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More Thoughts on Jane Jacobs from One of Her Closest Collaborators

It was refreshing to read Martin C. Pedersen’s 10 Lessons Learned from Rereading Jane Jacobs and see that he didn’t perpetrate some of the common myths about her (i.e. she wanted every neighborhood to be like Greenwich Village; she didn’t like tall buildings; or, even more preposterously, she was somehow to blame for the ills of gentrification).


And while Jane’s life on Hudson Street does indeed seem like a lost world, is there any urban neighborhood—anywhere—that hasn’t changed in the past fifty seven years? Wouldn’t it be smarter to explore the whys of that change in a broad and relevant context? Shouldn’t we be exploring why the children of suburbia now crave urban living? Shouldn’t we demystify “gentrification” to understand different forms of change, some of it potentially healthy? Where does the 99/1% economy fit in as a catalyst? And how about global money?


It’s true: Jane did not use the word “gentrification” but warned that “unslummed” neighborhoods could easily become victims of their own success (isn’t that gentrification?) because new people move in and make a positive difference on the process. Change is as inevitable as the passing of time, and for cities what is the alternative? Stagnation? Decay? No place ever remains unchanged. So pick your poison, and ask instead: how do we keep positive, incremental Jacobsian change from being the victim of its own success?


Solutions exist to temper gentrification, to help people stay in neighborhoods as they upgrade around them. But the fundamental problem is that there is no public will on the part of elected officials to pursue those solutions aimed at leveling the playing field between longtime residents and new developers. Why should all the benefits go to developers? Tax incentives, tax deferments, grants for upgrades, all manner of mechanisms exist that only benefit new developers. Affordable housing set asides in new buildings are not the answer. The units often come with the demolition and loss of existing affordable units and are never as inexpensive as the units lost. Most importantly, they’re unaffordable to the low income occupants displaced. When cities like New York upzone low-cost neighborhoods without mitigating impacts on long term residents and property owners, the consequences are inevitable. Land values accelerate; developers say they need tax incentives to balance the cost of land. And on it goes.


Gentrification is caused by and is a reflection of the larger economy. In the 1950s, when Jacobs was writing Death and Life of Great American Cities, no one could have anticipated the gross income inequalities of today. Jane clearly warned about the consequences of overwhelming change caused by mega-development—replacement of communities instead of their rebirth—but the sheer scale today’s money was unforeseen. “Cataclysmic change,” Jane called it.


No one developer can build a Jacobs neighborhood at one time. The attempts achieve form but not substance. Time builds urban neighborhoods, not developers, or, at least, not big developers.


It is unfortunately true that, as Pedersen writes, “Jacobs-style urbanism (diversity of uses, scales, buildings, people) may be impossible to achieve with current development models.” The neighborhoods Jane celebrated were built over time by “many doers,” she would say, and “lots of small plans.” No one developer can build a Jacobs neighborhood at one time. The attempts achieve form but not substance. Time builds urban neighborhoods, not developers, or, at least, not big developers. Real Jacobs neighborhoods evolved incrementally with new fill-ins among the old, with layers of history and development apparent.


Yes, everyone cherry picks Jane’s ideas and then claims her. But she didn’t for one moment think her work had as big an influence as was often believed. In the 1993 introduction to the Modern Library edition of Death and Life, she questioned the widespread claim that her book changed the field of urban-development. Instead, the divided the world into foot people and car people. For foot people, she argued, the book gave “legitimacy to what they already knew themselves. Experts of the time did not respect what foot people knew and valued. They were deemed old fashioned and selfish—troublesome sand in the wheels of progress.” As Jacobs put it:


It is not easy for uncredentialed people to stand up to the credentialed, even when the so-called expertise is grounded in ignorance and folly. This book turned out to be helpful ammunition against such experts. But it is less accurate to call this effect “influence” than to see it as corroboration and collaboration. Conversely, the book neither collaborated with car people nor had an influence on them. It still does not, as far as I can see.


Still true more than two decades later.


The good news is that in this year of her centennial, the conversation about her ideas has been re-activated. Those who’ve tried to discredit aspects of her work have been sharply criticized. Harvard Economist Edward Glaeser, for example, has said that Jacobs was wrong and every neighborhood can’t be like Greenwich Village. Many people have pointed out to this highly credentialed academic—is he a “foot” person or a “car” person, or just an “academic”?—that she NEVER advocated that. The Village was her laboratory, as was the North End of Boston, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Harlem, Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. In fact, Jane was a witness to and an observer of history, not a prescribing advocate. If she pushed anything, it was primarily the value of local wisdom and the need to get out and observe, observe, observe.


What most people who have reacquainted themselves with Jacobs’ ideas have learned is that the relevance of her words, observations and  beliefs, more than a half century later, have endured beyond measure. Not bad for a woman born a hundred years ago, whose first book changed so much.


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