OK, this is a little Slate-pitchy. But is it wrong? That’s unclear.
But as often happens when we remember the dead, nearly all of these celebrations and tributes fail to recognize Jacobs as a real person with deeply flawed ideas. Yes, she still deserves praise for challenging the urban-planning maxims of her time. But if we really want to honor her belief that cities can be nearly magical places capable of improving the lives of all of their inhabitants, we have to recognize the limits of her philosophies and the limits of the ways in which we’ve interpreted and remembered them. Looking at the Village today is a great place to start.
The same neighborhood Jacobs lauded for its diversity in the 1960s and ’70s is today a nearly all-white, aesthetically suburban playground for the rich. The average price for a two-bedroom apartment is about $5,000 a month. Those small, varied streets are still there, but the small, community-oriented businesses have been replaced by banks and restaurant chains, upscale cocktail bars, and expensive shoe stores. When I walk its streets now, I mostly feel sad and disconnected, not to mention angry that global wealth has transformed my community into an upscale mall.
Jacobs, to a certain extent, warned of the Village’s imminent transition, arguing that a neighborhood’s outstanding success can ultimately be self-undermining. People are attracted to neighborhoods like the West Village, which become more and more expensive until “one or a few dominating uses finally emerge triumphant … [and] a most intricate and successful organism of economic mutual support and social support has been destroyed by the process,” Jacobs wrote.
It’s not only the Village. Seemingly every Jacobsian paradise, from Portland, Oregon, to San Francisco to the newly revitalized parts of Detroit and New Orleans, is mostly white and well-off. Governments (no doubt swayed by the urban planners whose graduate programs hew to Jacobs’ philosophies) spend millions on implementing Jacobs’ recommendations—making streets more walkable, supporting new, local businesses, de-emphasizing cars—and nearly everywhere they do, gentrification and displacement follow. Dense, pedestrian-friendly spaces don’t have to be accessible only to the affluent, of course. But without commitments to affordable and public housing and even the regulation of rent, any change to a neighborhood that increases its real-estate values will inevitably lead to increased urban inequality. When we boil down Jacobs’ ideas to their simplest dictates, we risk those unsavory consequences.
Obviously it’s unfair to blame all or maybe any of this on Jane Jacobs. But urban planning does have to be for the masses if it is to work. I do believe we can have dense, walkable cities with a lot of amenities that create community. But there’s no question that right now, it’s not working well. Part of it is the historical legacy of the urban renewal and suburbanization Jacobs spoke out against, as because there aren’t that many sections of cities that survived the postwar onslaught, a change in Americans’ values means that it’s not hard for the wealthy to control these small areas. However, the post-Jacobs vision has to include racial and class diversity if it is too be successful. We are failing that badly, as anyone living, say, in San Francisco can attest to, with the working-class, often brown and black, service workers now often commuting 2 hours from the central valleys to the city, a completely urban planning nightmare.