They were City Council President Christine Quinn; Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum; Empire State Development (ESDC) Downstate Chairman Patrick Foye; City Planning Commission (CPC) Chairwoman Amanda Burden; Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe (son of medal winner Barry Benepe); Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan; and Landmarks Preservation Commission Chairman Robert Tierney.
Given that the essentially pragmatic Jacobs was embraced by so many—see Francis Morrone’s deft essay in the New York Sun on the various constituencies that invoke her—and is such as an enduring urban thinker, it’s no surprise that these officials would show their respect, a little more than a year after her death and upon new awards in her honor. And each official likely has learned and deployed Jacobsian lessons, though some, like Sadik-Khan, seem more enlightened.
At some point, however, you can’t square Jane Jacobs with some of the projects the city supports, and Atlantic Yards is one exemplar. Gotbaum’s been supremely evasive on eminent domain. And Burden, while she knows minutely well the mixed-use mantra (a “b-market” outside the planned arena!), has been part of an orchestrated effort to advance the project, including a Potemkin CPC public meeting (not hearing). The ESDC and CPC have shepherded and supported a project that, while it has Jacobsian elements, would lack some others, like frequent streets or a diversity of buildings, crucial to Jacobs's vision of a healthy city.
Beyond the checklist
But that Jacobsian lens, and a simple checklist, isn’t enough in a city now confronting “over-success,” as the new exhibition Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York, which opened yesterday at the Municipal Art Society, should lead us to conclude. (I'll write more on the exhibit shortly. Note that, despite mention of Atlantic Yards in some reviews, such as in Metro and the New York Times, the exhibition, which is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, doesn't directly address AY. The accompanying book does touch on AY in several places.)
After all, Jacobs was writing nearly five decades ago, a tribune of the “foot people” in response to the ascendant “car people.” Times have changed. The brief film Saving the Sidewalks, broadcast last year on Channel 13 and shown at the event Monday, captures Jacobs as plainspoken, almost severe. She lived on a block that, as depicted its black-and-white photo, looked more like something out of Jacob Riis than the home of The Art of Cooking, the current ground-floor retail occupant in her old 555 Hudson Street address.
After all, the fight to preserve urbanism has in many ways been won, and new challenges have arisen. Writes New Yorker architectural critic Paul Goldberger in an essay in the book accompanying the exhibit, Block by Block, excerpted from his remarks at a celebration last year:
In some ways it has become too big and too gentrified to operate as Jacobs wanted it to. In her day, a fairly natural process gave us the city we love—the old, neighborhood-rich, pedestrian-oriented, exquisitely balanced New York—and she wisely saw that planning was not able to do much except upset this natural equilibrium. Today, however, the natural order of things gives us sprawl, gigantism, economic segregation, and homogeneous, dreary design. In Jacobs’s day, the intervention into organic urban growth was symbolized by Robert Moses. Today, the forces trying to intervene are those set in motion by Jane Jacobs herself.
The Jacobsian corruption
As he wrote in his book on Ground Zero, Goldberger in his remarks also reminded people how Jacobs has been used:
Who could have imagined that “mixed-use” would become not a sharp-eyed writer’s observation of what underlies a strong, organic urban fabric but a developer’s mantra? Who could have envisioned the day when politicians and developers promoting a gigantic football stadium beside the Hudson River would propose surrounding it with shops and cafés, transforming it into an asset to the city’s street life? When that happened, I knew Jane Jacobs’s radical ideas had moved into the mainstream, where they could be corrupted by those who claim to follow them. So if there is any way to follow Jane Jacobs, it is to think of her as showing us not a physical model for city form but rather a perceptual model for skepticism...
Varieties of skepticism
Jacobsian skepticism could easily lead to criticism of the Atlantic Yards plan, but it could also lead to criticism of those—hardly a majority of opponents, given that they have spawned the alternative UNITY plan—who think the borough, and a major crossroads, shouldn’t change signficantly.
After all, even a Jacobs fan like Michael Sorkin suggests that the city can tolerate some superblocks. So, could the need for affordable housing, and the desire for an arena, overcome the failure to meet the Jacobsian elements of frequent streets and diverse buildings? Does “cataclysmic” money mean something different in 2007 than at the turn of the 1960s?
Process and participation
Those are reasonable questions, but I think they're trumped by another one: the importance of civic process and giving the community a voice (though not a veto). Writes co-curator Christopher Klemek in his essay:
No doubt, when facing today’s issues, many will always be tempted to ask, “What would Jane Jacobs say or do?” And were she still alive, Jacobs would certainly have plenty of advice to offer. (One of her last public interventions was a letter to the Bloomberg administration protesting the rezoning of Greenpoint/Williamsburg.) But, beyond having an opinion on any specific issue, she was consistently more concerned that all New Yorkers have a say—that they be vigilant and engaged citizens, demanding that their voices be heard and that their insights be considered….
Despite Burden’s claim that “we plan from the ground up,” such participation has been absent from Atlantic Yards. In his New York magazine article from August 2006, Chris Smith wrote that "it’s outrageous to see the absolute absence of democratic process. There’s been no point in the past four years at which the public has been given a meaningful chance to decide whether something this big and transformative should be built on public property."
