URBAN STUDIES CITIES AND SONGS - Issue of 2004-05-17, Posted 2004-05-10

Jane Jacobs, the matchless analyst of all things urban, returned to New  York the other day and looked around her. In the forty-plus years since  her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” appeared, her  views, which then seemed wildly eccentric—basically, that New York’s  future depended less on tall buildings and big projects than on the  preservation of small, old blocks and catch-as-catch-can retailing—have  been vindicated so many times, and in so many ways, that by now one can  hardly think about this city without thinking about her, and like her.  Resident in Toronto since 1968 (“I needed to escape my civic duties here  to write and think”), Jacobs, who is eighty-eight years old, was in town  for the publication of her latest book, the intimidatingly titled “Dark  Age Ahead.” One afternoon last week, she spent a few minutes talking  about old haunts, feuds, and hopes.

“I love New York so much still,” she said. “But the traffic is the worst  I’ve ever known it to be.” (In a chapter in her new book, she explains  briskly why one-way streets, designed to streamline traffic, only  complicate it.) “New York still has so much pizzazz, because people make  it new every day. Like all cities, it’s self-organizing. People looking  for a date on Third Avenue make it into a place full of hope and  expectation, and this has nothing to do with architecture. Those are the  emotions that draw us to cities, and they depend on things being a bit  messy. The most perfectly designed place can’t compete. Everything is  provided, which is the worst thing we can provide. There’s a joke that  the father of an old friend used to tell, about a preacher who warns  children, ‘In Hell there will be wailing and weeping and gnashing of  teeth.’‘What if you don’t have teeth?’ one of the children asks. ‘Then  teeth will be provided,’ he says sternly. That’s it—the spirit of the  designed city: Teeth Will Be Provided for You.”

The preservation of some of New York’s communities, so threatened in  Jacobs’s day, pleases her, but their gentrification worries her.  “Whenever I’m here,” she said, “I go back to look at our house, 555  Hudson Street, and I know that I could never afford it now.” She wishes  that the city had taken her advice about communities with mixed incomes:  “You build low-cost housing in small lots and then see that it’s kept  affordable.”

She also admits that she still thinks about her old antagonists from  those years, such as the city planner James Felt and the master builder  Robert Moses. “You have to understand, I have a very bad character,” she  said gaily. “I’m a very vindictive person, so I still think of them with  a certain hatred. I don’t think people should have such a free hand with  other people’s lives.”

Jacobs has closely followed the Ground Zero plans and debates, and she  thinks that the right thing to do is not to do anything right away. “The  significance of that site now is that we don’t know what its  significance is,” she said. “We’ll know in fifteen or twenty years.” She  also thinks that it might be a good idea not to “restore” the street  grid at the Ground Zero site but to break it decisively. “I was at a  school in Connecticut where the architects watched paths that the  children made in the snow all winter, and then when spring came they  made those the gravel paths across the green. Why not do the same thing  here?”

Her new book, despite its title, “is not gloomy,” she said. “But it is a  wake-up call.” She believes that the fight for the soul of America is  still on, and that it will be a battle, essentially, between cars and  songs. “Our songs are so strong, don’t you think?” she said. “I get  awfully sick when I hear comparisons to the Roman Empire. They were so  much grimmer than we are, the Romans, so lacking in emotions and  sentiments. Our songs and cities are the best things about us. Songs and  cities are so indispensable. Even if we go into darkness, the time will  come when people will want to know how these ruins were made—the essence  of the life we made. It sounds very conceited to say it, but I hope that  what I wrote will help people start back. Oh, yes. My favorite song is  ‘Shenandoah.’” — Adam Gopnik