Lewis Mumford’s review of Jane Jacobs ‘The Death and Life of the Great American Cities’

Just in time for Christmas 1962 the New Yorker magazine published a review of Jane Jacobs epoch making book by the the renown humanist and planner Lewis Mumford.

JACOBS & MUMFORD (LNV Webbimage, 2018)

Do towers make or break neighbourhoods? Must we chose between either building ‘hyper’ density, or making ‘good’ places? Can only ‘big’ cities be ‘great’ cities? Will Capitalism trump the issue of human scale, or do we possess the strength to resist the its siren call? On 1 December 1962 these issues played across the cover and pages of the Christmas edition of the hip, the savvy, the culturally inured New Yorker magazine. Famed New Yorker columnist and liberal arts critic Lewis Mumford took up his pen to review—and criticize—the epoch making little yellow book by architecture journalist and Greenwich Village activist Jane Jacobs: The Death and Life of the Great American Cities. How was Jacobs’s manifesto, bound in a small yellow jacket, received by the establishment media and the establishment planning profession? Fifty-six years later we take another look.

555-HUDSON

HOUSE ON 555 HUDSON STREET (red pin): THE BACK YARD FORMS PART OF THE BLOCK’S GREEN MIDDLE FILLED WITH ENORMOUS TREES. IT PROVIDES FAMLY OUTDOOR SPACE WHERE CHILDREN MIGHT PRETEND TO BE ARCHAEOLOGISTS DIGGING FOR BONES. KEEPING THE MIDDLE OF THE BLOCK OPEN PROVIDES DUAL ASPECT FOR HOUSES AND THE MAIN ORIENTATION FOR REAR APARTMENTS (Apple Maps image).

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1| Life and Times in New York City in the 1950s

The Sky Line is a column in the New Yorker magazine written by eminent personalities in the field of architecture, planning and urbanism. In 1962 Lewis Mumford held the byline. In the 1 December 1962 issue The Sky Line published a piece entitled Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies. In it Mumford offered his review of a little yellow book published the year before: The Death and Life of the Great American Cities. This was Jane Jacobs first foray into publishing. It was a work that shook the male-dominated world of urban planning to the core and rivalled—yet not altogether eclipsed—Mumford’s own publication of the same year, The City in HistoryLaid beside the Christmas Tree, the December issue of the New Yorker held between its covers a title match between two giants of the profession.

One, a man 66 years of age, had a publication history of some 20 titles at the time—several on urbanism. He was a proponent of the ‘organic’ myth of city growth, an idea he may have borrowed from his acquaintance the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. He also advocated for regional planning, a concept he no doubt discussed with another acquaintance the Scottish planner Patrick Geddes.

The other, a woman 46 years of age, was mother and wife, with a growing reputation as a neighbourhood activist in Manhattan’s hip and happening Greenwich Village. A prolific writer, in 1952 she had landed a plum job at the Architectural Forum. The monthly publication was one of the pre-eminent North American professional ‘glossies’ published by magazine magnate Henry Luce (Time, Life, Fortune, Sports illustrated).

In 1956, Jacobs delivered a lecture at Harvard University on behalf of the Architectural Forum. Mumford was in the audience. Addressing urban renewal in East Harlem she gave voice to the plight of African American families in a white and male-dominated professional world. Five years later her little yellow book rocked the world of architects, professional planners and city administrators.

THE PROBLEM OF DENSITY & TOWERS

Before delving into this battle of titans, let’s attempt a brief account of the state of urban planning and design in the 1950s by reviewing some basic facts in urbanism. Post-WWII America was growing like gang-busters. On the one hand, returning soldiers sparked the Baby Boom that continues to define trends in economics and culture to this day. On the other, American companies like General Motors, General Electric, General Dynamics, General Foods, General Mills, Boeing, Pepsi and Coke were reaping the post-war benefits of rebuilding Europe lifting it from the smouldering, bombed out carcass the fight against Nazi Germany had left behind. Everything was moving at the brake-neck pace of modern industrialization and American interests were riding high, drawing the principal benefits. To be a writer in New York City in the decade following the war was akin to being a publicist in the court of the Sun King in Versailles.

Yet, in spite of all the modernism, progress in the social sciences lagged the rapid gains in technology. The means to measure and compute the most rudimentary facts about urbanism, for example, would not be available for another 50 years. It took Google Earth, GIS, CAD, Photoshop and Illustrator to give urban professionals the tools to rival the muscle of federal governments and big industry in producing independent quantitative analysis. Without a basis on concrete and measurable facts urbanists lacked proof for their ideas and observations. It was all pretty much up in the air, one person’s opinion was as valid as anyone else’s. Without quantifiable proof there could be no ‘theory of the city.’ In this sense Jacobs and Mumford were prisoners in the same dungeon. The problem surfaces in the work of both thinkers. For example, in The Death and Life data on density is presented as a correction in later editions in a footnote that spans pages 203-204 (see below). Not that density is the foremost datum for ‘good’ urbanism. Yet, not having concrete and measurable facts makes the whole business of analyzing the city a bit like a weekend walk in the woods. Enjoy it, but don’t expect to come away with anything substantive.

Meanwhile, since the first decade of the 1900s the New York real estate industry had come up with a simple, new formula: towering buildings returned towering profits. Nothing else could compare. If the local authorities joined in and built a subway line, for example, then the profits from the project would climb even higher. ‘Build it and you will collect rents’ might as well have been their motto. Beginning in the early 20th century wedding public sector mega-projects (the Brooklyn Bridge [1883], the NYC subway, the freeways) and private sector mega-towers (Equitable, Metropolitan Life, Woolworth, Chrysler and Empire State) became de rigueur. For urban real estate there was only one statistic that mattered: density made profits rise. As a corollary, the living conditions of the people affected were not the developer’s concern. In theory, the city government would take care of that.

