Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Jane Jacobs

In the summer of 1965, the summer after my sophomore year in college, I worked as a community organizer and youth activity director at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn. I was one of about 15 students living at Hope House (just behind the church) and doing similar work. This was my first extended experience of life in the city. During that summer, I discovered Jane Jacobs' book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, an argument--at the time radical--for maintaining the integrity of city neighborhoods with mixed uses: housing, restaurants, stores, businesses, etc. She argued that the enemy of vital neighborhoods was specialization and pointed to certain areas, such as her own Hudson Street neighborhood in Greenwich Village, that had maintained their vitality and interest and safety.

Here's a review of two recent books on Jacobs that pit her theories against those of Robert Moses, who transformed parts of New York with his large-scale, impersonal developments--huge housing projects and highways that often destroyed the character of local neighborhoods. Jane Jacobs, who died in 2006, remains one of my urban heroes, and thanks to what I recall of her influential writing, wherever I travel (San Francisco, Rome, Berlin) I look for the sort of mixed-use city areas she lauded and celebrated. They are seldom the most glamorous neighborhoods but are the places you want to hang out in and explore, imagining yourself to be a local.

No comments: