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The Jane Jacobs Medals, Robert Moses, and the view beyond “Death and Life”

The awarding of the second annual Jane Jacobs Medals on September 8, sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, along with guest speaker Robert Caro, author of The Power Broker, prompted another inevitable round of blinkered debate--see the New York Times's CityRoom blog--about whether the stereotypical Jacobs approach or the Robert Moses approach is the solution to the city’s problems.

That dichotomy was echoed in a Times City Section profile the following Sunday about author Arthur Nersesian, who describes his conflict with his girlfriend:
“On the one hand, I see the great phallic master builder and she’s like, ‘No, it’s all about Jane Jacobs, the low-scale community builder,’” he said. “Maybe it really is a boy-girl thing. I don’t know.”

In comments on the CityRoom blog, some suggested we need a Moses to cut through NIMBYism. However, as Benjamin Hemric, a prolific commentator on Jacobs (including on this blog) observed, Jacobs’ work was much more about understanding cities and economies as systems, how they grow and thrive, what creates urban and economic stagnation and decline and what can be done to revive those cities and those economies that fail to thrive.

And Jacobs' concerns show up in even more stark relief this week, when we see the pitfalls of relying on an economy based on value more ephemeral than real.

Hemric also pointed out that Moses opposed the type of transportation projects for which some now seek a “Power Broker”:
When people say we can’t build big anymore, I think it’s important to look at the specifics: what big projects are people actually talking about and what is accounting for the delay (if any)? Many times the projects that are mentioned seem to be anti-city boondoggles or projects that are better left to the private sector, and the cry that “we can’t build big anymore” seems to be a red herring.

Caro’s cautions

Caro, in his remarks at the presentation of the Jacobs Medals, focused on the issue of the public sector: "Obviously it is the fundamental dichotomy the city faces. I wrote in The Power Broker, 'While Robert Moses may have bent the democratic processes of the city to his own end to build public works, left to themselves, these processes proved unequal to the building required. The problem of constructing large scale public works in a crowded urban setting when such works impinge on the lives of thousands of voters, is one which democracy has not yet solved.'"

"Today, 34 years after that book was published, democracy has still not solved that problem," Caro continued. "Can the city build great public works, the great public works that a modern city requires? And to this day, when we look back almost a century, only a single man, Robert Moses, with his overarching vision and his savage will, only that single man has been able to build such works, Can the city build such public works and still preserve and protect and create environments that will foster in the future the atmosphere of neighborhood, of community, that Jane Jacobs understood was so vital? Well, we’re going to be able to see for ourselves, in this current era of huge new construction, we will be seeing it rather soon, I think."

Yes, and no. The stalled Moynihan Station would qualify as a public work, as would the slowly-revived Second Avenue subway. So might a direct rail link to the two airports in Queens.

Atlantic Yards would not, since it is a public-private partnership with the private sector wielding enormous power, and, many would argue, qualifies under Hemric’s rubric of “anti-city boondoggles or projects that are better left to the private sector.”

Jacobs' The Economy of Cities

I was a guest at the event last year and this year; while in 2007 attendees received a copy of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs’ first and best-known book, this year we received a copy of her second book, The Economy of Cities, which discusses how some cities grow and others stagnate.

Jacobs, in fact, considered that book her masterwork, according to a June 2001 interview with the libertarian magazine Reason: "If I were to be remembered as a really important thinker of the century, the most important thing I've contributed is my discussion of what makes economic expansion happen. This is something that has puzzled people always. I think I've figured out what it is."

"Expansion and development are two different things," she continued. "Development is differentiation of what already existed. Practically every new thing that happens is a differentiation of a previous thing, from a new shoe sole to changes in legal codes. Expansion is an actual growth in size or volume of activity. That is a different thing."

"I've gone at it two different ways. Way back when I wrote The Economy of Cities, I wrote about import replacing and how that expands, not just the economy of the place where it occurs, but economic life altogether. As a city replaces imports, it shifts its imports. It doesn't import less. And yet it has everything it had before."

