Less Marc Jacobs, More Jane Jacobs
By Jane Christensen
A group in Toronto called Jane’s Walk organizes free neighborhood walking tours in cities around the world. The purpose is to put people in touch with their environment and each other. But there isn’t a Jane’s Walk in the West Village: the New York neighborhood where Jane Jacobs lived. Perhaps we should change that?
I was walking on Horatio Street on my way to Grand Central to get the train to Great Barrington, the small Massachusetts town where I (mostly) live and work. A bright yellow card in a dusty window caught my eye. Tucked among geranium plants and vases, it proclaimed, “More Jane Jacobs Less Marc Jacobs.”
I did not ask, “Jane Who?” because I had just started reading her seminal 1961 treatise, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Jacobs (1916-2006) championed new community-based approaches to planning for over 40 years. Her book became perhaps the most influential American text about the inner workings and failings of cities, inspiring generations of urban planners and activists. Her efforts to stop downtown expressways and protect local neighborhoods invigorated community-based urban activism.
It was her message —“Community not Commerce”— that made me pay fresh attention to the part of New York that had become my second home. The West Village — once Jacobs’s home (an iconic photograph of her was taken in the White Horse Tavern) — was part of “A Smaller Circle,” the book I’m writing about the search for community.
In Great Barrington, I’m surrounded by people who used to live in Manhattan. I myself moved here from London 18 years ago. But I have become part of the great 21st-century migration from the countryside into cities.
In China, ten million people are moving every year from rural areas to China’s huge cities. How, I wonder, can those cities be made to work in terms of human health and happiness and environmental sustainability? These questions are part of what led me to Jacobs. What would she make of the West Village in 2011, and what lessons are there in this urban district that might apply elsewhere in the world?
Jacobs is famous for her emphasis on street life, and for her love of city life in general. This is in contrast to the writer Lewis Mumford, who also lived in the Village but left it as soon as he could for a planned community in Queens and then for Amenia, New York, not far from Great Barrington.
When I was a young environmentalist in England, it was Mumford’s ideas that got attention. We all wanted to leave the city in search of the good life, and that’s why people move to Great Barrington. But the Berkshires has a tourist economy, and I see the same thing in the West Village. The Village tourists are more varied than those on Main Street, but it’s the same problem: all these people are strangers to one another and to the people who live here.
Incorporating strangers is one of the things Jacobs said cities were all about. She wrote about “eyes on the street,” not in a spirit of “crime watch” but of conviviality, understanding that people like to watch other people. This simple fact should be part of city planning, she said. The more people are on the street, the more people inside shops and homes and restaurants will watch, the safer people will feel outside, and so on. In that sense, today’s streets are working well, though better in some places than others.
Jacobs wrote about the importance of lively borders and mixed economic activity, and she was scathing about Lewis Mumford and others who promoting inward-looking communities, tied to certain size limits they claimed were “human scale.” As I watch activity around the High Line, or when I am in Beijing, I realize that there are no absolute rules about what makes a community or district work.
But there are hundreds of specific ways to build good cities and better small towns. Preserving old buildings, for one — not only because they are beautiful but because their costs have been amortized. When some rents are cheap, interesting start-ups will be able to afford to stay.
Karen Christensen is a publisher, writer and independent scholar specializing in sustainability, social networking and international relations. She is writing a narrative about the 21st-century search for community, entitled “A Smaller Circle.” Please contact her if you have stories about Jane Jacobs, or about how people are creating a sense of community in the city.
The film Remembering Jane Jacobs, the great urban critic and author, was shot and produced by Jim Epstein and aired on Channel Thirteen, the week following Jacob's death in 2006.