And Foye's ESDC, while announcing several steps toward greater transparency, which even moderate AY critics deem insufficient, proceeds to twist history in defending its use of eminent domain, suggesting that the Civil Rights Era law establishing the agency, which called for "maximum private participation" in slum clean-up projects the agency initially funded itself, somehow anticipated the developer-driven Atlantic Yards project.
At the ceremony Monday, Jacobs medal winner Omar Freilla, founder of Green Worker Cooperative in the Bronx, in his acceptance speech, talked about how reading Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities “resonated with a lot of of what I’m feeling.” Jacobs bequeathed “a love of humanity and a love of democracy,” an inspiration to his own work for environmental justice and economic development, aiming to establish a facility to transform construction waste “green collar” jobs.
Freilla, however, challenged the general air of civic self-satisfaction. “Do we have a say in our lives and decisions?” he asked. The answer: infrequently. It was a bracing reminder of the importance of process and one that Jacobs, I’d imagine, would have applauded.
The Jacobsian DCP?
Burden's busy Department of City Planning (DCP) has its defenders. In a September 2006 essay published in City & Community, the magazine of the American Sociological Association, sociologist David Halle asked, Who Wears Jane Jacobs’s Mantle in Today’s New York City? (fee) and concluded, curiously enough:
Indeed, in today’s New York City it is, arguably, not usually local Community Boards but rather Mayor [Mike] Bloomberg’s Department of City Planning that is most faithfully implementing the spirit of Jane Jacobs and her classic. Despite its critique of contemporary planners, The Death and Life is a cry for better central planning, albeit a planning that recognizes and respects local and market-based characteristics of neighborhoods.
Halle reaches that conclusion after making some very good points but also choosing selective evidence. He notes wisely that both critics, like New York Times architecture critic, Nicolai Ourousoff, and acolytes, like the Villager newspaper covering her Greenwich Village, both misrepresented Jacobs as a conservator of the small scale rather than a champion of dynamism.
And, in his analysis of preservation battles in Greenwich Village, Halle suggests that local preservationists have invoked Jacobs and “vehemently opposed, and scorned if built,” works by several distinguished architects. So have organizations elsewhere in the city.
He reminds us that, in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs championed a mix of buildings and high density, even as, in her local battles, she fought high-rise public housing in the Village. So he cogently suggests that locals have inappropriately opposed a new glass building at 122 Greenwich Avenue, at the northern edge of the Greenwich Village Historic District, replacing a parking lot.
Fortunately members of the Landmarks Commission have read The Death and Life of Great American Cities, as have key members of the Department of City Planning which also needs to approve any new building in a Historic District, even on a vacant lot.
So One Jackson Square is in process. Halle observes:
In Jane Jacobs’s spirit, Bloomberg and his DCP see government’s role as facilitating urban growth and density, especially to provide jobs for newcomers and existing residents, yet in a way that is geographically balanced and sensitive to neighborhoods…. The DCP has also, albeit prodded by local activists and Community Boards, moved to address the city’s perennial crisis of “affordable housing.” The Bloomberg administration has now introduced more affordable housing programs than any NY City administration for decades, though of course these programs are never enough and the problem remains huge.
DCP, he suggests, “is generally the most honest and sensible player, trying, as it should, to knit together and balance a myriad local interests.”
Unless, as he doesn’t mention, it is bypassed entirely in a state override of city land use procedures, as with projects like Atlantic Yards.
DCP's efforts to rezone neighborhoods after years of inattention represent progress. Still, as Eve Baron, director of the Municipal Art Society’s Planning Center, reminded me, "Zoning is just a tool for planning—community-initiated 197-a plans represent some of the most creative planning.” And, as Baron and others have pointed out, too often such plans are ignored.
Jacobs, in fact, was a booster if that 197-a plan for the North Brooklyn waterfront, the one the city bypassed. That's not to say that such community plans and the wishes of the city and developers/investors can always be harmonized, or that the city's land use review process, even if better than the state one, truly lets the public be heard. But the goal is balance.
Moses and Jacobs
In his essay, co-curator Klemek concludes:
Unfortunately, however, her ideas have often been misconstrued. A recent high-profile exhibition on Robert Moses and “the transformation of New York” went some way toward resuscitating the old power broker’s reputation... Interestingly, this reappraisal has often come at Jacobs’s expense. In a facile dichotomy, Moses is taken as the apotheosis of forceful public authority, while Jacobs is seen as little more than a nagging check on it…. And it is out of such a false dichotomy that calls are now often heard for a synthesis of Moses and Jacobs—that is, effective government action married to sensitive and respectful observation. But the truth is that Jacobs was never opposed to vigorous government authority per se; in fact, she advocated a democratically responsive balance of private and public interests. In a sense, Jacobs was the synthesis we now seek. But such an impoverished, laissez-faire civic landscape is not what Jacobs wanted at all. It is certainly not what she called for in her book or agitated for in her political commitments. If anything, she clearly envisioned the kind of responsive synthesis of public and private action now so often invoked. For Jacobs, healthy, sustainable city life was the product of a dynamic tension between government and the market, either of which could become a “cataclysmic” force if not effectively balanced.
And that tension, it seems, should be mediated by some public participation. Otherwise the democracy she savored, and Omar Freilla cited, is sacrificed when Jacobsian form is provided without--so to speak--Jacobsian function.