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Tribute to Jane Jacobs

Balthazar Restaurant, New York
October 3rd, 2006

Good evening. It is great to be here although I am not entirely sure what Jane Jacobs would have made of Balthazar – would she have celebrated this stage-set version of a Parisian restaurant as a sign of a re-energized neighborhood, or raised a skeptical eyebrow at it as a place of questionable authenticity? Would she have been alarmed at the degree of gentrification Balthazar represents, or thrilled at the way in which it has brought a different kind of twenty-four hour life of into this neighborhood?

I suspect that the answer is all of the above. Whatever else we can say about Jane Jacobs, her reactions were never simple, and rarely the ones we would expect. There is a huge amount we can say about her legacy – and I realize that here on Spring Street, only a short distance from the Hudson Street block where she lived and from which her observations began, to talk about her is like going to Rome to talk about the Pope – but the most important thing of all to say about it is that is not a prescription for a particular kind of neighborhood, but for something much more subtle, much more inventive, much more varied and surprising. Jane Jacobs actually would have made a terrible pope, because she had no interest in a catechism. She did not believe in over-arching theories. She wanted to encourage people simply to look, and to think, and she understood that dogma is the enemy of empirical observation.

Jane Jacobs is the great prophet of the Village and the way of making cities that it symbolizes, but she did not believe that every place needed to be like a little Greenwich Village. That is the great misreading of her, the mistaken view that her way of seeing the world was so narrow that she wanted to turn everything into the Village. Actually, what she believed is that every place has an essence, a particular quality that we can figure out by looking at it – and that cities are living things, not inert objects. The most revealing lines in her great book, ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” are actually not Jacobs’s passionate defenses of neighborhood scale, street life, and diverse community of the sort that she experienced around her home at 555 Hudson Street, but the note at the beginning, explaining why she had written a vast tome about cities that included not a single photograph. “The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us,” 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.” She wanted us to look, and she trusted us to realize, once we looked, what she herself had realized – that cities were organic, that they were like living creatures, full of the ability to regenerate themselves, to heal themselves, to make themselves healthy if only planners would leave them alone. And they were places in which physical form and social interaction balanced in the most subtle, and yet essential, ways. Jacobs was not a professional planner, and an ongoing theme of her life, and her work, was the deep conflict she felt about the relationship of knowledge to professional expertise. She was largely self-taught, and throughout her life she relied heavily on observation and instinct. She was not insecure about that – quite the contrary. She believed deeply in the value of knowledge, but she drew a sharp distinction between the knowledge of an educated person and the information experts carry around, much of which Jacobs considered not only useless, but dangerous. Traffic engineers who know off the top of their heads how many vehicles any type of road can carry in an hour are never inclined to ask whether the road ought to be there in the first place, she would say. Jane Jacobs, however, could think only in terms of that kind of question. In this sense she has a lot in common not with other writers about cities, but with two women who, along with her, wrote books in the nineteen-sixties that changed the world: Betty Friedan, who of course wrote “The Feminine Mystique,” and Rachel Carson, of “Silent Spring.” It is useful to think of them and Jane Jacobs as a triumvirate, not only because they were women of roughly similar age, but also because each one of them was dismissed initially as something of a crackpot. Each broke radically, and courageously, with the established wisdom in her field. Each one of these three women turned out to be pretty much right, in the end, and all three books helped to set in motion truly profound cultural shifts. I remember one evening a couple of years ago – the last time I saw her, actually – when Jane Jacobs and I appeared together on a stage in San Francisco. It was an event for which I have Bud Trillin to thank, actually, since he was originally supposed to share a platform with her, and he had the unfortunate necessity of being in Tuscany. When I asked Jacobs in San Francisco how she came to write “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” she did not talk about her desire to change the world, because I don’t think she had a desire to change the world. She responded with a wonderful monologue about her life, beginning with her postwar job at the Office for War Information, but her leitmotif was a swipe at the whole notion of expertise. She went to work for Architectural Forum, she told me, when the Office for War Information was consolidating its staff in Washington, and she didn’t want to leave New York. The Architectural Forum job paid better than Natural History, the other magazine that had a position open. “I went to Architectural Forum and they said well, you’re now our school and hospital expert,” she said. “That was the first time I got suspicious of experts. I knew nothing, not even how to read plans.” She paused for a moment. “Anybody who would want to be an expert, I have some advice for you: apply at a magazine.” During our conversation on stage in San Francisco Jacobs went on, in her mildly self-deprecating way, to say that her first major assignment for Architectural Forum, an update on urban renewal plans for Philadelphia, came about because she was the only person available on a shorthanded staff. “I was not what you would call a city-planning expert,” she said. “Philadelphia was the big thing at the time, and Ed Bacon [Philadelphia’s legendary planning director] was very fashionable. So they sent me to Philadelphia and Mr. Bacon showed me all that they were doing. First he took me to a street where loads of people were hanging around on the street, on the stoops, having a good time of it, and he said, well, this is the next street we’re going to get rid of. That was the ‘before’ street. Then he showed me the ‘after’ street, all fixed up, and there was just one person on it, a bored little boy kicking a tire in the gutter. It was so grim that I would have been kicking a tire, too. But Mr. Bacon thought it had a beautiful vista.” There you have it, in a nutshell: Jane Jacobs wrote the most influential book of the twentieth century about cities because Edmund Bacon preferred the cold abstractions of urban renewal to the messy vitality of real urban neighborhoods. Well, so did almost every planner in the fifties and sixties, when it was largely believed that the city was a physical more than a social problem, and that tidying everything up was the answer to its ills. Jane Jacobs knew better. She had a slightly prim quality to her prose, and even to her manner, but all of that was a ruse – or at last a façade – underneath which lay a radical sensibility. Jacobs may have been proper but she turned out to be afraid of no one. Her neighbors in the Village learned that when she played a major role in the battle to keep traffic out of Washington Square Park, which Robert Moses wanted to turn into a turnaround for Fifth Avenue buses. Jacobs and Moses would be at odds for years, even more than Jacobs and Edmund Bacon had been. Indeed, they are joined forever as antagonists in history: Jacobs is often described today as the anti-Moses, the force for populist planning who represents the antithesis to Moses’s Olympian indifference to public sentiment. While it may be a bit of an oversimplification, in part because Jacobs was always more interested in how people used cities than in what political positions they held about them, no one can doubt that there has been a sea change in urban planning in the last forty years, away from Moses’s autocratic pronouncements toward vastly greater levels of public participation, and that Jane Jacobs is as responsible for this as anyone.

