Place  /  Drawing

Jane Jacobs vs. The Power Brokers

How the patron saint of progressive urban planning’s ideas and ideals were implemented – and corrupted.
In 1961, a little-known architecture critic by the name of Jane Jacobs published a book that challenged everything urban planners thought they knew about cities. "There is a wistful myth that if only we had enough money to spend, we could wipe out all our slums in ten years..."But look what we have built with the first several billions: Low-income projects that become worse... than the slums they are supposed to replace... Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity..."Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore... Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenades... Expressways that eviscerate great cities."This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities!"Jacob's book, The Death and Life of American Cities, was a bombshell. Over the next 50 years, Jacobs became patron saint of progressive urban planning – she championed walkable cities and grassroots organizing...... but real estate developers have also happily cashed in on her ideas, co-opting her ideals while gentrifying neighborhoods. "So authentic." "Creative vibe." "So quaint."In her day, urban planners – almost all of them white, upper-class men – pinned blame for a city's problems on 'blight.' The traditional thinking was that order and safety could be created only through meticulous top-down planning. Homes, businesses, and entertainment centers must be carefully arranged for maximum efficiency.They saw the naturally chaotic design of working-class neighborhoods, homes primarily to immigrants and people of color, as akin to infections...Jacobs argued the opposite: that so-called 'slums' were actually vibrant neighborhoods where people watched out for each other. She described the action on hte block where she owned a home in Greenwich village as a ballet."The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations." Jacobs popularized the term "mixed" use to describe the hodge-podge nature of neighborhoods like hers. Jacobs soon helped lead a fight against the most powerful planner in New York – Robert Moses. He proposed cutting apart Greenwich  Village's Washington Square Park with a four-lane road."Few comprehend the thanklessness of our task. It is astounding that anyone... is willing to run the gauntlet and brave the brick bats, rotten eggs and dead cats on the way to slum clearance." Moses at one point simultaneously held twelve titles (including NYC Parks Commissioner) but was never elected to any public office. His big ideas for how to modernize New York were shaped by his virulent racism. "He was the most racist human being I had ever really encountered," stated Robert Caro, biographer. Caro recalls the "master builder" of New York saying things like... "They expect me to build playgrounds for that scum floating up from Puerto Rico."She discovered that the City Planning Commission declared a whole lower Manhattan neighborhood 'blighted,' clearing approval for the approval of a 10-land freeway. 2200 families displaced, 416 buildings destroyed.Jacobs helped lead the charge against the freeway, organizing residents to show up at public meetings and digging up documents about the freeway's impact. "It's monstrous and useless folly." After years of organizing, the neighbors won. The mayor scrapped the freeway plan. And Jacobs' ideas about urban design took hold.