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A look at the context and legacy of Jane Jacobs--and a swipe at AY

Can One Woman (Still) Make a Difference? Jane Jacobs and New York was the fourth panel in the series associated with the Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York exhibition, drawing more than 100 people last night to St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery in a Halloween-buzzing East Village.

The promotional material suggested the panelists might address some of the knottiest questions posed the celebration of Jacobs, who wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities during a time of urban decline, aiming to shore up the city, while today the challenge is often one of what she called "oversuccess."

While the panelists touched on some of those issues, offering worthwhile background on Jacobs and suggesting that her principles could be invoked as a brake against too-rapid change, the discussion was too diffuse and brief, in 90 minutes, to fully engage an urgent debate about accommodating the city's growth and maintaining economic diversity.

And yes, Atlantic Yards was cited more than once as a non-Jacobsian poster child.

(Here's the Times's coverage.)

The context

Christopher Klemek, an academic and co-curator of the exhibit, noted that Jacobs debunkers, often associated with the revisionist view of Robert Moses, tend to use Jacobs “as the whipping boy” for the problems of New York. Alternatively, keepers of the flame “have elevated her onto a pantheon.”

While there is a tendency to ask, “What would Jane Jacobs think?”, Klemek suggested, “Ultimately, it’s not an answerable question.” (I've tried, sort of.) And, more importantly, he said, it diverts people from coming to their own conclusions.

Indeed, urbanist and author Roberta Brandes Gratz said that Jacobs was “about one fundamental thing: observe, observe, observe. You didn’t have to be an expert.”

New challenges

Julia Vitullo-Martin of the Manhattan Institute noted, as has Francis Morrone, that Jacobs has been embraced across the political spectrum. “As with the Bible, she relies on stories and anecdotes,” Vitullo-Martin observed. Jacobs's most important message, Vitullo-Martin suggested, “was her respect for two concepts,” density and complexity, which must be combined.

Today, she said, “the great development challenge facing New York City is something almost nobody is writing about”: self-isolating projects being developed by powerful nonprofit institutions, like Columbia University and New York University, and hospitals like Sloan-Kettering.

Different time

Historian Samuel Zipp suggested that, rather than associate Jacobs with a place, we should associate her with an era, the 1960s, an era of intellectual and political ferment. (I was hoping the panel would take the idea to its next step and emphasize the contrast between the declining city some 50 years ago and the city today.)

Jacobs’s encouragement of a multiplicity of ideas and organizations meant she was claimed by conservatives and liberals. Today, Zipp noted, everyone invokes Jacobs; he participated a year ago on a panel in which City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden claimed a Jacobsian mantle, despite her embrace of Atlantic Yards.

Yes, Zipp said, various structures have been set up for public participation, “but the imperatives of the private market”—and the role of powerful nonprofits—“have been largely unquestioned.”

It sounded like that would include Atlantic Yards, and later Gratz made it explicit. Despite some lip service from elected leaders, “Jacobs’s ideas did not penetrate officialdom,” she said. “If they did, we wouldn’t have either Atlantic Yards” or the Columbia University expansion plan, two current controversies.

The Village as example

Gratz cautioned that latter-day readers of Death and Life not focus excessively on Jacobs’s home neighborhood of Greenwich Village. Firstly, Jacobs was using it to illustrate general principles. Secondly, people now judge the gentrified neighborhood today against Jacobs's use of it.

For the most part, Gratz said, Jacobs was happy about the density and diversity of Greenwich Village. “What is wrong with the village is wrong with the whole city and country: the squeezing out of the middle class,” she said, calling it a fact of American life, not just Greenwich Village life.

That, I think, is too sweeping a generalization. The gap between upper- and middle-class housing is much smaller in some other cities, depending on the cost and supply of land, as Virginia Postrel has pointed out.

The West Village houses

Gratz said that “the value and lessons of the West Village Houses have never been appropriately acknowledged.” The project, supported by Jacobs, was a community-designed alternative to urban renewal, 42 five-story walk-ups, 420 units, once moderate-income rentals, later subsidized condos. They never were built with all the amenities as designed because of resistance from the city.

They dislocated no one, fit into the existing fabric of the city, and had a line of applicants, she said. (It’s too bad that Vitullo-Martin did not jump in and argue, as she’s written, that maybe the houses weren’t economically feasible and that some West Village acolytes of Jacobs have resisted density where it’s appropriate.)

