Cobblestone Conservative: How Jane Jacobs Saved New York City's Soul

Article excerpt

NEW YORK--E.B. White claimed that this city could absorb anything without inflicting the event on its inhabitants, even a thousand-foot ocean liner. As he wrote those words, New York was in fact absorbing hundreds of oceans liners. They were not, as in White's beloved 1949 essay, floating majestically if unnoticed into the harbor. Rather, as if hurled from the air by a party of Cyclopes, they were smashing into one neighborhood after another, knocking buildings to the ground.

I see the wreckage every morning from my office window. Just uptown of the Brooklyn Bridge, for example, stands Alfred E. Smith Houses. Completed in 1953, Smith Houses is 12 cruciform towers, stacked north in a line, surrounded by 20 acres of parking lots, playgrounds, and grass. To make room for them, every structure within 12 blocks--the equivalent of a small city--was demolished. Today, as you look west from Brooklyn, Smith Houses still dominates the Manhattan foreground.

Despite the towers' prominence, New Yorkers today barely even know that they exist. For practical purposes--that is, for purposes of talking to anyone who lives, visits, or writes about New York--Smith Houses is invisible. If you strolled uptown from the southern tip of Manhattan, you might pass Wall Street and South Street seaport before reaching the Brooklyn Bridge. There you would stop. The absence of any sign of life on the other side, other than thousands of apartment windows, would whisper to you as if by instinct: There, pent up in those towers, lives fear, hatred, crime, and squalor. Not even knowing why, you would turn back.

The creators of Smith Houses were not Cyclopes but public officials. They hurled not ocean liners but plans for urban renewal. For two decades, with little protest, they leveled enough city blocks to fill a large metropolis. Smith Houses adds just a dozen high-rises in New York's vast archipelago of 2,600 public-housing projects, nearly all erected at mid-century.

Housing projects are almost universally loathed today, not least by their residents. Still, one can understand the vision that inspired them. City life is crowded and, at first glance, messy. Even if the middle and lower classes cannot afford their own backyards, we can at least provide them a simulacrum of suburban life. Sixty years ago, lacking the benefit of hindsight, planning officials honestly believed that by bulldozing neighborhoods and replacing them with modern towers, highways, open space, parks, and playgrounds they could cure poverty and save the city.

The woman who proved that it wouldn't work was an eccentric freelancer named Jane Jacobs. In her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs assaulted a century's worth of received wisdom in urban planning. Jacobs read voraciously; she would test her ideas by imagining dialogues between herself and thinkers from Plato to Thomas Jefferson. But she was no academic. In Death and Life, she cited not one paper nor analyzed one set of data.

What she did do was observe. Jacobs had a knack for spotting patterns in commonplace things. Social scientists sometimes call it "field study." When it works, field study makes what once went unnoticed seem obvious. (Have you ever noticed that people usually laugh just to be polite and not because anyone said something funny? If not, you will now.) Death and Life's popularity is still growing in part because so much of what Jacobs wrote is confirmed in daily life.

For example, she famously argued, the safety of a city street depends on the number of eyes watching it. The more pedestrians and storefronts a city street has, the more inviting it is to other pedestrians. Casual passers-by contribute more sets of eyes, making the street even safer, and so on in a virtuous cycle. Death and Life develops this simple idea in rich detail.

A mix of residences and stores, for example, creates safety and comfort by giving more people more reasons to use the sidewalks. …