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The Jane Jacobs exhibit: a worthy reaffirmation but just the start of a longer discussion

Today: the first of a two-part series on the Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York exhibit; this long overview will be followed by a look at what the exhibit says (or doesn’t say) about Atlantic Yards.

It’s been nearly three months since the modest but important new exhibit, Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York, opened in two rooms at the Municipal Art Society’s Urban Center, but there’s still time to see the exhibit (extended to January 26) and to grapple with the issues it raises—and doesn’t quite address.

Notably, the exhibit—funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, which supported Jacobs’s classic 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a reminder and reaffirmation of the book’s key message: successful cities need mixed-uses, dense concentration, short blocks, and varied buildings.

Formidable yet folksy, Jacobs’s book countered the modernist superblock urbanism that was the consensus of American planners (and government funders) at the time. To a good degree, Jacobs’s principles have become accepted by the planning and building professionals of the current generation, even if they do not always follow them. (We’re all Jacobsian now, as I wrote, except when we’re not, as with Atlantic Yards.)

So the more pressing question is the application and relevance of not only those principles, but also much more of Jacobs’s wide-ranging urban analysis. Much of that "future" issue remains to be addressed.

Jacobs fought to affirm urban virtues when the city was under assault by urban renewal megaprojects and auto-driven suburbanization, and to empower local activists. “Experts at the time did not respect what foot people knew and valued,” Jacobs wrote in the 1993 Foreword to the Modern Library edition of Death and Life.

Now, as nearly all of the seven public programs associated with the exhibit suggested, there are anxieties about a city that has grown too expensive for “ordinary” dwellers and shopowners. Indeed, another set of panels would be worth convening to analyze and debate specific solutions.

So some larger questions also evoked by the recent Robert Moses reassessment linger. “How can big plans and big projects and infrastructure co-exist with community participation?” asked Anthony Flint, director of public affairs at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, MA, echoing a question highlighted by Robert Caro in The Power Broker. (Flint's writing a book on Jacobs and Moses.)

“Has NIMBYism led to paralysis that threatens to turn the city into a museum?" he continued. "How can affordability stay marbled into the urban neighborhoods that Jacobs knew the wealthy, in droves, would begin to value? Those are some of the trickier questions raised in the juxtaposition of Jacobs and Moses that are left open to discussion.”

Gentrification the solution?

One Jacobs solution in 1961 was essentially gentrification, though not (she hoped) gentrification that priced people out. If “the demand for lively and diversified city areas is too great for the supply,” she wrote, then the supply must be increased.

That especially made sense when there were neighborhoods with good housing stock within a brief commute from the city center. At some point, after decades of what Jacobs termed “unslumming,” they can’t all be equal. The lively and diversified neighborhood of Bay Ridge may be more affordable and thus Jacobsian than Brooklyn Heights these days, but it’s much closer to the periphery.

Jacobs’s solution made more sense when New York was not growing but shrinking. However, the city, with its limited supply of land to build, today experiences numerous pressures on housing. Among the phenomena she didn't have to confront: well-heeled Wall Streeters buying more space for their families, recent college grads willing to install fake walls in a one-bedroom, wealthy foreigners buying second homes made cheap by the exchange rate, and impoverished immigrants willing to suffer fire code violations for a shot at a better life.

[See comments posted below by Benjamin Hemric, and my response.]

(Photo from New York Times slideshow.)

As for housing the poor, the solution, Jacobs wrote with her libertarian bent, was not building projects but supporting rents--essentially a blueprint for the Section 8 program federal housing officials ultimately adopted. But Section 8 at this point seems inadequate, with too few vouchers available for those who seek them, and the increasing unwillingness of landlords, seeing more opportunity in the open rental market, to accept vouchers.

So a full reassessment of Jacobs must deal more with how and whether her principles address the current realities. That’s worth more discussion. (Scroll to the end for a few examples.)

A democrat, if not a prophet

A reconsideration of Jacobs—less the exhibit than some essays in the accessible but challenging companion book of essays, Block By Block, as well as other commentary about her—reminds us that her observations are principles rather than prescription, and that she was hardly infallible. For example, in that 1993 Foreword to her book, Jacobs described London’s “grandiose but bankrupt Canary Wharf project set in isolation.” That was then, but Canary Wharf has since recovered, and grown, a sign to many of London’s capacity to plan for growth.

Jacobs has not always been treated fairly, since she’s often been invoked by critics and supporters who see her as the tribune of small-scale local neighborhood preservation. She was much more than that, but there are many fewer easily-assembled Jacobsian constituencies for the “big projects” she might have supported, such as investment in mass transit.

In Death and Life, Jacobs pointed to three urban entities: the street neighborhood, the city as a whole, and a district of at least 100,000 people. This passage is worth noting:
Districts have to help to bring the resources of a city down to where they are needed by street neighborhoods, and they have to help translate the experiences of real life, in street neighborhoods, into policies and purposes of their city as a whole. And they have to help maintain an area that is usable, in a civilized way, not only for its own residents but for other users--workers, customers, visitors--from the city as a whole. A district has to be big and powerful enough to fight city hall.”
(Emphasis added)

Such an observation points out the continued poverty of participation in New York City. The votes of Community Boards in land use decisions, part of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) adopted after the Moses era, are merely advisory, though they do have a role in shaping public opinion, and the City Council does get to vote. When projects, such as Atlantic Yards, bypass even ULURP for a state review, there’s even less of a local voice.

If Brooklyn is the equivalent of a city, with the fourth-largest population in the country, why can’t its districts have a meaningful voice at city hall? That’s a fundamental Jacobsian question.

What does the exhibit say about Atlantic Yards? Nothing much directly—an understandable if debatable curatorial choice—but the principles it raises, especially Jacobs’s insistence on neighborhood voices, do call the project into question, even as the project has been proferred as a solution to some challenges of growth Jacobs may not have fully confronted. (More on this in Part 2.)

Beyond the West Village

Jacobs chose her West Village street to exemplify the urban principles she identified. Now, nearly half a century later, after the designation of a Greenwich Village historic district and the city’s steady revival, Hudson Street is no longer merely “unslummed.” Rather, the “ballet” she cited of ages and incomes, retail and manufacturing, has been replaced by relentless gentrification.

In a New York Observer article on the exhibit, headlined What Would Jane Jacobs Think?, exhibit co-curator Christopher Klemek described the West Village as “not a neighborhood that can support that broad swath of social diversity [that Jacobs cited] any longer.” Interestingly, Roberta Brandes Gratz, a founder of the Jacobs-inspired Center for the Living City, declared, “Jane did not see the Village as being gentrified in a negative way,” saying Jacobs was exhilarated “by the continued commitment and energy of the local citizenry.”

Well, sort of. Let’s go to the audiotape. In a 9/6/00 interview in Toronto, James Howard Kunstler asked Jacobs what she thought of Greenwich Village. Her response:
Oh, it has done very well. If other city neighborhoods had done as well there would be not trouble in cities. There are too few neighborhoods right now so that the supply doesn’t nearly meet the demand. So they are just gentrifying in the most ridiculous way. They are crowding out everybody except people with exorbitant amounts of money. Which is a symptom that demand for such a neighborhood has far outstripped the supply.

The multiple potential readings of Jacobs recalls how Francis Morrone, in his recent New York Sun essay on The Triumph of Jane Jacobs, noted that she subtly altered her apparent message for her audience and led an enormous range of people—conservative and liberal, technophile and doomsayer—to claim her as their own. (See for example Howard Husock’s City Journal article, Urban Iconoclast: Jane Jacobs Revisited: “Though culturally associated with the Left, Jacobs dared to follow the logic of her own observation in ways that lead her to oppose much that the Left stands for.”)

Morrone wrote that she “was both a libertarian and a communitarian, or else neither,” a critic of government and also an embracer of it. He concluded:
As much as, if not more than, any other public intellectual of the last half century, she taught that good ideas are good ideas, wherever they come from.

Even then, political scientist Marshall Berman suggests in an essay in Block by Block, Jacobs’s stoop-side vision was perhaps more pastoral than pragmatic, overlooking some of the inevitable conflicts in urban life. After all, as tensions over gentrification show, “loud music on the street” or “drinking on the street” can be as much a part of life as much as the “eyes on the street” that Jacobs taught us to prize. Then again, Jacobs was also practical enough to remind us that “[t]he bedrock attribute of a successful city district is that a person must feel personally safe and secure among all these strangers.”

The urban archetype of… Bay Ridge?

Before mounting the exhibit at the Municipal Art Society, the curators sought to film another urban ballet, in a latter-day mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood. To do so, they had to leave Manhattan and go beyond Brownstone Brooklyn, already well-unslummed, all the way to Bay Ridge, a neighborhood that is indeed urban, but as much the gateway to suburban-ish Staten Island than a place with umbilical ties to midtown or downtown. (Here’s a report on the filming.)

Yes, another neighborhood that gets high Jacobsian marks, Astoria, is closer, and juxtaposed photos in the exhibit compare Broadway in Astoria with the more monolithic stretch of West Houston Street in Manhattan that now houses condos and a Whole Foods.

Exhibit co-curator Klemek, who teaches at George Washington University, won’t call Third Avenue between 82nd and 83rd Streets in Bay Ridge the perfect block, but, he says, “it adheres to the four primary principles to a significant degree.”

The choice of Bay Ridge symbolizes how much has changed in the 46 years since Death and Life was published. Now, among the chief challenges is affordability and, Klemek acknowledges, “It’s not a coincidence we had to go further out to find more of that socioeconomic mix.”

Principles above all

The Jacobs exhibition inevitably provokes reflections on the trio of exhibitions mounted earlier this year that aimed to revise the reputation of Moses, the master builder and power broker. It’s a challenge to curators, because Moses left an enormous legacy of built examples, while Jacobs, famously, chose not to include illustrations in Death and Life. (She wrote: For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see.)

So the curators must illustrate principles, both to illuminate history and to provide a lens for current examination. “What would Jane Jacobs do?” asks one installation near the entrance, and the answer is to tell us to think for ourselves. (That suggests the value of a permanent, and oft-augmented, Jane Jacobs exhibit.)

Framing the entry portal to the exhibit is a bank of video loops containing interviews with a cross-section of New Yorkers about their neighborhoods. There are words of satisfaction, and criticism, but the underlying message is one of anxiety in the face of looming “over-success” (a term used in association with the exhibit but not in Death and Life).

Beyond that, a panel advising, “Please Look Closely,” reminding us that our observations are what’s crucial. Then we get a good introduction to the Jacobsian principles: Mixed Uses (why Carnegie Hall beats Lincoln Center); Frequent Streets (Fort Greene is the subject of a resident’s street diary); Concentration (Jacobs’ Greenwich Village still trumps Red Hook and Flushing beats Forest Hills, though homeowners in the latter might protest); and Varied Buildings (that Astoria vs. Lower East Side example).

(Photo from New York Times slideshow.)

Debatable choices

Some choices have been challenged. In his 9/25/07 New York Times review, Jane Jacobs, Foe of Plans and Friend of City Life, Edward Rothstein suggested that “[n]eighborhoods like Forest Hills, zones of aspiration and private retreat, have always been part of a city’s life.” Indeed, in a 10/11/07 column in the New York Sun headlined A Success in Community Planning, architectural historian Morrone acknowledged Jacobs’s criticisms of “garden cities” but delivered a gentle remonstrance: We can be Jacobsians while also noting — as she herself did down the years — that the successful modern city may comprise a range of urban visions.

Rothstein also argues—piggybacking on observations made by his colleague, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff—that while “single-use construction of arts centers” often don’t work, a criticism aired by Jacobs, Lincoln Center “has transformed the entire Upper West Side of Manhattan.” (Then again, it’s getting a much-needed facelift that will help connect it better to the neighborhood.)

After all, Jacobs was not, as the book and exhibit remind us, a champion of stasis and the solely small-scale, as some of her more “conservative” acolytes stress, and as some critics--notably Ouroussoff—suggested after Jacobs’s death last year. He wrote, in a 4/30/06 essay headlined Outgrowing Jane Jacobs and Her New York, that "her death may also give us permission to move on, to let go of the obsessive belief that Ms. Jacobs held the answer to every evil that faces the contemporary city."

