A Great Work at 53


Among the first 10 books I read at the start of my career in architecture this one still stands as the odd ball. Fifty three years after its publication I return to its pages to highlight and debate its most important points. I have found recently that although Death and Life is much talked about, its principal thesis and ground-breaking assertions are not read—much less understood. The book opens with crushing salvo and an enormous boast:

This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding. It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles in city planning and rebuilding, different and even opposite from those now taught in everything from schools of architecture and planning to Sunday supplements and women’s magazines. My attack is not based on quibbles about rebuilding methods or hair-splitting about fashions in design. It is an attack, rather, on the principles and aims that have shaped modern, orthodox city planning and rebuilding.

Jane Jacobs, p. 3.

But look at what we have built… 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. Civic centers that are avoided by everyone but bums, who have fewer choices of loitering place than others. Commercial centers that are lacking-luster imitations of standardized suburban chain-store shopping. Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.

Death and Life, p. 4

She had me at page 3. The middle paragraph on the following page is a devastating critique of the Eisenhower years (in office January 20, 1953 – January 20, 1961). America had won the war and then… this!

I still own the original paperback copy which I bought in 1980 for $6.50 at the university bookstore. I had it spiral bound at Kinko’s some years ago, an investment that has preserved the original with all pages intact complete with my many scribblings and notes made over the years. I have never read the book cover to cover, but I have never really put it down either. I intend to take a similar approach in reviewing the work here. Taking some liberties with the protocols of blogging, I will tackle the work one assertion at a time adding to this post as time permits over the course of the years. Thus, I expect the post will grow longer and the review more thorough in the weeks and months to come.

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When we deal with cities we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense. Because this is so, there is a basic aesthetic limitation on what can be done with cities: A city cannot be a work of art.

Death and Life, p. 373

It is a mark of a great rhetorician that when she is about to express a controversial opinion, she pivots and changes the subject. The point about aesthetics and urbanism is not whether or not a city is a work of art—clearly these are two different types of things—but whether or not our aesthetic sense comes into play when we experience the city and come in contact with any of its various urban places. Here the answer is an irrefutable ‘yes’ and it is clear to me that Jacobs would have been on side with this assertion. Of course, there is a long tradition that deals with planning or designing the city according to so-called artistic principles. Or more to the point, since the re-discovery of the classical texts during the Renaissance, it has been commonplace to assert that the same measures that are pleasing to our ears in music, can also please our eyes. It was a short step from there to rediscover how the Romans and Greeks had used that very same insight and applied it to the design of sculpture, painting, architecture and—important to our purpose here—town planning and urban design.

Yet, there can be little doubt that in denying an ‘artistic’ side to urbanism the author is putting the ‘American’ into the title and content of the work. Urbanism in the United States makes too much use of gridded plans and lettered and numbered streets. Jacobs’s defence of the endless—and endlessly boring—19th century grid platting reminds us of a blind spot in American culture:

To bring even a chance for visual order to most such [gridiron] streets—and to districts in which such streets predominate—this basic contradiction of strong visual impressions has to be dealt with. I think this is what European visitors are getting at when they remark, as they often do, that the ugliness of [American] cities is owing to our gridiron street systems.

Death and Life, p.379

Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for the New York Times (1973–1997), put it more bluntly referencing Canadian John Kenneth Galbraith’s distillation of the American city to a pair of opposites: “private luxury and public squalor” (Affluent Society, 1958).

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… about planning cities is this: How can cities generate enough mixture among uses—enough diversity—throughout enough of their territories, to sustain their own civilization?