Jacobs and Mumford were deeply concerned over this state of affairs. A generation later Sky Line contributor Paul Goldberger would quote Canadian-born American economist John Kenneth Galbraith characterizing American real estate development as ‘private luxury and public squalor’.

Pruitt

PRUITT-IGOE, ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI (1954)

URBAN RENEWAL

What’s more, the tower profits seemed to cut across social boundaries. It did not matter whether the high rise project was luxury, market priced, or state sponsored social housing. All were profitable. Mumford and Jacobs also opposed ‘the projects’ as social housing had come to be known. Thus, it comes as little surprise that the New Yorker article starts with Mumford’s denunciation of more than a century of slum housing. On the first page he identifies the density of slums, then a focus of urban renewal plans all across major cities in North America, as follows:

FROM—300 people to 700 people acre

Assuming between 3 and 7 people per house, apartment or ‘unit’, we get—100 units/acre which today is not difficult to achieve. In fact, the same can be said for construction 55 years ago: 100 units per acre in 1962 was easily done—but not with human-scale product, 3.5 storeys high. That connection between built form and density would elude urban professionals for another two decades.

Projects like Pruitt-Igoe embodied and publicized what both writers were denouncing. ‘Slum clearance’ initiatives had discovered the fact that ‘height advantages’ could return mega-profits by seizing on the same formula for the ‘economics of high rise’. Whereas slums in the 19th century were 4 to 6 stories in height, projects like Pruitt-Igoe achieved 11 stories and more cashing in on an entirely new calculus. Thus, the ‘projects’ were born:

  1. Slums = 4 – 7 stories high, crowded, filling out their full city block leaving only the front stoop, the sidewalk and the street as ‘public open space’. This building type was an inheritance from the 19th century.
  2. Projects = 11+ stories high freeing up 80% of the ground plane… but taking “short cuts” to make them cheaper to build. This was ‘the new wave’ of the post WWII era. Le Corbusier had pioneered it in Paris, Marseilles and Berlin.

The ‘projects’ were building on a social trend seeking to reduce culture to degree zero (Roland Barthes). Construction was pushing the ‘envelope’ for maximizing profits, while little or no attention was being given to the resulting urban and social conditions. The Corbusian ‘towers in the park’ had been coopted to produce super-blocks in gigantic green lawns (even by Corbusier’s own firm). Planting grass was cheaper than building parks. The larger the super-block, the less off-site costs to cover: fewer streets to pave, and less infrastructure to install. Building ‘walkways in grassy areas’ was cheap compared to building streets. The changes made day and night differences on the estimating sheets of project managers. What was being presented as a new aesthetic was in reality a cost-savings bonanza driven by jealously guarded profit margins.

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8-Bleeker-@-McDougal

SIDEWALK CAFE, BLEEKER & MCDOUGAL, GREENWICH VILLAGE NYC

2| Eyes on the Street Not Flats in the Sky

Jacobs would point out how, regardless of the residents’ income levels, towers were turning their back on the neighborhood—the sidewalk, the street and the park. By failing to put ‘eyes on the street’—i.e. doors and windows opening directly on the sidewalk—towers were failing to create what in subsequent years Oscar Newman would term ‘defensible space’ (1972). The suspicion was growing that the tower form also alienated residents from their social context, dumbing down ‘social functioning.’ Yet, in the all-important business case, towers were returning huge profits to investors. And they had been doing it in New York City for over a half-century.

Mumford elucidates this point on the second page of the article:

By the very nature of the high-rise slab, its inhabitants are cut off from the surveillance and protection of neighbours and passersby, particularly when they are in elevators. In some housing projects, the possibility of causal violence, rape, even murder—a rising menace in all our big cities—is conspicuously present. The daily life of the inhabitants, besides being subject to the insistent bureaucratic regulation of the management, labor under a further handicap. Because of a long-standing rule, only lately removed, urban-renewal projects could not provide marketing facilities to replace those they had wiped out; often the housewife has to trundle her heavy shopping bags many blocks and is denied the convenience of sending a small member of the family to the corner store. In short, though the hygiene of these new structures was incomparably superior to anything the market had offered in the past—and in sunlight, air and view definitely superior to the congested super-slums of the rich on Park Avenue—most of the other desirable facilities and opportunities had descended to a lower level.

[The New Yorker, 1 December 1962, p. 150]

In a favorite passage of Death and Life Jacobs recounts how a mother in a traditional neighborhood can lean out from a third floor window and yell down to the street below breaking up some mishap unfolding among children playing on the sidewalk. The Jacobs’ family home on 555 Hudson Street was a 3-storey row house in a neighborhood platted in the previous century using the principles of human scale urbanism.

Everyday facts like how far a voice carries; the distance at which one can first identify and individual approaching on the street; the proportions that resonate with human sense perception; the harmonies that please the ear; or the ratios discovered by comparing the measurements of key parts of the human body, sea shells and organic matter; these were all verifiable facts of a human scale in arts, culture and—as it turns out—urbanism. Like most professionals around them, both Mumford and Jacobs could feel in their gut these basic tenets of ‘good’ urban form. Yet, lacking the theoretical rigour to prove their existence and functioning, they turned to rhetoric instead. By the middle of the twentieth century it had become obvious to some that an entire tradition in western urbanism had been wiped out necessitating a project of recovery that is still very much on-going today.

Finally, at the end of the second page, Mumford introduces the subject of his review:

…the person who has lately followed through on all these dismal results of current public housing and has stirringly presented them is Mrs. Jane Jacobs, whose book, The Death and Life of Great American Citieshas been an exciting theme for dinner-table conversation all over the country this past year… A few years ago, Mrs. Jacobs stepped into prominence at a planners’ conference at Harvard (1956, see above).

