Monday 19 August 2013

Jane Jacobs and the City

On a visit to New York I made a pilgrimage to the house where Jane Jacobs used to live at 555 Hudson Street. The house is still there. At street-level there is clothes boutique called "Mint Julep," and beside the shop is a door to go upstairs to the floors where Jacobs lived with her family from 1947 until 1968, when she moved to a house at 69 Albany Avenue, Toronto, where she lived until her death in 2006. Her Toronto house is just a few blocks from where I live and I felt honoured sometimes to see her shopping in a greengrocer's where I also used to shop. Although I never introduced myself at the greengrocer's, I did meet her when she was signing her 1997 book Ideas that matter. Her inscription reads:  “Best regards to Keith Oatley, Jane Jacobs.”

Jane Jacobs was one of the great public intellectuals of our time. Her 1961 book, The death and life of great American cities, was written at 555 Hudson Street, in the wake of her successful public activism in New York to prevent Washington Park having a multi-lane expressway built through it, and to stop Greenwich Village being turned into an area of faceless high-rise buildings. It was Jacobs who seemed first to have seen clearly the destructive aspects of post-war town planning, with its demolition of communities (see also my post on this topic of 2009, click here). It was she who, in the modern era, was the most engaging proponent of city life, not just in her 1961 book, but in her 1970 book The economy of cities.

In English-speaking countries, the Romantic era came into its own in 1798 with the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads. With them and other Romantic authors, Europeans began to value nature, to see countryside, forest, and lake, not so much as frightening wilderness, but as beautiful prospect, offering peaceful contemplation of the infinite, of pantheistic communion with the divine. Even cities could be co-opted to this vision. Take, for instance, Wordsworth’s famous sonnet, “Upon Westminster Bridge,” of 1802. Here are its first two quatrains. The city has become part of nature.
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear

The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky,
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Here, by contrast, is what cities are really about. This passage is from Death and life of great American cities.
Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvellous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city ... The section of Hudson Street where I live is each day the scene of an intricate sidewalk ballet. I make my first entrance into it a little after eight when I put out the garbage can, surely a prosaic occupation, but I enjoy my part, my little clang, as the droves of junior high-school students walk by the centre of the stage ... I watch the other rituals of the morning: Mr Halpert unlocking the laundry’s handcart from its mooring to a cellar door, Joe Cornacaccia’s son-in-law stacking out the empty crates from the delicatessen, the barber bringing out his sidewalk folding chair ... (pp. 60-61).
I often find nature quite pleasing. I like estuaries and lakes. I have enjoyed walking along cliffs, and when I was young I used to love walking in England’s Lake District, an area made famous by Wordsworth. But now it’s Jane Jacobs’s vision of the city that thrills and excites me. The idea that people who are unrelated to each other can walk peacefully along a street, can live in their houses and apartments side-by side, can mingle and interact, buy things in shops, go to the cinema, have a cup of coffee, is to me a continuing source of wonder and engagement. It’s not at all fanciful of Jacobs to call this art; it’s art that combines a moving beauty with human benefits that is utterly unpredictable from the natural ways of life of our pre-city ancestors 12,000 years ago.

And the difference between the art of Wordsworth and the art of the city? Whereas Wordsworth is about nature, the art of the city has people in it, people like you and me.

Jacobs, J. (1961). The death and life of great American cities: The failure of town planning. New York: Random House.

Jacobs, J. (1970). The economy of cities. New York: Vintage.

Jacobs, J. (1997). Ideas that matter: The worlds of Jane Jacobs. Owen Sound, Canada: Ginger Press.

Wordsworth, W. (1984). The Oxford authors: William Wordsworth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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