Jacobs was introduced to civic activism at Washington Square, but she remained engaged in public issues long after she had begun to build her reputation as a writer. And she continued to clash with Moses. What would have to be described as their heroic and ultimate struggle came in 1968, when Jacobs, who had been leading opposition to the Lower Manhattan Expressway, the highway Moses had planned to ram across Broome Street, spoke at a public hearing about the highway and, in a deliberate act of civic disobedience, destroyed the transcript that was being prepared. Jacobs was arrested

I raise this not to tell you history that you, of all audiences, of course know. Some of you may even have been there. I mention it so that we can ponder for a moment how far we have come. Now, the notion of an expressway slicing across Lower Manhattan is utterly incomprehensible. We cannot imagine destroying the neighborhood of incomparable nineteenth-century industrial architecture now known as Soho, and wrenching apart Lower Manhattan. But in the sixties the expressway was given considerable credence, not just by automobile-mad planners but by all sorts of reasoned, liberal folk. (John Lindsay was originally a supporter of the idea, which seemed, to pre-Jane Jacobs minds, to have the appeal of efficiency. After all, what harm could there be in moving cars and trucks from the Holland Tunnel straight to the Williamsburgh Bridge? It would keep them off the streets – streets that back then seemed to have little appeal to anyone.) Today the idea of the Lower Manhattan Expressway is barely remembered, let alone taken seriously, which tells us that we have at least made some progress in the last generation. Its demise, in which Jacobs played no small role, ranks, along with the decision to halt the construction of the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, as a turning point in the evolution of American attitudes toward cities.