What about Detroit?

In the book, published in 1969, Jacobs points to Detroit as an example of a city that has stagnated economically because it hasn’t diversified economically. New York, while clearly overdependent on the financial sector and without having accommodated the green manufacturing it will need, remains far from Detroit's fate.

So consider Jacobs a rebuttal to the statements, nearly 40 years later, from former Forest City Ratner executive Jim Stuckey, defending Atlantic Yards, in a book of oral history: "Unless the city steps up, unless the people step up and do this, then this city is a goner, it’s dead. It will become the next Detroit or Pittsburgh or Buffalo or other cities where people see there is no growth and decide to leave. If companies don’t have workers who can live in the city they are going to go to cities where they can get cheap labor."

As I pointed out, New York has no chance of becoming the next Detroit, a city based on one industry, with no public transportation, and which is not exactly the country’s cultural and financial capital.

Indeed, a new report report from the Fiscal Policy Institute, projects that Brooklyn will lose about 6,000 private-sector jobs through the first half of next year, according to the Times. However, Chamber of Commerce President Carl Hum didn't call megaprojects the solution, but rather sought Jacobsian diversity:
Mr. Hum said the chamber would use the findings to try to persuade city officials and banks to support the continued diversification of Brooklyn’s economy, especially by fostering the expansion of food makers and other specialty manufacturing. Although the manufacturing sector continued to shrink through the city’s strong recovery that began in 2003, about one-fourth of all the manufacturing jobs in Brooklyn are in niches, like baking and wood and metal working, that are adding jobs.

The question of where to place “workforce housing” is a pressing one, but it's a citywide challenge. As I pointed out, Jacobs wrote Death and Life in a time when the city was threatened by shrinkage, the auto, and wholesale clearance, so her book didn't anticipate accommodating growth fostered by the city’s revival and, not insignificantly, the decline in the dollars that makes a Manhattan apartment a potential second-home for so many of the world’s wealthy.

Not-so-welcome growth

There’s little in The Economy of Cities about the street ballet Jacobs described in Death and Life, but there’s one tart observation that has resonance in the Atlantic Yards debate:
Nor is the process by which one thing leads to another confined to profit-making enterprises... Nor is it, as we notice from the papers, confined to useful, legal, or innocuous work... some city-planning departments take to scouting out and processing profitable deals for favored real-estate operators and also to organizing and running fraudulent “citizens’ organizations” to help overcome public opposition.

Jacobs and city officials today?

At the awards ceremony, which also garnered coverage in the Times Sunday Styles section (right), Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin paid tribute to some public and elected officials in the audience: Robert Leiber, deputy mayor for economic development; State Senator Liz Krueger; Amanda Burden, chairperson of the City Planning Commission; Janette Sadik-Khan, director of the Department of Transportation; and Robert Tierney, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. (The Times's CityRoom blog also mentioned the presence of Shaun Donovan, director of the Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development.)

Given the convivial atmosphere, it may seem churlish to point out the inevitable tension between the legacy of Jacobs, as expressed via this years winners of the Jacobs Medals, and the legacy of Moses at least partly represented by the city.

After all, Jacobs opposed the Williamsburg-Greenpoint rezoning that Burden championed. (One scholar has argued the Burden’s Department of City Planning is Jacobs’s heir; I’m not so sure. Michael D.D. White offers some more criticism of Burden.)

Lieber’s predecessor, Dan Doctoroff, was seen as a Moses-aspirant by some antagonists, notably Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx, who surely would’ve won a Jacobs Medal had she not previously been garlanded with a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award.

Then again, Sadik-Khan’s willingness to experiment boldly with street closings and to hire as deputies representatives of groups that had previously clashed with the Department of Transportation represents a striking and welcome flexibility. As if in salute to Sadik-Khan's efforts, the Rockefeller Foundation-distributed Jacobs Medal t-shirts featured a nifty graphic of people walking and biking, reclaiming the streets--which, though fitting, do not (and could not) encompass Jacobs’ entire vision.

