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The Bloomberg administration and Jane Jacobs: the consonance and the disconnect

It was a convivial, heartfelt event on Monday night, October 18, when the Rockefeller Foundation awarded the fourth annual Jane Jacobs Medals for new activism and career activism.

Both categories of awards were richly deserved. Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, founder of the Central Park Conservancy, helped revive the city's jewel, once shockingly deteriorated and neglected.

Josh David and Robert Hammond, founder of Friends of the High Line, saw civic possibilities in a long-neglected piece of infrastructure slated for demolition.

And the presenters of each award, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and City Planning Commission Chairperson Amanda Burden, respectively, could proudly, affectinately claim mayoral endorsement for both projects.

And the disconnect

But we shouldn't be misled into thinking that the administration of Mayor Mike Bloomberg and followers of famed urbanist Jane Jacobs are always on the same page.

Consider that, in a video shown to attendees, New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger expressed his amazement--as he has written--that backers of the West Side Stadium portrayed the gargantuan project as expressing Jacobsian mixed-use ideals because it contained retail elements at the street level.

Bloomberg, of course, backed the West Side Stadium to the hilt.

Consider that, in one of her last public statements, Jacobs, who had long lived in Toronto but maintained affection for and attention to New York City, wrote a tough open letter criticizing the Bloomberg administration's plans for rezoning Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

Such criticisms have even more weight today, when those neighborhoods face a disproportionate share of stalled construction sites.

And consider that Benepe and Burden, however committed they are to the Jacobsian ideals, have had to swallow and endorse some very questionable moves by the mayor who appointed them, such as the loss of parkland for a new Yankee Stadium, or the creation of superblocks and surface parking on behalf of the Atlantic Yards project.

The Jacobs influence

In their remarks Monday night, the awardees cited the influence of Jacobs' seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Barlow Rogers called it one of the most important books in her life, though she recognized, when she applied to planning schools, that it was anathema to received wisdom.

David, a travel writer turned accidental activist, said he'd read the book just before starting his involvement. It had never occurred to him that he could have an impact on the built environment, but the book inspired him.

There, at a community board meeting, he met a kindred spirit, Hammond, and together, with the help of some heavy hitters they recruited (it didn't hurt that Hammond was a college friend of then City Council President Gifford Miller), they built a movement.

David said that Jacobs' proposal that cities be divided into administrative districts helped create the community board system. (I hadn't heard that.) So, in this case, the system worked: "Jane Jacobs built the room where the High Line, as we know it, was born."

And that room, of course, was ignored completely in the Atlantic Yards approval process, as the city agreed to cede control to the Empire State Development Corporation and its unelected board, thus bypassing the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).



    Norman wrote:

    [Josh] David [a found of Friends of the High Line] said that [Jane] Jacobs' proposal that cities be divided into administrative districts helped create the community board system. (I hadn't heard that.) So, in this case, the system worked: "Jane Jacobs built the room where the High Line, as we know it, was born."

    Benjamin writes:

    I'm not sure if it's precisely true that Jane Jacobs' book "Death and Life of Great American Cities," helped "create" the community board system (in the sense of helping to originate it). But I do suspect that it's likely true that it helped shape the development of the community board system over the years.

    If I am remembering correctly from some research I was doing about a year ago, a much weaker form of the community board (than even now) was already in existence a number of years before Jane Jacobs wrote "Death and Life of Great American Cities" (the book where Jacobs talks about the importance of properly organized administrative districts). I think (and again I'm not sure about this) the original community board system was set up in the early-1950s in Manhattan by the then Manhattan Borough President (1950-1953) Robert F. Wagner.

    Again, I'm not positive about this, but I think Jane Jacobs' husband, Robert (and maybe even Jane Jacobs herself?), may have been a member of the local community board for the Village in the 1950s, even before she went on to write "Death and Life . . . "

    Another person who I think was a member of a 1950s, pre-"Death and Life" Greenwich Village community board was Shirley Hayes, the person who originally organized the fight against an enlarged roadway in Washington Square Park.

    (To be continued.)

    Benjamin Hemric
    Wed., Oct. 20, 2010, 8:57 p.m.


    I haven't done as much research about this as I eventually hope to do, but it seems to me that the the chapter in "Death and Life . . ." on administratvie districts was influential in the development of the "co-terminality" movement in NYC government in the early- and mid-1970s. The idea was to shape the administrative districts of various city departments so that they more closely corresponded to those of community planning boards (and, as a result, also to fellow city agencies).

    I could be wrong about this, but I believe there was strong opposition in a number of communities, and the policy was never implemented the way its proponents had hoped.

    I suspect, though, that Jacobs herself (who had already moved to Toronto) would have been suspicious of a Draconian implementation of such a policy, especially over just a short period of time. However, it seems to me that it is a generally good objective to aim for over time.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Wed., Oct. 20, 2010, 10:55 p.m.


    P.S. -- Googling "co-terminality" just now, I see that co-terminality was adopted even earlier than the mid-1970s and seems to be pretty well implemented these days.

    However, I do remember some controversy from the mid-1970s or so, but don't know if it was strictly local and anomalous or more widespread.

    But it's good to see that the general idea appears to be widely, and sensibly, implemented these days.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Oct. 20, 2010, 11: 30 p.m.


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