Who makes a difference?

Gratz, the only panelist to take the question in the panel’s title literally, offered a list of names of women who make a difference in their neighborhood if not the city at large, including the late Yolanda Garcia of Nos Quedamos, Majora Carter of Sustainable South Bronx, and Rosanne Haggerty of Common Ground.

Still valid?

Given how much our society and family life have changed, asked moderator Joseph Giovannini, an architect and critic, are Jacobs’ precepts still valid? What happens to “eyes on the street” in an era of air conditioning and women in the workplace?

Vitullo-Martin allowed that, yes, things have changed, but many of the principles remain. When nonprofit institutions operating ground floor spaces eschew retail outlets or even windows, the result is a dead zone, which should prompt part of the "fight" against such institutions' plans.

She also said the city had learned some lessons, citing the rezoning of Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem, achieved via a “very sophisticated RFP.” (She allowed that the eight-story buildings might not be dense enough to support retail growth and make use of the good transportation infrastructure.)

Jacobs and Moses

Giovannini asked whether Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, so often juxtaposed in latter-day public consciousness—even though they actually didn’t intersect much—shared points in common.

If Moses supported rapid changes in the city’s fabric, said Klemek, the counterpart is gradualism, which Jacobs did represent. “It’s not just Moses,” he added. “It’s equally applicable to Forest City Ratner.”

Then again, he said, Jacobs and Moses aren't polar opposites if you consider public organizations versus private market forces. Moses leveraged government funds, and Jacobs saw a role for government to play in fostering public works, with libraries and community facilities serving as “chessmen” on the urban board.


Klemek noted that Jacobs is often accused as the “patron saint of NIMBYism. Partly she has to be guilty as charged.” He described her as a Madisonian who embraced “a multiplicity of factions,” and if that leads to a less efficient government, “that’s the price we pay.”

Vitullo-Martin said, “I actually think an awful lot of development in New York is moving at a proper pace,” citing changes on the Brooklyn waterfront, providing new public access. (Unmentioned was that Jacobs was no fan of the Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning.)

“New York has to worry about its position as a world city,” competing with cities like London, she said. (That almost throwaway comment begged another panel’s worth of discussion.)

Gratz said she bristled at the notion of Jacobs as the patron saint of NIMBYism, given that some projects shouldn’t be in anyone’s backyard, and “this city is loaded with projects” where there was agreements. Jacobs, she insisted, was “pro-development, pro-change, pro-big things if they were the right thing for the community at large.”

Deciding what's the "right thing for the community at large," of course, is what is making life in New York quite contentious these days.


  1. Norman:

    Thanks once again for your terrific summaries of these events! In the case of this particular event, I didn't attend not because I hadn't heard of it, but because the stated topic -- i.e., “Can One Woman (Still) Make a Difference” -- didn't seem particularly interesting to me. And it's interesting to learn that the discussion did indeed stray from the stated topic and instead got involved in a discussion of issues that were more interesting to me.

    I hope you won't mind if I make some comments on what was said.

    - - - - - - - - - -

    Norman wrote:

    While there is a tendency to ask, “What would Jane Jacobs think?,” ‘Christopher Klemek suggested, “Ultimately, it’s not an answerable question.” . . . And, more importantly, he said, it diverts people from coming to their own conclusions . . . . Indeed, urbanist and author Roberta Brandes Gratz said that Jacobs was “about one fundamental thing: observe, observe, observe. You didn’t have to be an expert.”

    Benjamin writes:

    I disagree here with both Klemek and Gratz. But although you’ve probably quoted them correctly, I doubt that they really mean what they appear to be saying -- it's just so fatuous! What’s the point of reading an author if you don’t ultimately ask yourself, “Given the thoughts that this author has expressed, given the ideas that this author has laid out, I wonder what this author would think in such and such a situation?”

    I think (and hope) what Klemek and Gratz really mean is that ultimately one cannot, of course, really know for sure what someone -- anyone -- who isn’t present at a given discussion (or even currently alive) would REALLY think about such and such. (Just for instance, after hearing a "pro" and "con" discussion of a particular issue, maybe an author, in this case Jacobs, would change her mind and see that “course of action B” would actually be more in accord with what she's written than “course of action A.”)