[150]

Dinner tables? Every architect and planner worth their salt had read the book. With such back-handed compliments it is a wonder Mr. Mumford was not the house champion at the New York Lawn Tennis and Rackets Club. Yet, even as he guarded his professional flank, he embraced Jacobs’ foundational proclamation about the making and meaning of place:

She pointed out a fact to which many planners and administrators had been indifferent—that a neighborhood is not just a collection of buildings but a tissue of social relations and a cluster of warm personal sentiments, associated with the familiar faces of the doctor and the priest, the butcher and the baker and the candlestick maker, not least with the idea of ‘home’. Sanitary steam-heated apartments, she observed, are no substitute for warmhearted neighbors, even if they live in verminous cold-water flats. The chat across the air shaft, the little changes of scene as a woman walks her baby or tells her troubles with her husband to the druggist, the little flirtations that often attend the purchase of a few oranges or potatoes, all season the housewife’s day and mean more than mere physical shelter. It is no real gain to supplant the sustaining intimacies of long neighborhood association with the professional advice of a social worker or a psychiatrist, attempting by a wholly inadequate therapy to combat the trauma of social dislocation.

[152, emphasis mine]

…she saw more deeply into the plight of both those who were evicted and those who came back to live in homogenized and sterilized barracks that had been conceived in terms of bureaucratic regimentation, financial finagling, and administrative convenience, without sufficient thought for the diverse needs of personal and family life, thus producing a human voice that matched the new architectural void. In the process, even valuable buildings have often been destroyed, though cherished landmarks in the life of the community, so that the operation may ‘start clean,’ without any encumbrances.

[152]

… This able woman had used her eye and, even more admirably, her heart to assay the human result of large-scale housing, and she was saying, in effect, that these toplofty barracks that now crowd the city’s sky line and overshadow its streets are not fit for human habitation. For her, the new pattern of high-rise urban housing was all one—whether undertaken by municipal authorities to rehouse low-income groups displaced from their destroyed slum quarters, or by insurance companies to house, somewhat more spaciously and elegantly, carefully selected members of the middle class and provide a safe, reasonably high return, or by speculative investors and builders taking advantage of government aid to feather their private nests.

[152, 154, emphasis mine]

A tower is a tower is a tower, regardless of social class. This is a profound insight. Yet, apologists would argue that luxury towers with a concierge, chauffeur and doorman could overcome most of these objections.

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R1-Leroy-@-7th-Ave.png

PEDESTRIAN PRIORITY SPACE IS MISSING HERE AT LEROY @ 7TH AVENUE. THE VILLAGE HAS BEEN IS OVERRUN BY EMPTY SPACES LIKE THIS MADE FOR CARS NOT PEOPLE. THIS GAP IN THE URBAN FABRIC WAS CREATED WHEN THE COMMISSIONER’S PLAN (1811) ‘PUNCHED THROUGH’ 7TH AVENUE THROUGH THE HEART OF THE VILLAGE.

3| Theory and Praxis

Missing from the list of Mumford’s accolades is the quality that still jumps out of the page when one picks up the little yellow book: the combination of observation, insight and intelligence followed by an attempt at synthesis. Jacobs’s intellect is unparalleled in the planning literature of the period. And she accomplishes this feat without reference to works of literature, theory, or other artefacts to support her raw observations.

From a mind so big with a fresh point of view and pertinent ideas, one naturally expected a book of equally large dimensions. But whereas “Sense and Sensibility” could have been the title of her Harvard talk, what she set for in The Death and Life of Great American Cities comes close to deserving the secondary title of “Pride and Prejudice.”

But this excellent clinical analyst has been joined by a character who has patched together out of the bits and pieces of her local personal observation nothing less than a universal theory about the life and death of our great—by “great,” Mrs. Jacobs seems always to mean “big”—American cities. This new costume of theory, though not quite as airy as the Emperor’s clothes, exposes such large areas of naked unawareness that it devaluates Mrs. Jacobs’ many sound statements. Some of her boldest planning proposals, indeed, rest on faulty data, inadequate evidence, and startling misconceptions of views contrary to hers. This does not make her book easy to appraise.

[154]

Given the author is a woman and the reviewer a man—and I have it from the most reliable sources that early on he thought of her as his protégé—allusions to ‘not wearing clothes’ ought to have been avoided altogether.  I shared some of Mumford’s frustrations when I first read The Death and Life. It took a while for the stunning breadth of insight the author jots down in the ‘bits and pieces of her local personal observation‘ to sink in. By recording her thought process alongside her observations, then attempting an unparalleled synthesis, her little yellow book pioneered a new method for understanding both urbanism and ‘the sense of place.’ The method is unimpeachable, shining through to this day.

Next, Mumford chastises his ‘Mrs. Jacobs’ for not getting the urbanism right:

To wipe out her most dangerous rival, she concentrates her attack on Sir Ebenezer Howard … [who] under the rubric of the “garden city,” reintroduced into city building two important ideas: the notion that there is a limit to the area and population of a city, and the notion of providing for continued population growth by founding more towns, which would form “town clusters,” to perform the more complex functions of a metropolis without wiping out the open recreational spaces and the rural activities of the intervening countryside. Fifteen such communities exist in England today as partial embodiments of his principle, mostly with populations ranging from sixty to ninety thousand—a group of towns that will eventually hold a vast number of people working not as commuters to London but in their local factories and business enterprises.

[157]

In a clever twist, Mumford reaches for the theory of Ebenezer Howard—another example of urban theory with not a lot of concrete facts behind it—as a cat’s claw. He neglects to say that it was British architect Raymond Unwin who put into practical operation Howard’s theory. However, the impression is formed that Mumford visited most if not all the ‘fifteen such communities’ built in England, and Jacobs probably had not. Feigning to analyze the ‘Garden City’ Mumford offers us his competing view of ‘good’ urbanism. His iterative theory of urban development is very appealing. Yet, it can hardly be attributed to Ebenezer Howard. The Roman castrum and the Greek towns along the Amalfina are proof enough that the classical culture knew how to combine in one formula plying sea and river routes with the act of founding new towns. The Romans extended the enterprise when they became the great road builders. So that by the first century Vitruvius could classify all of the towns of the classical urbanism into just two types: waterfront towns with the principal ‘urban room’ fronting on the shore; and inland sites where the main public open space would be located in the center of the town plat. Like the classical method, Mumford’s urbanism finds a middle ground between the suburban conurbations of the Eastern Seaboard, Greater London or the banlieus of Paris, for example, and the tower hyper-urbanism of uptown, midtown and downtown Manhattan.

