The view from street level

Catriona Crowe


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‘It is a street,’ writes Maeve Brennan in ‘A Snowy Night on West Forty-Ninth Street’, a 1967 piece for the New Yorker, ‘of restaurants, bars, cheap hotels, rooming houses, garages, all-night coffee shops, quick-lunch counters, delicatessens, short-lived travel agencies and sight-seeing buses, and there are a quick dry-cleaning place, a liquor store, a Chinese laundry, a record shop, a dubious movie house, a young imperturbable gypsy who shifts her fortune-telling parlour from one doorway to another up and down the street, and a souvenir shop.’

This is a description of the kind of city street that would have met with the approval of Jane Jacobs, the visionary analyst of city life and planning who died in April of this year, aged eighty-nine. Diversity of use, she believed, was essential for vibrancy in urban neighbourhoods, and yet it was under attack by urban planners, architects and city officials. Her first and most influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, accused planners of destroying perfectly sound city districts with their well-meaning but ill-informed strategies.

Jacobs anticipated many of the themes that have become foundations for contemporary social analysis – complex adaptive systems, emergence, social capital and social networks, among others. Her conception of the city began with its inhabitants, rather than with buildings, and emphasized the value of streets and sidewalks as against the unspecified open spaces surrounding monumental housing projects that were then in vogue as an alternative to ‘slums’. She argued that, given certain conditions, which could be enhanced by good planning, the people of the city would make it thrive, make it safe and make it interesting.

She believed that many of the followers of Le Corbusier and Lewis Mumford, two of the most influential contemporary urban thinkers, actively hated cities as manifestations of chaos, and wished to create regimented, income-sorted, inward-looking settlements that lacked the vibrancy, innovation and diversity of the great urban neighbourhoods she loved. Jacobs appreciated and trusted the complex organic structure of the traditional city, and believed that, left mostly to its own devices, it would flourish.

More fundamentally, she believed that most people were capable of engaging in the complex and delicate social networks necessary to sustain a city, because she observed them in action every day. It is her highly empirical take on the operation of the city, beginning with her own perceptions of Hudson Street in Greenwich Village, where she lived in the 1950s and ’60s, that makes her so readable and so convincing. She shows how a simple transaction, like arranging to leave one’s house keys in the local delicatessen to be collected by a visitor, stands for a whole series of relationships that promote sociability, safeguard privacy and allow favours to be done.


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I first read The Death and Life of Great American Cities in the early 1980s, when I was living in Mountjoy Square in Dublin’s north inner city. The area had just experienced one of the last clearances of Georgian ‘slums’, in Summerhill and Gardiner Street, clearances which local protests, in which I participated, had failed to prevent. Hundreds of people were more or less forcibly moved to the new suburb of Blanchardstown, away from facilities and networks that had sustained them even in poor housing conditions. One of the saddest sights I remember from that time was the wrecker’s ball smashing into the huge houses on Summerhill, exposing layers of wallpaper and random abandoned objects and furniture, the detritus of so many lives. Sean O’Casey’s Dublin was biting the dust.

Although Dublin is not a great city, but a small one, characterized by collections of villages that command fierce loyalty from their denizens, Jacobs’s observations about how successful streets worked resonated with me. The Georgian houses on Summerhill and Gardiner Street had been outward looking: the front doors were usually open; children played on the footpaths and on the famous twenty-seven steps leading from Summerhill to the Gloucester Diamond; people sat on their front doorsteps in good weather; social interaction was frequent and vibrant; the pubs on what used to be called ‘the four corners of hell’, the junction of Gardiner Street, Summerhill and Parnell Street, were patronized almost exclusively by locals; the shops in Parnell Street likewise. There were many ‘eyes on the street’, one of Jacobs’s prerequisites for a safe and successful city neighbourhood.

While the people of this part of Dublin had their problems, most of them caused by extremely high unemployment, they comprised a close-knit, functioning community. Those of us who supported their resistance to being forcibly evicted argued that this should be taken into account by Dublin Corporation in their plans for redevelopment, but it cut no ice with the city officials. The ‘slums’ were cleared. Within a couple of years, the core of community leadership in the area had vanished. In 1982, when our newly elected independent TD, Tony Gregory, found himself in the miraculous position of holding the balance of power in the Dáil, he cut a deal to provide housing which brought some people back into the area; but when the government collapsed in November of that year, the housing programme stopped.

