Jane Jacobs and humanist architecture
How NYC rejected the imposed orthodoxy of progress
With utterly accidental excellence of timing, we landed at JFK mere minutes after I’d finished a fascinating documentary on Jane Jacobs, who fought savvily and indefatigably against the postwar planners who would have bulldozed much more of New York’s history for freeways, tower blocks and profit-mongering arrogantly justified as social cleansing.
I’ve long been fascinated by the locus of people and place — why we build what we build when we build it — and derived much satisfaction from those who write about it with wit and passion, like Jonathan Meades and Ian Nairn; yet rarely have I found anyone with such a clarity of vision as to what makes a city work.
Actually, perhaps vision is the wrong sense to invoke. A journalist by trade, Jacobs could write like hell and could also lead a protest march, but she could also listen to a city’s rhythms to ascertain what makes it tick — principally its people. Crucially, she did this by street-level observation rather than the god-like overview of the architect or social theorist, gazing from above like Le Corbusier tutting in his plane over Paris. No wonder they had a tin ear: they were too busy preaching to listen.
I heartily recommend the film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, and I’ll be ordering a copy of her 1960 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It’s the book that made her name, a cogent thesis at least a decade ahead of the curve, in which the knock-it-all-down orthodoxy is demolished with the wrecking ball of good writing. Here’s what she says on page 4 — imagine what it’s like when she gets going:
“There is a wistful myth that if only we had enough money to spend — the figure is usually put at a hundred billion dollars — we could wipe out all our slums in ten years, reverse decay in the great, dull, gray belts that were yesterday’s and day-before-yesterday’s suburbs, anchor the wandering middle class and its wandering tax money, and perhaps even solve the traffic problem.
“But look what we have built with the first several billions: Low-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity. Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centers that are avoided by everyone but bums, who have fewer choices of loitering place than others. Commercial centers that are lackluster imitations of standardized suburban chain-store shopping. Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.”
Among the sights we saw on our first night in the city was the marvellously multicultural, entirely peaceful and thoroughly invigorating spectacle of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. Here, as dusk slowly settled into a gorgeous New York evening, was an array of humanity splayed amicably around the cooling central fountain. A scratch jazz band assembled and started to work out tunes. Chess players waited for opponents to walk up and accept their challenge. An impromptu circus-tricks workshop was teaching people how to juggle, or at least drop with style, while a first-time unicyclist precariously wobbled around with growing belief and delight.
And to think that 50 years ago the planners wanted to whack a four-lane highway through this urban park, purely to extend Fifth Avenue lucratively southwards under the convenient excuse of traffic management. Thank you, Jane Jacobs, and everyone who has ever stood up to say: No, actually, we think that’s a bad idea, and we’re the poor shmucks who’d have to live with it.
Originally published on Facebook, 17 Aug 2017.