Sunday, February 21, 2010

In the Times today, another round on Jane Jacobs and gentrification; did she prefer preservation or ways to foster thriving cities?

A cover story in the Metropolitan section of the New York Times today, headlined A Contrarian’s Lament in a Blitz of Gentrification, focuses on Brooklyn College sociologist and author Sharon Zukin, who's written a new book titled Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, published last November.

The article and book raise some interesting issues about Jane Jacobs and gentrification, but they also fail to acknowledge how dramatically the city as a whole has changed. And while Zukin offers some solutions worthy of consideration, including a redirection of subsidies to support small-scale and neighborhood initiatives, she doesn't address some of the macro policies--such as transportation and parks--that might foster additional thriving neighborhoods.

From the blurb:
Indeed, Naked City is a sobering update of Jacobs' legendary 1962 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities . Like Jacobs, Zukin looks at what gives neighborhoods a sense of place, but argues that over time, the emphasis on neighborhood distinctiveness has become a tool of economic elites to drive up real estate values and effectively force out the neighborhood "characters" that Jacobs so evocatively idealized.
Jacobs' myth?

From the Times's CityRoom blog, distilling the article:
Brownstone Brooklyn is another slide placed under her cultural microscope. The bohemian outliers of the upper-middle-class wave that has swept the area celebrated the “grittiness” of the neighborhoods, she notes, even as they pushed the working class toward the exits.

“It’s a myth that, like Jane Jacobs’s sanitized appreciation of the urban village of Hudson Street, lured more artists and writers to Brooklyn as those ethnic communities aged and grew smaller,” Ms. Zukin writes.

I'd agree that Jacobs' appreciation of street life may have been sanitized (see the Marshall Berman essay in the book Block By Block, cited here) and I'd point out that Jacobs was writing when the city and its virtues were under assault from suburbanization.

Benjamin Hemric, a frequent critic of those (mis)interpreting Jacobs (and an influence on my thinking), adds some deeper comments:
2) I think it’s a mistake to assume, as either Michael Powell or Sharon Zukin seem to do, that Jane Jacobs was somehow oblivious to what many people see as the negative effects, and the power, of what is now call gentrification. Just for one instance, the third part of “Death and Life . . .,” entitled “Forces of Decline and Regeneration,” contains an entire chapter on “The Self-Destruction of Diversity” (which is the general problem, as Jacobs sees it, with what is now called “gentrification”) and its power.

Rather than being oblivious, Jacobs just happens to see the situation very differently from the way these critics do. For instance, from the Jacobs perspective “ungentrified” urban districts are not really desirable either; and she believes that in order to mitigate the negatives of gentrification, cities need to greatly increase the supply of “gentrifiable” neighborhoods in order to better meet the demand.

3) While it is true that Jacobs was against misguided heavy handed government interference in the marketplace, she did, however, see a role for government too (although probably not the role that Prof. Zukin advocates) — and that’s, indeed, the point of many of her recommendations in “Death and Life . . .” (and subsequent works too). The point is for government to stop doing bad things to cities (e.g., directly destroying diversity or indirectly destroying it by eliminating the conditions that would support it, etc.) and to start doing the right things (e.g., working to create MORE urban districts that have the conditions that create and support diversity, etc.).

4) Many of Jacobs’ critics from the left, like Zukin, basically appear to view the world very differently from Jacobs. They seem to see the world as essentially a static place where various socio-economic groups fight over a, more or less, finite pie, and believe that government should freeze the world even more completely in place in order to protect and “preserve” the turf of the (static) poor.

Jacobs, on the other hand, views the world as a dynamic place that is constantly changing — whether one likes it or not — and the point of a healthy society is to continually increase and expand the pie (which is what she feels humans, including the poor, are inclined to do anyway), not just fight over it.
Indeed, couldn't it be argued that, while Greenwich Village and Brownstone Brooklyn are gentrified in ways far beyond Jacobs' time, given the city's subsequent prosperity and growth, there are many other worthy neighborhoods?

