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The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Modern Library Series) Hardcover – February 9, 1993
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"The most refreshing, provacative, stimulating and exciting study of this [great problem] which I have seen. It fairly crackles with bright honesty and common sense."—Harrison Salisbury, The New York Times"One of the most remarkable books ever written about the city... a primary work. The research apparatus is not pretentious—it is the eye and the heart—but it has given us a magnificent study of what gives life and spirit to the city."—William H. Whyte, author of The Organization Man
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Thirty years after its publication, The Death and Life of Great American Cities was described by The New York Times as "perhaps the most influential single work in the history of town planning....[It] can also be seen in a much larger context. It is first of all a work of literature; the descriptions of street life as a kind of ballet and the bitingly satiric account of traditional planning theory can still be read for pleasure even by those who long ago absorbed and appropriated the book's arguments." Jane Jacobs, an editor and writer on architecture in New York City in the early sixties, argued that urban diversity and vitality were being destroyed by powerful architects and city planners. Rigorous, sane, and delightfully epigrammatic, Jacobs's small masterpiece is a blueprint for the humanistic management of cities. It is sensible, knowledgeable, readable, indispensable. The author has written a new foreword for this Modern Library edition.
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And from the point of view of the humble sidewalk, Jane Jacobs builds a kind of theory of cities: what works and what doesn’t. She makes points that, once she makes them, are nothing more nor less than common sense. She points out that we like interesting things and that what we, as people are most interested in, is other people. So we like to people-watching. And that means we need different, truly different, buildings on our sidewalks. It just doesn’t work to have a part of the city that’s all “about culture” and another part that’s all “about business” and yet a third that’s “all about” housing. We don’t live our lives like that and we should not expect our city to live if every aspect of human life is segregated from every other aspect.
It’s fine—no, it’s healthy—if people live next to a culture center, next to a place of worship, next to a place of business, and next to a park and playground. It means that at all times of the day, every day of the week, you will see different and interesting people on your streets. Sundays, you will see families dressed for church (and teenagers dressed “specially” for church); during the day on weekdays, you will see people in their business attire hurrying to and fro with their important tasks; at lunchtime you will see mothers (and these days increasingly fathers) pushing their baby strollers in the park and at night everyone gathers at the local watering holes and restaurants. If that is what you see where you live, you live in a safe and good neighborhood. A neighborhood where buildings are different not just because they have different paint but because they serve different functions. And that neighborhood is great for business. A baker, a coffee shop, a pub, a bar, a shoe repair shop—all will flourish in a neighborhood like this.
The way to destroy a city, on the other hand, is to destroy a neighborhood by transplanting it into a project. It doesn’t matter how poor that neighborhood is. There are people who live in that place who are genuinely attached to it. A famous story is told (not in this book but as an example) of the Mother of all the Rothschilds not wishing to leave the Jewish Ghetto in Vienna. That is where her friends were and that is where she wanted to live. And no matter how poor a place seems to an outsider, people do put down roots there. And those roots mean that they, the people who are attached to that place, can make it into a thriving, interesting neighborhood. Just like (or even better than) the one I described just now. All they need is a little help: loans from banks to start a business, short blocks, encouraging the kinds of uses the people want. If there is one thing Jane Jacobs is adamant about it’s that a city is about the people who live in it and so you can’t impose a great idea on them-no matter who they are—it has to come from within the community. Because only then will you have a community. And given half a chance, that community will grow and will prosper.
All that, and more, is in this relatively slim (for an urban planning book) volume. A volume that has been (rightly I think) been called a classic. Not just because of its message which is just as relevant today as it was when Jane Jacobs wrote it but because of the writing style. Jane Jacobs is obviously well-read and well-traveled but she does not feel the need t showcase that she read a book or two once. She writes in simple, easy-to-read prose and the lessons she teaches the reader are all the more memorable for that.
I highly recommend it.
This topic could be really tedious to read - but it's not! Within the first few pages I could tell I was in the hands of someone skilled and capable, a master at the nature of spaces and nimble with words and ideas. Jacobs was not a planner, nor an academic but a person who had been thinking and writing about architecture and cities for a long time with intelligence and with an equal gift in communicating. Her style is evocative and able to tease out subtle ideas in amusing, succinct and yet on-the-mark ways. She just nails it each time.
Published in 1961 but for the most part, reads current. Her words, her thinking and writing are all contemporary, as even the older issues she discusses are now being deconstructed and it is interesting to read the origins of many of these ideas which seem like such obvious blunders you just scratch your head at the powers-that-were who conceived them. As she puts it, "expressways that eviscerate great cities...These amputated areas typically develop galloping gangrene" and the "Low-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity. Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore."
"Monopolistic shopping centers and monumental cultural centers cloak, under the public relations hoohaw, the subtraction of commerce, and of culture too." Or one of my pet peeves, "Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders" - these seem prevalent around civic centers and drive me crazy as I walk for my transportation, the long expanses of concrete and lawn with a few concrete benches. In Paris they would put a little outdoor cafe and some trees in the middle so that one can cross that desert with an espresso pit-stop but too often there is nothing, and one starts across the huge block already fatigued wondering how it is possible that even the green of the lawn looks unappealing, that nature is devoid of its charm in these circumstances. That's not to say that Europe avoided these problems, they built tons of social housing or offices. I see examples of them every day where I live, in the middle of a vibrant city suddenly one comes upon a 1970s "super-block" with a few high rises planted in the middle of a vast patchwork of concrete and never-used lawn and bits of graffiti on lonely concrete benches. Walking these super-blocks feels like being plunged into jello, heavy, plodding and onerous. But now I understand there was thoughtful thinking behind these but like lots of theories, things just didn't work out as they hoped or were anemic budgeted and bureaucratized versions of the original vision.
Thankfully, most cities are striving to be more livable now, it's too bad that a new problem has emerged, that they are losing diversity as they become unaffordable. She also goes into the suburbs, which along with small towns, now often seem to be the new repositories of those with no choice. Enough rant. She actually spends a lot of time talking about what is good, what works and why and that too is illuminating. You know you love these things about certain neighborhoods but you don't quite know all the reasons why, why exactly it feels more vibrant, alive, organic and a place where life can bloom.
This is eminently relevant and readable. Another review complained about her use of language made it hard to follow. She is really descriptive, perhaps that could get tedious if read straight through, it's a good book to have at the bedside to read in chunks.