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MAS Summit: Bloomberg administration's Jacobsian efforts are highlighted, but embrace of "cataclysmic projects" shouldn't be ignored

While the big news at the Municipal Art Society's (MAS) Summit for New York City October 21-22 concerned the livability survey commissioned by the MAS, there was much more worthy of discussion, and I'll address some of those issues this week.

Notably, one moment crystallized the ongoing tensions--as provoked earlier in the week by the Jane Jacobs Medals celebration--between the Bloomberg administration's worthy, Jacobsian efforts, and its less defensible affection for megaprojects.


Author and Landmarks Preservation Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz spoke on a panel titled Vibrant Neighborhoods.

"I think it's wonderful that members of the Bloomberg administration thought this summit important enough to appear here to catalog the wonderful things agencies are doing to make the city more livable," she said, a reference to Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin, Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who spoke at the event, along with Deputy Mayor Patti Harris.

(Also making presentations were Leslie Koch and Regina Myer, who lead the city-controlled organizations that run Governors Island and Brooklyn Bridge Park, respectively.)

Jacobsian efforts

"What is interesting is many of these things are not what we hear most about," Gratz said. "They are creative initiatives, spread in small doses, very Jacobsian, not the big cataclysmic projects that we hear most about that are not the creators of a livable city."

"Real economic development has nothing to do with real estate, and this is something Jane taught us in The Economy of Cities," Gratz said. "Economic development is an activity that comes first. The buildings to house it comes second. Jane used to say you cannot build the ovens and expect the loaves to jump in. What we've been hearing about, and talking about, are the loaves. That's why it's been such a stimulating discussion."

Listening to the people

In reference to the panel topic, Gratz recalled a visit to a "tower in the park classic public housing project, in East Harlem." While there was much green grass, residents were blocked by fences from using it.

"Why can't we tear down the fences?" Gratz asked. "If we want to honor the memory of what Jane stood for, the city, or MAS, could survey the people of just one tower in park housing projects, ask them what they want to see, then take down the fences and make that happen."

"I tell you the public housing story, because Jane very importantly in the introduction to [The] Death and Life [of Great American Cities], wrote about learning from people on the ground," she said.

What Jacobs stood for

"I also feel compelled to dispel some myths of what Jane stood for. Jane's observation and philosophy are useful only if not misunderstood," said Gratz, echoing some of the themes in her recent book, The Battle for Gotham.

No, Jacobs didn't favor only small-scale buildings, nor said only old buildings have value, nor opposed all big projects. "Too many people make the mistake of defining her observations of Greenwich Village as advocacy for preservation of the urban village," Gratz said. "The Village was her laboratory to observe larger truths about urban life."

Jacobs vs. developers

These days Jacobsian principles have "become conventional wisdom among planners" and also embraced, at least in rhetoric, by developers. "No developer can ever develop a large-scale project or so-called new community based on Jacobs' principles," she warned. "This is an oxymoron."

(In his Noticing New York blog, Michael D.D. White has tested Atlantic Yards against Jacobsian principles, and found it wanting on many fronts.)

"The first and overarching Jacobs idea is that cities and their neighborhoods, in total contrast to suburbs and overscaled new developments, must evolve, grow and change organically, and must emerge from efforts of many doers," Gratz said. "There is nothing organic from a highly developed, highly planned development, with one owner."

Moreover, she said, "plenty of big projects are getting done," citing infrastructure projects regarding water supply and mass transit. And, she added, "let's face it, many big projects deserve to be defeated."

Learning from Jacobs

She observed that the two winners this year of the Jane Jacobs Medal for new activism, Friends of the High Line founders Joshua David and Robert Hammond, came to activism through different paths.

David had read Jacobs' work, but Hammond had not. (He had, however, read Robert Caro's The Power Broker, about Robert Moses.)

"Jane would've loved the fact that he did what he did having never ever heard of her," suggested Gratz, a longtime Jacobs friend. "Jane believed that the citizen observer, the citizen doer, was the expert of the city."

"Josh was a Jacobs fan, Robert was Jacobs ignorant," she observed, and they "made a marvelous match."

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