100th anniversary of the birth of Jane Jacobs, the saint of the new urbanism. I’m something of a dissenter. Of the two great urban-planning ideologies of the 20th century, big-block modernism and Jacobsian urbanism, the clear winner, as everyone knows, was Jacobs. Don’t destroy the organic community that already exists. Fair enough – the sociological classic ‘everything in its path’ by Kai Erikson made that imperative. Urban Renewal in the style of the war on poverty did nothing but sweep away the poor (usually Black) neighborhoods in favor of the brobdingnagian apartment block or the twisting highway interchange.
But – in practice, Jacobsian neighborhood redevelopment has been the neutron bomb to modernism’s hydrogen bomb. It has left the buildings standing, but done nothing to save the organic community; one way or another, the people that are there, have to go. Capitalism just won’t stand for them: all those nice buildings, when we could be getting higher rents? That’s the sin of letting capital lie idle. All those nice cities, when speculators could be making billions, if only the people would all disappear, melt away before the waterfall of techbraws and yuppies.
At least Le Corbusier made provision for the working class. Those fantastic floating slabs of cake, sitting in the green parks of the future – they were for the working class to have somewhere decent to live. In practice, capitalism wasn’t interested in that, either. Unite d’Habitation ended up the model for a cheap way to do social housing, and so we got Pruitt-Igoe – literally the textbook example of why modernist delirium was a disaster. Not so much because everyone has to live in a hobbit town or be miserable, but because nobody with money was willing to pay taxes for the upkeep. (If you get a chance to see the Pruitt-Igoe Myth, I recommend it.. http://www.pruitt-igoe.com/). Robert Moses was the Lex Luthor of this ideal; he was a monster, and we rightly discarded his idiom, but we didn’t do anything about what drove him, the lure of money from property redevelopment and, above all, the automobile.
So pick your nightmare. Just don’t imagine that this particular ideological sideshow of big vs little, urban vs suburban, actually settled anything or that the Revolution of Jane Jacobs did more than bolt a new facade over the same old rapacity.