It is always tricky to predict what Jane Jacobs, a famously independent thinker, might say or think about anything. Yet, the High Line on the far west side of Greenwich Village, represents some of the core principles that she stood for.
Jane was first and foremost about observation. No theory, no plan, no singular vision could substitute for good straight observation to understand what makes a city or neighborhood work.
“The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us,” she wrote in the opening of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see.”
Jane’s approach to solving an observed problem was to think about how to add something positive that would overwhelm the problem and turn a negative into a positive. This was in total contrast to Robert Moses’ urban renewal/planning-by-fiat approach of bulldozing everything and starting anew.
Jane always said “trust the local,” not the official high above or the “expert” looking down from his drawing board, and certainly not some visionary angling to impose his vision on a functioning place, regardless of how well or not that place is doing.
All of this is compellingly presented in the new documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, opening on Friday in New York and selected cities and on April 28 across the country. With great footage of both Moses and Jacobs, the documentary demonstrates with splendid gusto the full measure of this legendary David and Goliath battle.
Few people understand how the start of the High Line so richly illustrates her ideas. The problem, or Jane might say, the challenge: The far west side of Greenwich Village was still seedy while the heart of this acclaimed neighborhood had been gradually upgrading since the defeat in the 1960s and 1970s of Robert Moses’ proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway. Real estate developers had bought property here with visions of uninterrupted high-rise towers with views of the Hudson. They were pushing then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to tear down the remnant of an abandoned elevated railroad that once took myriad products from the nearby port north and west across the country. The mayor agreed and announced his demolition plan.
Hammond and David looked at each other, as if to say, “This is nuts. We should save this.” But it was not enough to just oppose the demolition. The surviving railroad remnant was still a problem that needed a solution.
Shift to a community board meeting, where two local residents, Robert Hammond (one of the producers of Citizen Jane) and Joshua David, who didn’t know each other, but looked at each other, as if to say, “This is nuts. We should save this.” But it was not enough to just oppose the demolition. The surviving railroad remnant, which ran from Gansevoort Street to West 34th Street, was still a problem that needed a solution. Rusty and filled with back-to-nature growth, it was a dark shadow looming over the neighborhoods it ran through.
In this, as in so many Jane Jacobs-type citizen fights, it was of no consequence that neither Hammond nor David had any expertise in city planning, park design, or community activity. Neither man had read Jacobs or even knew of her more than vaguely. Ignorance protects the fledgling activist from knowing how difficult it is to fight City Hall (and, later in this case, to gain the support of City Hall).
But they started the resistance and, to their good fortune, Michael Bloomberg soon replaced Rudy Giuliani as mayor. Hammond and David started to rally the community for support, and Mayor Bloomberg’s City Planning Commission chair, Amanda Burden, understood the perservation argument and agreed the elevated track should be saved.
But there was still the challenge of developing an idea of what this rail line could be in order to turn the negative (a rusty abandoned rail line) to a full positive (an elevated, landscaped promenade), and then to raise the money to make it happen.
There is no guidebook in these very Jacobsian local efforts. It’s seat-of-the-pants instinct (and even a bit of blissful ignorance) that starts things going. So David and Hammond created a book of photos to stimulate the imagination of potential donors and politicians who needed to be persuaded that a negative could be transformed to a positive.
Fortunately, for David and Hammond, the nearby neighborhood, known as the Meatpacking District, had been designated a historic district and was slowly, in a Jacobs way, reinventing itself through preservation, restoration, and new infill development.
Fortunately, for David and Hammond, the nearby neighborhood, known as the Gansevoort/Meatpacking District, had been designated a historic district and was slowly, in a Jacobs way, reinventing itself through preservation, restoration, and new infill development. And, in that district, hundreds of community members got behind the effort, lending their time, talents and money to help—including designer Diane von Furstenberg, who opened up a shop nearby, and her husband, Barry Diller, who later built his headquarters in the area. They became two of the lead funders and most effective cheerleaders of the High Line, among many others.
This story is pure Jane Jacobs. The High Line started with the local and now attracts both the local and the visitor, and has inspired communities all over the world to look with a fresh eye at how to transform negatives into positives without destroying what already makes the local place special.
The Far West Village has been transformed since The High Line was started in 1999. The organization continues to evolve as it works with local constituents through free programs and community initiatives but, even with its worldwide popularity, it remains grounded in its local roots. Citizen Jane: The Battle For the City vividly shows Jane fighting for the future of Greenwich Village. One can only imagine how she might see the success of the High Line as a successful later chapter in that fight.
Featured image by Joel Sternfeld, via Friends of the High Line.