Some parts of the north inner city had 70 per cent unemployment in those years, largely because of the advent of containerization at the docks and the flight to brownfield sites of major employers like Goulding’s fertilizers. A fairly thriving black economy sprang up, with people doing ingenious things like selling ice on Dollymount Strand on hot days, and the traditional street-trading sector was swelled by new workers peddling fruit, vegetables, jewellery, fireworks (illegal) and novelties like monkeys on a stick and disco-boppers. But these stopgaps could not reverse the destruction of the fabric of the neighbourhood. Heroin was starting to make its way onto the streets; some young people with no apparent prospects were starting to shoot up, and others were alerted to the huge money-making potential of this new market.

While there was a perception among outsiders that the north inner city was dangerous in the late seventies and early eighties, it didn’t feel like that to those who lived there. I regularly walked home across the city after midnight in those years. But after heroin took hold in the mid eighties the community (and strangers in the area) became vulnerable to theft, intimidation, extortion and violence on an unprecedented scale. Street corners and parks that had been innocent and useful gathering places became drug supermarkets, often in full view of the police.

Some of the land formerly occupied by tenement houses in Summerhill and Gardiner Street was turned into a park. This park was not patronized by the locals, who already had a park in Mountjoy Square and another in Foley Street. (Jacobs is brilliant on the evils of unwanted parks.) Many protests against the futility of this park, which rendered one side of Gardiner Street dangerously empty, were ignored. The net result of the Corporation’s efforts was to make a once welcoming, open, albeit run-down street closed, intimidating and unattractive to pedestrians.

It took many more years, and vigorous activity on the part of what remained of the local community, to convince the Corporation that they should work with the people, rather than, at best, on their behalf, or at worst, actively against them. The programme of public housing regeneration spearheaded during John Fitzgerald’s term of office as City Manager has made a huge difference to the fabric of the area, both physical and social. Sadly, it came too late for Gardiner Street, now lined with mean-spirited Georgian pastiche apartment blocks that are oriented away from the street, towards their internal courtyards and parking garages, and have no discernible community spirit. The street is much less safe now than it was in the late 1970s.

Interestingly, the most vibrant recent development in the area has happened without benefit of planners at all, namely, the transformation of Parnell Street into a multicultural enclave, with Chinese, Korean, Nigerian and Polish restaurants, bars, groceries, hairdressers and internet cafes, and lively street life. As Jacobs points out, areas where rents are cheap will regenerate spontaneously given the right conditions, and the city authorities’ job should be to help create and sustain those conditions.

This is as true today as it was in the 1960s, and as true in Dublin as in New York. Happily, much of the thinking that so enraged Jacobs when she wrote Death and Life has now been rejected. The Ballymun towers, Ireland’s single experiment in high-rise ‘project building’, are currently being demolished and replaced by high-density (but not high-rise) local authority and private housing, with community, cultural and commercial facilities to serve the residents. Ballymun, first tenanted in 1967, exemplified all of the faults of project building identified by Jacobs in Death and Life, consisting as it did of massive single-use, income-sorted, undifferentiated buildings surrounded by undesignated green space. The community-led process which fought for the changes now taking place was influenced by Jacobs’s ideas, although many of its activists had never heard of her.


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Jane Butzner was born in 1916 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a doctor and a former schoolteacher and nurse. After graduating from high school, she took an unpaid position as the assistant to the women’s page editor at the Scranton Tribune. In 1934, in the middle of the Great Depression, she followed her sister to New York City. The two young women used to play a game called ‘Messages’, which entailed imagining how to transmit a message from, say, a New Guinea tribesman to their local grocer in Greenwich Village – a version of the ‘six degrees of separation’ idea, and a useful way of thinking about interlinked systems.

During her first years in the city she held a variety of jobs, working mainly as a stenographer and freelance writer, often writing about working districts in the city. These experiences, she writes, gave her ‘a notion of what was going on in the city and what business was like, what work was like’. While working for the Office of War Information she met an architect named Robert Hyde Jacobs, and married him in 1944. They had three children, whom they raised in, and on, Hudson Street. She and her family emigrated to Toronto in 1969, when her sons were threatened by the draft.