    However, the very "job" of a reader is to examine what he or she has been reading and to determine 1) whether it's internally consistent and logical; 2) whether or not it's supported by the facts; 3) how it might be properly applied to real life situations; and 4) whether, somewhere along the line, one agrees or disagrees with it.

    And Jane Jacobs knew this. She pretty much explicitly said that she wasn’t interested in setting herself up as a final authority, but hoped instead that what she wrote 1) would be READ, 2) would be thought about, and 3) would serve as an hypothesis to be discussed and debated.

    - - - - -

    Norman wrote:

    Jacobs’s most important message, Vitullo-Martin suggested, “was her respect for two concepts,” density and complexity, which must be combined.

    Benjamin writes:

    While I certainly don’t disagree with Vitullo-Martin about the importance of density in Jacobs thoughts about cities, I think if any concept is the central “key” to Jacobs’s writings (in "Death and Life" and in her other works, too), it is really “diversity” (but not necessarily in its currently “politically correct” sense). “Complexity” might be considered the same as “diversity” to some, but it seems to me that something can be complex without being diverse. It's the diversity (of people, of ideas, of doing things, of products, etc.) that really counts.

    Also, kudos to Vitullo-Martin for pointing out that the problems posed by self-isolating projects (which is indeed something that Jacobs warned about) is largely being overlooked in today’s discussions about development and Jane Jacobs. But such self-isolating projects are not, of course, only being developed by non-profits but also by “private-public partnerships” as well (such as Atlantic Yards)!

    - - - - - -

    Norman wrote:

    Yes, Zipp said, various structures have been set up for public participation, “but the imperatives of the private market” -- and the role of powerful nonprofits -- “have been largely unquestioned.”

    Benjamin writes:

    I think there is a tendency to GREATLY over emphasize the (“pro-“) public participation aspects of Jacobs’ writings and to GREATLY underestimate or overlook the (“pro-“) private market aspects of them. So I think Zipp’s comments reflect HIS concerns more than they do Jacobs’ (at least her concerns as expressed in her writings and interviews).

    When you look at what Jacobs opposed as a citizen activist (at least in New York City), you see that they were almost all essentially GOVERNMENTAL initiatives (e.g., enlarging an automobile roadway through a park, widening the roadway of a city street, wiping out city neighborhoods for various urban renewal schemes, wiping out a neighborhood for a planned highway, etc.). The only protests of hers that I can think of that involved “the imperatives of the private market” were her protest against the destruction of Pennsylvania Station and her actions in support of landmarking in general.

    But it seems to me that the city and cities that Jacobs loves are cities produced by the imperatives of the market place.
    And not only is this evident in her later works on economics, but also in "Death and Life" -- and even in her earliest published articles which were about New York's various wholesaling districts.

    - - - - -

    Noman wrote:

    Gratz cautioned that latter-day readers of Death and Life not focus excessively on Jacobs’s home neighborhood of Greenwich Village . . . .

    Benjamin writes:

    I cannot agree with Gratz more here!

    - - - - - - -

    Norman wrote:

    That is too sweeping a generalization [i.e., Gratz’s assertion that what is wrong with the Village and the rest of the city and America is the squeezing out of the middle-class]. The gap between upper- and middle-class housing is much smaller in some other cities . . . as Virginia Postrel has pointed out.

    Benjamin writes:

    I haven’t had a chance to read the Postrel article closely yet (thanks for pointing it out, I consider myself to be a big fan of hers), but my inclination here is to disagree with both the Gratz quote and with your analysis of it. As I’ve mentioned before, I think the REAL Jacobsian urban dilemma regarding gentrification is not how to limit gentrification but how to successfully catch it in a bottle and spread it around -- how do we create MORE "gentrificable," high density, neighborhoods, not less.

    And I’m skeptical that the gap between upper- and middle-class housing is really significantly smaller in some other cities. I’d like to see some actual examples cited (which I don’t remember seeing from my admittedly brief skimming of the Postrel article). It seems to me that any such smaller gaps are more likely to be due to these cities a) having less demand to begin with (which creates its own set of housing problems); b) fewer regulations (which is what seems to be what Postrel is driving at); or c) to be statistical anomalies (e.g., with a given city's high- and low-income residents being closer together because the city itself is geographically smaller). But from what I’ve seen of other cities (and I admittedly don't travel all that much), the kind of intimate mixing of socio-economic classes and racial and ethnic groups that New York City is noted for is still, even today, more pronounced in NYC than elsewhere.

    - - - - -

    Norman wrote:

    Gratz said that "the value and lessons of the West Village Houses have never been appropriately acknowledged."

    Benjamin writes:

    Again I couldn't agree with her more. However, I think even Gratz (at least in her comments here) isn't recognizing the TRUE value and lessons of West Village Houses.

    I think the mistake that people make is to focus on the West Village Houses buildings themselves, when they really should be focusing on the larger area, or "district," that was saved from clearance. Therefore, one should be comparing the entire proposed urban renewal area (essentially Hudson Street to West Street, from W.11th Street to Barrow St. -- although large chunks were excluded from the urban renewal area), as it is with West Village Houses, to what it would have been like had it been wiped out and replaced with a "tower-in-the-park" middle-income housing project (like, Penn South, Park West Village, etc.).

    This is the valid comparison and it's then that you see all the pluses of the West Village Houses approach. This includes what Gratz mentions, but it also includes the fact that this neighborhood, unlike a conventional urban renewal project area, is a genuine urban district -- for instance, it can accommodate and stimulate cross use, it is capable of organic change, it can serve as an incubator of new businesses, etc.

    - - - - - - - - -

    Norman wrote:

    (It's too bad that Vitullo-Martin did not jump in and argue, as she's written, that maybe the houses weren't economically feasible and that some West Village acolytes of Jacobs have resisted density where it's appropriate.)

    Benjamin writes:

    On the "New York Sun" website, where the Vitullo-Martin article was first "published," I wrote in a comment that questioned the validity of the "financially viable" criticism of West Village Houses. Basically, Jacobs' argument is that footdragging opposition/sabotage by ideological opponents of the development (who were in a positions of power) were responsible for its economic problems. Also, it has been pointed out that two other, much more conventional new housing developments (e.g., Independence Plaza and Manhattan Plaza), also had problems at this time.

    But, you are right, it's too bad that Vitullo-Martin didn't bring it up here, because I think Gratz would have disagreed with her, and it would have been interesting to hear how the discussion went.

    Also, since Gratz is generally very pro-density (as you may remember from her comments from the audience at last year's Jacobs vs. Moses panel), it would be interesting to hear what she would have to say about Greenwich Village admirers of Jacobs resisting density where it might be appropriate.

    - - - - - -

    Norman wrote:

    Then again, he [Klemek] said, Jacobs and Moses aren't polar opposite if you consider public organizations versus private market forces.

    Benjamin writes:

    I think this and the example that Klemek provides is a big misreading of Jacobs -- one that also manifests itself in the exhibit that he curated. (In the exhibit he basically ignores all of Jacobs' subsequent six books after "Death and Life" -- which to my mind is like ignoring everything that Robert Moses did after Jones Beach -- and thus actually misconstrues what Jacobs meant in "Death and Life.")

    Yes Jacobs saw a somewhat limited role for government to play in fostering PUBLIC works -- but this is a very far cry from what Moses (and Ratner) see as PUBLIC works!!!

    Plus, Jacobs was much, much more supportive of true private market forces than Moses, Ratner -- and, apparently, Klemek. Most of her subsequent books are virtually a paean to the products of private market forces. That's basically what city's are "for" -- to provide the proper environment for private market forces and individual -- not collective -- achievements.

  2. A couple of comments in response to Benjamin Hemric's comments.

    Yes, my summary didn't quite do Klemek and Gratz justice--they of course were saying that you couldn't know for certain what Jacobs thought unless she was addressing the specific situation.

    As for the issue of density and cost in urban neighborhoods, yes, Virginia Postrel and others have argued that the cost and availability of land in less dense cities provide room for the middle class. I was (over)reacting to Gratz's comment that the middle-class is being squeezed out everywhere. Then again, Los Angeles, which is a dense metro area (but not as dense a city) is also very expensive.