Is the challenge figuring out how people can stay in their neighborhood, or is it figuring out how to ensure--thanks to investments in the "public realm," to quote planner Alexander Garvin--the city has many places where an affordable and decent life can be lived?

Jacobs' errors?

From the main article:
But if Ms. Jacobs is much hailed as an urban prophet, Ms. Zukin is a heretic on her canonization. She views Ms. Jacobs as a passionate and prescient writer, but also one who failed to reckon with steroidal gentrification and the pervasive hunger of the upper middle class for ever more homogenous neighborhoods.

The pattern in places like Williamsburg and Atlantic Yards, Ms. Zukin said, is dreary and inexorable: Middle-class “pioneers” buy brownstones and row houses. City officials rezone to allow luxury towers, which swell the value of the brownstones. And banks and real estate companies unleash a river of capital, flushing out the people who gave the neighborhoods character.

Ms. Jacobs viewed cities as self-regulating organisms, and placed her faith in local residents. But Ms. Zukin argues that without more aggressive government regulation of rents and zoning, neighborhoods will keep getting more stratified.

“Jacobs’s values — the small blocks, the cobblestone streets, the sense of local identity in old neighborhoods — became the gentrifiers’ ideal,” Ms. Zukin said. “But Jacobs’s social goals, the preservation of classes, have been lost.”
That's a bit simplistic. In Williamsburg, the city approved a dramatic rezoning--despite alternative plans from the Community Board--that converted manufacturing blocks into places for towers. There are relatively few brownstones. The rezoning did involve affordable housing--it just wasn't very well thought out.

A further description in the Times article gets it wrong:
The City Planning Commission rezoned a few years ago even as it tried to apply a gentle brake, letting gleaming condominiums rise on the river while protecting old warehouses and factories.
A gentle brake? The rezoning opened up Williamsburg into a Wild West of speculation, which is why there are so many stalled development sites.

Atlantic Yards, beyond the mistaken description of a rezoning and AY as place, would be a state override of zoning, shoehorning significant density into 22 acres. It represents "cataclysmic money," among other things Jacobs opposed. (See the Jacobs report card from Michael D.D. White's Noticing New York for much more.)

Beyond the block

I haven't yet read the book, but I did scan the conclusion, from which the following passages are excerpted. I'll point out that, despite Zukin's suggestion that Jacobs focused on the block, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities Jacobs also wrote about a larger entity she called a district:
Our tastes for consuming the city unconsciously confirm the official rhetoric of upscale growth.

Jane Jacobs seduced us with her vision of the urban village. Unlike her communitarian vision of social harmony, though, we have to go beyond the block to decide what kind of city we want. This should not be the city of Robert Moses, whose dictatorial ability to conceive and carry out big plans stirs nostalgia among today's power brokers. We need small-scale streets and shops, ethic and working-class residents, and low rents that allow residents to put down roots in the heart of the city. Moses used federal government funds and local government power to give land to the cultural institutions of New York University and Lincoln Center that still provide jobs for artists and creative support staff today. The state failed, though, to provide stable long-term housing for these necessary low- and middle-income workers. Jacobs didn't talk about housing prices, but affordable housing and low commercial rents are crucial to keeping the kinds of people and stores she liked in her neighborhood. Though she advocated a mix of new and old buildings that would keep rents low, she failed to see how maintaining the physical fabric of the old city, its loft buildings and four- and five-story townhouses, would create a precious commodity that few longtime residents and store owners could afford.
But how do we have both small-scale streets and low rents? Isn't increasing the supply--and density--part of the solution? Isn't there an opportunity to create density at and near many transit hubs rather than throw "extreme density" at one of them?

(I wrote in November 2007 how Edward Poteat, director of real estate finance at Horsford & Poteat Realty, suggested zoning changes—as long as the projects included affordable housing—in neighborhoods like Brownsville, East New York, and Bushwick, allowing ten- to 12-story buildings, envisioning a scale not unlike at the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.)