Death and Life, p.379

The answer is counterintuitive. According to Jacbos, ‘Large is Beautiful’:

[T]he fact is that big cities are natural generators of diversity and prolific incubators of new enterprises and ideas of all kinds. Moreover, big cities are the natural economic homes of immense numbers and ranges of small enterprises. [p. 145]

And again we find that bigness has all the advantages in smaller settlements. Towns and suburbs, for instance, are natural homes for huge supermarkets and for little else in the way of groceries, for standard movie houses or drive-ins and for little else in the way of theater. There are simply not enough people to support further variety, although there may be people (too few of them) who would draw upon it were it there.  Cities, however, are the natural homes of supermarkets and standard movie houses plus delicatessens, Viennese bakeries, foreign groceries, art movies, and so on, all of which can be found coexisting, the standard with the strange, the large with the small. Wherever lively and popular parts of cities are found, the small much outnumber the large… these small enterprises would not exist somewhere else, in the absence of cities. Without cities, they would not exist. [p. 146]

So, it turns out that the beauty of the ‘big city’ is in the sheer immensity of ‘small things’ that are able to spring up and prosper only there. With this preamble, Jacobs launches into a four-chapter review of what she considers to be the primary shapers of city life. The method could not be simpler and any initial doubts about an over-reliance on economic analysis soon vanish:

The conditions that generate city diversity are quite easy to discover by observing places in which diversity flourishes and studying the economic reasons why it can flourish in these places…To generate exuberant diversity in a city’s streets and districts, four conditions are indispensable:

  • Mixed primary uses (Chapter 8)
  • Short blocks (Chapter 9)
  • Old buildings (Chapter 10)
  • Concentration of people, including residents (Chapter 11)

The necessity for these four conditions is the most important point this book has to make. In combination, these create effective economic pools of use… ALL four in combination are necessary to generate city diversity; the absence of any one of the four frustrates a district’s potential. [p. 150 – 151; emphasis mine]

Left on the cutting room floor is any question dealing with the physical structure of the place. Jacobs focus on social functioning and economic accounting will miss important, concrete and measurable urban facts, including: the size and footprint of the ‘district’; the hierarchy of urban spaces including streets, lanes and squares; the surprisingly small set of building types that make the city, and their function defining the public realm; the symbiotic roles of monumental and vernacular construction—in other words, the many and various pieces that make the whole greater than the sum of the urban parts. Too often the quantification and analysis of urbanism is not tackled by author. One prominent example is the ‘district’. This urban fact palpable to the author is never defined or quantified, yet it remains a quantity invoked everywhere in the work in support of the central arguments [italics mine]:

  • Nor is the diversity that is important for city districts by any means confined to profit-making enterprises and retail commerce [148];
  • [In the Bronx…] something is wrong with their districts; something is lacking to catalyze a district population’s ability to interact economically and help form effective pools of use [149];
  • The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function [150];
  • The district must mingle buidlings that vary in age [150];
  • [A] city district should be able to realize its best potential, wherever that may be [151];
  • [T]he absence of any one of the four frustrates a district’s potential [151].

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The desirability of segregating dwelling from work has been so dinned into us that it takes an effort to look at real life and observe that residential districts lacking mixture with work do not fare well in cities.

Death and Life, p. 175.

In just one of many common sense pronouncements backed almost exclusively by her keen sense of observation, Jacobs challenges several planning paradigms at once. First, she insists that the method include making the effort to ‘look at the city’ as the object of study. Second, she lays bare the fact that many planning principles—holy cows, really—are not backed up by observation, measurement and proof.  Further, that when these dictums are put to rigorous analysis they can be seen to fail miserably. Finally, that the exclusionary zoning of the post-1915 era lies at the root of many of the Modern problems in the contemporary city.

The dwellings of a district (like any other use of the land) needs to be supplemented by other primary uses so people on the streets will be well spread through the hours of the day, for the economic reasons explained in Chapter Eight.

Death and Life, 201

Yes, it was once necessary to separate and regulate noxious and toxic uses from residential districts. But clearly the exercise has been taken to the extreme and must be reeled in. By 1961 it was obvious that some of the worst results in contemporary urbanism were a result of exclusionary zoning. Fifty-three years later we haven’t made much progress on this issue.

