Where are all the people?

Owen Hatherley

  • Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs by Robert Kanigel
    Knopf, 512 pp, £34.00, September 2016, ISBN 978 0 307 96190 7
  • Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs edited by Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring
    Random House, 544 pp, £16.99, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 399 58960 7

In Enrica Colusso’s film Home Sweet Home, about the recently ‘decanted’ Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle, southeast London, a town planner explains why nearly all the buildings around him – a large council estate and a covered shopping centre – have to be demolished. They’re not real streets, he says. They’re monocultures – allowing for just one type of thing, housing here, shopping there – and worse than that, they’re mono-tenure, one gigantic ‘project’ of poor people put in one place. The people in them are ‘socially excluded’ by being placed in great single-class ghettos. Such places are lifeless, homogeneous, boring, the result of ‘top-down’ rather than ‘bottom-up’ planning.

In fact, as anyone familiar with it will know, Elephant and Castle swirls with street life. The shopping centre, which hasn’t been demolished yet, is the sort of multicultural space usually praised by planners: it has a Chinese supermarket, several Latin American restaurants and grocers, and at the top, a bowling alley. Outside, there is a busy street market. And the housing estate next door was among the most multicultural places on earth. But that isn’t the point. One thing Home Sweet Home shows is that while the shopping centre – and the traffic disaster in front of it, with its two roundabouts – is noisy and ‘vibrant’, the Heygate Estate itself was a quiet oasis, dense with trees. There were no ‘streets’, only walkways, segregated from the traffic, and far fewer people than in the shopping centre. There is a reason this place had to go, even before the interests of real estate and cash-poor councils were taken into consideration, and that reason is: Jane Jacobs says no.

This injunction can be traced back to the epiphany Jacobs experienced as a freelance journalist in Philadelphia in the mid-1950s when she visited new housing estates and old ‘slums’ with the city planner Edmund Bacon. Up to that point, writing for a variety of publications, but mainly Architectural Forum, Jacobs had contrasted ‘Olympian’ town planners such as New York’s quango despot Robert Moses, addicted to models and graphics, seldom getting out of their cars, with ‘pavement-pounders’ like Bacon and the shopping mall designer Victor Gruen, who knew Philadelphia well and explored it on foot. But when Bacon took her to a ‘bad street’, what she saw was a place ‘just crammed with people, mostly black people, walking on the sidewalks and sitting on the stoops and leaning out of the windows’. In the ‘good one’, by contrast, there was just a lone boy kicking a tyre into a gutter. ‘Ed, nobody’s here,’ she said to Bacon, according to Robert Kanigel. ‘Now why is that? Where are all the people? Why is no one here?’ ‘He just wasn’t interested in her question,’ Kanigel says. Even a planner with good intentions had failed to understand what made a city interesting, exciting and economically successful, and to create new spaces that would enable this. This was the insight that led Jacobs to write what is probably the single most read book on cities published in the 20th century.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) was an attack on the orthodoxies of city planning as Jacobs saw them at a time when, in Kanigel’s words, ‘old city neighbourhoods were being erased, high-rise housing projects erected in their place; when slums were slums and everyone knew exactly what they were, or thought they did; when anyone who wanted to live in the city would have been seen as just a little weird’. She gathered the dominant urban ideas of the era together into a scathing portmanteau: ‘Radiant Garden City Beautiful’. Its components were Le Corbusier’s mid-1930s ‘Radiant City’, a vision of a city of towers in landscaped parkland, where housing was rigorously zoned to separate it from industry, leisure areas and the central business district; Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of To-Morrow (1902), which proposed verdant, self-contained new towns to accommodate what would later be called ‘overspill’ from the metropolis; and the City Beautiful Movement, which seized American planners in the early 1900s with its vision of grand, vaguely Parisian classical ensembles – usually for government, and usually after clearing a non-‘beautiful’ part of city for the purpose – in the heart of towns and cities.

