Culture maven Michael Blowhard has crafted an eloquent introduction to the life and work of urban studies iconoclast, Jane Jacobs, whom he aptly hails as "one of the most remarkable of the
go-it-her-own-way critic-intellectuals of the past century, a proud
amateur and generalist from an era that was moving ever more in the
direction of professionalism and specialization."
It’s really a gem of a tribute, worth bookmarking for the references alone. I especially like Michael’s note-perfect dithyramb on the "Le Corbusier-besotted/big-project/top-down years" of post-war urban renewal fever that wrought irrevocable harm upon the very fabric and meaning of American life:
Planners and bureaucrats were determined to
"rationalize" everything they could get their hands on. Where cities
were concerned, this meant separating functions out from one another.
Places where people lived were to be made distinct from the places
where they worked. "Open space" — open space in the abstract — was
considered to be everywhere and always a good thing. After all:
sunlight, fresh air, etc. In practice many of the new "open
space"-style parks simply didn’t work. Not a surprise: After all, parks
need to be crafted as carefully and respectfully as buildings do. Many
of these new-style empty-space parks quickly turned into windswept
blights: garbage-dumps and crime-nests.
These sad and horrifying developments brought out the best in Jane
Jacobs. While the experts (and their propagandists) grew ever more
drunk on their do-gooding, egomanical, sci-fi visions, Jacobs went out
and looked at what was actually happening. The new towers, the
freeways, and the slum-clearances were pitched as efficient and
hygienic solutions to the chaos of urban life. But where clarity,
order, and ease were promised, Jacobs saw monocultures going quickly to
seed. Where new blocks of apartments were announcing that "we got it
under control," Jacobs saw over-regimented, inhuman nightmares. The
slums that were being plowed under for redevelopment struck her as
anything as hopeless. They struck her, in fact, as functioning
neighborhoods, even if poor ones. Where the planners saw mess and
disorganization, Jane Jacobs saw life and vitality.
I happen to live in one of the few American cities that never got the memo. We still have an Urban Renewal Authority, and decades after declaring war on the rhythms of real life, the blight-fighting busybodies still nurse the same asinine cart-before-the-horse creative-classist fantasies. Every time I read with clenched teeth about the latest proposal to condemn something useful or build
something pointless or re-zone another barber-shop out of
existence; every time I hear about another consulting firm
commissioned to conduct another high-dollar study to reach some forgone
eminent-domain-abetting conclusion, my thoughts turn to the gentle, bespectacled countenance of Jane Jacobs, who visited the bars and slums and, most importantly, the people that — who — these technocratic tyrants would sweep out of sight and mind.
The lust for "renewal" is always polished and sold with sugar-coated nostrums about remolding our
stagnant cityscape into some kind of vibrant
metropolitan hub of commerce and culture, but the paternalistic intentions cannot mask the deeper conceit, the arrogance, the contempt. Until the damage is done.
Asked what a city should be like, Jane Jacobs once replied, "A city should be like itself." Unfortunately, this simple, timeless insight continues to elude the planners and urban authoritarians who know better, and won’t let us forget.
Jane Jacobs’ classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, can be ordered here. Send a copy to your city council.