kottke.org posts about Jane Jacobs
Jane Jacobs, journalist, activist, and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities (one of my favorite books of all time), was born 100 years ago today. Curbed has a big collection of stories in celebration and Vox also has an appreciation of her career.
When Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, she was a lone voice with no credentials speaking up against the most powerful ideas in urban planning. Fifty-five years later, on Jacobs' 100th birthday (honored in today's Google Doodle), urban dwellers are all living in her vision of the great American city.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities was a reaction to urban planning movements that wanted to clear entire city blocks and rebuild them. Jacobs argued this ignored everything that made cities great: the mixture of shops, offices, and housing that brought people together to live their lives. And her vision triumphed.
Fun and sorta weird fact: neither The Death and Life of Great American Cities or Robert Caro's The Power Broker (about Jacobs' foe Robert Moses) is available in ebook format.
In 1958, Fortune magazine published the first major essay by Jane Jacobs that laid out her case against modernist urban developers. Downtown is for People was the catalyst for the publication of Jacobs' seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities three years later.
You've got to get out and walk. Walk, and you will see that many of the assumptions on which the projects depend are visibly wrong. You will see, for example; that a worthy and well-kept institutional center does not necessarily upgrade its surroundings. (Look at the blight-engulfed urban universities, or the petered-out environs of such ambitious landmarks as the civic auditorium in St. Louis and the downtown mall in Cleveland.) You will see that suburban amenity is not what people seek downtown. (Look at Pittsburghers by the thousands climbing forty-two steps to enter the very urban Mellon Square, but balking at crossing the street into the ersatz suburb of Gateway Center.)
You will see that it is not the nature of downtown to decentralize. Notice how astonishingly small a place it is; how abruptly it gives way, outside the small, high-powered core, to underused area. Its tendency is not to fly apart but to become denser, more compact. Nor is this tendency some leftover from the past; the number of people working within the cores has been on the increase, and given the long-term growth in white-collar work it will continue so. The tendency to become denser is a fundamental quality of downtown and it persists for good and sensible reasons.
If you get out and walk, you see all sorts of other clues. Why is the hub of downtown such a mixture of things? Why do office workers on New York's handsome Park Avenue turn off to Lexington or Madison Avenue at the first corner they reach? Why is a good steak house usually in an old building? Why are short blocks apt to be busier than long ones?
It is the premise of this article that the best way to plan for downtown is to see how people use it today; to look for its strengths and to exploit and reinforce them. There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans. This does not mean accepting the present; downtown does need an overhaul, it is dirty, it is congested. But there are things that are right about it too, and by simple old-fashioned observation we can see what they are. We can see what people like.
From 1958, a piece from Fortune magazine written by Jane Jacobs called Downtown is for People.
There are, certainly, ample reasons for redoing downtown--falling retail sales, tax bases in jeopardy, stagnant real-estate values, impossible traffic and parking conditions, failing mass transit, encirclement by slums. But with no intent to minimize these serious matters, it is more to the point to consider what makes a city center magnetic, what can inject the gaiety, the wonder, the cheerful hurly-burly that make people want to come into the city and to linger there. For magnetism is the crux of the problem. All downtown's values are its byproducts. To create in it an atmosphere of urbanity and exuberance is not a frivolous aim.
Jacobs' classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities came out 50 years ago.
Of Wrestling with Moses, the story of how Jane Jacobs took on Robert Moses and his plans for two Manhattan freeways, Tyler Cowen says:
The parts of this book about Jacobs are splendid. The parts about Moses are good, though they were more familiar to me. I believe there has otherwise never been much biographical material on Jacobs's life.
The New York Times has a lengthy excerpt from the book that recalls Jacobs' arrival in NYC.