Introducing the analogy of the district or neighbourhood as the chess board, and its primary uses as the key chess pieces, Jacobs tears into an analysis of what one is tempted to dub the Carnegie Hall District:

Carnegie Hall, on West Fifty-seventh Street in New York, is a striking example of [an urban chess piece or] a primer. It has worked remarkably well for its street in spite of the serious handicap of too-long blocks. The presence of Carnegie Hall, which brings intensive use to the street by night, generated in time the presence of another use that needs night business—two motion-picture theatres. And because Carnegie Hall is a music center, it generated the presence of many small music, dance and drama studios and recital rooms. All this is mixed and woven with residences—two hotels and many apartments close by, which have all kinds of tenants, but notably a great many who are musicians and teachers of music. The street works by day because of small office buildings, and large office buildings to east and west, and finally because the double-shift use is able to support secondary diversity that has, in time, become an attraction too. The time spread of users is of course stimulating to restaurants, and here is a whole gamut: a fine Italian restaurant, a glamorous Russian restaurant, a sea-food restaurant, an expresso house, several bars, an Automat, a couple of soda fountains, a hamburger house. Between and among the restaurants you can buy rare coins, old jewelry, old or new books, very nice shoes, art supplies, remarkably elaborate hats, flowers, gourmet foods, health foods, imported chocolates. You can buy or sell thrice-worn Dior dresses and last year’s minks, or even an English sports car.

In this case, Carnegie Hall is a vital chessman, working in concert with other chessmen. The most ruinous plan that could be devised for this entire neighbourhood would be to destroy Carnegie Hall and replace it with another office building. This was precisely what was about to happen, as an accompaniment to New York’s decision to take all its most impressive, or potentially impressive, cultural chessmen out of play and segregate them in a planning island called the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Carnegie Hall was saved by a hair, owing to stubborn citizen pressure politics, although it will no longer be the home of the New York Philharmonic, which is going to decontaminate itself from the ordinary city.

Death and Life, p. 167 – 8.

It’s all there. Diversity of “primary mixed uses”—the concert hall, the office buildings and the residences—leading to an accretion over time of “secondary diversity”—the hotels, the restaurants, and the cornucopia of neighbourhood shops. All work symbiotically supporting one another and spilling on the street at all times of day and night making for a happy horde providing vitality (life) to the district. Rip out the heart and get “the pitiful kind of planning” (death) instead. Jacobs is not going to quantify for us the number of people needed on the sidewalks, or the length of time they must be present in order  reach the threshold of “diversity”. That will be taken up by generations following. But she will make an unequivocal statement of principle. Diversity is to be measured by the presence of people in great numbers throughout most of the day and night:

No neighbourhood or district, no matter how well established, prestigious or well heeled, and no matter how intensely populated for one purpose, can flout the necessity for spreading people through [out the] time of day without frustrating its potential for generating diversity.

Death and Life, p. 16o

The terms are also clearly defined in the text:

It should be clear by now that I am discussing two different kinds of diversity [primary and secondary diversity]. The first, primary uses, are those which, in themselves, bring people to a specific place because they are anchorages. Offices and factories are primary uses. So are dwellings. Certain places of entertainment, education and recreation are primary uses. To a degree… so are many museums, libraries and galleries, but not all.

Death and Life, p. 161

Secondary diversity is a name for the enterprises that grow in response to the presence of [mixed] primary uses, to serve the people the [mixed] primary uses draw. If this secondary diversity serves single primary uses… it is innately inefficient.

Death and Life, p. 162]

Jacobs identifies primary and secondary uses as businesses and institutions that put people on the street at all different times of the day and night. This is the bottom line in her analysis. Whether we call it ‘mix’, ‘effectiveness’, or ‘diversity’ it really doesn’t matter. What is at stake is putting people on the same stretch of street at all hours of the day and night.

The fly in the ointment of the American City is the paradox of maintaining economic, social and aesthetic functioning. In a remarkable passage Jacobs quotes Elbert Peets co-author of the ambitious The New Amercian Vitruvius (1927), penned with Werner Hegemann a Berlin urbanist. That book included a full-page elevation of the Manhattan Municipal Building (McKim, Mead and White, 1914). The first building to incorporate a New York City Subway station into its base, it fronts City Hall Park diagonally opposite the so-called ‘Cathedral of Commerce’, the Woolworth Building (1913). Death and Life is silent on both. Yet, these are the very Modern icons that will grow in number to dismember the downtowns as they incubate the new Central Business Districts (CBDs).