Ouroussoff suggested she “had few answers for suburban sprawl or the nation's dependence on cars,” that “she never understood cities like Los Angeles,” and that Robert Moses’s “however flawed” vision, unlike Jacobs’s, was about infrastructure to build.

That statement, as well as Ouroussoff’s contention that Jacobs “argued for a return to the small-scale city she found in Greenwich Village and the North End of Boston,” drew the most pushback. Gratz, in a City Limits essay headlined NOW IT'S JACOBS' TURN: A LOOK AT HER LEGACY, wrote:
Jacobs believed in big projects: mass transit, and the boulevards and greenways that strengthen a city, not massive highways through neighborhoods that weaken it; transit-accessible big parks and neighborhood-based little parks that are gathering places, not acres of fenced-in green space with towers in the middle and signs admonishing “Keep Off the Grass”; vast school and health care systems; singular cultural venues, not clustered in centers, that spread regenerative potential around the city and help anchor neighborhoods; and economic development that works expansively by encouraging innovation and new local business formations, rather than depending on large construction projects.

OK, but it’s been far easier to invoke Jacobs in hailing small-scale but not economically diverse neighborhoods--witness New York magazine this week on the Upper East Side--to block rather than to build. Architectural historian and Moses exhibits co-curator Hilary Ballon expressed a typical view in her critique of Nathan Glazer’s new book on modernism, From a Cause to a Style:
Although implicitly sympathetic to Jane Jacobs' model of urbanism, Glazer is disappointed by the modest urban strategies -- preservation, New Urbanism, and community advocacy -- it bequeathed.

Stuy town then and now

In the MAS exhibit, Stuyvesant Town gets low marks for diversity, an example of the much-reviled towers in the park. While it is hardly an urban paradigm—witness how its privatized open space is invoked by BrooklynSpeaks as an example of what not to do regarding Atlantic Yards and how that space is now misnamed as a “park”—Stuy Town, despite its history of racial exclusion, was recently hailed, in the face of a corporate real estate deal housing advocates could not stave off, as a last bastion of middle-class affordability in Manhattan. Does affordability today trump some Jacobsian virtues?

An ingenious feature of the exhibit is a glass frame emblazoned “What do you observe?” pointing out the window of the MAS’s headquarters to the corner of 51st Street and Madison Avenue, an active street by day, which, by night—as an attached time-lapse video informs us—becomes much less busy, the casualty of buildings of varied age devoted to predominant office use. (Should the exhibit move to another city, as it should, this frame deserves another urban perch.)

Jacobs's battles

In a second room, we learn more about Jacobs, including that she was hardly the housewife-outsider of folk legend. While she didn’t go to college, she was married to an architect and an established writer for Architectural Forum when she attracted the attention of Fortune and other magazines and approached the Rockefeller Foundation for funding.

As Peter Laurence explains in an essay called Jane Jacobs Before Death and Life in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (JSAH), she desired not to taint her employer with her views, hence her decision, in Death and Life, not to mention her immersion in the world of architects and planners.

We also learn about Jacobs’s battles, fighting against the Lower Manhattan Expressway—an imaginative rendering shows Broome Street invaded by an elevated highway—and fighting for the West Village Houses, contextual affordable housing, five stories, which the exhibit declares a “hard-won but mixed victory.” (Julia Vitullo-Martin, in the New York Sun, offered more skepticism.)

Green issues & new activism

There’s also a segment about Omar Freilla and Barry Benepe, the two Jacobs medalists. Notably, both Benepe, the lifetime award winner, and Freilla, the newer activist, both espouse green principles. Benepe founded the Greenmarket program in 1976, helping bring a new sensibility about food to New York City. (A byproduct was that the new activity at Union Square helped reclaim that urban space from drug dealers and other ne’er-do-wells.) Freilla founded Green Worker Cooperatives with the goal of creating a construction-waste recycling co-op in the South Bronx.

Such green sensibilities point to a new wave of Jacobsian activism. Beyond the principles Jacobs laid out, a new challenge, in the battle between today’s “foot people” and “car people” is sustainability.

So activists like Transportation Alternatives (which Benepe helped found), new media like the valuable Streetsblog, and enlightened public officials like new Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan are doing important Jacobsian work in trying to emphasize public transportation and the role of walking and biking in the city today.

Advocacy then and now

With Moses, the revisionists’ challenge was to engage the decades of debate and the damning portrait in The Power Broker, but with Jacobs, Klemek observes, “The challenge for us is to re-evaluate her ideas and relevance to contemporary New York. It’s not the canonization of Saint Jane.” Well, yes and no. It’s hard to fault the choices within the two rooms of space, but there’s insufficient space to address all the relevant issues.

While placing Jacobs in historical context, the curators didn’t want to create merely a history exhibit but portray advocacy then and now. The exemplars of latter-day advocacy are UPROSE (United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park), NAG (once Neighbors Against Garbage, now Neighbors Allied for Good Growth) of Williamsburg-Greenpoint, and Nos Quedamos, which protested and then improved the city’s renewal plan for the Melrose neighborhood in the Bronx. The three, in fact, now work in coalition.

Then there's the Friends of the High Line, which not only saved the gem from being torn down but helped turn it into a park.

While those are all worthy choices, Atlantic Yards and similar megadevelopments exemplify new sophistication on the part of proponents and pose new challenges to activists, and thus deserve their own analysis, as I’ll discuss in Part 2.

"Broader paralysis"

In the Block by Block book, Klemek argues that the call we hear from some for a synthesis of Moses and Jacobs is false, because “she advocated a democratically responsive battle of private and public interests,” thus representing “the synthesis we now seek.”

Well, maybe, and maybe not. In fact, Klemek offers more skepticism outside the exhibit, in an essay titled “Jane Jacobs’ Urban Village: Well-Preserved or Cast Adrift?” published in the JSAH. Klemek suggests that Jacobs’ greatest battles were not with Moses but his successors, who were actually more conciliatory. He wrote:
If we seek a dramatic trope about the fate of ‘great American cities,’ instead of Jacobs successfully warding off the villain Moses, we might better envision Jacobs and these other adversaries locked in mortal combat, going over the falls together.