The role of zoning

Zukin writes:
She didn't believe in government action, though, to save authentic places. To the end of her life she put no faith in zoning or any other plan that was imposed from outside a neighborhood. Her work cannot guide us to devise strategies for protecting residents and businesses that would break the great power of those who own, and those who can zone, the land.
Actually, Jacobs supported flexible "performance" zoning in Toronto, which aimed "to create a high quality, predictable built environment while leaving the issue of land use flexible."

Authenticity

Zukin suggests there's a role for "authenticity," a topic that pervades the book and deserves a longer discussion than I can muster at this point:
Authenticity must be used to reshape the rights of ownership. Claiming authenticity can suggest a right to the city, a human right, that is cultivated by longtime residence, use, and habit,. Just as icons... derive their meaning from the rituals in which they are embedded, so do neighborhoods, buildings, and streets.
Maybe, but authenticity has been used on both sides of the Atlantic Yards fight. Proponents have claimed they deserve a piece of the pie after all their years in Brooklyn. Opponents can argue that they helped create the situation where it became cost-effective to finally build over the Vanderbilt Yard.

The solution?

Zukin writes:
Zoning, limits on rent increases, government-backed mortgage guarantees for store owners, special privileges for start-up businesses and young apprentices that will maintain crafts and trades, street vending, and even gardening: these are the basic building blocks that can produce the neighborhood self-sufficiency Jane Jacobs prized.
Some Jacobsians might say that these conditions might emerge in more flourishing neighborhoods through general investment in infrastructure. Zukin seems to be suggesting that the special privileges often enjoyed by the real estate industry be steered differently.

This echoes the somewhat parallel effort of the "One City, One Future" coalition, which posited an equitable growth strategy for the last mayoral race but mostly got ignored.

State power & CBAs

Jacobs was wrong to distrust the capacity of state power to protect the city's authenticity," observes Zukin, who acknowledges that the "betrayal of community based plans" in places like Williamsburg is hardly a good sign. She suggests that the use of inclusionary zoning to provide some affordable apartments should be coupled with further protection of rent control.

She adds:
Neither has the city government supported the use of community benefits agreements, which would guarantee needed jobs and housing. In the few cases where developer have accepted such agreements public officials fail to enforce them. But without the power of state laws neighborhoods have no way to fight market forces that destroy community institutions.
Maybe that's because community benefits agreements (CBAs) don't necessarily guarantee jobs and housing and can instead help gain approval for a highly contentions power. And maybe that's because some CBAs--like the one regarding Atlantic Yards--isn't publicly enforceable.

Political will

Zukin concludes, in her penultimate paragraph:
What is required is to build the political will for this from the bottom up, and to build this resistance among a wide public of voters, including many in the middle class, may require a rhetoric that connects the social goal of rootedness and the economic goal of stable rents to the cultural power of authenticity. If mom-and-pop stores are more "authentic" than big-box chains, the state should mandate their inclusion in every new building project and in every shopping block. If the social life of the streets is truly important, the state should make sure that all the men and women who use the streets have affordable rents so they can continue to live in the neighborhood.
Again, I think, she's pointing to governmental priorities; indeed, if there are tax breaks for developers, why not steer them in a certain way?

That's a legitimate argument. But if everyone stays in a neighborhood, doesn't it get stagnant? Shouldn't there also be provisions to enable growth?

Zukin unfortunately doesn't seem to address the complexity of the political change--both in leadership and structure--necessary to get there.

Goldberger's take

In a 10/3/06 tribute to Jacobs, architecture critic Paul Goldberger observed:
What Jane Jacobs really gave us wasn’t a physical model for cities, or a theory about them – as I said a moment ago, she didn’t really want every place to look like Greenwich Village, however much she loved it and learned from it. What she gave us was much more important than a physical model of cities to copy. She gave us a model for skepticism.

Today, it’s hard to know where embracing her skepticism will bring us. The city is not the same as it was in the years when Jacobs first began to observe it. In some ways it has become too big, and too gentrified, to continue to operate as Jane Jacobs wanted it to. In her day, a fairly natural process gave us the Greenwich Village she loved – and gave us the rest of the neighborhood-rich, pedestrian-oriented, exquisitely balanced city New York once was – and Jacobs wisely saw that professional planners were not able to do much except upset this natural equilibrium.

