30 April 2006

The Death And Life of a Great American Lady

I'm a few days late in mentioning this, but I hope the passing of Jane Jacobs earlier this week prompts a new surge of interest in her still-vital book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Although I read the book many years ago, and found it immensely inspiring as a counterweight to the devastation being wreaked on American cities by ego- and ideology-driven architects and urban "planners," it was only in reading her obituary that I discovered that she had helped save Lower Manhattan from Robert "Madman" Moses, whose idea of "progress" and "modernization" involved driving freeways through places like Greenwich Village and SoHo. "Cities are for traffic," Moses is legendary for saying, and much of what is wrong with American cities in general and New York City in particular can be attributed at least partially to his belief that a city should be judged in terms of how pleasant and easy it was to drive through it.

Jane Jacobs's ideal city was human, rather than automobile-scaled, and consisted of mixed-use, high-density neighborhoods like her own beloved Greenwich Village (bear in mind that this was in 1961, before the Village had been turned into a theme park), where people lived, worked and played in the same neighborhood, often on the same block. Critics, already trying to bury Jacobs's legacy with her, argue in articles like this that subsequent developments, i.e., the way that pleasant, livable areas like the Village or SoHo have become massively overpriced and therefore no longer accessible for ordinary people to live and work in, proves that she was ultimately wrong.

I would say it proves just the contrary: because, tragically, so few neighborhoods survived the destruction brought on by the likes of Moses, supply and demand has driven the cost of living in the kinds of places where people actually like to live to a point where only the rich can afford them. Look at the pattern of gentrification in New York: one after another, previously neglected areas, the sorts of "slums" that the likes of Moses would have seen fit only for razing, have regenerated themselves through popular demand and grass-roots effort into places where so many people want to live that demand vastly exceeds supply. My guess is that the reason Jane Jacobs elicited so much hostility from "professional" circles is that she was an amateur in the truest and finest sense of the word: one who does what she does purely for love, and who easily and routinely trumps jargon and academic bafflegab with the purity and clarity of common sense.


Mike Beversluis said...

This is happening in DC too. I'm curious to see if and when the housing bubble affects the renaissance.

Patrick said...

Interesting fact: the only thing named for Robert Moses in all of NYC is Fordham at Lincoln Center's lower plaza area.

JAB Seattle said...

Seattle is a prime example of all that is wrong with Moses' philosophy