In a lengthy quote, Jacobs has Elbert Peets speak to the conflict:

It is my feeling that wrong principles motivate important aspects [of current Washington town planning]…

Briefly, what is happening is this: the government capital is turning away from the city; the government buildings are being concentrated together and separated from the buildings of the city. This was not L’Enfant’s idea. On the contrary, he made every effort to amalgamate the two, to make them serve each other. He distributed government buildings, markets, seats of national societies, academies, and State memorials at points of architectural advantage throughout the city, as if with the definite purpose of putting the impress of the national capital on every part. This was sound sentiment and sound architectural judgement.

From the Chicago Fair of 1893 came the architectural ideology that sees the city as a monumental court of honour sharply set off from a profane and jumbled area of “concessions.” … There is no evidence, in this procedure, of feeling for the city as an organism, a matrix that is worthy of its monuments and friendly with them … The loss is social, as well as aesthetic …

Death and Life p. 173.

In Death and Life Jacobs is silent on the towers (though she condemns both Lincoln Center and the social housing projects) and adopts a wait-and-see attitude towards the take-over of the public realm by private automobiles. However, she does not fail to see the problem of the dissolving downtowns. She distinguishes between failing downtowns where the solution may lie with addressing the mix of primary and secondary uses; and failing residential districts that may be lacking in the other three generators of diversity.

The [then] new CBDs lack in the mixture of primary uses as they seek to put office towers everywhere. Old downtowns mixing shopping, office and residential uses are slowly emptying out. Here, Jacobs is predicting the decline of the heart of existing neighbourhoods several years ahead of events taking place. The real blow to the downtowns would arrive ten years later in the late 1960s and early 1970s as regional shopping malls locating at the intersections of major highways in the suburban periphery would attracting businesses away from the downtowns. [165]

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Given that the book is an attempt to introduce new principles in city planning and rebuilding it is important to to point out places where in the effort to construct what she terms “the practice of city design” critical elements in urbanism fall by the wayside. I have always found it challenging when I comb for facts to find relevant elements missing. I see this not so much as a flaw in the writing of the book, but as a reflection of the very real conditions of urbanism in North America in that remarkable year when Death and Life was published: 1961. Over and again, when I pick up the book I have to remind myself that these were the early days of a reawakening in North American urbanism—a process that is still very much in a state of unfolding today. We are not there yet, and in many key important ways Death and Life got there first! Tacitly or otherwise, the work was recovering lost ground given up in previous decades to the onslaught of the automobile and the march of the corporate high rise tower.

For example, in discussing the elemental role of streets in urbanism, in  her own incisive way the author has already approached other key topics including: the continuity of the ground plane and the continuity of the streetwall—which she terms “the normal building line”—the street end vista and the fall of the ground plane.

Thus, when Jacobs writes that, “Streets provide the principal visual scenes in cities” she is asserting a fact that can be backed by personal observation. Yet, she is stopping one wrung short of reaching the top of an urban hierarchy dominated since time immemorial by the square, piazza or urban room. Time and again we find that in urbanism the primary means for making the sense of place in the city is the square rather than the street. Of course this fact is largely missing in 19th century American platting, and had been redefined in the colonial plans of Spanish Latin America. However, its absence here has a distorting effect on the author’s reading of the primary, constituting elements that make human  scale urbanism.

Another reason I keep returning to the work is my admiration for Greenwich Village, home to the author for many of her years as an activist. In just about every description, correctly or not, I read the Village as the paradigmatic American City presented as fighting for its very existence in the title of the book. Reading Death and Life I feel that I am getting a behind the scenes, personal and up close walking tour of the Village I can never know—the place in the 1940s and 50s. Greenwich Village—the one place in Manhattan where I always go when I’m there—has shown me on each successive visit both the charm and the tenacity of its urbanism. My research into the history of its development shows Greenwich Village being dealt repeated blows since its inception in the early 19th century. Places like Sheridan Square—or what was left of it after the widening of 7th Avenue and the cut and cover construction of the subway below in the 1920s—are visual reminders of the shock waves this place has had to withstand. Village Cigars on the opposite side of 7th Avenue today appears as the true landmark in the neighbourhood, and an icon much revered in popular posters. Yet, it is a contemporary building erected on the triangle plot left over after the avenue’s widening in the 1920s. Sheridan Square should be a real place. However, people places don’t thrive on the edge of multi-lane arterials. And this is just one of the lessons we have yet to discover in North American urbanism.