What Mumford fails to realize is that the greatest achievement for any one of his ‘town clusters’ would be that, upon entering, we would find ourselves in something like the century old urbanism of Greenwich Village championed by Jacobs. There is yet another point to make about Mumford’s critique. Jacobs is not pretending to be a ‘new town builder’. Her work is completely immersed in making an already thriving neighborhood support higher levels of social functioning. Importantly, she is also trying to stop the onslaught of a ‘modern tower invasion.’ Of course, both agree ‘good’ urbanism will not result from the figure-ground inversion of the tower modernism. However, by this time Jacobs had joined the local group fighting to stop it. In the New Yorker piece Mumford does not directly reference the issue of ‘saving’ Greenwich Village, or the conservation of every other ‘good’ place for that matter.

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DL-2-40s-Morton

APARTMENTS AND HOUSES ON THE 40s BLOCK MORTON STREET: SOUTH OF CHRISTOPHER THE NEXT FIVE STREETS WERE PLATTED WITH A ‘DOG LEG’ TURN. STARTING PERPENDICULAR TO THE HUDSON RIVER THESE STREETS PIVOT SLIGHTLY TO THE NORTH EAST. THE BEND CREATES AN ENHANCED SENSE OF ENCLOSURE IN THE PUBLIC REALM BY ‘CLOSING THE STREET END VISTA’. A SLIGHT RISE IN THE GROUND AND A TURN IN THE STREET… URBANISM DOESN’T GET BETTER THAN THAT.

4| ‘Good Enough’ Urbanism

For Jacobs ‘good enough’ urbanism was to be found in the place where she lived and raised her family, Greenwich Village. She didn’t need to travel abroad, or fly to San Francisco, in search of confirmation or other examples. And she was right. If we could dial back Greenwich Village to the era of its post-civil war boom; when all the blocks would be green and open in the middle; the perimeters building up with three and four storey houses; the streetwall height set by small number ratios measured against the 50-foot wide streets; when Abingdon, Sheridan and Bedford-Barrow-Commerce were squares and foci of neighborhood life; then this would be a shining example of ‘good’ urbanism in a great American city. That era in Greenwich Village—and in Beacon Hill in Boston—stands as a paradigm of high-density, human scale urbanism every bit as good as any other place built in western culture. However, over the ensuing century, any number of ‘improvements’ were added in an effort for generating higher profits. By the 1950s these stood out as obvious aggressions against the Village’a urbanism. Unfortunately, since no open path was clear for their reversal, the neighbors were left to stage a rear guard action.

While Jacobs’ community succeeded in stopping the extension of Fifth Avenue through Washington Park, or the construction of a ten-lane elevated freeway through Greenwich Village, the greatest damage to the Village had already been done. It came in the form of the percée or ‘punching through’ of Seventh and Eight Avenues and the widening of Sixth Avenue and Hudson Street (see dotted purple lines in the plan at bottom). The improvements along Sixth Avenue came complete with an Elevated Railway that ran from the 1870s to 1938. Thus, long before Robert Moses first proposed an elevated freeway in 1935, and again in the 1960s, the fabric of the Village had been rent apart. Residents that grew up in the Village tell how Hudson Street originally fronted on the Hudson River before landfill changed the contours of the Village on the West side. That would have put Abingdon Square on the water’s edge, in line with the classical urbanism.

The problem Jacobs sensed bearing down on her front door stoop was the speculative hi-rises heading her way. The alternative she advocated was extending the rich local vernacular into the following decades; working with what was there; renovating and adapting the existing built form to effect an on-going revitalization in the Village. That would avoid the wholesale site clearance of the clean-slate urbanism, foreign and alien, constructed without any regard for supporting everyday needs, including social mixing. Knocking at the door was an urban tsunami that came complete with ten-lane elevated freeways zooming overhead like the one that was built, and then taken down, in Boston. Greenwich Village had already taken down two elevated railway lines by 1950. The locals weren’t about embracing Robert Moses’ highways-in-the-sky. Their vision was incremental—fighting one zoning application at a time. In the Village that work proceeds apace today.

In the broader context of all North American cities public attention over issues of livability have ebbed and flowed. By the sixties and seventies building a locally crafted tradition of place would seem anachronistic in the extreme most everywhere in a nation suddenly caught up with heroes and media stars. ‘Good enough’ urbanism didn’t catch on. However, there would be no stopping the high rolling real estate deals for towers and shopping centres.

Mumford, of course, would have none of the ‘messy vitality’ urbanism:

Unfortunately, her assault on current planning rests on an odd view of the nature and function and structure of big cities. Underneath her thesis—that the sidewalk, the street, and the neighborhood, in all their higgledy-piggledy unplanned casualness, are the very core of a dynamic urban life—lies a preoccupation that is almost an obsession: the prevention of criminal violence in big cites.

[158]

But if this remedy were a sound one, eighteenth-century London, which met all of Mrs. Jacobs’ planning prescriptions, would not have been the nest of violence and delinquency it actually was…

[162]

We are not building cities so much as weaving urban fabric for the purpose of  supporting higher levels of social functioning. Jane Jacobs taught me that.

While we support and even encourage Mumford’s method of visiting the places he wrote about—even so far as to visit one (or even all fifteen) of the English Garden Cities—travelling all the way back to the 1700s to counter Jacobs’ thesis seems like a stretch. Where did Mumford get this ‘first hand knowledge’ of eighteenth-century London? Or the statistics showing it a ‘nest of violence and delinquency?’ John Snow traced the source of one of the last cholera outbreaks in London to contaminated water supply in 1854. Indeed, London would not experience its Georgian period until after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. This was the moment of John Nash’s reconstruction of London for the extravagant King George IV, building at half the density of the Victorian piles we see today. Yet, Mumford may know of a history recording the booming years in London that helped it achieve a population of 1 million by 1805.

