Volume 74, Number 2
| May 12 - 18, 2004

Wednesday, May 12, 2004


Applying Jane Jacobs’ lessons to today’s realities

Last Friday night, Jane Jacobs, an icon of Village lore, returned for an all-too-brief visit to the community. She spoke about the battles she and others fought 40 years ago against urban development and highway projects. She reminded us about what’s still most important in our communities today — the people and the quality of life.

Listening to her talk it wasn’t hard to see why Jacobs had such success as an activist and why her then revolutionary ideas became legend. Specifically, Jacobs supported concepts that were, at the time, a radical break with the prevailing planning dogma, but, in reality, simply meshed with the way people naturally live in urban environments and the way these communities naturally evolve.

At a time when so-called tower-in-a-park developments were in vogue — and planned for a 14-block swath of the historic West Village, deemed a “slum” — Jacobs forcefully argued that the idea was misguided. People shouldn’t live high off the ground, cut off from the life of the neighborhood, she said. It was wrong to separate commercial and retail uses from residential uses, she said. Instead, mixing uses was desirable, creating a vital environment. One need only look at our public housing and developments like Stuyvesant Town to see that the tower-in-a-park concept leaves much to be desired.

Although, luckily, we are not faced with any imminent urban renewal projects today, Jacobs’ theories are as relevant as ever. On the West Side, on the Village waterfront, in each blink of an eye, it seems, another high-end apartment tower is springing up. A mix of economic strata — including, in particular, affordable housing — was something Jacobs fervently endorsed. She was a guiding force in creating the low-rise West Village Houses, a Mitchell-Lama complex, where tenants are now organizing to buy the housing to keep it affordable. The development of the waterfront is erasing this mix of incomes and uses, and obliterating what Jacobs calls the Village’s most historic area. Also, mom and pop stores that provided valuable goods and services are being forced out, making the neighborhood more expensive and less livable.

In Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen the city’s push for a Jets/Olympic stadium also surely flies in the face of Jacobs’ planning ideas. The most basic core of Jacobs’ views on city life is very simple — common sense. Anyone can see that the West Side of Manhattan Island, one of the most densely packed places in the world, cannot accommodate the shoehorning of a large stadium and all the concomitant traffic it would generate.

On the East Side, the dormitory proposal on the site of the former CHARAS/El Bohio is a textbook case of the sort of lack of planning Jacobs has always opposed: namely, a tall tower in a plaza that, in addition, would replace what was a valued space for the community and art.

While Jacobs’ teachings have affected so many, unfortunately many of the problems she and her allies faced persist, though in different form. But Jacobs and those who worked with her established precedents on how to fight that which would destroy our neighborhoods — and, more important, they gave us confidence that the battles of today can be won.

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