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Jane Jacobs, 1916–2006

eye on the news

Jane Jacobs, 1916–2006

New York’s indispensable urban iconoclast April 27, 2006
Arts and Culture
The Social Order
Economy, finance, and budgets

In a way, Jane Jacobs, who died this week, did to urban renewal what Rachel Carson did to DDT and Ralph Nader did to the Corvair. The Death and Life of Great American Cities marked Jane Jacobs as one of the great protest authors of the early 1960s. Upon the release of her book in 1961, the idea of wholesale government clearance of poor urban neighborhoods, whether for housing or highways, almost immediately fell out of favor. It is not surprising that three decades after its release, Death and Life was included in the Modern Library series of classics.

Despite her prominence, Jacobs was almost universally misunderstood. Her role in the public life of New York in the 1960s may explain some of this misunderstanding. Her opposition, to the point of arrest, to plans for a highway through Washington Square Park and to a development scheme that would have destroyed hundreds of buildings in the West Village led her to be seen as the mother of all preservationists, pedestrians, and community activists. And because she moved to Toronto, in part because of opposition to the Vietnam War, it is assumed she was a woman of the Left.

That she was none of these is not superficially apparent from her work. Because Death and Life poetically describes the rhythms of neighborhood street life—its teeming sidewalks, local characters, and small merchants—Jacobs is frequently invoked as the patron saint of old neighborhoods, protecting them from rapacious developers who would supplant the last drugstore that still has a soda fountain. Because she wrote of the value of small blocks and smaller buildings, it is easy to infer that she was a Jeffersonian opponent of bigness per se, whether of new developments or firms—or even cities, if they got too large.

But Jane Jacobs had no more desire to buffer cities from change than Herman Melville had to save the whale. For Jacobs, change was the very essence of city life. One cannot seek through public policy to “freeze conditions and uses as they stand. That would be death,” she wrote in Death and Life. Indeed, her great trilogy of works on cities—The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), The Economy of Cities (1969) and Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984)—are a plea for us to understand the dynamism, crucial to human progress, that arises in cities relatively unfettered by government. “Most city diversity,” she wrote in Death and Life, “is the creation of incredible numbers of different people and different private organizations, with vastly differing ideas and purposes, planning and contriving outside the framework of public action. The main responsibility of city planning and design should be to develop—insofar as public policy and action can do so—cities that are congenial places for this great range of unofficial plans, ideas, and opportunities to flourish.”

The Jane Jacobs story is a remarkable one. A native of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Jacobs came to New York without having gone to college, worked as an editor for Architectural Forum, and raised her family on Hudson Street. Her confrontations with the city’s bureaucracy over its plans for her own neighborhood inspired her not only to organize community protests, but to embark on an intellectual journey. It was a journey in which she pondered, for more than two decades, what made cities and neighborhoods work. New York was her crucible of experience and has remained the city in which her name carries the most renown, making it all the more important that New Yorkers understand her, lest policies, ostensibly in “the Jane Jacobs tradition,” further undermine a city she loved.

Jacobs still has much to offer us, but not what is commonly assumed. She dared to follow the logic of her own observation in ways that led her to oppose much that the Left stood for. The real Jane Jacobs not only enjoyed busy city blocks but deplored high levels of welfare spending that inhibit urban economies. The real Jane Jacobs not only enjoyed the great variety of small businesses which cities offer, but questioned the public operation of services such as transit that preempt the formation of private competitors.

To get Jane Jacobs right, start with her reasons for opposing urban renewal. Her opposition was not primarily based on aesthetic and planning concerns, though there is no doubt that the design of public housing deeply concerned and offended her. In her view, the quintessential housing-project design of the high-rise tower set in a plaza or park defied common sense. Plazas that people don’t regularly traverse for a wide range of reasons—some going to work, some to the library, some to their homes—are apt to become dangerous gauntlets, as are the long corridors in high-rises, where the neighborly eyes Jacobs found watching the street in old neighborhoods are absent. The wealthy might be able to afford doormen and security patrols, but, Jacobs made clear, the less affluent need the self-policing that older, unplanned neighborhoods can provide.

