The psychology of the big country is dominant. The Big City. Look for some vast tract of virgin land to despoil rather than deal with the difficult patches within the urban setting. “Private affluence and public squalor” is a phrase for which we are all grateful to J.K. Galbraith, and which has passed into common usage because it expresses a truth about the world we live in, as if then need for squalor is hard-wired into our psyche. The second half of the phrase, however, is more universally applicable than the first. For example, there was a good deal of public squalor in Soviet Russia, much like America even if the reason there was not much litter in Russia was that nobody had much to throw away and the newspaper was kept to wrap the bread in. But in New York, in from the late 1950’s, everything was deemed as disposable, including the soul of the city…
Jane Jacobs was the antithesis of the Big Idea. She was of the “small is beautiful” persuasion who questioned designations of areas as “blighted,” candidates for urban renewal; she acquired a reputation among city planners as a sort of Madame Defarge leading an aroused populace to the barricades. One of the best portions of her classic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities,is a description of how life goes forward on the street in front of her house- its comings and goings, the ways in which civic discipline is threatened and maintained, a “ballet” of lively urban existence. She brought to city life the sort of warmth and curiosity usually lavished on the small country town, a Thornton Wilder of Hudson street.
Jacobs believed in the city’s vitality and variety, the presence of people in motion, the disorders and diversities that make a great city delightful to those who love it, infuriating to those who want to reorganize it. A champion of the “low rental” area in which she managed to prove that affordable and slum were not synonymous, the sort of conceptual-economic idea that stretched back to Henry George and his own battle with Tammany Hall. The little guy versus large financial and corporate interests.
For the clearing of slums, gentrification, and their replacement still lingers as a liberal utopian objective, a banner of enlightenment which Jacobs showed was a flawed mixture of destructiveness and exploitation all enhanced by legal provisions and tax allowances meaning tax supported raids on a city’s social and human resources. What Jacobs was fighting was not so much a doctrine as a way of life, one which ran counter to American middle-class desires: suburbs, shopping plazas, more pavement and parking, which she felt inimical to what makes a city work.
Jacob’s originality is that she permanently changed the climate of debate about a city…
(see link at end)…Jacobs is an intellectual legatee of Benjamin Franklin, a genius of common sense, as her biographers, Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch, aptly call her. She saw through institutional walls to the malfunctions within. This facility, combined with a strong but gentle polemical style and a Napoleonic ability to recruit and deploy citizen armies, rescued vital Manhattan neighborhoods including Soho and much of Greenwich Village from ruin fifty years ago by city planners and developers saturated with high-rise ideology and ravenous for federal highway and slum clearance money. The frustrated tone of Dark Days Ahead is that of a virtuoso prophet near the end of her life during the Cheney-Bush years, trying to alert her readers to the oncoming darkness, more threatening by far than the attack on Manhattan by planners and developers a half- century ago.
Perhaps the problems she cites in her final book did not seem as menacing to others as they did to her—the indifference of government to the urgent needs of citizens; a university culture that awards credentials rather than encourages learning; the failure of professional self-regulation exemplified by fraudulent accounting practices. She wrote Dark Age Ahead in the aftermath of the Enron scandals before the crimes of the bond-rating agencies and the mortgage industry emerged and the financial arrangements between physicians and drug companies were exposed. Or perhaps these and other signs of rot that she mentions are now so embedded in everyday life as to seem normal. Read More:httwww.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/aug/13/new-york-the-prophet/?pagination=false