For Mumford won’t budge:

With a policeman on his beat, a woman could go home alone at any time of night on a purely residential street without apprehension. (She could even, astonishingly, trust the policeman.)

[162]

Here, he appears to dismiss the feelings and apprehensions of women. Including perhaps those of his wife Sophia, walking home some evening when the streets are too dark and the sidewalks too empty.

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DL-Grove-@-Hudson

HOUSES ON GROVE STREET AT HUDSON: PHOTOGRAPHING THE URBANISM OF GREENWICH VILLAGE IS BEST DONE IN THE WINTER WHEN THE TREE CANOPIES ARE BARE. HOWEVER, THE VILLAGE IS BEST EXPERIENCED IN EARLY SPRING OR LATE FALL WHEN THE CANOPIES ARE FULL, THE HOUSES  ALMOST HIDDEN, AND THE AMBIENT TEMPERATURES BEARABLE.

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5| Big Picture Thinking

On issues where they share common ground, yet may approach it from different points of view, Mumford insists on highlighting the differences:

[It is not the design] that has made large parks unusable shambles today. What is responsible for their present emptiness is something Mrs. Jacobs disregards: the increasing pathology of the whole mode of life in the great metropolis, a pathology that is directly proportionate to its overgrowth, its purposeless materialism, its congestion, and its insensate disorder—the very conditions she vehemently upholds as marks of urban vitality. That sinister state manifests itself not merely in the statistics of crime and mental disorder but in the enormous sums spent on narcotics, sedatives, stimulants, hypnotics, and tranquillizers to keep the population of our ‘great’ cities from coming to terms with the vacuous desperation of their daily lives and with the even more vacuous horrors that their rulers and scientific advisers seem to regard as a reasonable terminus for the human race. Lacking any sense of an intelligible purpose or a desirable goal, the inhabitants of our great American cities are simply “waiting for Godot.”

[163]

Mumford calls our attention to a ‘blind spot’ in the theory. It may be a tactical calculation by Jacobs who is all about the possible, leaving behind what will ultimately prove futile:

Unhappily, the main tendency of the metropolitan economy she ardently supports is to turn all business over to big commercial enterprises increasingly automatic in operation and automatically increasing in size. The huge, impersonal supermarket is symbolically the ultimate goal of unregulated metropolitan expansion. Mrs. Jacobs wishes to fight new forms of economic organization that are wiping out choice and variety. But the notion of achieving this by multiplying the number of short streets and increasing the number of marginal small enterprises absurdly ignore the larger forces that must be controlled and humanized. The dominant economic institutions in our cities deliberately work to curtail freedom and reduce autonomy. There is no dividing line between the dynamic forces Mrs. Jacobs favours and the cataclysmic forces she opposes, for they have the same origin—an obsessive concern for power and profit, and an indifference to more humane interests.

[171 emphasis mine]

Its hard to read The Death and Life and come away with a sense that the author is turning a back on either the realities of place, or the ‘outside forces’ threatening to reshape that place. Jacobs is keenly aware that Greenwich Village is a large enough ‘chunk’ to make it representative of the Five Boroughs in particular, and urbanism in North America in general. She is also keenly aware—as is any New York resident—of the stark contrast between the Village streets and the streets of the 1811 Commissioner’s Plan. There are many primary elements in urbanism that Jacobs does not take into account, like transportation, urban rooms, and building typology. Yet, by focusing on the basics Jacobs managed to sent shock waves through the establishment. She situates the ‘pathology’ in the external forces rapaciously trying to come in, rather than among the resident population putting up the good fight against increasing odds. Maybe the date of Mumford’s review—December 1962, a year or so after publication—hasn’t afforded him enough time to gain critical distance.

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APARTMENTS AND HOUSES ON THE 50s & 60s BLOCK BARROW AT BEDFORD

Defending the planning profession Mumford assails a naiveté he projects on the pages of the recalcitrant little yellow book:

Mrs. Jacobs is at her best in dealing with small, intimate urban areas. She understands that the very life of a neighborhood depends upon the maintenance of the human scale…

[163]

A vacuum had been created mid-century by the growing awareness of the passing of 19th century morals and norms. The air was full of uncertainty about what exactly would take its place. Shocks were already starting to be felt from a mass culture rising to fill the void. Yet, these two individuals lived in the same city and moved in the same professional circles. It is a pity, therefore, that they didn’t think to make use of the modern technology and sit for a cup of coffee with a film camera, or a tape recorder running. I would have liked for them to discuss how the ‘small, intimate urban areas’ of Jacobs are typologically similar to the notion of ‘a limit to the area and population of a city’ supported by Mumford.

Is not an iterative urbanism growing in clusters of new cities and towns all about sharing Village elements in common? When we step out of the Village, and other historic places, to look at founding new places, are we not looking for—more or less—a happy mingling of Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs urbanism? Jacobs must answer whether it must always be the ‘huge’ city that is a ‘great’ city. Can networked populations work just as well? Mumford must explain what parts of Greenwich Village he would leave out of the new villages and towns—and more importantly—what parts he feels would make spectacular contributions. In any case, the experience of Greenwich Village as a coherent urban unit assailed on all sides by mega-urbanism speaks volumes to the resilience of the places we call home. If there is Death threatening good urban places, is that cyclical? Can we expect Life to return—even if there is no telling exactly when? If we can admit that much movement back and forth, then the Death and Life of Great Cities can begin to resemble a collective, cyclical process that may outlast us all.

If Mumford appears ready to tear the Village down, then he does not make it clear what he would put up in its place. A garden city built on the carcass of a Greenwich Village? How does that advance the debate about the quantifiable characteristics of ‘good’ urbanism, or the fate of human kind, for that matter?