But if it’s indisputable in this year of Jane Jacobs’s death that the world has come around to her way of thinking, this has hardly brought us to the promised land. Not the least of the prices we pay for having so many of Jacobs’s views become the common wisdom is the extent to which they are now co-opted by real-estate developers and politicians who realize that there is money to be made in shopping centers created in the form of fake villages with pedestrian “streets” leading to and pseudo “town squares,” and “festival marketplaces” that are little more than shopping malls in drag. Developers proclaim these places to be like real cities, as if they were a natural outgrowth of Jane Jacobs’s ideas. The term “mixed use,” which started as a sharp-eyed writer’s observation of what underlies an organic urban fabric, has become a developer’s mantra. Indeed, who could have envisioned the day when politicians and developers trying to sell New York on a gigantic football stadium beside the Hudson River would propose surrounding it with shops and cafes so that they could promote it as an asset to the city’s street life? When that happened in 2004 – when I heard people trying to sell the stadium as enriching street life – I knew the age of Jane Jacobs had entered a new phase, the phase that comes when radical ideas move into the mainstream, and can be corrupted by those who claim to follow them. In the twenty-first century, the danger is not with those who oppose Jane Jacobs, but with those who claim to follow her.

Jacobs herself always knew better: she had no patience for orthodoxies, including her own, which was probably why she ended up so much at odds with Lewis Mumford, who you might have thought would have been her ally. After all, he shared her dislike of Robert Moses’s mode of urban renewal by bulldozer, and he tried to make Jacobs something of a protégé at the beginning of her career. But Mumford loved theories as much as Jacobs hated them, and thought that the city could be made rational. Jacobs knew better here, too. It was the very randomness of things that she loved – she took solace from the unpredictability and messiness of the city while Mumford sought only to bring more order to it. No wonder, then, that he titled his review of her book “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies for Urban Cancer”? That headline tells us all we need to know. Jacobs was never as eager as Mumford for acolytes, though she ended up with plenty of them, and she saw right through many of the things that were presented as consistent with her views. She didn’t even have much patience with the New Urbanists, whose very philosophy of returning to pedestrian-oriented cities would seem to owe a lot to Jacobs. But she found them hopelessly suburban, and once said to me, with a rhyming cadence worthy of Mohammad Ali, “They only create what they say they hate.”

What Jane Jacobs really gave us wasn’t a physical model for cities, or a theory about them – as I said a moment ago, she didn’t really want every place to look like Greenwich Village, however much she loved it and learned from it. What she gave us was much more important than a physical model of cities to copy. She gave us a model for skepticism.

Today, it’s hard to know where embracing her skepticism will bring us. The city is not the same as it was in the years when Jacobs first began to observe it. In some ways it has become too big, and too gentrified, to continue to operate as Jane Jacobs wanted it to. In her day, a fairly natural process gave us the Greenwich Village she loved – and gave us the rest of the neighborhood-rich, pedestrian-oriented, exquisitely balanced city New York once was – and Jacobs wisely saw that professional planners were not able to do much except upset this natural equilibrium.

Today, however, the natural order of things yields something very different from the vibrant, street-oriented and highly diverse world Jacobs taught us to admire. The natural process of growth now gives us sprawl, it gives us gigantism, it gives us economic segregation and it gives us homogeneous, dreary design. The laissez-faire city almost worked in the 1950’s New York that Jane Jacobs so loved. In those days, intervention into organic urban growth was symbolized by the acts of a Robert Moses. Intervention by planners was itself a hostile act. Today, though, laissez-faire doesn’t work at all – this is the difficult challenge of city-building now. Natural growth is itself what feels hostile to a civilized city, which is why today, the forces trying to intervene are the forces set in motion by Jane Jacobs herself. If you seek her true legacy, it isn’t just in the stoops and the street life of Greenwich Village, wonderful as these things are. It is the very idea of radical intervention, and of knowing that the one thing in New York that we can never be is complacent.

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