Durable Growth

Jane Jacobs as developer

Jacob's Greenwich Village home

Jacob’s Greenwich Village home

In my previous post, when I identified Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday as my topic for today, I wrote that I might have missed the milestone except for a timely reminder from a correspondent.

I was wrong.  It would have been impossible to have missed the Jacobs commemoration.  The many insightful analyses of Jacobs’ impact on land planning would have grabbed the attention of anyone with even the least interest in the future of cities.

Nor was the Jacobs coverage limited to land-use wonks.  On Jacobs’ May 4 birthday, the Google search page graphic was a collage of Jacobs’ accomplishments, with her round face and round glasses under the Washington Square Park Arch, a landmark she preserved from the predations of her long-time antagonist Robert Moses.  I’ve often enjoyed the Google graphics, but never before wanted to frame one.

On the same day, Jacobs competed with Stars Wars Day (“May the Fourth be with you”) as a top trending topic on Twitter.

It was exciting to see how much of a mainstream figure Jacobs has become.

Among the land-use websites, the articles I found most interesting, all in CityLab, included Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow writing about the need to continue the direction set by Jacobs in deemphasizing cars,  the concern of Kristen Capps that many invoke selected excerpts from Jacobs’ writings to oppose land-use changes that Jacobs would have likely supported, a reminder by Roberta Brandes Gratz that Jacobs was at heart an empiricist, not a prescriptivist, and that we need to retain the same perspective, and a concern by Richard Florida that Jacobs’ last published book, “Dark Age Ahead”, rejected by many as the pessimism of a woman in her declining years, was instead an insightful and accurate look ahead to social issues that have arisen since her death.

But the most remarkable revelation of the week was from Ben Yakas of the Gothamist.  Yakas reported a claim by one of Jacobs’s son that Jacobs helped Bob Dylan pen a protest song about Robert Moses, in the process teaching Dylan how to write protest songs.  Although it’s fun to think about Jacobs having put Dylan on the path to “Blowin’ in the Wind”, I’ll wait for Dylan to weigh in before believing it.

Through it all however, I found myself thinking back often to a story I first encountered in the Anthony Flint book “Wrestling with Moses” on the battles between Jacobs and Moses.

As Flint tells the story, after Jacobs and her allies beat back an attempt by New York City to do extensive demolition and redevelopment in her Greenwich Village neighborhood, Jacobs still had to acknowledge that the City was correct that her neighborhood was less dense than needed for a strong city.

So Jacobs helped reassemble her team as the West Village Committee.  The Committee then set about the task of doing neighborhood-based and publicly-organized infill.  It was a model to which many urban neighborhoods likely aspire, but few can reach because of the organizational and financial challenges.

How did it turn out?  Not particularly well.  After long delays in assembling the right team of consultants, securing city approvals, and nailing down the financing, compromises had to be made in the architecture, including simplified roof lines and fewer windows, causing one architectural critic to describe the buildings as having “unrelieved plainness” and “basic dreariness”.  Also, the rents had to be set higher than hoped, frustrating many who had hoped to find new homes.

If a private developer had been in charge, the neighborhood would have been up in arms, complaining about the developer’s “greed” and lack of concern for the neighborhood.  And rhetoric seemed only slightly toned down when it was a neighborhood association, including Jacobs, doing the development.

Regular readers will know that I’m more sympathetic to developers than much of the population.  It’s not that I think all developers are great guys.  Some are despicable human beings who care only about the corporate bottom line, without a concern about the community they’re changing.  But many are decent people, trying to stay in business while also doing projects that conform to community goals.  Unfortunately, I must regularly cross swords with those who are too willing to put all developers in the first group and to readily believe the worst of all of them.

Thus, I’m perversely tickled that Jane Jacobs, who devoted so much of her life to improving the frameworks of communities, was tagged at one point of her life as a ne’er-do-well developer.  It proves my point that development is more complex and misunderstood than commonly perceived.

Of course, none of this is meant as a criticism of Jacobs.  I’m sure she did the best she could with the West Village Committee effort.  It’s just that she entered a field where almost everyone, rightly or wrongly, ends somewhat besmirched.  And that reality is more about us than about Jacobs.

As an element of their commemoration of Jacobs’ 100th birthday, StrongTowns assembled an Urban Planner’s Oath, a compelling blend of Jacobs’ urban philosophies with the StrongTowns credo.  I like the Oath, but find myself troubled on one point.  I’ll cogitate for a couple of days and then share my thinking when I next write.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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