My experience of Greenwich Village starting in 1980 was of an ‘island of sanity’ in a metropolis spinning out of control. I first went there out of curiosity, like every other tourist. But I kept coming back realizing it was this place—and not the modern towers—that represented the best New York City had to offer. The intrusions of Avenue of the Americas and Seventh Avenue pouring their rivers of cars, trucks and buses were a constant reminder of what waited uptown, midtown and downtown. It was the way the Village stood its ground that presented as one walked the streets and entered the shops. This was the timeless dimension of ‘good’ urbanism asserting its presence amid the vast, sprawling metropolis. Mumford presses the point about the birth of new cities. A fine topic for discussion to be sure, but not one that Jacobs tackles in her book.

 

 

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BUILDINGS ON BLEEKER PRESENT A STREET END VISTA ON COMMERCE STREET

Thus, it would appear as if the younger protégée has Mumford in the ropes:

Her ultimate criteria of sound metropolitan planning are dynamism, density, and diversity, but she never allows herself to contemplate the unfortunate last term in the series—disintegration. Yet her concern for local habits and conventions points her in the right direction for overcoming this ultimate disintegration: the recognition of the neighborhood as a vital urban entity, whose stability and continuity are necessary for rebuilding the kind of life that the metropolis, in all its cataclysmic economic voracity (“cataclysmic” is Mrs. Jacobs’ happy epithet), has destroyed. She recognizes that a city is more than buildings, but she fails to perceive that a neighborhood is more than its streets, or that the static geometrical order of the gridiron plan and the old-fashioned rectangular block has long been one of the chief obstacles to an effective neighborhood life…

[164]

Angels are dancing on the head of a pin. Sitting together over a cup of coffee in the Village may have shown these two titans of New York City urban life sharing more in common than the New Yorker editor may have felt profitable to admit. Jacobs was railing against the planning of public projects outside her neighborhood, the endless suburban tracks, and the threatened intrusions of clean-slate urbanism and freeways everywhere—including the Village. All were expressions of the same capitalist inertia that governments dared not regulate. The U.S. in the post-WWII era lacked that kind of political capital. Gasoline and oil were the backbone of a military-industrial complex Eisenhower had warned about on his final address before leaving the White House in the same year Death and Life was published.

Mumford was after something that may have resembled 20 of the 22 Spanish Missions in California. Two had grown into great American cities, with all that implies: Los Angeles and San Francisco. Originally, the California missions had been conceived by the Spanish Crown as a kind of latifundium mixing growing agricultural goods for export with the Christian indoctrination of indigenous peoples. Spaced a day’s walking journey, or twenty-five miles apart, they were linked together by a single trail known as El Camino Real (The Royal Road). The alignment for U.S. Highway 101, completed in 1926, follows the pioneer road for much of its route between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Along this trail the larger missions were designed around a central arcaded courtyard shaped by the various buildings. As such the Missions lacked an urban structure. We cannot arrive at San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara and find the historic central square. I never existed. Yet, as California seceded from Mexico to join the Union in 1850, towns began to develop around many of the missions. Thus, the network of mission sites was reinterpreted to seed the urbanism we see today extending all the way from the Napa Valley, north of San Francisco, to San Diego on the Mexican border.

Starting from different points of view, Jacobs and Mumford are both reeling from the consequences of what they see coming. Both sense a remedy is needed. Yet, neither one will influence—much less stop—the regional shopping malls and tower urbanism of the ensuing five decades. Jacobs was right in sticking to her guns. The triumph of The Village over that period has been a victory celebrated by the whole community. Getting towers and malls built has only vindicated a select and privileged set of individuals. Good urbanism has yet to break out into the public consciousness in such a way as to make each of its loses or triumphs, death or life matters for the body politic. Yet, what we have already gleaned from this meeting of great minds is that urbanism is cyclical. Thus, when ‘good’ urbanism returns, the arc of history suggests that it will come in the form of human scale towns and villages set a few miles apart. They will build out with a set of quantifiable products, including: short streets built for people; high-density cores mixing uses; and residential peripheries were each house will have a front door on a street, or courtyard, and one or two destinations within easy walking distance. Where they exist, old buildings will be retained and repurposed. All these urban characteristics can experienced today walking the best villages and towns the world over, including Greenwich Village.

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E6-30s-Barrow-Street

HOUSES ON THE 30s BLOCK BARROW STREET

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6| A City is Not a Work of Art… Right?

Yet it is the beauty of great urban cathedrals and palaces, the order of the great monastic and university precincts of Oxford and Cambridge, the serenity and spaciousness of the great squares of Paris, London, Rome, Edinburg, that have preserved intact the urban cores of truly great cities over many centuries. Instead of asking what are the best possible urban patterns today for renovating our disordered cities, Mrs. Jacobs asks only under what conditions can existing slums and blighted areas preserve their congenial humane features without any radical changes in their physical structure or their mode of life. Her simple formula does not suggest that her eyes have ever been hurt by ugliness, sordid confusion, or her ears offended by the roar of trucks smashing through a once quiet residential neighborhood, or her nose assaulted by the chronic doors of ill-ventilated, unsigned housing at the slum standards of congestion that alone meet her ideal standards for residential density…

[167]

Barrow Street in the Village has charms all its own that the grandeur of S. Pietro at the Vatican will not assail. London, Paris and Roma… (and other smaller places as well) have kept their historic districts, yet have updated them. But our two titans both understood urbanism as the art of small adjustments. Mumford appears to play this down, while Jacobs is plying her methods to save a superb—but relatively younger—historical setting. A place that 500 years from now may operate as the Borgo Pio does today. At one level, I experienced little difference visiting the Oltrarno in Firenze, and Greenwich Village in NYC. One lacks frescos by Masaccio, the other the Village Vanguard.

She has exposed these convictions in a flat statement: “A city cannot be a work of art.” The citizens of Florence, Siena, Venice and Turin should take note.

