What Jane Jacobs Got Right and Wrong

The sad truth is that the saints we revere for thinking for themselves almost always end up thinking by themselves. We are disappointed to find that the self-taught are also self-centered, although a moment’s reflection should tell us that you have to be self-centered to become self-taught. (The more easily instructed are busy brushing their teeth, as pledged.) The independent-minded philosopher-saints are so sure of themselves that they often lose the discipline of any kind of peer review, formal or amateur. They end up opinionated, and alone.

That is from Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker article “Jane Jacobs’s Street Smarts” about what Jacobs got both right and wrong about cities over the course of her career.

There is, of course, a focus on “The Death and Life,” by far her most famous work.

Two core principles emerge from the book’s delightful and free-flowing observational surface. First, cities are their streets. Streets are not a city’s veins but its neurology, its accumulated intelligence. Second, urban diversity and density reinforce each other in a virtuous circle. The more people there are on the block, the more kinds of shops and social organizations—clubs, broadly put—they demand; and, the more kinds of shops and clubs there are, the more people come to seek them. You can’t have density without producing diversity, and if you have diversity things get dense. The two principles make it plain that any move away from the street—to an encastled arts center or to plaza-and-park housing—is destructive to a city’s health. Jacobs’s idea can be summed up simply: If you don’t build it, they will come.

The book still has relevant today, but not all of it has held up.

Books written in a time of crisis can make bad blueprints for a time of plenty, as polemics made in times of war are not always the best blueprint for policies in times of peace. Jane Jacobs wrote “Death and Life” at a time when it was taken for granted that American cities were riddled with cancer. Endangered then, they are thriving now, with the once abandoned downtowns of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and even Cleveland blossoming. Our city problems are those of overcharge and hyperabundance—the San Francisco problem, where so many rich young techies have crowded in to enjoy the city’s street ballet that there’s no room left for anyone else to dance.

The old neighborhood is helpless in the face of new pressures, because it had depended on older versions of the same pressures, ones that Jacobs was not entirely willing to name or confront. What kept her street intact was not a mysterious equilibrium of types, or magic folk dancing, but market forces. The butcher and the locksmith on Hudson Street were there because they could make a profit on meat and keys. They weren’t there to dance; they were there to earn. The moment that Mr. Halpert and Mr. Goldstein can’t turn that profit—or that Starbucks and Duane Reade can pay the landlord more—the tempo changes.



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