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