In today's New York Times, Edward Rothstein reviews a show about Jane Jacobs at the Municipal Arts Society in New York. But it really is a concise overview of all of Jane Jacob's many strengths - and a clear headed look at what parts of her dogma did not always work.
There will never be another Jane Jacobs - just as there will never be another Robert Moses, and that is fine. We needed both for their times but now we need a multitude of voices and viewpoints to tell us how to find the numerous paths between the two.
September 25, 2007
Jane Jacobs, Foe of Plans and Friend of City Life
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
Nearly a half century ago, at the dawn of an era renowned for its utopian dreams and dystopian diagnoses, a journalist who loved the American city wrote an attack on all the professional planners and idealists who believed they could design the perfect urban habitat, the city beautiful, a metropolitan Eden.
Forget it, was the message Jane Jacobs elegantly hammered home in that 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” There is no utopia to be found. And every fantasy of such a paradise — the Modernist towers of Le Corbusier, the Garden Cities of Ebenezer Howard, the cleared slums and ribboned roadways of Robert Moses — has led to urban desolation and ruin. At the time she wrote her book, cities were beginning to totter like drunken derelicts seeking lampposts for support.
As an exhibition opening today at the Municipal Art Society reminds us, Jane Jacobs did not believe that planners could ever restore life to American cities. Instead she put her faith in the chaos of urban life, in diversity, in people — the grocery store owner, the young mother, the child playing in the street, the watchful busybodies leaning out of windows. Cities were at their best, she wrote, when the “ballet of the sidewalks” was evident, a dance that was intrinsically “spontaneous and untidy.” Her prescription was simply not to get in its way.
And in the summing up:
But partly because the exhibition is so clear in this exposition, it also inadvertently draws attention to some of the flaws in Jacobs’s vision. She was open to many aspects of urban life, but the “ballet of the sidewalks” tends to overshadow its other features, and the show amplifies her flaws with its narrow focus.
Despite her argument, for example, there are times when “single-use” blocks have their own value, creating, for example, residential neighborhoods in which children really do play in the street; 1960s-era Hudson Street, where Jacobs lived, is not the only vital urban model.
Neighborhoods like Forest Hills, zones of aspiration and private retreat, have always been part of a city’s life, making their own contributions to its appeal.
And while there is much to be said against single-use construction of arts centers (which have created eerie, car-centered oases in many dark downtowns), Lincoln Center’s impact over 40 years has transformed the entire Upper West Side of Manhattan, spurring the evolution of many vital neighborhoods in a way that a single concert hall could not.
Moreover, though Jacobs wrote that “there is a basic aesthetic limitation on what can be done with cities,” she has little to say about the impact of beautiful design and public spaces; in the mid-19th century, for example, Haussmann destroyed swaths of medieval Paris, triumphantly reshaping it with his aesthetic ideals. Great ancient cities are unthinkable without ideals of form and beauty that do not interest Jacobs at all.
Even the community activism being heralded here needs a larger context. Despite their achievements, there are times when community groups may have too parochial a vision to be taken as guides to a city’s future.
In fact, despite Jacobs’s own warnings about planners and their doctrines, there is even a whiff of utopianism in the way in which her ideas are being celebrated, with a prescriptive focus on diversity and populism.
One of the virtues of a city is that it allows more diversity than even this exhibition suggests. It allows the creation of neighborhoods that serve single purposes; it allows grand boulevards whose expanses seem to lead the imagination beyond the city walls; it allows figures like Robert Moses to change the geography of the landscape so the city can adapt to technological revolutions.
And finally, it allows a figure like Jane Jacobs to make her own distinctive contributions — warning us against expecting too much from any visionary and expanding our understanding with her meticulous and generous imagination.
“Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York” continues through Jan. 5 at the Municipal Art Society, 457 Madison Avenue, at 51st Street; (212) 935-3960 or mas.org.