Today, however, the natural order of things yields something very different from the vibrant, street-oriented and highly diverse world Jacobs taught us to admire. The natural process of growth now gives us sprawl, it gives us gigantism, it gives us economic segregation and it gives us homogeneous, dreary design. The laissez-faire city almost worked in the 1950’s New York that Jane Jacobs so loved. In those days, intervention into organic urban growth was symbolized by the acts of a Robert Moses. Intervention by planners was itself a hostile act. Today, though, laissez-faire doesn’t work at all – this is the difficult challenge of city-building now. Natural growth is itself what feels hostile to a civilized city, which is why today, the forces trying to intervene are the forces set in motion by Jane Jacobs herself. If you seek her true legacy, it isn’t just in the stoops and the street life of Greenwich Village, wonderful as these things are. It is the very idea of radical intervention, and of knowing that the one thing in New York that we can never be is complacent.

Perhaps reducing the influence of the real estate industry in politics might be a start.

7 comments:

  1. Builders have always built to the heights possible/allowed. To penalize them for building what is allowed evades the issue.

    Its about density of population. Even with the proposed atlantic yards, Brooklyn is less dense in its developed areas than it was in the 30s/40s/50s.

    The number of people per apartment is far below what it used to be. The result is that generations learn to leave. Whether its income or education or subsidized sprawl... many things send new generations to new places.

    It sucks(literally and figuratively) as it leaves holes that others fill. And those that remain almost always complain about the others because they are different/poorer/without a stable job/of a different religion.

    In the end.... limit the height and relax the density rules and the city of the past might just be re-invented. Build large towers with parking garages and you accelerate towards a point of no return.

    Jane Jacobs got that human scale could be dense and wonderful. Poking at her work decades later in a dismissive tone show the author didn't (or doesn't want to get it).

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  2. Eric, you're exactly right -- this is a typical Marxist intellectual attack, twisting facts, ignoring others, and using "market is bad" as an axiom. In other words, Zukin starts out saying "I can't 'get it' because I hate the market. Here's my deconstruction of Jacobs with that goal in mind."

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  3. Part I

    Norman,

    Hi! Thanks for the thoughtful and kind feedback!

    If it’s OK, I’d like to make some additional comments here that relate specifically to your comments on Zukin’s book.

    Since I haven’t yet really read the book, and since you say you haven’t gotten a chance yet to read the whole thing either, my remarks here are tentative. But from the quotes that you provide, Zukin seems to be a prime example of someone who is talking mostly about a distorted image of Jacobs rather than about the Jacobs who actually existed.

    Here are some examples from your post:

    1) From the book blurb:

    “Like Jacobs, Zukin looks at what gives neighborhoods a sense of place, but argues that over time, the emphasis on neighborhood distinctiveness has become a tool of economic elites to drive up real estate values and effectively force out the neighborhood ‘characters’ that Jacobs so evocatively idealized.”

    Benjamin writes:

    Jacobs was not primarily interested in what gives a “neighborhood” a sense of place – rather her main interest was in understanding what makes urban districts and cities fail or succeed over time (“The Death and Life . . . ”). While sense of place – and not necessarily a residential sense of place, either – certainly has a role to play, it is more of a by product of the conditions that support diversity, rather than an end in itself.

    Furthermore, Jacobs herself did not emphasize “neighborhood” distinctiveness – rather, it is people like Zukin who seem to have taken up “neighborhood distinctiveness” as a battle cry. Again, for Jacobs, district distinctiveness was more a natural outgrowth of healthy urban processes rather than a goal in itself.

    It’s kind of correlates with what English teachers tell you in high school: Don’t worry about developing a “style” (i.e., sense of place or distinctiveness). Worry instead about developing your ideas thoroughly and communicating them effectively. If you do that, since you are an unique person at a unique time and a unique place, a distinctive “style” is likely to emerge anyway.

