Sunday, April 30, 2006

Unrehabilitating Jacobs

Here's another clueless NY Times article for you. This one is on Jane Jacobs, on the occasion of her passing. It suggests that the Jacobs message has limitations (which it surely does in freeway wastelands like LA or Houston). But that wasn't Jacobs anyway, so the author decides to harp on predecessors with a penchant for gaslamps in new developments and other artifices meant to recall more intimate times. That's not Jacobs either. If you look more carefully than the author of this piece, you'll see that much of America's urban architecture is built around fear and security and consumption - lighting is for security, gates are for security, walls are for security, lines of buildings and their entries and their interiors are built for consumerism.

But here's what the author of the piece has to say,
Perhaps her legacy has been most damaged by those who continue to treat "Death and Life" as sacred text rather than as what it was: a heroic cri de coeur. Of those, the New Urbanists are the most guilty; in many cases, they reduced her vision of corner shops and busy streets to a superficial town formula that creates the illusion of urban diversity, but masks a stifling uniformity at its core...

For those who could not see it, the hollowness of this urban planning strategy was finally exposed in New Orleans, where planners were tarting up historic districts for tourists, even as deeper social problems were being ignored and its infrastructure was crumbling.

The answer to such superficiality is not to resurrect the spirit of Robert Moses. But in retrospect his vision, however flawed, represented an America that still believed a healthy government would provide the infrastructure — roads, parks, bridges — that binds us into a nation. Ms. Jacobs, at her best, was fighting to preserve the more delicate bonds that tie us to a community. A city, to survive and flourish, needs both perspectives.

If you want damaging, look to Robert Moses, who had a racist's distaste for blacks, brown people, and pretty much anyone in the economic underclass. You know those low stone bridges you encounter on Long Island? Moses had those strategically built, figuring that he could keep Long Island's beaches white and affluent since the poor would have to take buses out to the beaches. Buses couldn't make it under the low bridges. This was engineered by Moses himself - not merely the bridges, but segregation through the use of urban space. The expressway that would have passed through Soho and Washington Square? That was Moses' idea. Jacobs saved the Village from that disastrous plan.

Jacobs didn't claim that government couldn't do some of the work of building infrastructure. That's nonsense. She did argue that the organic improvisation of cities such as New York and Boston were products of cumulative history and that that history meant something for the way we lived in those urban environments and the meaning we invested in them. This had nothing at all to do with uniformity. Her argument was the precise inverse. That others have come along with a misunderstanding of Jacobs' ideas on the city is not her fault. It's the fault of idealess people, like the author of this idiotic NY Times piece.

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