    I'm not sure that the "REAL Jacobsian urban dilemma regarding gentrification is not how to limit gentrification but how to successfully catch it in a bottle and spread it around"--not, at least in NYC in 2007. That's a question for Newark and Baltimore and Bridgeport, but when we have DC 37 asking the City Council Council to relax residency rules for city workers so they find cheaper housing out of town, the challenges are different. That's not to say that we can't and shouldn't create some higher-density (and thus more 'gentrificable') neighborhoods through strategic infrastructure investments, as Alexander Garvin has suggested, for example, in the Third Ave. corridor in the Bronx.

  3. Norman,

    Thanks for posting and replying to my comments. I hope I haven't been making too much work for you, though. And I hope you won't mind my elaborating a bit on some thoughts of mine about Jacobs that I think a number of admirers of Jacobs (including yourself) may strenuously disagree with.

    - - - - - - - -

    Norman wrote:

    That's [i.e., catching gentrification in a bottle and spreading it around] a question for Newark and Baltimore and Bridgeport, but when we have DC 37 asking the City Council to relax residency rules for city workers so they find cheaper housing out of town, the challenges are different.

    Benjamin writes:

    First off, I think one has to be skeptical about any of the arguments forwarded by a municipal union to relax residency requirements. (Although in the NYC area these arguments are indeed complicated by the fact that a significant amount of nearby affordable housing is actually in a different state of the union!)

    A residency requirement is a restriction on the membership of a municipal union and, sure, a municipal union is going to try and find arguments (however inadequate) against it. But I think it's important to remember that various municipal unions were arguing against residency restrictions even during the years that many of the city's neighborhoods were stagnating or being abandoned -- and even then they were saying pretty much the same thing about New York City not having affordable housing! (Which statement was true if one was really looking for a suburban house, etc. to begin with.)

    But more importantly, I think the idea that New York City has only a few areas that are fit for increased densities and gentifiable neighborhoods is really, at heart, anti-urban and anti-Jacobian when you really think about it. I think Jacobs -- who argues quite explicity in "Dark Age Ahead" that even leafy suburban neighborhoods should (and will, eventually) become more densified and mixed-use in the future -- would say that there are plenty of areas in New York City that not only could accommodate higher densities and more mixed uses, but would actually be better off, not worse off, as a result of it. (Areas that immediately come to my mind are Jamaica [where I lived ages 8 - 17], Astoria [where I lived ages 4 - 7], Bensonhurst/Bath Beach [where I used to visit my grandmother], Bedford-Stuyvesant [which Jacobs generally characterizes as being low-density in "Death and Life"], and so-on.)

    To be sure, a lot of the current day residents of such neighborhoods are very resistant to the idea of increased densities and increased mixed uses in these areas (just the way a lot of current day suburbanites are very much resistant to the idea of increased densities and increased mixed uses in their leafy suburbs). But it seems to me that this avoids the "real" questions: "Would OTHER people [i.e., prospective residents of the future] find increased densities and increased mixed uses a boon or a detriment? Would OTHER people be willing to invest their time, money and energy in such neighborhoods?" Given the desirability and popularity of present day high density, mixed use neighborhoods, it seems to me that increased densities and mixed uses are not the negatives that many (most?) current day residents believe them to be.

    - - - - - - -

    But rather than get too sidetracked on this issue (which I hope to write about someday in a full length article), I did want to also say that I intend to be at next Tuesday's discussion about Jane Jacobs and the expansion of universities and hospital complexes, etc., and I hope ( but doubt) that some of the panelists will make the following points:

    1) That plenty of New York City institutions have done quite well without overtaking (via urban renewal, closing streets, etc.) their neighborhoods. Some hospitals that come to mind: Lenox Hill, Beth Israel, Roosevelt, St. Vincent's, etc. Some universities that come to mind: New School, Yeshiva, New York Institute of Technology, School of Visual Arts, Pratt (in Manhattan), St. John’s (in Manhattan).

    2) Even some past "transgressors" seem to have found other, non-anti-urban, ways to grow and prosper. New York University, for instance, eventually found a way to grow and prosper within the existing streets and buildings of Greenwich Village. Plus it -- and other universities -- eventually developed an expanded idea of the "urban campus" via private bus systems, which I think are actually a very Jane Jacobs kind of solution to expansion.

  4. It should be noted that parts of Jamaica and Bed-Stuy have been rezoned, with increased density on the commercial corridors. But the fruits of such density have yet to emerge, obviously.


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