But the heart of Jacobs’s quarrel with the advocates of urban renewal and city planning involved much more than design considerations. In her view, urban renewal was simply one manifestation of a set of beliefs that threatened to smother the economic life of cities as well as to level old neighborhoods. Put another way, Jacobs actually saw herself as an apostle, not an opponent, of progress, but was convinced that policies pursued in the name of economic and aesthetic improvement were actually anti-modern and would deaden the city’s economy.

Jacobs’s concern about the economics of city life manifested itself in her heartfelt protests about the number of businesses destroyed to clear the path for “renewal”:

People who get marked with the planners’ hex signs are pushed about, expropriated, and uprooted much as if they were the subjects of a conquering power. Thousands upon thousands of small businesses are destroyed, and their proprietors ruined, with hardly a gesture at compensation.

Replacing the small businesses she eulogized was an anti-city within the city: enormous towers set in dangerous windswept plazas. This was the culmination of a chain of ideas—Ebenezer Howard’s suburban Garden City, LeCorbusier’s high-rise Radiant City, and Catherine Bauer’s massive state-subsidized housing complexes—each of which attempted to control the disorderliness of the modern city and put the genie of growth and change back in the bottle. Jacobs did not hesitate to link such planning, with its obvious elements of regimentation, to the totalitarian impulse, to the “repression of all plans but the planners’.” Urban renewal destroyed a human ecosystem of myriad interdependencies and surprising accidental improvements that were the result of individual initiative, not economic development offices.

The construction of new housing projects not only destroyed existing businesses; it also suppressed future economic activity by designating a limited amount of space for preordained commercial activities—for instance, leaving room for only one grocery store and one hairdresser. According to Jacobs, this represented a misuse of the power of the state for “monopoly planning.” Moreover, people who have ideas for new businesses need the cheap space offered by older, sometimes rundown buildings. “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings,” observed Jacobs. “New ideas must use old buildings.”

Much more was involved in Jacobs’s protest against urban renewal than a simple concern for small local merchants themselves. By suppressing economic diversity, urban renewal struck at the very heart of the city. For in Jacobs’s view, cities are not simply places where large numbers of people live and work. They are the centers of all creative economic activity and the engines of human progress, by virtue of the ways in which they allow for the expression of individual ingenuity. New economic ideas take root within cities, because only in an urban setting can entrepreneurs find convenient suppliers of parts and services.

Small businesses are the source of the city economy’s regeneration. Jacobs’s favorite example was the story of a New York dressmaker named Ida Rosenthal, who in the 1920s, as a bonus to her customers, produced a corset substitute: a natural-looking brassiere. Her invention led her to leave the dressmaking business to found the Maidenform company. The fact that Maidenform ultimately built its headquarters in New Jersey did not dismay Jacobs: when firms became large, she expected them to leave their city home. The creative spark is always creating new work: “a playground designer starting to make and sell equipment for nursery schools; a cleaner of clothing starting to sell her cleaning fluid, a sculptor starting a line of costume jewelry.” Jacobs’s concern lay in the failure of cities to generate such replacement enterprises. She was not enthusiastic only about manufactured goods; new financial instruments that facilitated capital markets and, indirectly, other kinds of development, moved her as well.

Again and again Jacobs warned against government policies that were insensitive to this process of economic generation and regeneration—an insensitivity which she clearly believed could be just as fatal to whole cities, and ultimately to national economics, as urban renewal was to specific neighborhoods. This led her to oppose the value-added tax, because it imposed a tax on each step of production and would specifically handicap urban start-up businesses, which depend on a long chain of suppliers and contractors. She even went so far (in Cities and the Wealth of Nations) as to express concern about the notion of a single national currency, which, she believed, skewed the terms of trade by locking all of a nation’s cities into one exchange rate. Thus her fondness for city-states such as Hong Kong and Singapore. She (like Margaret Thatcher) would clearly have been cheered by such developments as the breakdown of the European monetary union and the emergence of so many new states within the former Soviet empire.