We must learn to recognize that 1961 was too early to distinguish between human scale and automobile scale. The distinction between the walking experience of place and driving through the city will have to wait until the 1970s and beyond. Only when that distinction is finally made clear, will it be possible to consider what works and what does not work to enhance the human experience of place. Only at this juncture will it be possible to speak about urban squares as something more than historic relics and odd curiosities seen in old European cities, but not really necessary bits of the progressive urbanism of the American gridded plans. Meanwhile, the story told by these places in Manhattan, and in all the other great North American cities, remains silenced speech with a remarkable story to tell. Death and Life is very much the early days of a paradigm shift that has yet to complete more than fifty years later.

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In San Francisco, the district of highest dwelling densities—and highest coverage of residential land with buildings—is North Beach-Telegraph Hill. This is a popular district that has spontaneously and steadily unslummed itself in the years following the Depression and the Second World War. San Francisco’s chief slum problem, on the other hand, is a district called the Western Addition, a place that has steadily declined and is now being extensively cleared. The Western Addition (which at one time, when it was new, was a good address) has a dwelling-unit density considerably lower than North Beach-Telegraph Hill’s.

Death and Life, 202

Jacobs is writing fully ten years before the big fight to stop the construction of the Bank of America Tower in San Francisco. That neighbourhood-busting edifice raised the public profile of then Director of Planning Alan Jacobs (no relation) and his British collaborator Donald Appleyard. There can be no denying the quality of the neighbourhoods in North Beach, Telegraph Hill, Russian Hill and Washington Square. However, it creates the wrong impression to suggest a direct correlation between population size and neighbourhood buoyancy and street vitality. Yes, it is obvious, one the one hand those who have the means will leave a district entering ‘in death’ as fast as rats from a sinking ship. On the other, the suburbs are too sparsely populated to sustain higher levels of social functioning. Yet, these two observations by themselves do not amount to a critical theory of urbanism—a project that would have been within the reach of someone writing in the 1950’s.

It is important to remember that San Francisco is site of the great experiment of Modernism. The Golden Gate Bridge is every bit the symbol of progress speeding ahead on the new automobile highways that the Brooklyn Bridge, closer to Jacob’s Village, was a sign of progress reaching new heights carried by the steel cable and the steel girder. The 101 Freeway lands on Lombard Avenue after crossing the Golden Gate, and heads towards North Beach. It turns south on Van Ness just in time to save North Beach as it heads for the new CBD, San Francisco’s financial and business center.

Contemporary efforts at neighbourhood building in San Francisco are as note worthy as North Beach. At the time that Death and Life was headed for the presses, Haight-Ashbury, south of the pan handle at the western reaches of Market Street, was in full swing. As was nearby Castro Street, which like parts of the Village, was home to a concentrated alternative lifestyle population. Whether hippies or gays, these urban communities proved their bonafides in exactly the way Death and Life measures them, by presenting vitality, intensity and great levels of diversity on the streets and sidewalks. They also present as districts: primary elements in a grid city with a readily identifiable footprint. Districts are mentioned in Death and Life but without receiving particular attention. Perfectly aligned with Jacobs’s views, the feeling we get walking these places today is one of life in the city celebrated in socially functioning streets.

It is hard, or impossible, to generalize about such districts precisely because they are, themselves, so little “generalized” or standardized in their groupings. This very capriciousness and diversity of the components is one of the most important, and most ignored, facts about density averages in successful districts.

