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.)
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.”
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.
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.
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.