Writing about the city remained her passion. She often went up to the rooftop of her apartment building and watched the garbage trucks as they made their way through the city streets, picking the sidewalks clean. She would think, "What a complicated great place this is, and all these pieces of it that make it work." The more she investigated and explored neighborhoods, infrastructure, and business districts for her stories, the more she began to see the city as a living, breathing thing -- complex, wondrous, and self-perpetuating.
The block of Hudson St between Perry and W 11th will be co-named "Jane Jacobs Way" in honor of the influential urban thinker.
GVSHP first proposed the street co-naming in 2006 shortly after Jacobs' death; the proposal was approved by the local community board and the City Council, and then sat in limbo for 2 1/2 years.
Also, the townhouse that Jacobs lived in on the street is for sale. (thx, meg)
The CBC has a clip of Jane Jacobs talking about Toronto and Montreal from 1969. In it, she makes the distinction between the two urban organizational forces at work in Toronto, a sort of "civil schizophrenia": the vernacular spirit ("full of fun") and the official spirit ("stamp out fun"). I also found a video on YouTube about Robert Moses and his difficulties with Ms. Jacobs which concludes with a cheeky update of Arnold Newman's iconic photo of Moses.
On Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, Robert Morris, Robert Smithson, Jane Jacobs, 2001, Star Wars, and minimalism: Star Wars: A New Heap.
Kubrick's film presented a future of company men moving with assurance and clear intention toward a godlike minimalist object. Lucas, on the other hand, gave us a slapdash world of knuckleheads pursued by industrial-scale minimalists. Visually, Kubrick's film is as seamless and smooth as the modernist authority it mirrored. Like the mid-century modernists, 2001 associated abstraction with the progressive ideals of the United Nations as embodied by its New York headquarters. Lucas, on the other hand, was a nonbeliever. Even the initially smooth and unitary form of the Death Star was shown, as the rebel fighters skimmed its surface, to be deeply fissured with an ever-diminishing body of structural fragments. These crenulated details suggested a depth and complexity to modern life that modernism's pure geometries often obscured.
A flying saucer had never been a slum before. The immaculate silver sheen of the saucer was reinvented as a dingy Dumpster full of boiler parts, dirty dishes, and decomposing upholstery. Lucas's visual program not only captured the stark utopian logic that girded modern urban planning, it surpassed it. The Millennium Falcon resisted the modernist demand for purity and separation, pushing into the eclecticism of the minimalist expanded field. Its tangled bastard asymmetry made it a truer dream ship than any of its purebred predecessors. It is the first flying saucer imagined as architecture without architects.
Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York is an exhibition at The Municipal Art Society of New York.
Coming at a time of unprecedented growth and redevelopment in the city, this exhibit aims to encourage New Yorkers to observe the city closely and to empower them, with a combination of tools and resources, to take an active role in advocating for a more livable city.
The exhibit runs from Sept 25 through Jan 5, 2008.
Update: A review of the exhibition in the NY Times (slideshow). Among the artifacts at the show is a letter sent by Robert Moses to Jacobs' publisher: "I am returning the book you sent me. Aside from the fact that it is intemperate and inaccurate, it is also libelous."
Jane Jacobs revisited. "The mistake made by Jacobs's detractors and acolytes alike is to regard her as a champion of stasis -- to believe she was advocating the world's cities be built as simulacra of the West Village circa 1960."
NY Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff on the legacy of Jane Jacobs and why her views on cities aren't universally applicable:
The activists of Ms. Jacobs's generation may have saved SoHo from Mr. Moses' bulldozers, but they could not stop it from becoming an open-air mall. The old buildings are still there, the streets are once again paved in cobblestone, but the rich mix of manufacturers, artists and gallery owners has been replaced by homogenous crowds of lemming-like shoppers. Nothing is produced there any more. It is a corner of the city that is nearly as soulless, in its way, as the superblocks that Ms. Jacobs so reviled.
