Monday, December 31, 2007

Jane Jacobs at MAS

The Municipal Arts Society's free exhibit, Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York (at 475 Madison Avenue & 51st Street), has been extended through January 26.

I urge you to go see it. No exhibit in the city is as relevant or important to New Yorkers.

It is not an in-depth treatment of Jacobs or her legacy. Rather, it is a summary of her achievement in New York and, most important, a loud and clear call to action.

After highlighting Jacobs' decisive successes in protecting her community from broad government plans that would have destroyed it, the exhibit then focuses on Jacobs' notion of community, culling examples of urban successes and failures from New York today. The argument of the exhibit is transparent: Jacobs identified basic principles conducive to successful urban community life; ordinary people can and must protect their community from the administrative and market forces that hold no regard for those principles.

Go see it.

It's a small exhibit with limited historical background, so it may be useful to consider the broader context of urban planning in the last century:

The twentieth century began with a modernist movement bent on eradicating class differences through functional architecture and rational urban design. Modernists replaced the lavish, opulent, classist Beaux Arts fa├žades of the latter 19th century with plain, unadorned, egalitarian working-class mass residences surrounded by grass. Businesses would be segregated into districts away from the quiet residential districts. If it sounds like projects and malls, that's exactly their utopian idea.

Jacobs wisely caught the flaw in their theoretical approach. Their principles had no empirical basis. If you want to know what kind of urban environment works for people, look at successful neighborhoods.

Jacobs immediately observed the importance of street-life to the vitality of urban community. She identified four principles of successful urban planning: mixed uses (residences with storefronts for small businesses like delis, restaurants, hardware stores, clothing stores, even small manufacturing); varied building types (old buildings with new, tall with short, all on small lots to maximize variety); short blocks to enhance freedom of movement; population density. These foster vital communities in contrast with the monolithism, segregation, sterility and oppression of modernism.

The elements that create community are fragile and depend on preservation -- protecting the old from the new, the small from the large, the mom and pop from the chain. Without preservation, the variety and small scale essential to community are swallowed up by market forces of big money, big businesses, big chains, big developers. And so, Jacobs also came to understand the importance of getting involved in saving urban community: she coordinated the effort to save Greenwich Village from Robert Moses' plan to rip it apart with a highway.

Moses himself belonged to a modernist age of optimistic futurism. He concocted a grand scheme to create a megalopolis of infrastructure linking city to suburb with concourses, parkways and bridges. In his success lay an unanticipated failure. The bridges and highways enabled white flight into the suburbs which eroded the city's tax base leading to municipal abandonment of the inner city, degraded services and programs, more white flight, including industrial and business flight to the suburbs and the eventual bankrupting of the city in 1975.

The city did not fully recover until the boom of the '90's which brought us the rampant gentrification we are living with today. The cure is worse than the disease: where Moses had a plan, our current city administration simply gives swaths of the city over to developers out for the quickest buck, with no plan at all, no infrastructure to support their projects, no thought of community impact, no thought of sustainability, no thought of the future of the city. Just money.

What we most desperately need in this big-money-market free-for-all is a plan -- not the kind of top-down, half-baked, grandiose futurism of a Moses, but the empirically informed, humanist observation of Jane Jacobs.

The exhibit extols Jacobs' battle with Moses and then focuses on her vision of urban community by contrasting "good" streets with "bad" streets in today's New York. "Good" streets have a mix of buildings of varied ages and heights, mostly one-lot in size, full of what I like to call the three st's: storefronts, stoops and street-life. The "bad" streets have one huge street wall with no entry points, just an oppressive wall to keep people out and walking past. The exhibit uses, among others, the Avalon building (Whole Foods on Bowery and Houston) as a paradigmatic example of urban design that fails to meet the basic virtues Jacobs identified for urban community.

Today, Avalon style is everywhere. Look at the Chase Bank on Astor Place. It's as if Jane Jacobs never lived: one long glass wall; nothing to do there, nothing to see. A friend from City Lore/Place Matters says it served the community better when it was a parking lot because then at least you could walk through it.

Let's face it, there is no plan for the future of housing in this city. Since the "triumph" of capitalism, government sees only the developer, and the developer sees only as far as his pocket. Ordinary people's social needs play no role, only their money. And community is not in this picture at all.

I recently came across a brief bio of Julia Richman -- she has a school named after her near Hunter College. Sy Brody writes, "Julia Richman was the first woman district superintendent of schools in the City of New York. Her innovations, leadership and curriculum brought an entire new dimension to public school education at the beginning of the twentieth century." She chose the Lower East Side as her district where "she started ... special schools for delinquents, chronic absentees and above average pupils."

I am struck by her story. She was one of many reformers in an age of social reform -- from Jacob Riis and Lillian Wald to Clara Lemlich and Dorothy Day. But Richman was in government: school district superintendent. A reformer holding a government post? Can you imagine such a reformer in a government post today? Today our commissioners and city administrators are all toadies. "Toad" seems to be one of the qualifications for the job, perhaps the sole qualification.

To celebrate Jacobs' success in getting Washington Square closed to all vehicular traffic, a car was burned at the arch. The Times reports that "Mrs. Roosevelt" was present at the burning along with Jane.

Such a celebration seems unimaginable today.

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