Death and Life, 202

Jacobs betrays no inclination to work the density data and too-general an understanding of building industry products. Ultimately, it keeps her from embracing paradoxes that give dimension to the very stuff she is describing. For example, ‘diversity of character’—we do not want to live in cookie-cutter streets—and ‘continuity of built form’—which is clearly what the Village flaunts. Yet, in the Village these qualities result from the combination of nearly identical parts! How can two buildings present a unique identity while being made of more or less identical stuff? It is her leap of faith about the soundness and resiliency of the Village urbanism, which greets residents everyday as soon as they are out the door, that backstops the arguments in Death and Life at every turn. Jacobs appears to have little interest in drawing a table, or using drawing as a tool for analysis. She does not rank the data either in ascending or descending order; or separate it into sub-groups according to whether places either in either decline or ascent, death and life, etc., as we have done below.

Jacobs’s the great accomplishment was arriving at the realization that the data needed to be assembled in the first place. In our re-grouping of the reported density numbers by district patterns emerge as we sort the data (the figures are net density numbers, and thus will appear inflated by about 30% when compared with gross density figures provided below):

Measuring Death:

  • 15 — 24 Brooklyn spots in decay
  • 30 — 45 row house neighbourhoods in trouble
  • 30 — 45 row house neighbourhoods in trouble
  • 40 — N. Philadelphia slums
  • 45 — 74 Brooklyn Heights (drop-off/in trouble)

Measuring Life:

  • 21 — 40 Roxbury
  • 45 — 75 Red Hook
  • 55 — 60 Western Addition, San Francisco
  • 75 — 124 Brooklyn Heights (remainder)
  • 80 — 100 Rittenhouse Square; Philadelphia
  • 80 — 140 San Francisco North Beach-Telegraph Hill
  • 125 — 174 Brooklyn Heights (heart)
  • 125 — 174 midtown East Side (most fashionable)
  • 124 — 174 Greenwich Village (most fashionable)
  • 175 — 254 Yorkville
  • + 255 — Village pocket containing stable, old, unslummed Italian community
  • 275 — Boston North End

Jacobs presents net densities. These numbers inflate the results according to the conditions of local platting. The figures were obtained from local government agencies and the author tells us that senior planners whom she had contacted showed no interest in measuring densities achieved in existing neighbourhoods. Their focus was solely on the future with little regard for the past as a source of workable models and solutions.

By the time I opened its covers, I was reading the work 20 years after its publication. As I turned its pages for the first time, the backlash against Modernism and the destruction of cities and neighbourhoods was already decades old. What was difficult for me to ascertain in the late 1970s was that just twenty years back an emerging understanding of urban places was not up to the task of identifying the primary elements of urbanism and classifying them according to type.

Today, ranking density by building type is matter of fact. The figures below include the share of the public right of way needed to access and service the built form. Thus, they appear to be about 30% smaller. However, the numbers measure the same built form:

  • 6 — 20 urban cottages
  • 50 — 70 walk-up apartments
  • 40 — 80 row houses
  • 100+ towers and hi-rises

Jacob’s point is well taken: a critical mass is necessary to sustain the vitality of a district. Chapter 11 takes the issue of density head-on making the case for high density as opposed to overcrowding; pointing out the weaknesses of the housing projects that achieve high residential densities but deliver barren environs; yet steering clear of technical matters of the classification of buildings by type. Playing to her strong suit Jacobs’s criticism of exclusionary zoning is decisive. It is not just the mixing of uses in the districts that contributes to the sense of place, the vibrant district will also present a mix of building types. As such, density by itself is proving to be too narrow a focus as a measure for social functioning. A more complex matrix is necessary.

Concerns today are not limited to differentiating between “high density” and “overcrowding”. While what we mean by ‘high densities’ is exactly what Death and Life is describing, our focus centers on the fact that we don’t need to build hi-rises and towers in order to achieve “high densities”. At 3.5 storeys Greenwich Village urbanism achieves “high density with human scale” and ranks among the very few places in North America that achieve a balanced social functioning in an urban setting. What we consider ‘good’ urban neighbourhoods has not changed. Among the fundamental characteristics of the village or district are continuity of character and diversity of form. Death and Life in the 1980s was still one of the best inventories of ‘good urban districts’ presenting urban characteristics as traditional values of place.

