Features

Ballet of the sidewalks

New York Journal | Jane Jacobs opened her eyes and the eyes of others to the complex order of cities

Issue: "Reinventing Hillary," Nov. 17, 2007

You can observe a lot just by watching," said Yogi Berra. But lots of New York city planners haven't been as smart as the former Yankees catcher. They've designed pristine blocks with shining buildings that take no account of how people live and feel safe in urban areas. In contrast to those who prefer eyes wide shut, the introductory panel of a Municipal Art Center exhibition titled "Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York" asks visitors, "Please look closely."

One display at the exhibition-it runs through Jan. 5 at 457 Madison Avenue-shows a 24-hour time-lapse video of street life outside that building: lots of people day and night. We see how that contrasts with lonely streets alongside big, institutional, single-use buildings like those of New York University in Greenwich Village. Many downtowns by night and suburbs by day are also bare of humanity.

Jane Jacobs was one of five public intellectuals in the early 1960s who changed public policy and American culture by putting out paradigm-breaking books. Four of the books were destructive. Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd (1960) promoted cultural anarchy and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) an extreme environmentalism that led to the loss of millions of African lives when a pesticide ban that she prompted allowed malaria to spread.

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Michael Harrington's The Other America (1962) created the intellectual environment for a secular war on poverty that failed quickly. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) led to a war on family that has simmered now through four decades. But Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) paid attention to how people lived in New York City, not how they might live in what the Athenian playwright Aristophanes called Nephelokokkygia-Cloud cuckoo land.

From Yogi Berra--like observation Jane Jacobs, who died last year at age 89, criticized the urban renewal policies of the 1950s that wiped out poor but vibrant neighborhoods and substituted monocultures of steel and cement. The current exhibition focuses on the "four key qualities of healthy, vibrant cities" that Jacobs stressed. The first was mixed use of streets, with stores and residences side by side so that neighborhoods are active, economically strong, and safe day and night. "Intricate minglings of different uses in cities are not a form of chaos," she wrote: "They represent a complex and highly developed form of order."

Jacobs' second constructive suggestion was that streets should have short blocks so that each corner provides prime space for commerce and affords walkers maximum opportunity to explore and interact: "Something is always going on, the ballet is never at a halt." Suggestion No. 3 was that buildings should vary in design, purpose, and history: "New ideas often need old buildings," since older and often cheaper digs allow for small business start-ups and the coexistence of residents with different incomes.

Jacobs' fourth point was that urban concentration of people is good: "The presence of great numbers of people gathered together in cities should not only be frankly accepted as a physical fact. It follows that they should also be enjoyed as an asset and their presence celebrated." Her concept of celebrating life did not come out of a biblical understanding but through what theologians call "common grace," the ability God gives us to observe the tender mercies of daily life and see that they are good.

Jacobs' willingness to use her eyes distinguished her from professional architects and planners who from their offices played God in attempting to create an urban Eden. Jacobs showed, in prose etched with fire, that both Le Corbusier's modernist castles and Robert Moses' clear-cutting of communities created desolation.

Jacobs juxtaposed to such forced marches that "ballet of the sidewalks" with its "spontaneous and untidy" life. She moved from journalist to community organizer in defeating Moses' proposal for a highway across lower Manhattan that would have destroyed neighborhoods. The exhibition shows an angry letter from Moses to Jacobs' publisher: "I am returning the book you sent me. . . . Sell this junk to someone else." That's exactly what happened, as The Death and Life of Great American Cities became the rare book loved by activists both left and right.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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