DMI Blog

Elana Levin

W.W.J.J.D?(what would Jane Jacobs do?)

Superhero urbanist Jane Jacobs died yesterday and I don't really know where to begin.
There are lots of good overviews of the work and life of the genius who wrote "The Death and Life of American Cities" and helped to organize communities to vanquish "The Power Broker" himself, Robert Moses. Read those first if you've never heard of her. Check out Gothamist for the overview or Curbed blog if you want to be an urban planning nerd. Capitoilette has a great personal look back on Jacobs work.

So why am I speechless? Without Jane Jacobs' work to show why preserving New York's communities is necessary to the survival of a city, how many of us would be living here? Here's where the anger comes in. Yes, people are being chased out of New York by housing costs and an environment that is hostile to the very people that made New York great. Yes the legacy of Jacobs is under attack by developers that seek to replace mixed-income, mixed-use communities with luxury development and low-paying chain store jobs, bedroom communities and functionally privatized "public" space. But don't just speak in despair, the wisdom of communities and the grassroots is speaking up and just like Jane Jacobs old 'hood Greenwich Village, these communities are fighting back and have a shot at surviving.

In what I believe was one of her last public statements, Jane Jacobs wrote a Letter to the Editor of the New York Times in support of a community led plan for the rezoning of a diverse, destination neighborhood in Brooklyn (Williamsburg) and in opposition to a developer backed plan that the city planning commission was pushing through. The Times didn't run her letter to the editor. But you can read her words here.
She said:

"What the intelligently worked out plan devised by the community itself does not do is worth noticing. It does not destroy hundreds of manufacturing jobs, desperately needed by New York citizens and by the city's stagnating and stunted manufacturing economy. The community's plan does not cheat the future by neglecting to provide provisions for schools, daycare, recreational outdoor sports, and pleasant facilities for those things. The community's plan does not promote new housing at the expense of both existing housing and imaginative and economical new shelter that residents can afford. The community's plan does not violate the existing scale of the community, nor does it insult the visual and economic advantages of neighborhoods that are precisely of the kind that demonstrably attract artists and other live-work craftsmen, initiating spontaneous and self-organizing renewal. Indeed so much renewal so rapidly that the problem converts to how to make an undesirable neighborhood to an attractive one less rapidly...But the proposal put before you by city staff is an ambush containing all those destructive consequences, packaged very sneakily with visually tiresome, unimaginative and imitative luxury project towers."

In "Systems of Survival: a Dialog on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics", one of the activists Jacobs quoted worried that he was not qualified to weigh in on urban policy. Another activist answered his question "why not us? If more qualified people are up to the same thing, more power to them. But we don't know that, do we?"
(hat tip NYT)

Her radical idea that the activists/community members that live under these public policies should have the chance to weigh in on those policies and be part of the process of finding better solutions is one I believe in. It's a legacy we try to continue through our DMI Fellows program which helps grassroots organizers speak out on the public policies they deal with every day.

In honor of Jane Jacobs, take the time to wander around your neighborhood tonight (even if you don't live in the city) and see what's happening on the streets. That's how she got her best inspiration and I hope it can be ours as well.

Elana Levin: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 1:01 PM, Apr 26, 2006 in Cities | Community Development | Middle-class squeeze | New York | Progressive Agenda | Progressives | Transportation | activists
Permalink | Email to Friend