However, if after accounting for the difference between gross and net density measures the two lists still look different, then we should consider two additional factors. First, the numbers in Death and Life were not as accurate as anyone (including the author) would have them. Second, there is plenty of overcrowding to be found in the Village—even in the fashionable streets. The tenements of the post-Civil War era did away with the back yards of the early 1800s row houses. Aerial photography shows very clearly how in most cases the building lot was rebuilt at almost 100% lot coverage. As a result the open middle of the urban blocks virtually disappeared. It is hard to imagine the living conditions of apartments and flats located near the center of the urban block. Furthermore, building activity in the Village has kept right on going.

Beginning in the 1920s modern technologies made possible tall apartment buildings served by elevators and the Village got its fair share. Things just kept piling on. Walking along the best streets in the Village — Barrow, Grove and Bedford, or on Leroy, St Luke’s Place and Morton — construction is visible that is out of character and the wrong form, originating in the 1920s. As early as 1908 Modernism was already conceived as a total break from that past.  Stopping Robert Moses from driving a freeway right through the heart of the Village represents the singular achievement won by activists like Jacobs in the decade immediately preceding Death and Life. Modernism’s ‘take no prisoners’ approach had neither respect for the past, nor any interest to learn from what had gone on before. The second half of the 20th century was dominated by a Modernism fixated on the promise of liberation gained by mass production techniques, and the wide-spreead adoption of the private automobile.

The topics that Jacobs presents relate almost exclusively to urban neighbourhoods. Little relief is offered to the hordes that were at that very moment—willingly or not—pushed out into the suburbs by the singular economic enterprise that would dominate city building into our time: the construction of the suburbs and the freeways. By implying that suburbs should not to be counted as ‘Great American Cities’ the author is exercising her prerogative to limit the subject matter. At those lower densities where there is not sufficient patronage to support good bookstores and local theatres, there is also not enough money to commission studies on how to make good urbanism at 6 units to the acre, one driveway per lot, and three or four cars per residence.

Death and Life is careful to avoid another concern emerging from the tsunami that hit North American cities after the 1960s. Very large developers and huge financing institutions began to build high rise residential towers in the  1920s neighbourhoods ringing the downtowns, and in the 1960s suburbs. The residential towers were not building at the time the Death and Life went to press, but tall apartments lacking human scale were everywhere in Manhattan. It is becoming readily apparent today that both the suburban lot and the high-rise apartment tower represent sprawl at opposite ends of the density scale.

Following along similar lines in more or less the same era—but not available in English translation for almost two decades—architects in Italy and Belgium were using concepts of typology and morphology to advance our understanding of urbanism. By drawing our attention to a set of building types evolving slowly over time—and more or less undaunted by the juggernaut of Modernism—they explained in concrete and quantifiable terms many of the characteristics described in Chapter 10: “The need for old buildings” and Chapter 9: “The need for small blocks”. Aldo Rossi and the Krier brothers’s concept of the ‘sense of place’ and ‘human scale in urbanism’ (including the permanence of monuments and districts) made in-roads in places where traditions are more than 2500 years old in a manner still out of reach for most of North America.

In North America before 1970 any effort at a detailed analysis of past urban form was bound to run into difficulties and frustrations.

The purity of Jacobs’s approach and the pace of her analysis served to keep the critics in check just long enough to get her message across. However, the damage had been done by the time the first two sentences were written. Great shock waves had been set off throughout North America and Western Europe putting stumbling blocks in the path of how the professions might carry out their public or social mandate. The obstacles remain in place right into our day. We do not fully understand or embrace most of the common sense issues Death and Life lays out in its survey. We understand urbanism in North America today in much greater detail than it was understood at the time of publication, yet the greater part of what the work it envisions is yet to be done.

Hopefully, growing awareness will bring about the incubation of a new phase in urban development supplanting the narrative of Modernism with the values represented by human scale and the meaning of place. Then, a new generation will rediscover that the values that Jane Jacobs found in Greenwich Village, in the final analysis, were not that different from the principles used to make Rome, Versailles and Bruges.


One thought on “A Great Work at 53”

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