Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Mourning a Champion of Cities
The legendary urban theorist and social critic Jane Jacobs passed away yesterday in Toronto. She was 89 years old.

In her book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," written in 1961, Ms. Jacobs's enormous achievement was to transcend her own withering critique of 20th-century urban planning and propose radically new principles for rebuilding cities.

At a time when both common and inspired wisdom called for bulldozing slums and opening up city space, Ms. Jacobs's prescription was ever more diversity, density and dynamism — in effect, to crowd people and activities together in a joyous urban jumble.
"Death and Life" made four basic recommendations for creating municipal diversity: 1. A street or district must serve several primary functions. 2. Blocks must be short. 3. Buildings must vary in age, condition and use. 4. Population must be dense.

Ms. Jacobs's thesis was enlarged by her deep, eclectic reading. But most compelling was her description of the everyday life she witnessed from her home above a candy store at 555 Hudson Street, near 11th Street.

In that description, she puts out her garbage, children go to school, the dry cleaner and the barber open their shops, women come out to chat, longshoremen visit the local bar, teenagers return from school and change to go out on dates, and another day is played out. Sometimes, odd things happen: a bagpiper shows up on a February night, and delighted listeners gather around. Whether neighbors or strangers, people are safer because they are almost never alone.

"People who know well such animated city streets will know how it is," Ms. Jacobs wrote. "I am afraid people who do not will always have it a little wrong in their heads, like the old prints of rhinoceroses made from travelers' descriptions of rhinoceroses."

At the risk of sounding all Colbert, I'll admit that I've never read "Death and Life" all the way through. But the core thesis speaks powerfully to me, as I think it does to anyone who's ever been entranced and thrilled by city living. Pretty much since I moved to New York when I was 22, I haven't really wanted to be anywhere else; one of the big questions Annie and I grapple with is how we can afford to stay in Brooklyn if we're ever to actually own a home rather than flushing big bucks down the monthly rent rathole. We choose to be here, to the detriment of our bank accounts but, we think, to the benefit of our souls and our satisfaction.

There's a deep anti-urban bias in both the culture and the policymaking of the U.S. Your average suburban mom will cloud up facially in considering the dangers of city streets, the filth of the transit system, the crowding and crime. Somehow this view, born in ignorance and fear, has trumped the truth of cities as the setting where new art forms are born, new social understandings take root and tolerance spreads as different communities are forced to interact and intermingle, great ideas hatch through never-ending waves of argument and collaboration, and (not least) great fortunes are made and the economic health of the nation is based. As an unabashed lover of cities and a believer in their vitality and potential, Jane Jacobs will be missed, and should be celebrated.

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