Jacobs never had a formal third-level education, although she attended classes at Columbia and Barnard, particularly in science subjects, during her early years in New York. While some of her critics questioned her qualifications to comment on planning issues, she had a healthy disrespect for what she called ‘credentialism’. She thoroughly enjoyed her a la carte sampling of what universities had to offer and felt that taking a prescribed course would have wasted her time. She was immensely well-read, as likely to quote from Shakespeare, Jefferson or T.S. Eliot as from planning or architectural experts. She liked to demystify planning theory: ‘The processes that occur in our cities are not arcane, capable of being understood only by experts. They can be understood by almost anybody. Many ordinary people already understand this; they simply have not considered that by understanding these ordinary arrangements of cause and effect, we can also direct them if we want to.’

In 1952 she joined the staff of the journal Architectural Forum, and in the following years she became involved in campaigns against two proposed developments: the attempt by Robert Moses, the New York City road and bridge supremo, to build a freeway through Washington Square; and the construction of the East Harlem Housing Project, with its consequent demolition of over a thousand dwellings and major human displacement. She and her supporters defeated Moses’s plan for Washington Square by dint of petitions, street protests and astute lobbying, and thus saved a very beautiful and historic park from destruction. It was not easy: Jacobs was arrested twice during this campaign, and Moses described the campaigners as ‘nothing but a bunch of mothers’. The East Harlem project, however, went ahead, and its dreadful effects on its tenants and surrounding neighbourhood provided Jacobs with powerful evidence of the dangers of untrammelled utopian planning, imposed by people who regarded ordinary city streets as chaotic and wanted citizens to live in regimented, ordered buildings surrounded by acres of open space.


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The Death and Life of Great American Cities sets out the conditions that allow cities to thrive. Diversity, Jacobs says, is the key to development, interest and pleasure. There are four requirements for the generation of diversity, all of which must operate together:

1. ‘The district, and as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two.’ These functions must ensure the presence of people outdoors at different times of the day, and for different purposes. Thus, residential, retail and work functions will bring people to the streets right through the day, while cultural, entertainment and catering functions will bring them there at night. Streets with only office blocks, or only apartment blocks, will be empty – and thus dull, dangerous, or both – at crucial times of the day or night.

2. ‘Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.’ Jacobs gives the example of West 88th Street in New York, a long street running between Central Park at one end and Columbus Avenue at the other. Its residents never have any reason to pass through West 87th Street or West 89th Street, since these streets are not on their way to anywhere. A street bisecting these streets, parallel to Columbus, would literally open up the area to those who live there, giving them multiple options for reaching their destinations, and creating the opportunity for services and businesses to establish themselves on new corners.

3. ‘The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones, so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.’ Only rich organizations can afford the rents required for newly constructed premises. Thus, a district can end up with only banks, chain stores and chain restaurants, and other high-end users, with no space for the small enterprises or specialist shops that generate diversity and innovation. These users generally flourish in older building stock where rents are lower.

4. ‘There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes dense concentrations of residents.’ Jacobs’s figures on residential density in cities reveal that high-density areas are often healthier, less crime-ridden and more enjoyable to live in than low-density areas. Planners tended to confuse high density with overcrowding, and thus insisted on disastrous low-density, suburban-type schemes.

Jacobs’ street-level perspective on the life of cities is truly revelatory. Her beautiful description of the ‘ballet’ of Hudson Street is worth quoting at length, because it conveys nearly everything she wants to say about successful streets:

The stretch of Hudson Street where I live is each day the scene of an intricate sidewalk ballet. I make my own first entrance into it a little after eight when I put out the garbage can, surely a prosaic occupation, but I enjoy my part, my little clang, as the droves of junior high school students walk by the center of the stage dropping candy wrappers. (How do they eat so much candy so early in the mornings?)

While I sweep up the wrappers I watch the other rituals of morning: Mr. Halpert unlocking the laundry’s handcart from its mooring to a cellar door, Joe Cornacchia’s son-in-law stacking out the empty crates from the delicatessen, the barber bringing out his sidewalk folding chair, Mr. Goldstein arranging the coils of wire which proclaim the hardware store is open, the wife of the tenement’s superintendent depositing her chunky three-year-old with a toy mandolin on the stoop, the vantage point from which he is learning the English his mother cannot speak.

