Celebrate Jane Jacobs today

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great writer, activist and thinker and so we should celebrate her impact on planning, on sustainable economies and on local sovereignty.

I found her writing in the mid-1990s, aright before I moved to Akron Ohio. If you haven’t been, it is a city that lost a great deal of its small town feel during the bad ol’ days of “urban renewal” with a highway plunked down right at the edge of downtown and massive “disinvestment” (read empty factories and offices) left by the large corporations that had ruled there for generations. By the time I was there, it had become a sleepy bedroom community for folks who commuted 40 minutes north to Cleveland. I also noted the ironic abundance of hiking paths in the gorgeous Cuyahoga Valley National Park that is the area’s greatest jewel, and yet the lack of appealing ways to walk or bike around the actual city. I found Akron lovely, but lonely.  I couldn’t help the constant refrain in my head of Chrissie Hynde’s “My City Was Gone” about her hometown of Akron and her description of how:

There was no train station
There was no downtown
South Howard had disappeared
All my favorite places
My city had been pulled down
Reduced to parking spaces
A, o, way to go Ohio”

Indeed.

I had become interested in planning and how humans move through the built space while previously living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the neighborhood of Shadyside. My apartment was above the five and dime store (still run by the daughter of the original couple) and had lovely bay windows overlooking the commercial street. I would sit there to read and smoke and watch people move about below. As I sat there, I wondered if banning cars on Walnut would benefit it, or would it encourage more residents with cars if they reduced the number of meters. I noted the superior bus system around town and was dumbfounded when they built a freestanding department store in downtown, and even more so when it was immediately supported by workers and residents willing to travel where they had to park or catch a bus and walk to shop. (Interestingly, the city’s economic health took a nose dive soon after my exit from the city and now is just beginning to right itself again, and that department store which has been empty is being developed into something new.)

As always, when I became interested in a subject I searched for as many books I could find about it;  I first found “City” by William Whyte and then  found “The Death and LIfe of Great American Cities.” I devoured them both but after reading Jacobs, I felt as if I had found a teacher. Her practical and direct writing illustrated how human activity and personal interaction should matter when thinking about cities and how the cultural, ecological and economic systems must be designed to work together for the person and not the city manager or the egoist planner and all of lit a fire in my soul. One reason for that immediate attraction to her writing was the deep respect she had for local rule. I knew I had met a fellow activist and one that shared a disdain for unnecessary formality or hierarchy:  Why separate people from sidewalk activity with elevated versions?  Why separate stores from living space? Why separate production from where people live or work? Why ban informal vending in cities? Why add highways where none are necessary?

After Akron, I moved back to New Orleans where I had lived as a teen and through my early 20s. Even though I had been mostly raised in Cleveland, it was New Orleans that had always felt most like home, and a city I always knew I would return to live at some point. Turns out, that point was the year 2000 and at first I moved back to the French Quarter where my mother lived for many years. Of course, Jacobs and Whyte’s teachings echoed in my head as I walked through every block of it, noting the tiny sidewalks full of amblers and walkers, balconies and galleries that shielded a passerby from the afternoon rain and encouraged musicians and shoeshiners to set up shop below. The corner grocery store and drugstores served the community well and while the remaining hardware store had a more upscale feel, it was still a very good place to buy nails or screen repair kits. It was fortifying to be back.

In 2005, the destruction of the city in August at the hands of the shoddy levee management meant that everyone in the city was thinking and talking design and planning and that the next years of recovery were thrilling and scary and collaborative and polarizing and so much more. As residents, we failed our city in many ways during that time, allowing the destruction of our old but useful hospital in order to build a shiny new one 2 blocks away for a billion plus dollars. We allowed the destruction of all available public housing, originally built in the 1940s in townhouse style to build new versions in townhouse style but in wood and not brick this time around. (Of course, the upending of those living there during the years of redevelopment was the point of the entire exercise and has broken up communities and families as expected and pushed the workers of the city  far from where the actual work is located.)

Developers have a strong hold over many of our areas now and investors “from away” have taken hold of large swaths of housing stock to either sit on them empty while waiting for the best return to come along, or changed the feel of the area to something new that has little to do with what is also there or even worse, has kicked out scores of residents to offer entire blocks of short-term rentals to visitors only. There is much more that has been a result of this era being forced upon us, but most relative to this post was the constant refrain in so many heads as we fought it, “What would Jane Jacobs do? What would she say?” In some cases, her observations and teachings have stopped some very bad examples of city planning, added some excellent collaborative work on water management for example and in other cases the inherent activism found in New Orleans then and since simply dovetail nicely with her descriptions of city life when done well.

It was also interesting that during the early days of recovery, the French Quarter became home to thousands more residents as it was untouched by the levee breaks and could absorb those who needed a place to sleep and eat and meet while they worked on their homes in other parts of town. The hustle and bustle of it in those months was thrilling as these 80 or so blocks continued to operate like a well-oiled clock and easily support everyone who needed to be there. Even after many of those folks moved back to their own areas, the comfort of the city center still appealed to many and residential numbers increased between 2000-2010. I am one such resident as my move to the Bayou St. John area of the city turned out to be temporary for the years right before and after 2005 and now I find myself back in the Quarter, I hope for good this time.

The truth is that the Quarter will never return to the population numbers of its zenith, but neither will the Marigny or Central City. The style of living has changed ghettos like the Quarter to single home living or by offering small apartments to a single person where once an entire family lived in the same space. Even though it is fashionable for many New Orleans “super-natives” (see explanation of the term at end of post)  to again complain about the Quarter, the truth is it still works for thousands of residents and workers and visitors and more. It is vibrant all day and all night. It has cars and delivery trucks and buses using its tiny streets, even while sharing space with mule-driven carriages, bikers, skateboarders and drunks. People meet on the street and talk, and they come out to wash their sidewalk and note activity while doing so. They talk to the meter maids and to the guy who hustles for a buck to help workers close up at night. Yes, even in a modern city and time a place designed originally for pedestrians and those living and working in the same space is still incredibly useful. And Jane Jacobs predicted it.

So  even though the Quarter may not still serve the same purpose it did in 2005-2008 or in 1905, it still matters. This city center doesn’t have to remain the Italian neighborhood or hold all of the chicory coffee stands or all of the city’s music clubs to remain necessary. It is allowed to change and adapt as long as it contains “the seeds of its own regeneration” and does its darn best to hold the “unaverage” among the regular better than any other neighborhood.

Jane Jacobs affirmed that for me. So happy Jane Jacobs Day, my fellow Quarterites- I expect to see you on the sidewalk soon.

 

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2 of her many books, always nearby.

 

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Google’s homage to JJ today

• From Richard Campanella’s essay: Transplants arrive endeavoring to be a part of the epic adventure of living here; thus, through the process of self-selection, they tend to be Orleaneophilic “super-natives.” They embrace Mardi Gras enthusiastically, going so far as to form their own krewes and walking clubs (though always with irony, winking in gentle mockery at old-line uptown krewes). They celebrate the city’s culinary legacy, though their tastes generally run away from fried okra and toward “house-made beet ravioli w/ goat cheese ricotta mint stuffing” (I’m citing a chalkboard menu at a new Bywater restaurant, revealingly named Suis Generis, “Fine Dining for the People;” see Figure 2). And they are universally enamored with local music and public festivity, to the point of enrolling in second-line dancing classes and taking it upon themselves to organize jazz funerals whenever a local icon dies.

 

 

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About DW

New Orleans resident, writer, activist. Public market consultant.

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