Learning From Jane Jacobs, Who Saw Today’s City Yesterday

Apr 20, 2017 · 35 comments
Tal Barzilai (Pleasantville, NY)
I know some will feel that Jane Jacobs lead the fight for NIMBYism, but I kind of feel that such a nature existed even before she did it. The reason why she fought a lot of development projects throughout the city was because she felt that not everything had to be destroyed and built over. Some places could easily be renovated for other uses especially if they were sound in their structures. If it wasn't for that, the city would have entire areas just torn down every few decades just to build a new one where the process would be repeated again after that. Unfortunately, the problem with urban renewal was that if anyone couldn't find a way to reuse a place, it would be slated for demolition. Other times, the landmarks commission would refuse to declare certain places such status so that they could be slated for demolition in the claim there was no reasons for making such places a landmark to avoid such.
Rebecca (Mill Valley)
I'm so excited to read this article, hear about the documentary and see that people are still fighting about the same things...because we need to keep fighting for our cities! I was lucky enough to meet Jane Jacobs when I was a little kid and she, her husband, my dad (an architect) and various 'money people' would gather around our big dining table and almost get into fistfights nearly every time! I worshipped her for that alone, because she was so full of her own opinions, but she also made the men (mostly) keep talking and drawing, which just made things so much fun. She's probably the reason that those are still my favorite 2 things to do, but on a more serious note: she kept the conversation going, which was beautiful. I agree that she got a lot of things wrong, but so did a lot of designers and politicians, so let's keep learning from her anyway. She had a great way of speaking and she really loved people & beautiful cities. Oh, and I think she escaped New York to keep her family safe too...
NY (New York)
What with Jane Jacobs say now about Lower Manhattan and the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. which serves what purpose in 2017? And, Authorities like the Battery Park Authority which board and chair continues to ignore the residents, and refuses to have proper representation of members of the community on the board.
KD (New York)
Just because some human interaction can take place in Stuyvesant Town does not disprove Jane’s ideas about how vibrant communities should be developed. Human beings are highly adaptable. Even in concentration camps people maintained some kind of social structure. We do not house the New York City Symphony in a Nazi-style camp because an orchestra of sorts arose in such a hideous environment.

No one really chooses to live in warehouses like Stuyvesant. Our warped ideas about economic efficiencies have forced people into such places. Long lists of people wanting to live in Stuyvesant arose because the city around it became unaffordable to most. Given a real choice, most of us would rather a flat on Hudson Street than one in an ugly, unluxurious high rise.

By the way, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is labeled as “#1 Best Seller in Urban and Land Use Planning” by Amazon. Reports of its neglect by readers are greatly exaggerated.
Will (NYC)
When some thief says "urban renewal", fight them with every tool possible.

It means they want to destroy your neighborhood and build a freeway, or, even worse, a hideous office complex.
Ellen Oxman (New York New York)
Never understand why Holly Whyte doesn't get the attention he deserves and acknowledgement in the media. It's odd. Having worked with Holly for many years, he told me how Jane's book was hatched; hatched by Holly - she brought boxes of her documents to him and he helped edit and assemble her work. A self-effacing man, he enjoyed mentoring others. It's high time someone credited him with the pioneering work he did that kept NY New York - he worked on saving Grand Central, St. Bart's, Bryant Park, the plaza in front of Lincoln Center, etc., etc.

"Whyte along with Project for Public Spaces worked closely on the renovation of Bryant Park in New York City.

Whyte served as mentor to many, including the urban-planning writer Jane Jacobs"