(Graphic by Abbott Miller, Pentagram)

That does comport, however, with the foundation’s new initiative on transportation. Said Rodin at the ceremony, “No longer does our system of highways suffice. High speed and light rail, rapid and mass transit, especially in cities, and in the best tradition of Jane Jacobs, policymakers must place new emphasis on preserving walkable, bikeable streets."

Caro on Jacobs

In her introduction of Caro, the Rockefeller Foundation's Rodin noted that the published version of Caro’s book omitted a chapter, included in the original manuscript, on the relationship between Jacobs and Moses. (That missing chapter was first reported by AYR last October.) Though Rodin said Caro would "talk about what he uncovered," his reflections were more general.

Jacobs' Death and Life, Caro reflected (transcript), was a revelation, because she questioned and explained the values of neighborhood, of community. And while so many of the books on land use planning used the phrase “human cost,” they never explained what that actually meant. That, Caro said, is why he wrote in such detail about neighborhoods like East Tremont in the Bronx, and found himself thinking back on Jacobs’ line, “This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.”

He said he only met Jacobs once. They had a lot to talk about: she wanted to know what it was like to meet Moses. And he wanted to know what it was like to beat him.

The Jacobs Medal winners

This year’s winners of the Jacobs Medals were Peggy Shepard, executive director and co-founder of West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT), for lifetime activism, and Alexie Torres-Fleming, executive director of the South Bronx-based Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (YMPJ), for new ideas and activism.

Their Jacobsian spirit means they aren't necessarily in sync with some of the public officials attending the ceremony. Consider the letter from Shepard’s WE ACT on the 125th Street rezoning:
We are deeply disappointed to find that despite a three-year public collaborative process to develop a rezoning plan the Department of City Planning (“DCP”) promised would meet the both the development and economic needs of the Harlem community, DCP has gone forward with a plan that not only ignores the community’s expressed needs but that would have such profoundly significant negative impacts on every aspect of life and the environment in Harlem.

Or this comment on the initial plan for the Columbia University expansion:
Columbia’s only recently revealed plan lands the expansion campus squarely in the middle of the Manhattanville revitalization zone and will physically come between the community and the waterfront park residents had fought for so long and hard to build.... Columbia cannot be allowed to continue along its path of secrecy and exclusion.
(More from this New York Times Magazine article.)

Shepard (right), in her remarks, noted that the Jacobs medal “salutes a New York state of mind” and that the environmental justice movement “has redefined environment to embrace all habitats,” insuring a justice and equity perspective and including community-based approaches to planning. Besides being a watchdog, it’s important to be proactive, she said, citing her organization’s work establishing the Harlem Pier.

In the Bronx

YMPJ’s work is varied, but its effort, as part of a community plan, to decommission the unfinished, Moses-spurred 1.25 Sheridan Expressway to create parks, affordable housing, and community facilities represents a very Jacobsian solution. (The Congress for a New Urbanism lists the Sheridan as the second in a Top Ten list of highways in the country deserving demolition.

Torres-Fleming (right), in a sense echoing Carter’s remarks last year in a debate with Doctoroff about the need to “really listen,” talked about how important it was to hear the voices of people like her humbly-born parents and their neighbors in the South Bronx.

Working in corporate America, she reflected, she “was taught a certain type of power,” one that neglected people in her community. But “one beautiful day, after my church had been torched, as a result of work we had been doing against drugs, I came out to march,” she remembered, “there were a sea of people lining the streets, ready to march... they weren’t the people I’d been taught who were powerful... in that moment, there was a voice inside me that said, ‘Alexie, forget what you learned about power.’.. Coming together in dignity, and in love and struggling for justice in that community... my understanding about power fundamentally changed.”

Perhaps Jacobs should get the last word, as quoted by Rodin: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everyone only because and only when they are created by everybody.”