Jacobs, he notes, did not oppose the designation of the West Village as a historic district, but it was not her priority, considering it “no guarantor of dynamic, heterogenous urban life.” Her advocacy for the West Village Houses, faced with “a decade of resistance from city agencies,” left the project “effectively stillborn into bankruptcy,” another gloss on the “mixed victory” asserted in the exhibit.

Indeed, Klemek in his article concludes that Jacobs contributed to “the broader paralysis in urban planning in governance… no more public megaprojects that engender mass displacement, but also no defense against incremental gentrification pressures, or even the large-scale private actors.”

Note that Jacobsians like Gratz and Ron Shiffman suggest that there were, in fact, large projects—albeit different ones, like the restoration of abandoned housing—that were achieved in New York pre-Bloomberg.

Outside the U.S.

Klemek suggests that Jacobs’s reputation in New York as an opponent of plans does not credit her more constructive influence elsewhere. In an essay titled Placing Jane Jacobs within the Transatlantic Urban Conversation in the Journal of the American Planning Association, Klemek notes that her ideas drew on a British movement already in process and were taken seriously, if not fully embraced, by West German planners.

He wrote:
The Jane Jacobs who emerges in Britain, Germany and Canada appears strikingly different from the almost reactionary antiplanner, the outsider and opposition figure of New York urban lore. Yet she was similarly received in all these other nations, which suggests a fundamentally different, but still faithful, interpretation of her work.

In Toronto, Jacobs's adoptive home after she and her family left Vietnam War-era America in 1968, a more cooperative administration embraced many of her ideas. Indeed, while she blocked an expressway there, she also helped foster the development of a new mixed-use zoning district.

Second thoughts in Toronto

On the other hand, her legacy in Toronto, some say, is quite mixed. Brooklyn writer Andrew Blum, a former Toronto resident, suggests in Block by Block that the city was “sick at the edges,” in part because of Jacobs’s “shortsighted” localism, unwilling to encourage more density where it was needed, near transit.

“We can resist the extremes of modernism, and all its failures; but that does not free us from facing up to the same challenges and inequities that modernism sought to rectify,” he wrote. “I don’t know that Jane Jacobs fully accepted this.”

It sounds like a defense of large modernist projects like Atlantic Yards; indeed, organizations like the Regional Plan Association have defended the project despite significant dismay about the process behind it and its non-Jacobsian design, suggesting that it fulfills a goal of growth. The RPA is having some second thoughts, however, citing AY as an example of city-making that deserves more oversight.

In Toronto, these days, there are also second thoughts. In the Toronto Star, urban affairs columnist Christopher Hume wondered in October, Is it time for the Great Synthesis? quoting Moses revisionist Ballon: "In the 21st century, we need to think on a big scale. We need strong advocates for the public realm. We must recognize that there are issues that transcend the neighborhood."

And, Hume observes, whether she meant to or not--indeed, Jacobs’s emphasis on districts gets too little discussion today--Jacobs did empower NIMBYs and even ventured into that territory:
Toward the end of her life, Jacobs was lending her name to any number of ill-conceived battles; one was the fight to stop the construction of a nicely designed mid-rise condo at Bloor St. and Bedford Rd., at the juncture of two subway lines. Isn’t this exactly the sort of project that should be encouraged in the 21st-century city?

Hume, after Jacobs’s death last year, wrote an essay in the Star headlined Jacobs’ ideas valid, but we need new solutions:
The problems she railed against haven't gone away, they have been moved to the outer rings…. In the meantime, cities are increasingly becoming enclaves of the rich; even the middle classes are being pushed out, as are the poor and the recently arrived.

And New York faces those challenges as much as Toronto. He reminds us that Jacobs didn’t see the city as a static object but as a complex organism: Change or die, that was her message, one we ignore at our peril.

It’s reminiscent of Sen. Chuck Schumer’s statement about how we must “grow or die,” but, as community planner Shiffman responded, the question is how to do it right. And that’s why the Jacobs exhibit opens up the conversation rather than closes it.

Romanticizing the city?

Some deeper reflections on Jacobs have appeared in academic literature. In an essay in the September 2006 issue of City & Community, the journal of the American Sociological Association, sociologist Herbert Gans suggested Jacobs, a middle-class woman by way of Scranton, PA, romanticized her neighborhood, missing the darker sides of working-class life. He added:
I suspect she never knew that the apartments in the high-rise public housing projects she so disliked were far superior to the five- and six-story tenements from which many residents of New York’s projects moved.

(Yes, the wealthy flock to well-run high-rises. With the poor, is it the design of housing projects, or the impossibility of maintenance and security given current spending? There’s pretty much a consensus that high-rise towers are passé for public housing.)

Gans added:
For one thing, the public and high rise urban renewal which she opposed was followed by privatized low rise urban renewal. That may have unslummed some slums, but not in the way or for the people she discussed in her book. Further irony is that the gentrifiers whom Jane allegedly inspired may have shared her fondness for old working class neighborhoods. However, they did not share her affection for its working class people and institutions, first displacing them and then later, if not always intentionally, also displacing those who remained in the gentrified neighborhoods.

This goes to the enduring question posed by the exhibit.

Planners, developers, or Moses

In another essay in that issue, sociologist Sharon Zukin suggested that Jacobs may have chosen too easy a target:
In contrast to Gans, who blamed the unholy alliance between real estate developers and white ethnic politicians, and [Marshall] Berman, who mainly blamed Robert Moses, Jacobs aimed her arguments against planners, a relatively powerless group. With her intelligence and progressive political activism, Jacobs could not have been ignorant of systemic causes of disinvestment. Yet she chose to focus on a mentality rather than on those people who finance and profit from tearing cities down, or on those who profit from building the suburbs.

In other words, follow the money, and today that would be the real estate developers, not the government agencies pushing slum clearance.

What about eminent domain?

In another essay, Occidental College’s Peter Dreier argued:
One unfortunate side-effect of the battle against urban renewal in the United States was a knee-jerk opposition to government efforts to improve cities, a sentiment that lingers on. We see this in the growing antagonism to the use of eminent domain. Rather than see it as a tool that could be wielded for good or evil—depending on whether a city regime is progressive, liberal, or conservative—many people in the United States view the tool itself as the enemy.