Now the primary children, heading for St. Luke’s, dribble through to the south; the children for St. Veronica’s cross, heading to the west, and the children for P.S. 41, heading toward the east. Two new entrances are being made from the wings: well-dressed and even elegant women and men with briefcases emerge from doorways and side streets. Most of these are heading for the bus and subway, but some hover on the curbs, stopping taxis which miraculously appear at the right moment, for the taxis are part of a wider morning ritual: having dropped passengers from midtown in the downtown financial district, they are now bringing downtowners up to midtown. Simultaneously, numbers of women in housedresses have emerged and as they crisscross with one another they pause for quick conversations that sound with either laughter or joint indignation, never, it seems, anything in between.

It is time for me to hurry to work too, and I exchange my ritual farewell with Mr. Lofaro, the short, thick-bodied, white-aproned fruit man who stands outside his doorway a little up the street, his arms folded, his feet planted, looking as solid as earth itself. We nod; we each glance quickly up and down the street, then look back to each other and smile. We have done this many a morning for more than ten years, and we both know what it means: All is well.

This account of Greenwich Village in the 1950s seems like another world now; Manhattan is no longer a place where low-income families can live and thrive, due to its sky-high rents and property prices. But even if the description is archival, the richness outlined deserved to be recorded for its own sake.

When I get home after work, the ballet is reaching its crescendo. This is the time of roller skates and stilts and tricycles, and games in the lee of the stoop with bottletops and plastic cowboys; this is the time of bundles and packages, zigzagging from the drug store to the fruit stand and back over to the butcher’s; this is the time when teenagers, all dressed up, are pausing to ask if their slips show or their collars look right; this is the time when beautiful girls get out of MGs; this is the time when fire engines go through; this is the time when anybody you know around Hudson Street will go by.

The sequence, full of rhythm and cadence, captures the pure pleasure of living in the middle of a city, if one is interested in other people and the intricate systems that underlie our daily lives.

I walk to work along South Great Georges’s Street and Aungier Street. The short stretch of Aungier Street from Stephen Street to York Street would please Jane Jacobs: it contains, on one side, three restaurants, including Darwin’s (slogan: ‘serving evolutionary food’), four pubs (including the very beautiful and unreconstructed Swan Bar), a shop selling old-fashioned sweets like clove drops, bon bons, bull’s eyes and liquorice allsorts; Bogart’s, a second-hand men’s clothes shop (slogan: ‘wear it again, Sam’), a shop specializing in images of angels, a posh handbag shop, an ‘adult’ store (currently advertising an erotic rabbit for €49.99), a bookmakers, a letting agent, a jeweller, an internet café, a bed-and-breakfast, a business school, a bridal-wear shop, a Chinese herbalist and a madrasa. Coyle’s hatters, where the man in charge could guess your hat size just by looking at you, is sadly closed, as is Star CDs, a small second-hand music shop whose kindly proprietor was brutally murdered about a year ago. There is not a Spar or Centra in sight.

On the other side of the street, and further up beyond York Street, there are modern, fairly high-density apartments. York Street itself has two large local authority flat complexes. The Dublin Institute of Technology, the Carmelite church and Bishop’s Square office complex all attract people at different times of the day to occupy the street. If Aungier Street is left alone, it will continue to be satisfying to its residents, to visiting strangers and to habitual passers-through like me.

Jacobs was no romantic about cities. She accepted that they could contain troublesome areas and individuals, that even the most successful districts contained within them the seeds of their own decline, that there are cycles of growth and decay in every city, and that unpredictable financial conditions, both public and private, can fundamentally change the balance in a district. But while accepting that there are things beyond the control of the planners, she can point to things well within their control, which seem to be wilfully ignored.

She was critical of the US city planners’ passion for accommodating the automobile, through the construction of expressways that cut through neighbourhoods and the widening and straightening of streets. Such measures brought about the destruction of sidewalk space and buildings that got in the way, separated naturally linked areas, brought about huge increases in traffic and danger to pedestrians, and fed the proliferation of parking lots and filling stations on city streets.

In her chapter on ‘the curse of border vacuums’, she brilliantly analyzes the troubles that befall districts at the edge – near waterfronts, expressways, railroad tracks, edges of parks, etc. Such districts, because not on the way to anywhere, can fall stagnant very easily. Her solution is to make them destinations in themselves, like the waterfront in San Francisco, or to encourage cross-fertilization. Border vacuums can occur even in the heart of a city: Jacobs denounces the carousel in Central Park for being too far into the interior of the park, instead of at the edge, where the adjoining streets could feed into it and from it.