"Manshel's piece is worth reading... his concluding remarks:
'More attention ought to be paid to the finely grained thinking of William H. Whyte and less to Jacobs's overblown pronouncements and unprovable theories. Whyte was a close observer of people's behavior in public spaces and emphasized the importance of the many subtle design features that make people comfortable in parks, plazas and public buildings. Following Whyte, designers, planners and community members need to pay more attention to proven, good ideas, to established data and to the fine points of landscapes and buildings. His ideas have inspired successful projects in New York (Bryant Park), Detroit (Campus Martius) and Houston (Discovery Green).'"
Garz (Mars)
Yeah, I guess we all missed the history of kingdoms and their cities, let alone bureaucracy.
gloryann (new york)
Expressways running through major cities and carving up neighborhoods are not the way to go and are not sustainable options. The importance of neighborhood character and aesthetics cannot be overstated, but this concept is often not recognized or honored by the powers that be. The people need to keep speaking up as Jane did and watch so-called planning commissions like a hawk. The drive for profits can be a truly ugly thing.
C. Williams (Sebastopol CA)
One must go back before the 1970's to see the effects of collusion between the City of New York and developers. "Urban renewal" aka "slum clearance" bulldozed blocks of communities, housing and businesses, in NYC and in many other cities. Both Republicans and Democrats were responsible for this - some well-intentioned, some not. Jacobs concern about design were not primarily esthetic, but rose out of a reverence for the relationships of people in the city, and what these relationships created.

The Tragedy of Urban Renewal: The destruction and survival of a New York City neighborhood
C. Williams (Sebastopol CA)
see YouTube:

The Tragedy of Urban Renewal: The destruction and survival of a New York City neighborhood
Tom H. (New York)
I disagree that Jane Jacobs truly foresaw anything that city became. The proof is in her struggle with Robert Moses over the future of Lower Manhattan. She successfully blocked Robert Moses' attempt to build a highway through the neighborhood in order to preserve its culture, industry, and demographic. Yet today, the neighborhood is a beacon of commercialism and the super wealthy; a far cry from its position in Jacobs' era. The Lower Manhattan expressway would have benefited people of all incomes by relieving traffic throughout the city and providing low income housing downtown, but "saving" Soho only gave the 1% a quasi-industrial idyll. Anti-gentrification movements can be traced back to struggles between the plebs and patricians of Ancient Rome, but regardless of their intent, they often do more harm than good because no one ever really foresees the future of a city.
stoweboyd (Beacon, NY)
You are mischaracterizing Jacobs' goal, which was not conserving Greenwich village as it was, some sort of static, fixed perfection. She advocated an urban humanism, one that could grow and shift with the needs of all sorts of people, even the wealthy. What she opposed by dehumanizing neighborhoods by highways and other 'improvements' that degraded human interaction at the level of the sidewalk.
Patrick (Long Island N.Y.)
The Billionaire Bloomberg sent his "Private Army" of city police to suppress angry demonstrations by many who suffered on the whims and practices of the wealthy and big business as they "Occupied" Wall Street.

Did Citizen Jane write on that?

Big Business is the government and reality is now the same as a jungle with only the fittest surviving.
Leigh (Ottawa)
If I understand your point, you are asking whether Jane Jacobs wrote about the Occupy movement and Bloomberg's response. Jane Jacobs died in 2006, so she did not live to see the 2007 crash or Occupy.
SmartenUp (US)
Folks up here in rural Maine wondered why I was so vociferous about Trump some 18 or more months ago, when his run for president was becoming serious....it is because I grew up with him and his market manipulations and government manipulations for decades now.... The type of person who after a hand shake (no matter how small/large) you would want to count your fingers afterwards!

The first "serious" book I ever read in college: The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The lessons still stay with me, and still need to be heeded in the halls of power. However much NY/NJ may need a rail and tunnel renovation, we need it done cleanly. Would that we had a Edmund Bacon to help us do it...
Elizabeth (NYC)
The visual and spiritual blight of "urban renewal" and corrupt private/public partnerships live on in the concrete corridors of Columbus Avenue in the 90s, as well as in cities across the globe. Downtown Montreal is a soulless gray desert blasted into the middle of a lovely old city.

The unholy combination of greed and shady politics is visible across the global urban landscape. And will be with us for a long, long time.
Billy (some other beach)
New York State grants billions in tax breaks to corporations at the expense of ordinary citizens. To rub it in they spend untold tens of millions of taxpayer funds on television advertising to convince the taxpayer that his money is well spent on subsidizing those corporations.