[167]

Yes, well… Jacobs has some explaining to do. The statement is probably colloquial, rather than a declaration of the impossibility of urban space to sustain human aesthetic experiences. Which, after all, is a well documented fact that even I can attest to.

The series of street photographs shown here, for example, taken in the best streets of Greenwich Village I could find, record urban spaces in the Village functioning according to the principles of human scale urbanism. There are no longer any ‘urban rooms’ left in the Village. Sheridan Square was destroyed by the Seventh Avenue percée. Abingdon Square was lost to the intrusion of Eight Avenue, then it was overbuilt with hi-rises and buried in traffic. Two houses appear to have been built on what appears to have been a residential square at Barrow-Bedford-Commerce. There is lots of Death to see around the Village all rightYet, in spite of the missing ‘urban rooms,’ fine examples of ‘good’ urbanism can still be found walking in the Village streets. As the photographs here attempt to show, this is especially true on the five streets south of Christopher that dog-leg as they approach the old river front on Hudson.

Intersections like McDougal and Bleeker pinch in to do the service that urban rooms perform better. Higher levels of social mixing also take place in short streets like Cornelia offering relief from the shortage of public open spaces in a Village over-run by traffic. Thus, while we can’t point to entire cities as ‘works of art,’ we can state unambiguously that many places in the Village resonate with human sense experience. When the squares of the original Village plat are returned, it will signal the return of our appreciation of the great catalogue of urban rooms constructed in Renaissance Italy over two or three centuries. It includes such places as: Piazza Navona, Piazza del Campo, Piazza Pio II, the Campidoglio, Piazza di Ponte S’Angelo and many more. These spaces have resonated through the ages with aesthetic qualities apprehended by the human senses and universally acclaimed, yet their primary function remains supporting the highest levels of social mixing. They are not ‘works of art’ as the term is commonly used. Yet, they are paradigms of what can we can achieve building the city when we engage in the sister disciple of urbanism.

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E7-40s-Barrow-Street

HOUSES ON THE 40s BLOCK BARROW STREET

7| A Community of Five Thousand

As the article nears conclusion, Lewis Mumford finds common ground with Jane Jacobs in the approximate size of the district, neighborhood or ‘quartier’:

…her book at times offers a valuable look at the complex activities of the city—especially those urban functions that flourish precisely because of all the interchanges that take place, by chance no less than by plan, most frequently in cities that have reached a certain order of bigness and complexity. Unlike the big corporations and research laboratories that are stampeding into suburbia, Mrs. Jacobs recognizes how much value they will leave behind, in exchange for temporary access to a golf course, a private airfield, or a few domestic acres. She also recognizes, by observation and experience, the communal nucleus of the city—the value of the spontaneous “primary” association of families and neighbours, upon which all the later complexities of urban life are based. And though she dislikes the notion of a planned “neighborhood unit,” she chooses for her normal neighborhood the size that Clarence Perry, in his studies for the Regional Plan for New York back in the twenties, hit upon as roughly the proper size for such a unit—about five thousand people. “We shall have something solid to chew on,” she observes, “if we think of city neighbourhoods as mundane organs of self-government. Our failures with city neighborhoods are, ultimately, failures in localized self-government. And our successes are successes at localized self-government. I am using self-government in its broadest sense, meaning both the informal and formal self-management of society.” Excellent.

[168-169 emphasis mine]

Yes, it’s all to the good. We finally have a ‘number’ in The Death and Life, that we can sink our teeth into:

I take a certain mischievous delight in pointing out that the thirty thousand she has hit on for a self-governing district is precisely the figure Leonardo da Vinci, the first advocate of New Towns, suggested to the Duke of Milan when he proposed to overcome the congestion and sordid of that city of three hundred thousand people by designing ten component cities of thirty thousand, the same number, I repeat, that Ebenezer Howard—the arch villain of Mrs. Jacobs’ private urban melodrama—tentatively chose for his original garden city.

[172]

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R4-70s-Bedford-Street-@-Commerce

HOUSES ON THE 70s BLOCK BEDFORD STREET AT COMMERCE

8| Subsidiarity

As the 2016 documentary Citizen Jane puts on display, the most interesting aspect of Death and Life may be that while its author was fighting against an avenue slicing Washington Square in two, and successfully joining forces with those opposing the South Bronx Freeway, all manner of ugly towers were being built willy nilly just about everywhere in New York, the rest of the Americas, and most of the world. Stopping it will necessitate a change in government structure.

Mrs. Jacobs realizes that if public officials are to be made more responsive to public opinion and be prevented from making wanton changes in neighborhoods to favor lending institutions, big contractors, and rich tenants instead of the old residents, politics must be organized on a local basis. So, too, her proposed new neighborhood organ of government, like the English borough and unlike the purely formal area of an Assembly District, must have some coherence and integrity as an economic and social unit.

[171 emphasis mine]

Someone or some ‘thing’ must draw the line between private profit and public squalor. The concept of ‘subsidiarity’ aims to delegate decision making to the level closest to where the action is taking place. In principle, the central authority assumes a subsidiary function performing only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level. This term is not used in The Death and Life, yet it lies not too far below the surface (Jacobs would embrace it in her later work). It all hinges on the need to find a balance between social and economic functioning. Casting about for answers Mumford unwittingly becomes entangled in the Sprawl Fallacy:

Now, it is this massive, century-old drift to suburbia, not the building of super-blocks or garden cities, that is mainly responsible for the dilapidation and the near-death of big American cities. This movement towards the rural periphery in search of things that were the proud possession of every pre-mechanized city has been helped by the most active enemies of the city—the over budgeted highway engineers who have riddled metropolitan areas with their gaping expressways and transformed civic cores into parking lots… Strangely, the city that so insistently drives its population into the suburbs is the very same city that Mrs. Jacobs quaintly describes as ‘vital.’

