic politicians, and [Marshall] Berman, who mainly blamed Robert Moses, Jacobs aimed her arguments against planners, a relatively powerless group. With her intelligence and progressive political activism, Jacobs could not have been ignorant of systemic causes of disinvestment. Yet she chose to focus on a mentality rather than on those people who finance and profit from tearing cities down, or on those who profit from building the suburbs.
In other words, follow the money, and today that would be the real estate developers, not the government agencies pushing slum clearance.
What about eminent domain?
In another essay, Occidental College’s Peter Dreier argued:
One unfortunate side-effect of the battle against urban renewal in the United States was a knee-jerk opposition to government efforts to improve cities, a sentiment that lingers on. We see this in the growing antagonism to the use of eminent domain. Rather than see it as a tool that could be wielded for good or evil—depending on whether a city regime is progressive, liberal, or conservative—many people in the United States view the tool itself as the enemy.
Jacobs in Death and Life was highly critical of eminent domain, because it was not only an unfair lever but also represented low-ball compensation, which is less of a factor today, at least in some states. Her libertarian bent, and experience observing eminent domain abuse during the time of writing Death and Life, led her to join the side of those resisting eminent domain in the Kelo v. New London case.
Dreier added some context, suggesting that, as with other battles at the time, there were less-confrontational ways and less-confrontational opponents outside New York :
Canadians, too, battled against their country’s version of urban renewal. But they, like Jacobs, did not view elected officials or government actions with the same degree of suspicion, as mean-spirited and heartless. They oppose government officials when they are in the pockets of private developers and businesses or refuse to listen to the voices of ordinary people.
(In that same issue, David Halle argued that, more than anyone else, the New York City Planning Commission wears Jacobs’s mantle; I suggested that’s a flawed reading, based on selective evidence.)
A biographer on Jacobs
In the first (but certainly not the last) biography of Jacobs, the unauthorized 2006 Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary, Alice Sparberg Alexiou argues that the “most serious shortcoming in Jacobs’s otherwise brilliant [Death and Life is] her failure to include any meaningful discussion of race.” It's worth further discussion; in his review in the Regional Plan Association’s newsletter Spotlight on the Region, How Jane Jacobs Became Jane Jacobs, Alex Marshall noted:
Alexiou also criticizes Jacobs for not focusing enough on race as a factor in urban decay. I was personally unconvinced by Alexiou’s criticism but she marshals strong supporting arguments.
Indeed, Alexiou cites Jacobs’s 2004 book Dark Age Ahead, in which Jacobs briefly addresses gentrification. Jacobs wrote: Affordable housing could have been added as infill in parking lots and empty lots if the government had been on its toes, and if communities had been self-confident and vigorous in making demands, but they almost never were.
Alexiou's conclusion: Her comment begs the question: but why didn’t communities make those demands…. To state it bluntly, how many white urban pioneers are fighting to ensure that people of color are not pushed out of their now-gentrifying neighborhoods?
Indeed, that was the failure—of both the community and the government—in the rezoning of Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. Now the Bloomberg administration believes in adding density to ensure affordability, and is doing that through rezonings throughout the city. And that’s a justification for the scale of Atlantic Yards. The problem with the latter, however, is that the result came before the process. And the question is how to balance such upzonings with Jacobsian principles and Jacobsian process.
Alexiou hearkens back to Toronto, suggesting there’s a desperate need in Toronto for low-income housing:
Gentrification occurs when there is too little supply of funky old neighborhoods—for which we can at least in part blame the old urban renewal tactics, which bulldozed them away. But this is hardly a satisfactory response to the problem of gentrification.
The questions remain
Rothstein’s New York Times review gave Jacobs her due, but was skeptical about holding up Jacobs as an “enduring model,” writing:
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... this show does not seek to illuminate any ambiguities or difficulties latent in Jacobs’s vision. It leaves her intact, as a populist prophet.
Yes, and no. The show--and less so the book--could have made a bigger deal about the challenge of unslumming, but the choice to highlight Bay Ridge is an implicit statement. Rothstein suggested that sometimes “community groups may have too parochial a vision to be taken as guides to a city’s future.” That’s probably why the exhibit emphasizes how the groups highlighted have started working on citywide coalitions.
Beyond that, the larger issue of how to harmonize community participation with a growing city remains. Rothstein questions the “whiff of utopianism in the way in which her ideas are being celebrated, with a prescriptive focus on diversity and populism.” (Maybe, but is it prescriptively populist to want more public input on projects like Atlantic Yards, especially if it turns out to be this generation’s Penn Station?)
After Jacobs's death, in the June 2006 issue of Architectural Record, architect and critic Michael Sorkin pointed to gentrification as “the soft form of urban renewal, still removing the poor but lovingly restoring their former homes. And the hard version of the big plan is making a major comeback in a new wave of jumbo projects emerging on sites of more ostensible dereliction, or at least with smaller populations.” Among them: Atlantic Yards.
He noted that “the design rhetoric of these mega-schemes ritualistically evokes principles Jacobs so strongly defended--the importance of the street and its life, the advantages of short blocks, and the need for a mix of uses, for density,” even as Jacobs’s formulations are “too often dumb[ed] down to meet the bottom line or max out FAR,” or Floor Area Ratio.
He wrote: But Jacobs's influence is more genuinely present in the vociferous opposition to these projects; in the grassroots defense of threatened textures and prospects for local life; in suspicion of big, single-sourced plans; and in anger at the unyielding imperatives of profit in a city that seems bent on running its poor and middle class out of town.
Pox on both houses?
Going beyond that were left-wing academics Neil Smith and Scott Larson, who this August wrote: Neither the block-level gentrification inspired by the patron saint of city planning nor the wide-scale mega-project redevelopment advocated by New York City's infamous planning czar are useful models for the realities of 21st century cities.
Sorkin, however, suggested Jacobs could be useful, and that the criticism of Jacobs that has surfaced “is both dangerous and misleading, suggesting a false dichotomy between modernity and community and casting Jacobs's arguments as antithetical to vision."
In other words, there may be solutions. In that same issue of Architectural Record, Boston Globe architectural critic Robert Campbell described Jacobs as a pragmatist above all. (Jacobs, noted Toronto writer Robert Fulford in 1997, had a lifelong habit of walking around carrying on imaginary conversations with the great pragmatist Benjamin Franklin.)
Campbell wrote: All revolutions breed excess, and Jane's is no exception. Citizen activism has its limits.… Often they do a better job than the master planners of old. Often they don't.
When Campbell pointed to solutions, he wasn't looking at projects (e.g., Atlantic Yards) but infrastructure and frameworks: We still need big plans. We need experts and professionals. How about a national high-speed railroad system? How about a vigorous exploration of urban growth boundaries? How about a TVA-type planning agency to deal with the hurricane coasts, from Cape Cod to Texas? We've let the balance dip too far toward piecemeal amateur planning.
What does that mean today in New York? Further tweaks of the tax system to support housing, or increased regulation? (Jacobs was no fan of regulation.) Regional linkages so lower-cost New Jersey becomes integrated into the urban orbit? A revamp of the Community Board system and the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure? More “staunch public buildings” (which Jacobs suggested as one solution to the self-destruction of diversity)? Congestion pricing and new investment in mass transit?
What is certainly does not mean is complacency. Good ideas are good ideas, wherever they come from.