Jacobs in Death and Life was highly critical of eminent domain, because it was not only an unfair lever but also represented low-ball compensation, which is less of a factor today, at least in some states. Her libertarian bent, and experience observing eminent domain abuse during the time of writing Death and Life, led her to join the side of those resisting eminent domain in the Kelo v. New London case.

Dreier added some context, suggesting that, as with other battles at the time, there were less-confrontational ways and less-confrontational opponents outside New York :
Canadians, too, battled against their country’s version of urban renewal. But they, like Jacobs, did not view elected officials or government actions with the same degree of suspicion, as mean-spirited and heartless. They oppose government officials when they are in the pockets of private developers and businesses or refuse to listen to the voices of ordinary people.

(In that same issue, David Halle argued that, more than anyone else, the New York City Planning Commission wears Jacobs’s mantle; I suggested that’s a flawed reading, based on selective evidence.)

A biographer on Jacobs

In the first (but certainly not the last) biography of Jacobs, the unauthorized 2006 Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary, Alice Sparberg Alexiou argues that the “most serious shortcoming in Jacobs’s otherwise brilliant [Death and Life is] her failure to include any meaningful discussion of race.” It's worth further discussion; in his review in the Regional Plan Association’s newsletter Spotlight on the Region, How Jane Jacobs Became Jane Jacobs, Alex Marshall noted:
Alexiou also criticizes Jacobs for not focusing enough on race as a factor in urban decay. I was personally unconvinced by Alexiou’s criticism but she marshals strong supporting arguments.

Indeed, Alexiou cites Jacobs’s 2004 book Dark Age Ahead, in which Jacobs briefly addresses gentrification. Jacobs wrote: Affordable housing could have been added as infill in parking lots and empty lots if the government had been on its toes, and if communities had been self-confident and vigorous in making demands, but they almost never were.

Alexiou's conclusion: Her comment begs the question: but why didn’t communities make those demands…. To state it bluntly, how many white urban pioneers are fighting to ensure that people of color are not pushed out of their now-gentrifying neighborhoods?

Indeed, that was the failure—of both the community and the government—in the rezoning of Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. Now the Bloomberg administration believes in adding density to ensure affordability, and is doing that through rezonings throughout the city. And that’s a justification for the scale of Atlantic Yards. The problem with the latter, however, is that the result came before the process. And the question is how to balance such upzonings with Jacobsian principles and Jacobsian process.

Alexiou hearkens back to Toronto, suggesting there’s a desperate need in Toronto for low-income housing:
Gentrification occurs when there is too little supply of funky old neighborhoods—for which we can at least in part blame the old urban renewal tactics, which bulldozed them away. But this is hardly a satisfactory response to the problem of gentrification.

The questions remain

Rothstein’s New York Times review gave Jacobs her due, but was skeptical about holding up Jacobs as an “enduring model,” writing:
The problem, though, is that the issues are more complicated than the exhibition’s advocacy will allow, and more urgent than its modest scope permits visitors to understand... this show does not seek to illuminate any ambiguities or difficulties latent in Jacobs’s vision. It leaves her intact, as a populist prophet.

Yes, and no. The show--and less so the book--could have made a bigger deal about the challenge of unslumming, but the choice to highlight Bay Ridge is an implicit statement. Rothstein suggested that sometimes “community groups may have too parochial a vision to be taken as guides to a city’s future.” That’s probably why the exhibit emphasizes how the groups highlighted have started working on citywide coalitions.

Beyond that, the larger issue of how to harmonize community participation with a growing city remains. Rothstein questions the “whiff of utopianism in the way in which her ideas are being celebrated, with a prescriptive focus on diversity and populism.” (Maybe, but is it prescriptively populist to want more public input on projects like Atlantic Yards, especially if it turns out to be this generation’s Penn Station?)

Jacobs's legacy

After Jacobs's death, in the June 2006 issue of Architectural Record, architect and critic Michael Sorkin pointed to gentrification as “the soft form of urban renewal, still removing the poor but lovingly restoring their former homes. And the hard version of the big plan is making a major comeback in a new wave of jumbo projects emerging on sites of more ostensible dereliction, or at least with smaller populations.” Among them: Atlantic Yards.

He noted that “the design rhetoric of these mega-schemes ritualistically evokes principles Jacobs so strongly defended--the importance of the street and its life, the advantages of short blocks, and the need for a mix of uses, for density,” even as Jacobs’s formulations are “too often dumb[ed] down to meet the bottom line or max out FAR,” or Floor Area Ratio.

He wrote: But Jacobs's influence is more genuinely present in the vociferous opposition to these projects; in the grassroots defense of threatened textures and prospects for local life; in suspicion of big, single-sourced plans; and in anger at the unyielding imperatives of profit in a city that seems bent on running its poor and middle class out of town.

Pox on both houses?

Going beyond that were left-wing academics Neil Smith and Scott Larson, who this August wrote: Neither the block-level gentrification inspired by the patron saint of city planning nor the wide-scale mega-project redevelopment advocated by New York City's infamous planning czar are useful models for the realities of 21st century cities.

Sorkin, however, suggested Jacobs could be useful, and that the criticism of Jacobs that has surfaced “is both dangerous and misleading, suggesting a false dichotomy between modernity and community and casting Jacobs's arguments as antithetical to vision."

In other words, there may be solutions. In that same issue of Architectural Record, Boston Globe architectural critic Robert Campbell described Jacobs as a pragmatist above all. (Jacobs, noted Toronto writer Robert Fulford in 1997, had a lifelong habit of walking around carrying on imaginary conversations with the great pragmatist Benjamin Franklin.)

Campbell wrote: All revolutions breed excess, and Jane's is no exception. Citizen activism has its limits.… Often they do a better job than the master planners of old. Often they don't.

Finding solutions

When Campbell pointed to solutions, he wasn't looking at projects (e.g., Atlantic Yards) but infrastructure and frameworks: We still need big plans. We need experts and professionals. How about a national high-speed railroad system? How about a vigorous exploration of urban growth boundaries? How about a TVA-type planning agency to deal with the hurricane coasts, from Cape Cod to Texas? We've let the balance dip too far toward piecemeal amateur planning.

