A complicated legacy: Just how Jane would like it
Editor's note: May 4 is Jane Jacobs's birthday. She would have been 96. Better! Cities & Towns looks at her life and impact on the built environment.
Audiences are sometimes surprised to learn how much room I leave for Robert Moses when I talk about Wrestling with Moses, the story of the insurrection against the famed power broker in the 1950s and 60s, with Jane Jacobs in the starring role. It's not the way the housewife from Scranton took on Moses-led projects like the extension of 5th Avenue through Washington Square Park, "slum removal" for 16 blocks of the West Village — including the very spot Jane described the "sidewalk ballet" in The Death and Life of Great American Cities — or the 10-lane, elevated Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have roared down Broome Street and decimated all that glorious urban real estate that makes SoHo what it is today. Those were clearly bad ideas, and it took great courage to stand up against them. She inspired freeway revolts from coast to coast, and effectively put and end to urban renewal.
It's the Jane Jacobs legacy, in the 21st century city, that is more complicated. Start with gentrification, though what Jane readily identified as "oversuccess" can hardly be attributed to her activism to save Greenwich Village. But walk down anywhere near the High Line these days and the streets and sidewalks are so rarified, it's almost other-worldly. You expect to run into Sarah Jessica Parker and James Gandolfini. Mere millionaires might qualify for an affordable housing program. Jane tried to address affordability with the West Village Houses. Say what you will about towers in the park, but Moses had her trumped on scale. It seems likely we're going to need a lot more density than Jane was initially comfortable with.
I also wonder whether the pendulum is swinging a bit too far on historic preservation. As the City Journal notes, landmark status for for a gas station in SoHo suggests a certain impulse to keep the city frozen in amber. Jane saved the cast-iron facade "palaces of trade" in the path of Lomex, protested against the destruction of Pennsylvania Station, and may have inspired Jackie Onassis to do the same for Grand Central years later. Keeping old buildings exactly as they are was never a priority for her, however. She was an early pioneer of adaptive re-use, and recognized, and celebrated, how neighborhoods evolve and change.
Public participation in the planning process has had similar twists and turns. When Jane started barnstorming planning hearings in the early 1960s, the real decisions really were being made behind closed doors. But now every stakeholder gets equal hearing -- and often veto power, as Northeastern University architecture dean George Thrush wrote recently in Boston Magazine. Some of the zeal for participation has morphed into mere NIMBYism -- bad for transit-oriented development, bad for density and infill redevelopment, and disastrous for green urban infrastructure. Today's Lomex is high-speed rail through Palo Alto, where the denizens are quite clear in their defiance: not in my backyard.
Perhaps the greatest house-of-mirrors effect lies with the Tea Party, whose activists have been shutting down and disrupting planning meetings and public hearings across the country. Like Jane, these folks are anti-planning. Like Jane, there's a strong libertarian streak. The very tactics that brought about public participation are now being used by those with very different views from the progessive planners with the dog-eared copy of Death and Life on their shelf. Early on, from the battles over Washington Square Park to Lomex, Jane insisted on a singular guiding principle: no compromise. Don't accept the crumbs of mitigation in exchange for acquiescence. She didn't want a smaller highway — she wanted no highway. Jane Jacobs was a Tea Partier.
It might be easier to leave well enough alone, and think of Jane as the heroine she was. She left us the owner's manual for the livable city, and in walks all over the world this weekend, thousands will appreciate the human scale and intricacy of great neighborhoods. Yet it's also somehow fitting that her legacy is not so neatly tied with a bow. Jane was always suspicious of pat and tidy answers. If her legacy is more open-ended, she might be smiling down about that.
Anthony Flint, a journalist and author at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think-tank based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, writes about cities and the built environment. His most recent book is Wrestling with Moses, How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City.
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