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Jane Jacobs is Dead; Long Live Jane Jacobs

By Frank J. Gruber

"Great cities are not like towns, only larger. They are not like suburbs, only denser. They differ from towns and suburbs in basic ways, and one of these is that cities are, by definition, full of strangers." -From Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1992 Vintage paperback edition, p. 30.)

Probably like a lot of urbanistas, last week I dusted off my copy of Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities in the aftermath of her death at 89.

Reading it again, I felt uncomfortably like Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan, the unfortunate young novelist who can't for her life recall how she plagiarized passages from another writer's books.

For instance, my column two weeks ago on "grocery store urbanism" was prefigured by this sentence Ms. Jacobs seemed to toss off: "Cities, however, are the natural homes of supermarkets and standard movie houses plus delicatessens, Viennese bakeries, foreign groceries, art movies, and so on, all of which can be found co-existing, the standard with the strange, the large with the small." (pp. 146-47; emphasis in original.)

I wish I had, like Ms. Viswanathan, a photographic memory to blame.

I first read The Death and Life when I was in high school, in the late sixties. I am not sure why. I wasn't particularly interested in urbanism then, but in 1967 my parents did the unthinkable: they moved us from a split-level in a "development" in the suburbs they had purchased in 1959 to Center City Philadelphia.

Our new house, an old brownstone on a narrow street, was only five blocks from one of Ms. Jacobs' favorite places, Rittenhouse Square, and perhaps someone gave me the book to explain my parents' rash decision.

The book had a big impact on me. Unfortunately, notwithstanding all the praise Ms. Jacobs received last week and the awards and fame she justly received before her death, the book had less of an impact on America.

I don't mean to slight the brilliance of the book. No one "got" the city like Jane Jacobs got the city; the complexity of uses and relationships, the privacy afforded by social distance (more important than tall hedges or setbacks or window treatments), the benefits of social mobility and choices, the constant evolution over time.

Ms. Jacobs wrote about urban renewal and redlining; about expressways; about "unslumming" (what we call gentrification); about density and convenience; about raising children (she was way ahead of "it takes a village"); about the absurdities of planning dogma and the evils of eminent domain; and many other things; and when she wrote about all these things she was wise, perceptive and eloquent.

But for all her wisdom, perception and eloquence, the 40 years after the publication of her book were the worst for the American city.

There were a lot of reasons, certainly all of them beyond Ms. Jacobs' control, or beyond what anyone could have expected her to have predicted. Racism and white flight to an extent a fifties liberal could not have imagined; plagues of drugs and crime; the collapse of school systems and other urban infrastructure; a war that sapped the nation's financial strength and confidence (and which sent Ms. Jacobs to Canada); not to mention the continuation, notwithstanding her devastating critique, of fiscal, credit, housing and redevelopment policies that used city-created wealth to subsidize sprawl and bust up the cities.

Nor should we forget the shift of political power, after reapportionment in the sixties, to the suburbs (not that the cities had ever had their fair share of power before the reapportionment decisions).

But Ms. Jacobs did make an error that has had lasting impact. Actually, it was not her error, for she warned her readers against it. She wrote her book about "Great" cities and what interested her were the most dense and variegated sections of those cities -- the "inner areas" as she called them. She admonished us not to transfer her "observations into guides as to what goes on in towns, or little cities, or in suburbs which are still suburban." (p. 16)

Fair warning, but the bigger problem was that those inner areas of cities that most fascinated Ms. Jacobs were not representative of the bulk of American urban life. Her love of the inner areas, and her wisdom, perception and eloquence, persuaded people that districts like Greenwich Village, or Rittenhouse Square, or the North End of Boston, were what cities were all about, when, in fact, they were only icing on the cake.

Thus developed a paradox that has bedeviled anyone who has wanted to improve the urban environment. On one had, city-lover snobs will tell you that a place isn't "really urban" unless it is dense enough to replicate Hudson Street in Greenwich Village. On the other hand, the city-haters fearful of change will accuse any developer who wants to build a few apartments in Santa Monica (10,000 people per square mile) of trying to turn the place into Manhattan (70,000 people per square mile).

It would have been more helpful if Ms. Jacobs had spent less time in the Village and more time in Brooklyn or Queens; less time around Rittenhouse Square, and more time in working-class neighborhoods of Philadelphia like Frankford or Kensington.

Even today, the most important districts for the health of New York are not the Village, Soho, the East Side or the Upper West Side, but the subway suburbs that were built after expansion of the subway and elevated system and which housed workers who formerly lived in tenements.

The paradigm urban neighborhood that needed to be replicated in America was not one with 150 or 200 dwelling units per acre, but one with more like 30 or 40 -- single family houses, duplexes, three-deckers, row houses, etc., on small lots, with apartments on the connector streets. Our metropolis, L.A., which Ms. Jacobs rather famously did not understand at all, is made up almost entirely of this kind of housing.

Meanwhile, America has (mostly) stopped destroying "inner areas" to build freeways and Modernist public housing blocks, but in 40 years we have defined our culture with suburban and exurban housing tracts, shopping centers, and business parks. Everyone who reads The Death and Life should follow it up with James Howard Kunstler's The Geography of Nowhere, that other great -- and even angrier -- book written by an "amateur" about the past, present and future of American cities and towns.

It turned out that what we had to fear the most was not more public housing, but instead the "crudscape" that Mr. Kunstler named and which extends for dozens of miles on every freeway and arterial extending out from the disinvestment zones we call our cities.

An army of Jane Jacobses could not have prevented sprawl, but if someone had written about the less dense neighborhoods of our cities with the passion Ms. Jacobs applied to the inner areas, then perhaps someone else might have designed our suburbs in a way that integrated them better into the urban fabric at both the micro level (walkability, mixed uses) and the macro level (transit). Put them on the grid, so to speak.

Now, we need 50 years to undo the damage. But as Ms. Jacobs said (p. 133), "Time, in cities, is indispensable."

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