But I have a hard time believing -- as Mr. Ouroussoff does -- that:
...on an urban island packed with visual noise, the plaza at Lincoln Center -- or even at the old World Trade Center -- can be a welcome contrast in scale, a moment of haunting silence amid the chaos. Similarly, the shimmering glass towers that frame lower Park Avenue are awe-inspiring precisely because they offer a sharp contrast to the quiet tree-lined streets of the Upper East Side.
Surely we can devise better ways of introducing contrasts in scale into our cities than building Lincoln Centers.
Ouroussoff's article includes a companion audio slideshow of him talking about Jacobs and also of West Village residents sharing their views on their neighborhood that Jacbos lived in and wrote about long ago.
Short rememberance of Jane Jacobs by architect Witold Rybczynski. "The lively city districts that Jacobs championed, including her beloved Village, have become exclusive enclaves, closed to all but the extremely wealthy. She always considered the amenities of city life to be everyday and widely available goods. Little could she have imagined then that they would become luxuries instead."
Long obit for Jane Jacobs. She honed her thinking by having imaginary conversations with Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and a Saxon chieftain. Here's another obit from the Toronto Star.
Steven Johnson reports on Dodgeball for Discover magazine and proceeds to riff on cities, Jane Jacobs, and the Long Tail. When considering the effects of the Long Tail, there's a different between being able to d/l music by an obscure band when you live in a rural area and having the opportunity of seeing that band in person with other likeminded folks. (via dens)
Stewart Brand interviews Jane Jacobs about cities. "Cities are about the most durable things we have. People think of them as superficial things, but they aren't. They're very, very basic. Rural places, which are considered more fundamental and more basic, actually are hangers-on of cities in most cases."
Some running notes:
What I find most useful about reading Jacobs is how well her arguments scale. They're scale-free arguments. Through her discussion of large cities in The Death and Life of Great American Cities and of entire civilizations in this book, you can see instantly how the problems and solutions she examines could be used to describe smaller entities like towns, families, large corporations, project teams, blogospheres, online communities, etc.
Dark Age Ahead is ultimately another in the this-world-is-going-to-hell genre of media, but Jacobs makes it seem OK somehow. Maybe it's because she's really concerned about it and not selling fear like everyone else?
Several mentions of Canada and Toronto (Jacobs' current place of residence) in the book so far. I wonder about generalizations being made about specific situations in Toronto; something to keep in mind.
Jane Jacobs hates cars. Absolutely can't stand them. I thought this book was about a possible coming dark age, not her dislike of automobiles.
As I'm reading, I'm flipping back to the endnotes. Many of her sources are either the Toronto Star or private conversations she's had with people. One gets the mental picture of an elderly woman sitting at her breakfast table, reading the newspaper to guests, and getting so worked up about it all that she writes a book about the coming dark age.
Best chapter is Dumbed Down Taxes, about how the collection and distribution of funds by the government has become disconnected with the needs of people. Jacobs makes the excellent point that maybe the rules and structure we came up with for governing the county 200 years ago isn't necessarily the best way to go about it now and should be reexamined. Why is New York City part of a state? Does it benefit the state or the city in any way? And what about states? Do they still make sense? (And don't even get me started on the electoral college.)
Before I bought this book, I looked it up on Amazon and read a review by Dr. J. E. Robinson called The Title and Book Jacket Do Not Match the Text Inside (you'll have to scroll for the review...Amazon annoyingly doesn't permalink individual reviews). When I first read the review (2/5 stars), I thought it unfair. Now having finished the book, I still think the review was largely unfair, but Dr. Robinson does have a point. In trying to make her points (which, when she stated them in chapter 1, I thought were excellent), Jacobs is all over the place and seldom manages to clearly support her arguments. Not that the examples she cites aren't eventually relevant (after all, a dark age pretty much affects everything in a culture), but they don't go directly to her main points. I would have loved more focus.
Doing a lot of complaining, but really, there lots of excellent stuff here. The individual stories and passages contained in the book would have made a great series of magazine articles or a fantastic weblog.