    Also, Jacobs herself wrote about rising real estate prices forcing out neighborhood “characters.” But for Jacobs the problem in such a scenario is the destruction diversity – not the destruction of local “color” (as it seems to be for Zukin). The Jacobs worldview also decries the destruction of diversity in other forms too, when it has nothing to do with neighborhood “characters.” (I don’t get the impression, however, that this is what Zukin is talking about.)

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  4. Part II

    2) Powell writes (emphasis mine -- BH):

    “Jacobs’s values — the small blocks, the COBBLESTONE STREETS, the sense of local identity in old neighborhoods — became the gentrifiers’ ideal,” Ms. Zukin said. “But Jacobs’s social goals, the preservation of classes, have been lost.”

    Benjamin writes:

    The above quote contains some wildly inaccurate statements, and seems to me to be more likely accurate if one substitutes “Zukin’s” for “Jacobs’s.”

    I think this is a gross distortion (albeit probably unintentional) of Jacobs writings. Jacobs interest was cities and urban districts, meaning that she was also interested in Times Square, Rockefeller Center, W. 57th St., etc.

    Particularly eyebrow raising is the statement that Jacobs valued cobblestone streets. I wonder if Powell can provide some kind of reference for this statement? (Which while he probably means no harm, is actually pretty offensive.)

    And while Jacobs may have recommend small blocks, this does not mean (as I think it does for Powell) that she recommended blocks with only small buildings on them. For Jacobs small blocks meant blocks, including blocks having skyscrapers, that are frequently divided by streets – in other words “short” blocks.

    3) Norman wrote:

    I haven't yet read the book, but I did scan the conclusion, from which the following passages are excerpted. I'll point out that, despite Zukin's suggestion that Jacobs focused on the block, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities Jacobs also wrote about a larger entity she called a district:

    Benjamin writes:

    While Jacobs did, of course, also write about districts (and neighborhoods, and blocks and streets, etc.), it seems to me that her main focus in “Death and Life of Great American Cities,” was actually on, indeed, cities as a whole.

    Plus, even on a micro level, Jacobs cautioned about focusing too much on blocks saying it was usually more useful to discuss streets instead. (That is how people experience cities. Only “planners” looking at maps look at cities as “blocks.”

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  5. Part III

    4) Zukin writes (lettering mine):

    (a) Jacobs didn't talk about housing prices, but affordable housing and low commercial rents are crucial to (b) keeping the kinds of people and stores she liked in her neighborhood.

    Benjamin writes:

    (a) This is untrue. Jacobs did talk about housing prices.

    (b) And, again, Jacobs was interested in why cities died or thrived – not in populating cities, in general, and her own neighborhood, in particular, with only the kinds of people and stores that she may have personally preferred!!!


    5) Zukin writes:

    Though she advocated a mix of new and old buildings that would keep rents low, she failed to see how maintaining the physical fabric of the old city, its loft buildings and four- and five-story townhouses, would create a precious commodity that few longtime residents and store owners could afford.

    Benjamin writes:

    This statement seems to me to be way off base and a good example of Zukin substituting her own thoughts and beliefs about cities for those of Jacobs.

    First off, Jacobs was NOT for solely for “maintaining the physical fabric of the old city.” She was for development that worked – including, for instance, Rockefeller Center, which, at least in some ways, wiped out the old fabric that preceded it.

    Secondly, she was not against skyscrapers, high rise apartment houses and increased densities, as Zukin seems to imply.

    Furthermore, as mentioned in my comments on the City Room Blog, Jacobs believed in creating more (high density) “gentrifiable” (not her word) neighborhoods to meet increased demand. In a sense, this seems to me to be the overall theme of “Death and Life”: use the ideas in this book to create more gentrifiable city districts.

    6) Zukin writes:

    She didn't believe in government action, though, to save authentic places. To the end of her life she put no faith in zoning or any other plan that was imposed from outside a neighborhood.

