Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Jane Jacobs for Yesterday and Today

In a time when globalization and inequality threaten New York City, the exhibit "Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York" at the Municipal Art Society recalls the great author and urbanist. The show makes a good case that New York is in a critical moment that cries out for citizen activism, but too often its recapitulation of Jacobs' life and ideas borders on the worshipful. There's plenty to admire in her life and writing, but we would be better served by a more critical appraisal of her ideas.

You enter the show through a video archway that displays images of the skyline, the streets, and people talking with concern about changes in the city. Talk of over development and pricing out is in the air.

Once inside the exhibit, you learn Jacobs' "four key qualities" of vigorous, healthy cities: "mixed uses, frequent streets, varied buildings, concentration." These insights are then illustrated in the context of city neighborhoods, her life and work, and their meaning for the present.

Jacobs observations are sound and her activism and writing are still inspiring.

Still, some of her arguments and stances aren't always convincing.

Her critique of "tower in the park" housing, while valid, ignored the role of social and economic factors in undermining the health of life in high-rise projects. By her logic, the union-sponsored Penn South development in the Chelsea section of Manhattan should have become a slum. It didn't because its inhabitants were mostly employed or retired working people. Jacobs' condemnation of multi-story dwellings has always struck me as a form of architectural determinism.

I've always appreciated her rendering of the ballet of Hudson Street, but her depiction of life there ignores how it could be tight and nasty. My cousin grew up in the West Village in the Forties and Fifties, when it was still a working class waterfront neighborhood. One of her most vivid early memories was seeing a fellow slammed up against a stoop with a knife at his throat. Why? Because Village guys wanted to show him what happens to Chelsea guys (from ten blocks away) come downtown to date Village girls.

The West Village, with its "mixed uses, frequent streets, varied buildings, concentration" was also a neighborhood where locals could harass interracial couples. The sense of community that Jacobs extolled could also have a mean and exclusive side.

Finally, in New York Jacobs always was at her best in opposition. But New York today needs more low and middle income housing. How can we do that without destroying the fabric of neighborhoods that Jacobs taught us to value? (On this point, I would like to see a stronger dialogue between this exhibit and a recent one at the Museum of the City of New York on Robert Moses.)

If "Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York" doesn't deal with these sticky points, it is still a worthwhile show. And its accompanying lecture and walking should prompt the kind of thinking that could revise Jacobs' weaker ideas and extend her best. And that's just what we need to do in these times.

The show is up through January 5, 2008.

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