Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Importance of Being Urban

Jane Jacobs, writer, thinker, urban preservationist, and social activist died Tuesday in Toronto. She was 89.

Jacobs is most famous for her 1961 book,
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she critiqued mid-century urban planning and proposed new, more organic ways of approaching the evolution and rebuilding of urban environments. The New York Times called Death and Life’ as “radically challenging” as two other groundbreaking works from the early ‘60’s, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Those of us in New York City credit Jacobs with helping save the West Village from a nightmarish highway plan that would have destroyed one of the City’s most beautiful, vibrant, and historic neighborhoods.

Jane Jacobs advocated short blocks, mixed use, diversity, and density. She liked seeing people out in the streets and living their lives in the public sphere. “A jumping, joyous, urban jumble,” as the Times calls it. I like that, too. Street life makes a big city human, livable, vibrant, and safe (“Whether neighbors or strangers, people are safer because they are almost never alone”—NYT.). When your neighborhood is densely and diversely populated, and your daily errands and diversions can be pursued on foot or via public transportation, you can’t help but come face to face with some of the randomness of life. You are occasionally “forced” to deal with things that are not pre-screened or self-selected. Sometimes that’s unpleasant, but sometimes it’s a revelation—and most always it is educational and view-expanding.

I credit great cities with being small “d” democratic—diverse and a bit unpredictable—I think Jacobs did, too. And, Jacobs understood that this kind of democracy is what inspires creativity, innovation, excitement, and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of the commonweal. There is a sharing of ideas, a cross-fertilization of cultures, and a building of connections that helps the residents of a successful city realize that we are all in this together. . . and all better for it.

Cities are not utopias, of course, but vibrant urban communities are where new utopias are dreamt of. It was the natural heterodoxy of cities that made Jane Jacobs fight so hard to save them—and it is that same obstreperous energy that has so many in government and business hell-bent on the great American city’s destruction.

In fact, many of what are pegged as the problems of the urban environment are the direct result of anti-urban policies. Cities are the economic engines of our economy, but city residents pay more money in taxes than they get back in equivalent aid and services (NYC, for example, pays $11 billion more in state taxes then it gets back, and $13 billion more in federal taxes). With the willful ignorance of government regulators, an eye on the bottom line, and a foot in a racist past, banks, insurance companies, and big businesses consistently redline neighborhoods, and, so, perpetuate the economic and social inequities that are too often dismissed as “urban strife.” With public school funding based on property taxes in most of the country, suburban children benefit from higher per-capita spending on education, while urban schools are forced to rely on gimmicks (like no child left behind, for example). And, urban transit systems are forced to operate at a loss, cut services and worker benefits, and raise fares while suburban residents get tax breaks for buying Hummers, and Congress funds bridges to nowhere.

Is it mere coincidence that our largest metropolises trend big “D” Democratic in federal elections, or is it more of a chicken and egg conundrum? After all, Democratic presidents and Democratic Congresses have also foolishly and purposefully discriminated against American cities. It seems that while Jacobs extolled the virtues of the unpredictable and somewhat uncontrollable urban world, it is that very unpredictability and independence that makes cities anathema to those that try to govern and those that try to market to their residents. How much easier is it to rule and sell to a population that leads an insular, cloistered life—from private home-as-castle to private car to cubicle and back, maybe private-schooling or home-schooling their kids—evaluating most of the rest of the world through the filter of a few carefully chosen cable channels?

Jane Jacobs, in a lifetime of writing and activism (she was also a vocal critic of the Vietnam War, moving to Canada because of it), spoke to the dangers of living in isolation and the policies that promote it. She encouraged the regulation of economic forces while praising the chaos of social ones, and saw the great North American cities as the wealth of our nations and the wellsprings of our culture.

Today, with American politics grasping for direction and American culture gasping for inspiration, we would all do well to embrace the city the way Jacobs did. With so much money (four of the nation’s top five zip codes for political contributions are in Manhattan, and one, on the Upper East Side, was the top donor to each of the presidential campaigns in 2000) and so many voters situated in our cities, you’d think a pro-urban agenda would be a no-brainer for some ambitious politician—but that would require someone willing and able to feed off of the energy and unpredictability along with the money and votes. That someone would need vision to buck what has become the conventional “soccer mom” and “NASCAR dad” wisdom of political strategists—a good place to look for that vision would be in the life, work, and writings of Jane Jacobs.

—Cross-posted over at Daily Kos, where I go by the nom-de-blog “Red Wind” (there was another guy2k over there).


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