Wednesday, May 04, 2016

The "deeply flawed ideas" of Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs outside her home on Spadina Road just north of Bloor Street Dec. 21, 1968.
Jane Jacobs, 1968

...As often happens when we remember the dead, nearly all of these celebrations and tributes fail to recognize Jacobs as a real person with deeply flawed ideas. Yes, she still deserves praise for challenging the urban-planning maxims of her time. But if we really want to honor her belief that cities can be nearly magical places capable of improving the lives of all of their inhabitants, we have to recognize the limits of her philosophies and the limits of the ways in which we’ve interpreted and remembered them. Looking at the [Greewich]Village today is a great place to start.

The same neighborhood Jacobs lauded for its diversity in the 1960s and ’70s is today a nearly all-white, aesthetically suburban playground for the rich. The average price for a two-bedroom apartment is about $5,000 a month. Those small, varied streets are still there, but the small, community-oriented businesses have been replaced by banks and restaurant chains, upscale cocktail bars, and expensive shoe stores. When I walk its streets now, I mostly feel sad and disconnected, not to mention angry that global wealth has transformed my community into an upscale mall...

...She thought she understood her neighborhood, Greenwich Village, New York, but she didn’t understand it very well. She reduced her understanding to four simple “conditions” that she said all cities needed: mixed uses, short blocks, a mixture of old and new buildings, and density of residents and jobs. Her application of these oversimplified conditions to all “great cities” made her just as guilty of hubris as the planners she criticized.

The truth is that the lifestyle found in her neighborhood was rapidly dying out. Greenwich villagers lived in cramped apartments, so they didn’t have room to entertain indoors. This meant they entertained outdoors, which attracted people like Jacobs to their lively streets. But it isn’t always comfortable to be outdoors, and even when the weather is pleasant it isn’t always comfortable to be on crowded sidewalks. So, even as Jacobs was writing, people were moving to suburbs where they could afford larger homes as fast as they could...

A comment to this story: "Her one great achievement was stopping Robert Moses from (unbelievably) running an elevated highway through Greenwich Village. That carried her for the next four decades."

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