Reimagining American Community
Jan
01

Jane Jacobs

J

ane Jacobs was first of all a woman in place. A journalist and architectural critic, and a Greenwich Village matron, she anchored her activism and cultural criticism in her concrete experience of what she called the “ballet of Hudson Street:” the daily dance in which mothers and fathers and children and shopkeepers and policemen navigated the physical space of the street in front of her red-brick townhouse.

A theorist of public space, she was suspicious of theory-driven practice; untrained in city planning, she came up with ideas that were outlandish in midcentury America, but which we now accept as truisms even as we continue to defy them in our practice. The needs of humans, she dared to say, ought to supersede the needs of cars. Mixed-use neighborhoods rather than single-use sprawl are the kinds of places where people tend to like to live. The best neighborhoods are made up of the intersecting lives and plans of lots of private people, not the grandiose schemes of urban beautifiers. She was convinced that neighborhoods thrived when they were loved; that lovability could not be centrally planned; and that the key ingredients of this lovability were variety and grace and human-scale complexity.

Perhaps her most radical claim, in the context of late-1950s urban theory, was that density was not a problem to be avoided, but a solution to be embraced. Neighborhoods generally need more people, not fewer; “overcrowding” is a myth. People are not the problem: inhumane use of space is the problem.

But Jacobs was not just a theorist. In her successful fight to prevent the uber-planner Robert Moses from running a freeway through her beloved Greenwich Village, she modeled a feisty style of community engagement that we can all — urbanites and others — hope to emulate.

About the Author
Born and raised on Manhattan, a small island in the Atlantic, Susannah Black received a degree from Amherst College and another one from Boston University. She has written for The Distributist Review, Front Porch Republic, Amherst Magazine, The L Magazine, and (in her young and foolish libertarian days) National Review. Having moved back to the New York area, she is now taking her stand in Central Queens, helping to run a sort of boarding facility/rental commune/household for her relatives and friends out of her great-grandparents’ big old house. She is also obsessed with tall ships and in the summers can be found helping to sail a schooner in New York Harbor. She blogs at radiofreethulcandra.wordpress.com.