What does that mean today in New York? Further tweaks of the tax system to support housing, or increased regulation? (Jacobs was no fan of regulation.) Regional linkages so lower-cost New Jersey becomes integrated into the urban orbit? A revamp of the Community Board system and the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure? More “staunch public buildings” (which Jacobs suggested as one solution to the self-destruction of diversity)? Congestion pricing and new investment in mass transit?

What is certainly does not mean is complacency. Good ideas are good ideas, wherever they come from.


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  5. Norman,

    A good beginning to an evaluation of the Jane Jacobs exhibit and forums! You make some interesting points and raise some interesting questions, and you are definitely to be congratulated for gathering together all these evaluations of Jane Jacobs in one spot. Although I haven’t “googled” Jacobs in a while, it seems to me that you have gathered together the most comprehensive assemblage of Jane Jacobs info on the internet!

    However, it also seems to me that virtually all of the sources you quote a) have an ax to grind (don’t we all?) and b) are only presenting one side – essentially the same side -- of the story. And even though there are a (very) few conservatives / libertarians in the mix, the very issues raised and the very ideas discussed all seem to be framed from a left / liberal perspective. So I hope you will allow me to put in a few words for the "other side" (e.g., how Jane Jacobs herself answered / or might have answered her critics; how people who are not from the left / liberal end of the political spectrum see Jacobs; etc.). (In other words, Jacobean-inspired opposition to Atlantic Yards can be from all across the political spectrum!)

    And given the fact that this is a blog page, and not a small book or “New Yorker” length article, I’ll try to basically point out some of the alternative viewpoints without getting into a discussion about them. (This will be more true after sections “A” through “E,” as these parts address some of the basic underlying issues.)


    - - - - - - - - - -


    Norman wrote:

    " . . . Jacobs's book countered the modernist superblock urbanism that was the consensus of American planners (and government funders) at the time."

    Benjamin writes:

    While this statement may not have been meant as a comprehensive summation of what Jane Jacobs' work is about, it actually nevertheless comes close to expressing what most people -- including the organizers of the exhibit -- seem to believe Jacobs' work is about. While this viewpoint of Jacobs' work may be extremely common, it is also an extremely narrow, and it leaves out, for instance, the "inconvenient truth" that Jacobs' writings were also very much an argument AGAINST "comprehensive planning" (and thus also indirectly against what might be called "hyper-community participation").

    But since the exhibits and forums have been put together by people who seem to be, generally speaking, true believers in comprehensive planning (and hyper-community participation), this aspect of her legacy is overlooked or left out. As a result, it appears to me that her work has been "dumbed-down" (and unintentionally somewhat falsified) to contain only those aspects that happen to be appealing to proponents of comprehensive planning (and hyper-community participation).

    - - - - - - - - - -


    Norman wrote:

    “To a good degree, Jacobs's principles have become accepted by the planning and building professionals of the current generation, even if they do not always follow them."

    Benjamin writes:

    While it's certainly true that planning and building professionals do not always follow Jacobs' principles (even when they profess to accept them), this is only a small part of it.

    a) It seems to me that, all-in-all, Jacobs' principles have NOT actually been accepted "to a good degree" by planning and building professionals. (See my previous statement, above.) Rather, only a small, small portion of her principles have been accepted.

    b) Furthermore, even when planners profess to accept Jacobs' principles, oftentimes what's really being accepted are just certain surface rules -- while the principles underlying such rules are largely ignored.

    Some examples of this can be seen by examining the redevelopment of the WTC site. For one example, many admirers of Jacobs pushed for the end of the WTC superblock without really understanding the reasons Jacobs had written against superblocks -- and thus, why those reasons didn't necessarily apply to this site, and at this time. (And Jacobs. herself. has even been quoted as saying that it might be a good idea to keep the WTC site as a superblock.)

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    Norman wrote:

    "So some larger questions also evoked by the recent Robert Moses reassessment linger. ‘How can big plans and big projects and infrastructure co-exist with community participation?' asked Anthony Flint . . . echoing a question highlighted by Robert Caro in The Power Broker."

    Benjamin writes:

    While this seems to be a question that is indeed common to discussions pertaining to Jacobs, it seems to me to be a false one -- one based upon a false understanding of what Jane Jacobs actually wrote.

    First, Jacobs was for very loose, generally “performance-based,” government restrictions. This is very different from trying to micro-manage (or micro-plan) urban development – as so many comprehensive planning advocates and community activists (who cite her) seem to want to do.

    Second, Jacobs, the anti-planner civic activist, was not so much in favor of community activism in general as much as she was in favor of community activism with regard to government sponsored / aided projects (e.g., parks, street widenings, etc.) -- which certainly makes sense. For if a project is a government project, why shouldn’t it be the product of community participation?

    Third, Jacobs (at least in her major books) was not as much against big projects as people make her out to be. Did Jacobs criticize, for instance, the vast New York City water system, the sewer system, the subway system, the leveling of many blocks of Greenwich Village for the addition of new streets (e.g., extensions of Lafayette Street, Seventh Avenue So., Sixth Ave., etc.); the construction of the Pennsylvania Railroad extension into Manhattan (which involved, among other things, the destruction of quite a bit of west Midtown); the construction of Rockefeller Center (which also involved the leveling of a number of Midtown blocks); etc.? What Jacobs was against (at least in her major books and in her NYC activism) was wrong-headed, large-scale projects -- virtually all of which were, at least in NYC, government sponsored / aided projects.

    The issue community participation, especially in non-governmental projects (e.g., Rockefeller Center), brings up the question, “What criteria is to be used in judging whether a development is being ‘done right’?” Who's to say that a development isn’t going to be done "right" (or even much, much better) withOUT community meddling / micro-managing (i.e., with only basic zoning rules)? I think it is interesting to note that the areas of New York City that people seem to love the best are NOT the products of community planning, but the products of the marketplace and developmental eras (i.e., the pre-1961 zoning resolution era, the pre-1916 zoning resolution era) having relatively little community input.

