Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Jane Jacobs Legacy

In the latest issue of the City Journal, Howard Husack reviews two books that deal with the import of Jane Jacobs to our conception of what the ideal city should look like. Jacobs was, and remains, an intellectual mentor to us, and to the work that the Alliance has done over the past twenty five years: "Though Jacobs’s ideas were lobbed like grenades from outside her era’s planning and architecture establishment—she had no formal training in either—her defense of cities’ apparent disorder has become more widely accepted...The same deeply local experience led to the development of another, less understood side of Jacobs—her role in shaping, for good and ill, the tactics of what has come to be called community activism."

Indeed she did, and her fights against Robert Moses serve as a paradigm of how to use an intellectual narrative, street protests, and coalition building to defeat more well-heeled interests: "Amazingly, Robert Caro makes no mention of Jacobs in his generally definitive Power Broker, the thousand-plus-page biography that changed the public conception of Moses from master builder of parks, parkways, and beaches to undemocratic destroyer of neighborhoods. He was both, to be sure...Moses is the perfect villain in the Jacobs saga not only because of his enormous power but also because of his capacity to articulate, confidently, the rationale for his actions. He called slum clearance, for instance, “the scythe of progress.” He was both the philosopher and implementer of architectural modernism."

But Jacobs knew how to neutralize Moses; and it is she, rather than Saul Alinsky, who is the true progenitor of successful modern urban protest. Anthony Flint's book, "Wrestling with Moses...," captures the essence of Jacobs' success: "Flint describes how Jacobs and a powerful coalition of Village citizens and officials (including the young Ed Koch) successfully led what we would now call a neighborhood-preservation movement. A turning point was the defeat of Moses’s plan, first announced in 1952, to run a four-lane highway through one of the city’s landmarks, Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park."

And soon, her tactics were replicated everywhere: "Over the course of the fifties and early sixties, Jacobs helped stop two other disastrous projects: the replacement of 14 blocks of the West Village to make way for apartment towers, and the construction of a Lower Manhattan Expressway linking New Jersey and Long Island. The tactics that helped defeat Moses have become commonplace. Children marched with banners for the benefit of newspaper photographers, and activists got the word out in editorials in the fledgling Village Voice."

But, as Flint reminds us, Jacobs' success couldn't have been possible without a compelling story-something that we have successfully done in our Wal-Mart campaigns: "But none of this might have mattered had Jacobs not made the intellectual case against high-rise housing, neighborhood clearance, and highways that ran through cities—indeed, against the profession of city planning itself."

And just as we have tried to follow in the path that Jacobs paved, so have others tried in their own way to replicate the Moses slum clearance model-using eminent domain to replace small businesses with malls that destroy the character of the city's neighborhood-all in the name, supposedly, of bettering the conditions of poor people.

Our work over the years has focused on preserving the character of neighborhood life-something that we learned, first by living in the city through the fifties and sixties; and then by reading Jacobs in graduate school (along with, yes, Saul Alinsky). Preserving the diversity of local communities-something that Mike Bloomberg and the developers will never quite understand-has been both a goal as well as a successful tactic.

Husack's description of how Jacobs was able to succeed, while residents of the lower middle class Bronx neighborhoods were not, is instructive for those of us who wish to emulate her efforts today: "Bronx residents, in their struggle to stop construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, had tried demonstrating against Moses, but to no avail. He had always been able to rely on planning elites, newspaper editorial pages, and his own social background and connections to make “slum-dwellers” look self-interested and benighted. In Jacobs, Moses faced a foe who employed hardball political tactics and sarcasm as well. She dared to condescend to him."

And she really understood neighborhoods at their most human level: "In fact, Jacobs was the the progenitor of a new elite consensus to rival the grand urban-renewal designs of modernism. She argued that “organic” neighborhoods with many “eyes on the street” would, over time, “unslum” themselves through neighbors’ actions and decisions. Moses thought that expert guidance and planning could create an environment that fostered enjoyment and fulfillment. Jacobs demurred: “To approach a city or even a city neighborhood as if it were capable of being given order by converting it into a disciplined work of art is to make the mistake of substituting art for life.” Her struggle, then, was not just about neighborhood preservation; it pitted individualism and liberty against regimentation imposed by a benevolent despot."

And the fight against sterile-real estate developer-driven-planning continues today; as the Bloombergistas look to eliminate the "eyesores" at the Bronx Terminal Market and Willets Point-or the small businesses in West Harlem. All to be replaced by pristine sterility-and using the power of the state to take away what people have devoted their lives to building.

New York's richness is built on its diverse and interesting myriad of neighborhoods-something that the Related malls seek and destroy with tax payer subsidies. The mayor, as the first citizen of the world, has no organic connection to neighborhood life of NYC; and his development policies reflect this.

Jane Jacobs, then, is not just a great New York historical figure, she is also a role model for the kind of economic and social policies that allow city's to breathe with a life of diversity and economic invention. We all owe her a great debt of gratitude; and we disregard her wisdom at our peril.