The major building project in America at the time Jacobs was writing – the creation of mile after mile of low-density suburbs by private developers, subsidised richly by the Eisenhower-era state – didn’t quite fit in the portmanteau. That’s because her argument was as much about ideology as practice: Radiant Garden City Beautiful had seduced architects and urban planners away from what the city really was, the ways in which its built environment and economy worked, in favour of an idea of how cities ‘should’ be. The result, in her view, was the ‘anti-city’. The anti-city destroyed the treeless pavements, which looked messy but functioned well, in favour of pointless greensward where ‘Christopher Robin might go hippety-hoppety.’ It destroyed human networks and replaced them with emptiness and formality. Jacobs’s alternative wasn’t a new proposal but something, she claimed, that already existed, and needed only to be helped along: the ‘ballet of Hudson Street’, the vision of mutual aid and ‘complex order’ that she saw every day from her window or sitting on her stoop in Greenwich Village.

The reputation of The Death and Life of Great American Cities was bolstered as the 1960s wore on by the successful campaigns Jacobs involved herself in, such as the one to stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have destroyed her home and replaced the ballet of the street with the linear forward motion of cars ploughing along concrete flyovers. Kanigel takes his title from one of the book’s most famous concepts, ‘eyes on the street’, which captures Jacobs’s coupling of humane optimism with anti-statist laissez-faire. Crime, she argued, was actually reduced by the density and constant activity of the built-up 19th-century city: so many people could see what was going on at all times that policing was almost unnecessary. Jacobs’s seventy-year writing career, which began in 1936, was dominated by The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Kanigel, like Nathan Storring and Samuel Zipp, is keen to make a case for what she did both before and after it, but the space he gives to the various phases of her life tells its own story. Only a quarter of Eyes on the Street is devoted to the fifty years of Jacobs’s life that followed the book’s publication.

*

Jane Butzner was born in 1916 into a wealthy Protestant family in Scranton, a declining coal-mining town in Pennsylvania. She didn’t go straight to university, but moved instead to New York with her sister, Betty, and managed with impressive speed to carve out a career as a copywriter and freelance journalist – at first she got most of her commissions from a metallurgy trade journal, Iron Age. In 1944 she married Robert Jacobs, an architect specialising in hospitals, and, still in her twenties, published her first book, Constitutional Chaff, a long out of print annotated collection of discarded drafts and failed proposals for the US constitution. Jacobs experienced New York in the 1930s as a revelation, and was soon finding her way towards the argument of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Kanigel notes that a single block of Jones Street, the location of her first Manhattan flat, contained 1840s houses and 1920s apartments, a toy factory, a French laundry, an ice dealer’s cellar, a barber’s shop and three speakeasies – all unaffected by zoning regulations. At the time she was still susceptible to the visions of imaginary cities that she would later do so much to discredit. One highlight was the 1939 World’s Fair organised by Robert Moses, all spaced-out towers, flyovers and abstract, futuristic architecture. ‘I thought it was so cute,’ she recalled much later in an interview. ‘It was like watching an electric train display somewhere.’

Vital Little Plans passes over Jacobs’s dabblings in constitutional archaeology and begins instead with two pieces about New York microcosms – the ‘flower district’ and the block or so of diamond sellers on the Bowery – that she published in Vogue in the mid-1930s. They are amazingly similar to her later work. There is the same interest in complex economies, urban activity and trust – ‘There has never been a robbery in the centre,’ she claims of the diamond district – and the ability to sketch dramatic and rather sentimental urban panoramas, full of activity:

Under the melodramatic roar of the ‘El’, encircled by hash-houses and Turkish baths, are the shops of hard-boiled stalwart men, who shyly admit that they are dottles for love, sentiment and romance. Apprentices, dodging among the hand-carts that are forever rushing to or from the fur and garment districts, dream of the time when they will have their own commissions houses. Greeks and Koreans, confessing that they have the hearts of children, build little Japanese gardens.

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