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    Norman wrote:

    “ ‘Has NIMBYism led to paralysis that threatens to turn the city into a museum?’ he [Anthony Flint] continued. ‘How can affordability stay marbled into the urban neighborhoods that Jacobs knew the wealthy, in droves, would begin to value? Those are some of the trickier questions raised in the juxtaposition of Jacobs and Moses that are left open to discussion?’ ”

    Benjamin writes:

    This issue (“NIMBY-ism vs. development”) seems to me to be thought of as a problem with Jacobs’ thought (i.e. an internal contradiction) mostly because people – critics and admirers alike -- misunderstand what Jacobs actually wrote. So the problem is not so much with what Jacobs wrote (although what she wrote may, indeed, contain some relatively easily resolved ambiguities and small contradictions) but with the fact that people don’t really understand her approach in the first place. They thus confuse the false Jacobean anti-development, comprehensive planning agenda of many of her self-professed admirers, with Jacobs’ own pro-development, unplanned growth one.

    I think central to this misinterpretation is that fact that most community activists who are self-proclaimed Jacobs admirers actually seem to be admirers, instead, of the anti-urban, orthodox urban planning principles (e.g., low “in-between” densities; homogeneous, low-rise neighborhoods; the separation, more or less, of “incompatible” uses; planned growth, etc.) that Jacobs criticized. And, even though they claim otherwise, they actaully reject the idea of organic, unplanned growth in general and high-density, mixed use urban districts having small blocks in particular -- at least when it's in their backyard.

    - - - - - - - - - -


    Norman wrote:

    “That [i.e., increasing the supply of lively diversified neighborhoods] especially made sense when there were neighborhoods with good housing stock within a brief commute from the city center . . . .Jacobs’s solution made more sense when New York was not growing but shrinking. However, the city, with its limited supply of land to build, today experiences numerous pressures on housing.”

    Benjamin writes:

    I think these statements reflect the (all too common, unfortunately) anti-urban, anti-Jane Jacobs idea that outer boroughs NEIGHBORHOODS (not the outer-boroughs in general) should be, now and forever, considered sacrosanct low-rise, mid-density, residential neighborhoods (i.e., subway “suburbs”) and never, ever be allowed to truly develop into “lively and diversified city areas.” Such statements seem to really make sense only if one thinks along suburban lines — that the only suitable place for future development in the outer boroughs is open land (or on top of highway cuts or rail yards).

    True urbanization is allowing diverse ("urban") building types (e.g., high rises) in low-rise areas, allowing true ("urban") mixed uses in "residential areas," etc. So while community activists may not consider a certain level of density for the outer boroughs, in general, as being sacrosanct, they do seem to consider "in-between" densities, low-rise buildings and (basically) single-use neighborhoods as being sacrosanct in concrete instances (Not-In-My-Back-Yard).

    Furthermore, these ideas seem to illustrate a rejection of the Jacobsian idea that cities are not static, that the cities of tomorrow may be very different from the cities of today, that outlying neighborhoods should also be allowed to grow into dense, lively, diversified areas (with, for example, high concentrations of residences or businesses, small blocks, mixed uses and old buildings). Manhattan did not originally start out with its lively, diversified, high-density, high-rise neighborhoods! And both Jersey City and Newark, for instance, were once thriving outer-borough distant cities having an existence largely independent of Manhattan.

    In contrast, I can imagine Jacobs herself saying that her "solution" (although I don't think she would like that word) of increased "gentrification" (again not her word) actually makes MORE sense, rather than less, at a time when a city is growing rather than shrinking:

    1) The "effective" economic demand for it exists; and

    2) the "receptor" neighborhoods are in a better position to make use of this demand (i.e., one is not starting from "zero").

    -- Benjamin Hemric


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    Norman wrote:

    "Among the phenomena she didn’t have to confront . . "

    Benjamin writes:

    Actually all but one (i.e., wealthy foreigners buying second homes) of these phenomena are not new AT ALL – and Jacobs has actually written about them in “Death and Life” and elsewhere. And even the wealthy foreigners buying second homes may 1) not be all that significant a phenomenon (with regard to Jacobs) and 2) ultimately not all that different from speculators owning small rental properties (if these foreigners ultimately decide to rent these investment properties out).


    While similar to Section 8, what Jacobs suggested was different in significant ways from Section 8. Her plan wasn’t so much an across the board plan for housing the poor (i.e., a welfare program) as much as a way of 1) housing the poor differently (instead of in isolated compounds) and, importantly, stimulating the development of housing in places that needed it (and which were places being blacklisted). So this kind of criticism of Jacobs seems to be applying criteria that isn’t relevant to what she was trying to do.


    Extremely disappointing. Most of the essays could have been written – and seem to be written – by people who never actually read Jacobs. The one outstanding essay is an excerpt from the one by Karrie Jacobs, that was published in “Metropolis,” where she at least bravely admits that for many years she talked about Jacobs without really having had read her.

    To see how truly disappointing this book is, see the book published in connection with the “Ideas That Matter” conference in 1997. For a variety of reasons, this book is AMAZING! (The photos and their captions alone are worth the price.) But most importantly, the ideas of a wide variety of knowledgeable admirers (and critics) are included.


    I haven’t been there, by my understanding of the major thrust of Jacobs’ criticism is not that it was unsuccessful per se, but that it was the wrong way (e.g., wasteful, economically sterile) of going about redeveloping the area (and perhaps would require lots of subsidies, like Atlantic Yards, to ultimately make it “successful”). Like Stuyvesant Town (which wasn’t financial unsuccessful when Jacobs criticized it, Canary Wharf is not the right way to go about redeveloping an area.


    I think much too much is made of Jacobs and Greenwich Village. As she herself points out much of what she learned she learned elsewhere (e.g., Philadelphia, the North End, Rockefeller Center, the Upper East Side, etc. Particularly insulting is to use a Greenwich Village example where Jacobs herself choose to use other places as examples.


    For an alternative explanation of why Jacobs appeals to a wide variety of people, see my comment to Francis Morrone’s essay at the bottom of the link. (I submitted it twice, because the “New York Sun” was having computer problems. Read the second one, as that one has the originally paragraph formatting.

    In brief, Jacobs seems too feisty and outspoken to me to tailor her messages for different groups!

    Also, I think Howard Hussock’s essay is probably the best appreciation of Jacobs that I have read. And it’s interesting to note that an earlier version of it is included (in full, I believe) in the Jacobs tribute / autobiography, “Ideas That Matter” (pgs. 83-85).