    Benjamin writes:

    If I’m understanding Zukin correctly, again she is wildly off base. Even in “Death in Life”, for instance, Jacobs suggests zoning for diversity, downzoning (in an area that already has a fair number of high rises), and landmark preservation. And, of course, West Village Houses was a government supported housing development. Furthermore, in one of her later interviews, as just one example, she also supports the idea of inclusionary zoning.

    7) Zukin writes:

    [a] Zoning, [b] limits on rent increases, [c] government-backed mortgage guarantees for store owners, [d] special privileges for start-up businesses and young apprentices that will maintain crafts and trades, [e] street vending, and [f] even gardening: these are the basic building blocks that can produce the neighborhood self-sufficiency Jane Jacobs prized.

    Benjamin writes:

    While I believe Jacobs was against [b]limits on rent increase, much of what Jacobs wrote and said seems to me to be compatible with the rest of these suggestions (depending upon the details, of course). For instance, in one of her interviews Jacobs seemed to endorse the idea of promoting building ownership for those operating small stores in gentrifying neighborhoods.

    8) Here’s an overall comment:

    Judging from the excerpted statements here, Zukin’s beliefs about Jacobs seem quite far removed from Jacobs’s actual writings and statements.

    Sun., 2/21/10, 8:40 p.m.

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  6. I wouldn't put much stock in a book blurb given that it's a marketing tool that necessarily simplifies. Instead, I'd read the empirical sections of the book. To be sure, Jacobs isn't a bit player in her account, but the book isn't really about her. Instead, in the main it is an account of the sweeping transformations in numerous neighborhoods and sites (Harlem, Red Hook, Williamsburg, Union Square, the community gardens movement, the Village, and the WTC site)over the past decade and a half and how a transformed political economy has altered both the pace and character of urban social change. Those who aren't on the left won't like what she has to say, of course, because she traces how neoliberal strategies of private-sector driven development, which now easily and effectively marshal cultural tropes like authenticity, now dominate. For those who don't know, she wrote what was really the first serious book on gentrification (Loft Living - 1982).

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  7. Davemcbr wrote:

    I wouldn't put much stock in a book blurb given that it's a marketing tool that necessarily simplifies. Instead, I'd read the empirical sections of the book.

    Benjamin writes:

    I agree that it's possible (though unlikely) for a book blurb to misdescribe the contents of a book. That is why I mention that my comments are tentative ones.

    However, I also did skim through certain parts of the book and, yesterday, I did attend the CUNY program on this book (Zukin was one of the speakers) and, at least so far from what I've seen, this book blurb doesn't seem to me to be inaccurate.

    - - - - - - - -

    Davemcbr wrote:

    To be sure, Jacobs isn't a bit player in her [Zukin's] account, but the book isn't really about her.

    Benjamin writes:

    I realize the book is not about Jacobs but, nevertheless, Zukin does seem to be making statements about what she believes Jane Jacobs supposedly wrote, said, did, etc., and such statements should be evaluated for their accuracy or inaccuracy.

    - - - - - - -

    Davemcbr wrote:

    For those who don't know, she wrote what was really the first serious book on gentrification (Loft Living - 1982).

    Benjamin writes:

    I gave this book a quick read a few years ago and had mixed feelings about it. I don't have time at the moment for an extneded review, but it seemed to me that although it contained some interesting original research, the arguments were poorly thought out.

    - - - - - -

    Davembcr wrote:

    Those who aren't on the left won't like what she has to say [in Naked City], of course, . . . .

    Benjamin writes:

    It seemed to me that her loft book was an attempt to understand the SoHo phenomenon in Maxist terms -- i.e., to translate it into Marxist jargon. In that book (and at the CUNY discussion yesterday) Zukin was pretty open about her political ideology, which I think is good -- as at least readers / listeners know where she is coming from.

    But it seems to me that unless one subscribes to a Marxist or quasi-Marxist viewpoint, most of her observations on the SoHo / loft phenomnon are likely to be of little value.

    Tues., 2/23/10, 10:10 p.m.

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