Which makes about as much sense as New Jersey using electronic billboards to command drivers to dial #77 from their cel phones to report fellow drivers who are driving while texting or talking on their cel phones.
Dan Broe (East Hampton NY)
Yes there are two problems - Democracy and federalism. And when Ms. Jacobs wrote, racism. Sorry, there are still three problems. Obama was born in Hawaii and the AG calls it an island in the Pacific. Not an accident.
Joan (Brooklyn)
Lifetime friendships were forged in Stuyvesant Town? You betcha - as long as the friends were white and preferably of a single ethnic group. Stuyvesant Town displaced poor and black lower east side residents. For many years Stuy Town was a housing project for MetLife workers, or as they began to be called, "associates". Residents often held on to apartments after they moved out and illegally sublet to whites only. I think that makes Jane Jacobs' case - a case only made worse by private equity that further limits residence to white rich people.
Elmo Pumbelly, Esq. (New Jersey)
Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" was, of course, once deplored by American urban planners at a time that they thought they and the elitists they served knew best. Now, deservedly, it is almost a basic text for urban and regional planners.

But I do recall that years ago, working toward a master's degree in urban planning at Hunter College-CUNY's still-dynamic urban planning program in Manhattan, we were all chagrined to learn - after much professorial praise for Ms. Jacobs and her book, which uses the urban planning profession as her favorite establishment punching-bag - that she'd left New York City - the city where she'd been educated and made her reputation - in the late 1960's for Toronto - a city cited approvingly by urban planners and non-planners alike the most capably-planned city in North America.

Toronto had already started to acquire that reputation when she moved there almost 50 years ago. I thought it incongruous back then - and I still do - that Jane Jacobs, whose book frequently praised the unplanned and the spontaneous in modern human urban settlements - should move to a city whose development has been so carefully shepherded by professionals with the sort of technical knowledge urban and regional planners must acquire.

Maybe the book and documentary discussed in this article will change my thinking about Jane Jacobs - an obviously important expert (yes, that's the word) on what makes cities human for all people to live in.
NYC Taxpayer (Staten Island)
By some accounts she moved to Toronto so her son could become a draft-dodger.
B. (Brooklyn)
"In the author’s view, this was the beginning of the end for New York — the beginning, as she puts it, of displacement for working-class New Yorkers as the city sought to save itself from further decline by ingratiating itself to the wealthy, here and abroad."

Perhaps. But working-class New Yorkers, as well as the middle class, lost their homes also when poor, too often dysfunctional, people were given subsidized apartments and welfare and transformed buildings, blocks, and then entire neighborhoods, once quiet and tidy, into noisy, littered, and dangerous places to live. Exponentially, over decades, this underclass has increased, spread out, and overtaxed our school system and social services.

Who could have foreseen that? Who could have told that great swaths of the boroughs would be transformed into slums?

Who could have imagined that, fifty years later, the same old dysfunction persists, and even worse because of the proliferation of gangs and guns?

(And who'd have imagined that a rich, parasitic young man from Queens would become the most powerful, and therefore the most venal, man in the world? I, who loathe the drug dealers that make our neighborhood vicious and filthy, prefer them even to our president.)
Gemma (Cape Cod)
'Rich, parasitic young man from Queens'...you got it and Jane Jacobs would have been like Elizabeth Warren in calling him that. DT is vulgar in art and architecture, too, just as he is in politics and in the world. Now people are beginning to see he is the Emperor with no clothes. He is more to be fought against, hard, than to be pitied.
Joan (Brooklyn)
It was easy to see that neighborhoods would be hollowed out. You red line, subsidize grand highways, subsidize white flight to suburbs, keep blacks and other poor people from getting the same subsidies, hollow out social services, etc. Now watch the reverse as suburbs degrade and replace crack with heroin. Everyone who can wants to come back. The beat goes on.
B. (Brooklyn)
I should have written, "prefer even them to our president." Those pesky adverbs!
Greg (Brooklyn)
"Although Jacobs was wrong about many things — most significantly in her refusal to imagine race as something that can shake things up in urban life."

