There has been no end to the rhapsodies about Jane Jacobs in the weeks since her death, at 89, forty-five years after the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, one of those few books that truly did change the world. Predictably there has even been a bit of a backlash against the prophet of small-scale urban street life. After all, Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote in the New York Times, Jane Jacobs had little understanding of Los Angeles, few ideas about how to control suburban sprawl, and not much sympathy for urban forms that did not grow out of a dense, squat nineteenth-century model.

True enough. But looking at Jacobs’s legacy, I am less concerned with the things she missed or failed to understand than about the things she saw and the way the ideas she cared passionately about seem to have been misunderstood or deliberately misused for purposes that would have appalled her. Jacobs’s view of cities became the common wisdom of our time. Once that happened, the risk lay not with people who argued with her but with those who claimed to agree with her and then proceeded to use—or abuse—her ideas for purposes deeply inconsistent with her values.

Who could have imagined back in the 1960s that shopping-mall developers would start putting up pseudo villages with pseudo streets, proclaiming them like real cities as if these places were the natural outgrowth of Jacobs’s ideas? Who could have imagined that “mixed use,” originally a sharp-eyed writer’s observation of what underlies a strong and organic urban fabric, would become a developer’s mantra? Who could have envisioned the day when politicians and developers trying to sell New York on a gigantic football stadium beside the Hudson River would propose surrounding it with shops and cafés so that they could promote it as an asset to the city’s street life?

This is what happens when radical ideas move into the mainstream—they are corrupted. Jacobs’s own words are being used as fodder for the contemporary equivalent of the vast, overbearing urban interventions that she so valiantly opposed in the 1960s. The advocates of the football stadium stopped short of literally claiming the project was in the mold of Jacobs, but they clearly wanted to suggest that this gargantuan project would help make New York once again the vibrant and energetic place that she celebrated. I’m not sure they were being totally cynical either. If you are in your 40s or 50s today, you grew up on Jacobs, which meant that you grew up believing that street life and mixed use were almost invariably good things. If you are also a developer who is operating in the economy of the twenty-first century, it might seem perfectly natural to combine the fiscal realities of our age with what you take to be basic truths about how people experience cities.

And so you put together a gargantuan mixed-use complex that does all the right things, sort of, so long as one ignores a couple of Jacobs’s guiding notions: her belief in small-scale and pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods, and her commitment to the diversity conferred upon a neighborhood by the presence of small businesses and multiple landlords. Today economic forces seem to push us relentlessly toward larger and larger buildings and more and more corporate development, away from the modest scale and diverse ownerships that Jacobs believed were critical for human interaction in a neighborhood. In downtown Brooklyn a single developer is now proposing an enormous complex of multiple towers, shops, and public space around the centerpiece of a sports arena, and he is trying to present it—like so many megaprojects today—as not just an effort at economic development but an enabler of a fine-grained urban life.

Jacobs herself had little patience with much of what was presented as an extension of her views; she knew better and understood instinctively the difference between the real street life of an old New York neighborhood and the packaged synthetic urbanism of the new make-believe streetscapes. She was never fooled, but plenty of other people were. But whatever else we can say about it, the ways in which developers have contorted Jacobs’s observations about the city at the very least show us that there is a kind of desperate urban impulse in this culture struggling to break out. While people seem to want their urban experiences safely packaged—suburbanized, we might say—they want them nonetheless. I don’t know if Jacobs would have said this meant that the glass of urbanism was half full or half empty—and you can surely argue that one either way. What you can’t argue, however, is that the market has come to demand something remotely resembling an urban experience, however sanitized it may have become.

If the tendency of developers to exploit Jacobs’s ideas for their own purposes is one price of her success, there is another troubling part of her legacy: the frequency and ease with which her words are taken as pure and absolute gospel by well-meaning, earnest followers who don’t have half her imagination or boldness. Just as Mies was not always served well by the Miesians, who interpreted his architecture with the dutiful precision of pure acolytes, or Freud by the Freudians, Jacobs is not always well served by urbanists who insist that there is no model but Greenwich Village, and that there is simply no other way for a neighborhood to look and no other way for a city to work, period. Jacobs subtly encouraged this by engaging in what I have often called the fallacy of physical determinism, suggesting that the physical form of a neighborhood determines everything about how it will function. But as anatomy is not always destiny, neither is architecture. High-rises in open space are usually not right, but Stuyvesant Town works just fine, thank you, despite Jacobs’s misgivings. And there are plenty of other examples of places that do not fit within the Jacobs mold and succeed anyway. Yet Jacobs could often see beyond the formulaic, but the same cannot be said for too many of her followers.

Underlying all of this is a bigger question: Has the city simply become too big, and too gentrified, to continue to operate as Jacobs wished it to? So far as a great deal of Manhattan is concerned, and particularly Greenwich Village, the answer is probably yes. Jacobs could not afford to live on her beloved block of Hudson Street today. The real limitation of Jacobs’s thinking is in her belief that since a relatively natural process gave us the city we love—the old neighborhood-rich, pedestrian-oriented, exquisitely balanced New York—then planning would not be of much use in the future. Today, however, the natural order of things yields something very different from the vibrant street-oriented and highly diverse world Jacobs taught us to admire. The natural process of growth now gives us sprawl, gigantism, economic segregation, and homogeneous, dreary design. In Jacobs’s day the intervention into organic urban growth was symbolized by Robert Moses. Today the forces trying to intervene are those set in motion by Jacobs.

Categories: Arts + Culture, Planning