[173]

Most of what ails suburbia could be corrected with a good, strong shot of Jane Jacobs urbanism. However, the note about the highway engineers rings true. Like the other city building professions, city engineers find themselves in a silo without little knowledge, and even less appreciation for how to design cities to support higher levels of social functioning. Traffic engineers understand machines—turning radii, curbing wheels and traffic flows measured in thousands of people per hour per direction—but they don’t understand much in terms of measuring social functioning inside the urban footprint.

No one has surpassed her in understanding the reasons for the great metropolis’s complexity and the effect of this complexity, with its divisions of labour, its differentiations of occupations and interests, its valuable racial, national, and cultural variety, upon its daily activities. She recognizes that one cannot handle such a multi-dimensional social organization as one might handle a simple machine, designed for a single function. “A growing number of people have begun, gradually,” she notes, “to think of cities as problems in organized complexity—organisms that are replete with unexamined, but obviously intricately interconnected, and surely understandable, relationships.”

[174]

This ‘organized complexity’ cries out for a system of governance that protects the working and middle classes against the onslaught of the money-rich pouring into the neighborhoods and turning them into commodity markets of transparent intentions. The little yellow book is a manifesto for halting the invasion of outside forces into well established neighborhoods. Nobody is building towers in either Firenze, or Greenwich Village. The fact that they are being contemplated for the City of London is just another reminder that the process triggering the Death of Cities can start anytime, anywhere.

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9| Conclusion

As he presents his closing arguments Mumford raises the issue of the environment. No doubt he is benefiting from his association with Patrick Geddes.  This is underscored in the second to last page when he muses about ‘the region’ as the next step up for the mega-city. Writing in 1962, Mumford’s environmental awareness is impressive:

The obvious result of the large-scale metropolitan congestion she advocates—the poisoning of the human system with carbon monoxide and the two hundred known cancer-producing substances usually in the air, the muffling of the vital ultraviolet rays by smog, the befouling of streams and oceanside (once used for fishing and bathing) with human and industrial waste—is flatly ignored. This is worse than an oversight; it points to a basic defect in her thinking, a failure to take in the environment as a whole…

[174]

Yet, Mumford fails to address the point made in The Death and Life where Jacobs dismisses regional planning as the punting of unsolved problems to a higher bureaucracy, implying the larger and more remote the bureaucracy the less likely it will prove ineffective:  “A region is an area safely larger than the last one to whose problems we found no solution” [The Death and Life of Great American Cities, p. 410]. There may be a good reason to make a new level of government. However, getting the facts right on the ground is not one of them. Neighborhood issues require boots-on-the-ground, rather than decision makers acting in Albany, City Hall, or some other remote location.

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Greenwich-Village-Plan

GREENWICH VILLAGE PLAN

FROM THE HISTORICAL DISTRICT DESIGNATION REPORT (1969). OUR RED LINE OVERLAY RESTORES THE BLOCK PATTERN DESTROYED BY URBAN INTRUSIONS SHOWN AS DOTTED PURPLE LINES. THE 7TH AVENUE PERCEE, THE WIDENING OF 6TH AVENUE AND THE EXTENSION OF EIGHTH AVENUE PUNCHING THROUGH INTO ABINGDON SQUARE, ALL SENT SHOCKS THROUGH THE VILLAGE URBANISM. THE RECOVERY OF THE VILLAGE WILL NOT BE COMPLETE UNTIL THE BLOCK PATTERN IS KNITTED BACK TOGETHER AND THE SQUARES ARE RETURNED TO FUNCTION AS THE FOCI OF NEIGHBORHOOD LIFE. THE PLAN IS ORIENTED WITH THE HUDSON RIVER AT BOTTOM AND HUDSON STREET PROVIDING THE BASELINE PARALLEL TO THE WATERLINE. THE MAIN STREETS CLIMB THE RIVER BANK (HORATIO, JANE, BANK, PERRY, CHARLES, CHRISTOPHER, GROVE, BARROW, COMMERCE, MORTON & LEROY). FOURTH, BLEEKER AND BEDFROD CUT ACROSS FORMING THE GRID. THE LONG BLOCKS THEY SHAPE ARE ORIENTED TO MAXIMIZE THE SOUTHERN SUNNY EXPOSURE. THE PENTAGONAL FOOTPRINT THAT EMERGES FOR GREENWICH VILLAGE IS ANCHORED BY ITS MAIN PUBLIC SQUARES: ABINGDON, SHERIDAN, THE VILLAGE COMMON AND BEDFORD-BARROW-COMMERCE PLACE.

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In conclusion:

One cannot control destructive automatism at the top unless one begins with the smallest units and restores choice and initiative to them—to the person as a responsible human being, to the neighborhood as the primary organ not merely of social life but of moral behavior, and finally to the city as an organic embodiment of the common life, in ecological balance with other cities, big and little, within the larger region in which they lie. A quick, purely local answer to these problems is not better than applying a homemade poultice for the cure of cancer.

[179]

Mumford had already alerted us that there were 200 cancer causing agents in the city air. In a robust defence of the planning profession he errs by not throwing open the door and welcoming into the room one of the most incisive and original thinkers in American urbanism. He also appears unable to see that Jacobs is playing a Janus headed strategy. Looking in one direction, she is revelling in the up-close and personal observations of everyday neighborhood life. Looking in the other direction, she is readying a home guard to hold back the onslaught of towers by the really big real estate players. Fifty-four years later there are no towers in the Village—though there has been plenty of over-building—and the movement for its conservation continues apace without interruption.

Game, Set, Match to ‘Mrs. Jacobs!’

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          C         O          D          A

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It has come to my attention that sometime after the New Yorker article Jane Jacobs telephoned Lewis Mumford at home to request—and obtain—his support in the fight against the Lower Manhattan Expressway. A project proposed by Robert Moses that was successfully halted.

An updated review of The Death and Life of the Great American Cities is here.

One thought on “Lewis Mumford’s review of Jane Jacobs ‘The Death and Life of the Great American Cities’”

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