In an era of megaprojects shepherded by unelected and unchecked authorities, Jacobs's words remain more aspirational than actual. And "created by everybody", of course, may mean some messy process. But some people, as the Jacobs Medals attest, are trying to get the right balance.

Comments

  1. # # #


    Hi, Norman! Thank you very much for writing-up the Jane Jacobs medal event and for providing the various links to related websites (e.g., the link to the Rockefeller Foundation website, with its links to other websites, etc.). As I've mentioned before, the Atlantic Yards Report seems to be THE essential clearing house of information regarding Jane Jacobs!

    I was especially interested in your detailed version (and the linked to Rockefeller Foundation's transcript) of the comments that Robert Caro made at the ceremony regarding the topic of Robert Moses and the "problem" of constructing large-scale public works in a crowded urban setting. I thought I remembered this as being one of the themes of his amazing "The Power Broker," but a) I wasn't sure if it was directly stated (as it apparently was, given the quote that you and Caro provide) or indirectly stated; and b) I wasn't sure if Robert Caro still felt that way today (which apparently he does).

    As you can probably tell from my comments in the "City Room" blog thread on Caro, Moses and Jacobs that you've linked to, despite my great admiration for Caro and "The Power Broker," I am skeptical that this "problem" is as insoluble (without using Moses type methods) as Caro makes it out to be, and I eventually hope to write an article stating my case. So this information about Caro's current feelings about the book are interesting and helpful.

    Without outlining my entire case against the belief that we need a Robert Moses for large-scale public works in an urban setting, let me reiterate that I think people should be specific about what large-scale public projects they are talking about and why such projects are supposedly experiencing their delays, if any. Are there really any unambiguously needed projects (like the third water tunnel) that are truly being intolerably delayed? Could some of the large-scale projects that are supposedly experiencing delays be, instead, boondoggles (e.g., proverbial white elephants, etc.) that are experiencing what will ultimately prove to be useful legitimate opposition (or correction)? And are any supposed delays really a result of said large-scale project being constructed "in a crowded urban setting" -- or of something else entirely (e.g., garden variety normal delays, political infighting that could happen anywhere, etc.)?

    Let me quickly add that my personal belief is that these days we probably do, indeed, suffer from too much anti-urban NIMBYism (although I think this may actually be more of a problem, perhaps, for relatively small-scaled private developments) -- BUT that, in any case, we don't want, or need, a reincarnated crazed Robert Moses to deal with it.

    - - - - -

    I love the fact that they gave out copies of "The Economy of Cities" at the ceremony. As I believe I've commented on the Atlantic Yards Report previously, I think the "Economy of Cities" contains very strong arguments against the Atlantic Yards Project that haven't (as far as I know) been fully appreciated and utilized -- even though the very name of "Develop Don't Destroy" seems to implicitly make reference to these arguments. (This is not meant at all as a criticism of the "Develop Don't Destroy" people as they have to deal, obviously, with the practicalities of what is most likely to work politically -- and these arguments of Jacobs' are not widely known, let alone generally accepted, so probably not the best way to go.)

    However, since there are people, like myself, who are skeptical of some of the more commonly given reasons for opposing Atlantic Yards (e.g., congestion, skyscrapers, etc.), I think Jacobs' arguments help undercut Atlantic Yards from a different, "less NIMBYish," direction -- i.e., it's simply not genuine economic development! In terms of the "Economy of Cities," Atlantic Yards is 1) a diversion of scarce resources, 2) the destruction of an indigenous economic incubator, 3) all for the construction of little more than an economically sterile branch factory.

    - - - - - - -

    I've recently been re-reading two other books by Jacobs that also seem to me to contain some, at least implicit, anti-Atlantic Yards arguments: "Systems of Survival" and "The Nature of Economies." I'll try and find the passages / ideas that made me think of Atlantic Yards and your blog post about the Jane Jacobs medal ceremony.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Indeed, Atlantic Yards or any other residential development at the site would not be an "economic engine," as I recently wrote:
    http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2008/09/economic-engine-markowitz-repeats-ay.html

    ReplyDelete

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