    Two things wrong with these comments:

    1) They make Jacobs sound like an Emily Post or Martha Stewart (or a dog show judge) of urbanism. I don’t think Jacobs was interested in rating neighborhoods and giving them “gold stars.” She was interested in discovering what works and what doesn’t – and why!!!

    So it seems to me that the exhibit would have done better by examining outer borough neighborhoods that have developed, stagnated or declined in the past 46 years since Jacobs wrote “Death and Life” and examined, in Jacobsean terms, why? Some possible areas (off the top of my head) in addition to Bay Ridge and Astoria: Flushing, Jamaica, the Grand Concourse, Alexander Ave., Fordham Road, Belmont, the Hub, Flatbush, etc.

    2) They overlook the pluses regarding moving outward for cheaper rents (see the discussion of gentrification above.


    For my take on Jacobs and garden cities, see my TWO comments at the bottom of Francis Morrone’s essay. (Again, for a number of weeks there were problems with the computers at the “New York Sun.” Last time I looked only one of my many attempts, had made it through.)

    In brief, I don’t think Jacobs had ANY problem with garden cities – her beef is when garden cities masquerade as real cities or as solutions to problems in real cities.


    I think it is a myth that Lincoln Center transformed the Upper West Side and I soon hope to write an article explaining why. (Roberta Brandes Gratz who is a long time resident of the Upper West Side, including the immediate Lincoln Center area, also feels it is a myth.)


    There are at least two problems with Ouroussoff’s various discussions of Jacobs:

    a) He never seems to provide any backup for what he says and, since so much of it is so far a field from what Jacobs actually wrote, one gets the impression that he’s actually never read any of her books cover to cover.

    b) Some of his major points seem to be self-contradictory or non sequiturs.


    It seems to me that both Ballon and Glazer greatly misunderstand Jacobs when they claim that her model of urbanism was preservation, New Urbanism and community advocacy. This is the urbanism of some of her self-professed admirers – which is not the same thing. (For one thing, Jacobs had very mixed feelings about New Urbanism, which can be found all over the internet. See above about Jacobs and community advocacy.) Jacobs model of urbanism was actually the dynamism of New York (and other cities) pre-1961. (One gets a better appreciation of this, I think, when one reads her subsequent books, especially those on city economies.)


    Although I’ve been favorably impressed by what I’ve read of his work on Jacobs so far, I think Laurence is going over board in his assertion that Jacobs made a significant effort to minimized her connection to architects and planners. For one thing, her brief bio at the back of the 1961 edition of “Death and Life” plainly states, I believe, that she worked for “Architectural Forum.” It seems to me that it has always been known that 1) she was a design professional, and that 2) her husband was an architect. Plus, it seems to me that it was only relatively recently (1990s?) that it became “big news” that Jacobs (along with Lewis Mumford) had never gotten a college degree.

    R) West Village Houses

    For my take on West Village Houses see my comments at the bottom of Julia Vitullo-Martin’s “New York Sun” version of her column.

    In brief, two other similar, but more conventional, housing developments also were having financial difficulties at the same time. Plus, bureaucratic foot dragging by housing professionals who were bitterly opposed to West Village Houses, but not the other two developments, also were responsible for increased costs. (A possible illustration of the level of bureaucratic opposition: supposedly the housing commissioner in charge was so opposed to West Village Houses, he wouldn’t even sign off on the project, and the mayor, his boss, had to get someone else to sign off on it for him! If true, this is the same public official who once said, “Jane Jacobs, a sweet little old lady she isn’t.”) Plus, West Village Houses was planned during the cheap energy days of the 1960s as, I believe, an all electric development – i.e., electric heating.

    S) Klemek and Jane Jacobs

    From what I’ve read of Klemek’s writings, he seems to be a true believer in “comprehensive planning,” and thus seems interested in highlighting the similarities, rather than the differences, between Jacobs and the planning establishment that she criticized.

    Unless Jacobs ideas were actually influenced by planners from overseas, and I don’t recall Klemek citing any evidence that she was, I think it is unfair to imply that she didn’t give them adequate credit. Jacobs herself seems to feel that her ideas were more influence by people in America, and cites a number of them throughout “Death and Life.”

    T) Blum and Jacobs

    I’m not as familiar with the Toronto years of Jane Jacobs as I would like to be, but it seems awfully strange that Jacobs, the apostle of high density, would supposedly be fighting to keep densities low in downtown Toronto! I wonder what Jacobs would say about this?

    U) Hume and Jacobs

    Since he seems to be repeating many of the misconceptions about Jacobs that one hears elsewhere, could he be Toronto’s Ouroussoff’s or Goldberger? It would be interesting to hear Jacobs’ side of the debate (e.g., what she felt she was supporting or opposing).

    V) Zukin and Jacobs

    Zukin’s book, “Loft Living,” is an openly stated attempt to explain SoHo in terms of Marxist theory.

    W) Sparbeg Alexiou, Jacobs and Race

    Jacobs was not oblivious of race, but specifically chose to focus on other issues because race was obscuring, in her opinion, the real problems of cities. Cities decline, stagnate and grow even with no racial problems. While race relations are indeed important, as far as the “Death and Life of Great American Cities” go, it is a red herring.

    X) Rothstein and Jacobs

    I think Rothstein’s criticism are interesting and have some validity, but are more accurately directed at Jacobs supporters than Jacobs herself.

    Y) Sorkin, Campbel and Jacobs

    Sorkin is yet another Jacobs admirer who is analyzing her from the left / liberal portion of the political spectrum. There is nothing wrong with this, but it would be interesting to hear how Jacobs herself, or a more libertarian admirer of Jacobs would address these issues.

    Again, Jacobs as seen through the eyes of an adversay – a proponent of comprehensive planning.

    Z) Overall

    Too many people talk about Jacobs 1) without citing her work (and thus misrepresent her) and 2) don’t acknowledge where they are coming from. (There is nothing wrong with coming from a different perspective, but one should at least acknowledge it rather than talk as though the other person, Jane Jacobs, was ignorant of one’s own perspective (rather than someone who actually disagreed with it).

    -- Benjamin Hemric


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