Jacobs was particularly concerned about the economic effects of high social spending. Thus she objected to New York’s $300 million investment during the 1950s in public housing in East Harlem, not only because it leveled 1,300 Puerto Rican-owned businesses and produced dangerous, unsightly, crimeridden projects, but because it represented a massive diversion of capital away from private-sector entrepreneurs. “Consider,” she wrote in The Economy of Cities, “how much investment in new and young enterprises might be bought with $300 million.” She felt the same way about New York’s high levels of welfare spending—which she characterized (in Cities and the Wealth of Nations) as a “transaction of decline.” At a time when New York’s welfare spending was a mere $1.4 billion, she wrote, “Suppose 10 percent of that were invested annually in new and young enterprises; consider how many such investments could be bought. . . . Does 10 percent of the welfare budget seem a lot? But welfare costs have doubled in only a few years, which means that much more than an annual 10 percent increment has been available for a thoroughly unproductive type of expenditure.”

Nor would Jacobs accept the inevitable protests that such a diversion of funds would victimize the poor and minorities. In her view, it was from those of modest income that important new ideas would arise. Again and again, Jacobs, presaging Walter Williams and others, made clear that her particular concern was the effect a pronounced public-sector role in planning had on the poor. She feared that in its zeal to help the poor through redistribution of goods and services, government would preclude the rise of the poor through their own ingenuity, and consequently rob society of the fruits of that ingenuity:

Acute practical problems in cities often bear most heavily upon people lowest in the social hierarchies, and thus are noticed, and also often understood, by those people long before they are taken seriously by those who lead more sheltered lives. If people who do lowly work cannot add new work to it . . . serious practical problems that will ultimately affect everyone are apt to remain unsolved.

What was more, she continued, without the motivation to apply their own ingenuity to problems at hand, the poor were more apt to remain poor:

A metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle-class people, many illiterates into skilled people, many greenhorns into competent citizens. . . . Cities don’t lure the middle class. They create it.

It is not that Jacobs saw no role for the public sector. Libraries, concert halls, arenas, and municipal offices, when properly sited within neighborhoods rather than in their own “fortress” settings (Lincoln Center drew her fire), could help keep neighborhoods safe and encourage the formation of spin-off businesses. According to Jacobs, government could facilitate commerce—the ultimate purpose of cities—but had to resist two major temptations: the first, to redistribute income in too great a degree, and the second, to allow itself to be captured by mature industries whose interests diverged from those of the new generation of economic innovators. “There is no point in pretending that economic development is in everyone’s interest. . . . Economic development, no matter when or where it occurs, is profoundly subversive of the status quo,” she wrote. Thus, logically, Jacobs would be saddened by the sight of a mayor of New York begging established firms to stay rather than creating a climate conducive to the start-up of new firms.

Today one can imagine Jacobs protesting a different set of public policies and practices than those which concerned her in the 1960s, but for the same essential reason: concern about the economy of cities. Commercial rent control, to the extent that it provides older businesses with an incentive to remain too long in commercial space and blocks the entry of new firms into the market, would be likely to worry her. So would the competitive disadvantage to New York–based manufacturers of high local property taxes and the local sales tax. She would be aghast at the city’s multibillion-dollar investment in the rehabilitation of abandoned apartment buildings—because it both diverts capital from new economic ideas and concentrates large numbers of subsidized tenants in buildings owned, albeit indirectly, by the city. Jacobs, in Death and Life, favored a voucher-type system in which low-income tenants were placed in privately owned, taxpaying buildings, preferably run by owners who lived on the premises. And she was by no means strong in her endorsement even of this limited form of public subsidy.

Fundamentally, however, one does not look to Jane Jacobs for specific policy prescriptions, though she explored many ideas in fascinating and original ways. Her essential message was far broader. It involved a faith in cities and people to work out their problems in original ways, ways which would create new jobs, new wealth, and, ultimately, lead to new problems that people would eventually solve as well. Cities are the forum in which this all happens, the place in which intellectual and economic cross-pollination occurs.

If she came back to Hudson Street today, Jacobs might not be disappointed to find it radically changed. She would be unhappy had her old building been leveled and replaced by subsidized apartments or by a highway which had cleared away small businesses. But if the storefronts had changed, if there were new businesses on the second and third floors, if there were vendors from different parts of the world fleeing rural poverty for the opportunities of New York, she would revel in such change and savor its permutations. Those who would do the same, who would have New York and all the cities of America grow and flourish again, can claim Jane Jacobs as their own and look to her anew.

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