Many of Jacobs’s ideas are now accepted as conventional, so much so that the architectural correspondent of the New York Times, in his tribute to her after her death, cavilled at her lack of interest in large infrastructure, and proclaimed the beauties of the Los Angeles freeway system. It’s getting fashionable to criticize her again, just as Lewis Mumford and others did when Death and Life was first published. (Mumford’s review of the book in the New Yorker appeared under the heading ‘Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies for Urban Cancer’.) But this is a reflection of her great influence. Within a decade of publication, Death and Life was on university architecture and planning curricula. In 1975, the American Institute of Architects recognized her as ‘one of the earliest liberal opponents of such generally accepted liberal programs as urban renewal and city planning’. The American Planning Association has instituted an Innovation in Neighborhood Planning Award in her honour.

Jacobs, who turned down almost all of the awards offered to her, was probably happier on the outside than in the mainstream. There is a lovely photograph of her, on the cover of the first paperback edition of Death and Life, sitting in her local bar, the famous White Horse Tavern, with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, looking as if she’s having a great deal of fun, and ready to argue with anyone up for it.


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The Death and Life of Great American Cities was followed by six more books, two of which expanded her ideas on cities. The Economy of Cities (1969) proclaims the city, not agriculture, as the foundation of civilization, and posits the engine of import replacement as the driving force behind city development and growth. She illustrates this with an account of the beginnings of industrial life in Japan. Starting in the late 1800s, Japan imported bicycles. Repair shops sprang up in Tokyo, at first cannibalizing broken bicycles for parts. When enough of these existed, workshops started producing some of the most-used parts locally. More and more parts were made, until ultimately Tokyo could produce its own bicycles and export them to other Japanese cities, where the whole process began again. This process not only creates work, it creates expertise and innovation: cities learn how to solve problems in new ways, and transfer the experience of building one thing to another. And it creates wealth: with import replacement, the city becomes richer, because it not only still has what it used to import (bicycles, in Tokyo), but it can now afford new, pricier imports.

Cities and the Wealth of Nations takes issue with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, arguing that nations aren’t the proper unit of macroeconomic analysis; cities are. Thinking in terms of national economies obscures the truth that the world consists not of developed and poor nations, but of dynamic and poor regions. One of the great advantages of this point of view is that it helps us to see how the backward regions in the First World follow the same dynamics as the Third World. These days such regions may be comfortable enough due to transfer payments from richer regions, but they are economically passive nonetheless.

Jacobs’s body of work – which also includes books that range widely through social systems, economics and culture – represents a sustained and evolving reflection on the ways in which we live our lives. She is a classic reformer, not a revolutionary: she sees much that is good in our current structures, but has myriad ideas as to how they can be improved. She is constitutionally against unnecessary destruction, and a passionate believer in human ingenuity.


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I was fortunate enough to meet Jane Jacobs in 2002, when New York Review of Books editor Barbara Epstein, who sadly also died this year, arranged for me to visit her in her modest and beautiful house at 69 Albany Avenue in Toronto. A large woman with lovely white hair and shrewd blue eyes, she was quite slow on her feet, but otherwise in good health. She had bought Guinness for me because she thought I might like it, which I did, very much. We sat in her large plain kitchen and talked for about two hours.

She was pessimistic about the future, but still hopeful that human responsibility and ingenuity would eventually triumph over the apathy she discerned as the greatest threat to the kind of harmonious, vibrant, creative society she cherished. She was very interested in an organization in Dublin with which I am connected, the SAOL project for women with addiction problems, based in Dublin’s north inner city. The project’s principles of rehabilitation through education and empowerment rather than medical intervention appealed to her.

I was interested in her opinions about Canada, her adopted country – she took citizenship in 1974. She had fought successfully against a destructive freeway through Toronto, just as she had forty years earlier in Greenwich Village, and had considerable influence on the regeneration of the St Lawrence neighbourhood, a successful housing project. She praised Canada’s overt efforts to combat racism and to foster intercultural respect, and its profound divergence from the United States in matters of world hegemony. But she felt that Canada was going the same way as the US as regards state abdication of social responsibility and unthinking worship of the free market, and this saddened her.

I left her house with the sense of having met someone calm, powerfully effective and immensely articulate, but with no interest in power for its own sake. She was deeply impressive precisely because of her belief that ordinary people can, and should, change their environments for the better by intelligent use of the systems, some formal, most not, which surround us. She possessed that rare capacity to inspire continued efforts, perhaps doomed but always interesting, to change the world.


Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 24 Autumn 2006