Jacobs repeatedly addresses the subject of race and urban life in her most famous book. You know, the one everyone has read except, apparently, for Ms. Bellafante. But why let the facts stand in the way of your fashionable virtue signaling?
George (NY)
Greg, you are absolutely wrong about Jacobs and race. She completely skirted the issue in "Death and Life." I discuss this at length in my 2006 biography of Jacobs (Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary: Rutgers University Press).

Alice Sparberg Alexiou
Joan Grangenois-Thomas (Westchester)
I imagine Jane Jacobs is smiling at the news that Cuomo wants to take down the Sheridan Expressway.
Purple Patriot (Denver)
I have two books by Jane Jacobs that I haven't managed to read yet. (They're on my To Do list) I bought them because I know how important cities are and how dreadful most of our cities are as places to live and work. I wish we had political leadership that could look beyond building more roads to accommodate more cars, and residential developments available only to the very rich, and see the value of beautiful public places within our cities. We need more than infrastructure spending; we need a long-term national program to transform our cities into safe, beautiful, sustainable places to live. Such an investment would pay dividends for generations, even centuries.
Joseph Hanania (New York, NY)
Jane Jacobs' impact was not just on NYC. Writing about urban planning for the LA Times, including how to (re)create pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and expanding use of bikes for every day travel, a major touchstone was Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities. Together with the Mayor of Santa Monica and her Director of Transportation, we discussed the width of the sidewalks - which were promptly measured - and easy accessibility to buses would help invigorate Third Street Promenade. Years later, there is now a light rail line from downtown LA to the ocean.
I now live on NYC's Lower East Side, which Jacobs helped save from a massive highway, and am pushing her ideas here, particularly encouraging small merchants, who become the "eyes of the street" creating a safer environment. Her impact has been tremendous.
Lisa Fremont (East 63rd St.)
Jane Jacobs deserves the undying thanks of every NYer. I personally revere her as a great American hero.
Jane led a small band of ordinary citizens who threw the monkey-wrench in the megalomaniac juggernaut known as Robert Moses and his PA. One of Moses' insane plans was build an expressway across Canal Street (yes that Canal Street) to reduce travel time between the Holland Tunnel and Brooklyn Bridge. To do so would have displaced, evicted thousands--not to mention the enduring harm to Manhattan.
Moses was confident of success. After all, what could one little woman and a bunch of kooks do to stop him. The answer was: plenty. Jacobs' strategy is a far more astute textbook on resistance than anything Malcolm X or Saul Alinsky could ever create against the monstrous hybrids Jane so aptly identified.
ppm (nys)
PA?!? Port Authority?!? Moses was never in charge of the Port Authority...
NYC Taxpayer (Staten Island)
The Lower Manhattan Expressway (I-478) would have been a disaster but Moses gave the city some good things too. Without the expressways all those cars and trucks would be clogging the local streets. The Parkways allowed truck-free traffic to move around the city. In fact on S.I. his Richmond Parkway and Shore Front parkway should have been built, they would have taken thousands of ca1rs off of Staten Island's old road network. Everyone gives Jane Jacobs credit for Moses downfall but he made a lot of enemies when he cut Bay Ridge in half with I-278, but even that allowed the beautiful Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to be built.
El Tumbao (illianatoo)
Malcolm X and Saul Alinnski were warring on much greater fronts than Jacobs. I state this without exuding my bias as a holder of undergraduate and graduate degrees in Urban Planning and Policy.
afriedman (Brooklyn)
Implying that all large scale infrastructure projects are bad and would have been opposed by Jane Jacobs is much too simplistic and misses opportunities to bring communities into planning and strengthen urban living. A tunnel or highway cutting up neighborhoods is bad but a rail tunnel under the Hudson or improving rail access along the Northeast Corridor that help get people out of cars and reduce carbon emissions could be great enhancements to urban life. Our city's infrastructure needs massive reinvestment. But it is critical that infrastructure projects be analyzed not only from the perspective of their basic functionality - do they facilitate movement, deliver clean water and renewable energy, etc. - but also do they advance a more equitable, sustainable city.
See also