"Designing a dream city is easy," she concluded. "Rebuilding a living one takes imagination." Jane Jacobs, (New York Times, April 26th 2006)
Jane Jacobs passed away a few days ago at the age of 89 in a Toronto Hospital. A day later, there were several flowers placed in front of 555 Hudson Street in Greenwich Village, New York City, with a note, "From this house, in 1961, a housewife changed the world."
I had lunch with sociologist Tony Carnes across from 555 Hudson Street last February, after a worship service at my church The Village Church on 11th Street. We were in a Chinese Restaurant across from this very site, looking across to the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street. “You know Jane Jacobs lived here, right?” If there’s anything I have learned here in New York City is that you want to listen to an urban sociologist. What is so significant about Jane Jacobs? Well, according to Tony, and many others, she is the mother of a movement called New Urbanism, and yes, she happened to save Greenwich Village and changed the world, standing up against behemoth of highway construction, and against one of the most powerful men to control the destiny of New York, Robert Moses. Moses, who began his illustrious career by designing the Worlds Fair of 1939, is attributed with single handedly creating the suburbia of Long Island (and the development of suburbia in general) and the birth of car culture. He was so successful that it seemed no one stood against him in power and influence.
In 1961, Robert Moses met his match. During a hearing at which he announced his plans to open a highway into Washington Square and through Greenwich Village, Jane Jacobs and several housewives stormed the hearing. Moses was irate, saying, "There is nobody against this—NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY, but a bunch of, a bunch of MOTHERS!” (Kunstler)
Today, many attribute Jacobs with having defeated Moses, in this modern version of David and Goliath. New Urbanist James Howard Kunstler writes:
"One can say pretty definitively that she won the battle and the war, though the enormous inertia of American culture still acts as a drag on a genuine civic revival here. By the mid 1960s, her interests and writings broadened to take in the wider issues of economics and social relations, and by force of intellect she compelled the cultural elite to take seriously this untrained female generalist -- and wonderful prose stylist -- who had the nerve to work out large ideas on her own. Naturally, her books are now part of the curriculum."
Jane Jacobs wrote a book called The Death and Life of Great American Cities as she and her housewife friends battled Robert Moses. The book became a foundational text for those who challenged the conventional notion of urban growth and progress. She argued for diversity of close-knit streets and buildings, and for dense populations to increase commerce and community at the same time, an urban concoction that even provides safety. Suburbia, a legacy of Moses, would, by contrast, pretend to provide safety and protection, but, according to Jacobs, ultimately isolate and dehumanize. She is often asked if her ideas came about by hanging out with intellectuals at White Horse Tavern. No, she would answer, I could not afford to go there. She merely could observe, with her curious eyes roaming the streets of Greenwich Village from her window, the intricacies of street life, both ugly and beautiful. What she saw there, though, was not a scene of destruction filled with gangs and prostitutes. What she saw was a city life teeming with dialogue, neighborly attention and fermenting vibrant cultural mix that would fight the dehumanizing elements of our increasingly segmented modern culture. More importantly, she imagined a better city, as her motherly gaze looked over her streets as she wrote, and as she raised her children.
You might question…Safety? How could the chaos and brokenness of city life provide safety? Jacobs’ answer would be something like this: it would be difficult for a Columbine High School-type incident to break out in one of NYC’s schools today, however dangerous and tenuous the dilapidated schools can be. City life limits crime simply because there are more eyes to keep watch. And besides, it would be very, very difficult for my teenage boys to hide a cache of automatic weapons in their 100 square foot bedroom. Urbanity forces us to be dependent on each other and deal with our neighbors. Urbanity forces us out of our comfort zones and may even expose our dark, sinister plans.
Besides, do we not question today Moses’ insistent vision for “progress” and the expansion of highways, as we max out our credit cards purchasing gasoline in our four-dollar-a-gallon culture? Should we not pause to listen to a housewife named Jane Jacobs?
I became involved in this dialogue over the legacy of Robert Moses verses Jane Jacobs when IAM invited Jonathan Bradford of Grand Rapids, Michigan to speak here in New York City a year ago (hear free podcast on IAMNY.org in a week or so) As I volunteer on the National Council on the Arts, and get to know the NEA design director Jeff Speck, who is, as an urban design expert, overseeing the Mayor’s Institute, I am constantly reminded of the power of design to directly affect our quality of life. In this arena of New Urbanism, arts do overlap, literally, with our lives. Our cities are our artwork, and her designs can either make us more human or less human. Whether one agrees with the pro-growth model of Moses or the organic vision of Jacobs, this imaginative battle of how we are to see our cities continues today.
As I walked with my soon-to-be teenage daughter on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village recently, I had to give a nod to Jane Jacobs’ instincts. Bleecker Street is today the most sought after cultural nexus and originator of new commerce, far more influential, in my view, than the hyper commerce sites like Columbus Circle mall. Why would fashion designers like Marc Jacobs seek out tiny spaces on Bleecker St? Why would Saturday Night Live comedians celebrate Magnolia Bakery, also on Bleecker St., with their ode to the Chronicles of Narnia (one of the most sought after pod-cast videos on I-Tunes)? Why would Japanese magazines feature stores on Bleecker St. to the extent that if you walk on Bleecker in early May, Japan’s Golden Week holidays, you would think it’s a street in Shibuya, Tokyo, filled with so many Japanese? Where would my creative second son, C.J., go to get his left handed acoustic guitar? (Matt Umanov on Bleecker…because “they have guitars that really sing.”) And where can you run into, seemingly every time I walk on Bleecker, a friendly pastor of a storefront church, appropriately named the Neighborhood Church (next to Matt Umanov)? And most importantly for that beautiful spring day, where do you find gifts for a friend’s birthday, especially for a twelve year-old Lydia that cannot be bought anywhere else? Bleecker St.
Jane Jacobs was right. The city is best when buildings are diverse and small, where we can enjoy diversity of class, backgrounds and ages, mingling together in compressed streets. Today, such an environment is so needed, and endangered; it is fast becoming a destination site for tourism, as well as a place of commerce and a family friendly despite the high rent. Whether one agrees with Jacobs’ many irascible perspectives (and she was prolific in that, as well), she did forge a context for how a creative city can be imagined. Today, whatever is done around America in favor of creative neighborhoods, we all owe a nod of thanks to Jacobs.
It is noted that when Jane Jacobs would do her dishes or walked about the local streets one would hear her audibly debate with Thomas Jefferson, and, as a second alternative, Ben Franklin. This exercise was not a joke to her, but a serious interplay among generalists of equal statures across the schism of centuries, navigating the complex pluralism of our time. Similarly, anyone today walking about New York City, or any other urban mazes of the day, would need to, and want to, hold debates (and perhaps wash dishes, too) with Jane Jacobs, a determined housewife imagining a better city with her Remington typewriter. Feisty and irreplaceable, the sound of her typing echoes in our neighborly streets, refracting the dense, fiery heart of our humanity.
I am glad Jane Jacobs won the battle to save Greenwich Village.