Andrew Manshel of an outfit called the Greater Jamaica Development Corp takes aim today at sainted urbanist Jane Jacobs. I yield to no one in my admiration for Jacobs. Still, she has become something of an idol. An skeptical reappraisal is perhaps overdue.
Unfortunately, Manshel is not up to the task. He complains that at a recent planning conference, “she seemed to be quoted by almost every speaker — developers, architects and academics all cited her work when talking about the future and how to do progressive development.” Evidently, everyone finds inspiration these days in Jacobs, which is good sign that some have misunderstand her, overlooked what she really had to say or have attributed to her views that she did not have. Manshel, it seems, is no exception. Instead of falsely crediting her with ideas he supports, however, he instead falsely imputes to her ideas he opposes.
According to Manshel, Jacobs opposed “large-scale planning” in favor of involving “those affected by land-use decisions” and “citizen participation.” He goes on to blame Jacobs for inspiring New York City’s labyrinthine Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which mandates an endless series of bogus reports and deliberations before anything can be built. It’s certainly true that Jacobs opposed large-scale planning. It’s also true that she had an colorful career as an activist, and successfully mobilized opposition to such monstrous schemes as a mid-Manhattan expressway. From these facts, Manshel has apparently inferred that the fundamental dichotomy for Jacobs was top-down planning versus local community control.
Wrong. Neither Death and Life nor her later books extol “community activism.” On the contrary, Jacobs no more supported planning by local power-players than by larger government bureaucracies. She observed instead how individuals going about their ordinary lives create a livable neighborhood. Famously, for example, she noted that shopkeepers’ “eyes on the street” reassure pedestrians and repel criminals. Urban planning endangers this spontaneous order. Jacobs favored instead preserving traditional streets and allowing neighborhoods to regenerate and evolve on their own. Perhaps influenced by the “progressive” urban planners with whom he apparently hobnobs, Manshel perverts Jacobs, an apologist for commercialism, into some kind of village socialist.
Manshel’s other complaints are misplaced. He laments that Greenwich Village and other traditional neighborhoods have become too expensive for all but the very wealthiest. This is a sign not of failure but success. People want to live in traditional neighborhoods. The market cannot satisfy their demands fast enough — no doubt in part because of the very land use restrictions that Jacobs would have opposed. Finally, Manshel notes that Jacobs predicted, wrongly, that Lincoln Center would fail. It’s true that the West Side thrived after Lincoln Center, which turned out to be not as bad as Jacobs feared (though its monumental mediocrity is something of an embarrassment to the city). But Manshel overlooks the cost. By consolidating the City’s cultural institutions in one place, neighborhoods were deprived of their lifebloods. (Who would rather go to the opera at Lincoln Center than the old Metropolitan Opera House?) New York City can survive a lot of bad planning decisions. Similar efforts in other cities, such as Denver, to create drive-in-drive-out cultural centers has indeed, just as Jacobs foresaw, blighted surrounded neighborhoods. Jacobs predictions were more accurate than Manshel allows.
In short, Manshel’s debunking of Jacobs fails. He should perhaps spend spend less time listening to planners, and more time reading the original source.