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Jane Jacob Says No: The trouble with street ballet

Owen Hatherley on how the single most widely read book on cities is linked to the demolition of the Heygate Estate in this excerpt from his latest book, "Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances"

 

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The Heygate Estate in Southwark before demolition
The Heygate Estate in Southwark before demolition

This is an excerpt from Owen Hatherley’s latest book "Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances" available here and published by Verso, originally published in the London Review of Books. Owen will be speaking about the fall and rise of Brutalism on Tuesday at 1pm at Festival of Place: The Pineapples. Free, register here.

 

 

 

In Enrica Colusso’s film Home Sweet Home, on the subject of the recently ‘decanted’ Heygate Estate in the Elephant and Castle, south-east London, a town planner explains to camera why nearly all the buildings around him – a large council estate, and a covered shopping centre – have to be demolished. They’re not real streets, he says. They’re a monoculture of one type of thing – housing here, shopping there – and worse than that, they’re mono-tenure, one gigantic ‘project’ of poor people put in one place. Places like this are socially unhealthy – the people in them are socially excluded by being placed in great single-class ghettos. They are lifeless, homogeneous, boring, the result of ‘top-down’ rather than ‘bottom-up’ planning.

 

Around him, however, swirl enormous amounts of street life. The covered shopping centre has a dense street market around it, and within its floors – at least at the time of filming – the sort of multicultural businesses that are usually praised by contemporary planners – a Polish restaurant, a Chinese supermarket, several Latin American restaurants and grocers and, at the top, a bowling alley. The housing estates next door are – were – among the most multicultural places on earth, and as much as council tenants, you could find students enjoying the relatively low rents of ‘ex-council’ properties. But one thing the film shows is that while the shopping centre – and the traffic disaster in front of it, with its two roundabouts – are noisy and ‘vibrant’, to use the familiar cliché, inside the Heygate Estate was a green oasis, dense with trees, quiet. There were no ‘streets’, only walkways segregated from traffic, with far, far fewer people than there are in the shopping centre. The reason this place had to go, even before the interests of real estate and cash-poor councils are considered, could be summed up as: ‘Jane Jacobs says no’.

 

This is interesting, as it is something like the reverse of the epiphany the freelance journalist Jane Jacobs experienced in Philadelphia in the mid-1950s, upon visiting new housing estates and old ‘slums’ with their planner Edward Bacon. Writing for a variety of publications, but mainly Architectural Forum, Jacobs had contrasted ‘Olympian’ town planners such as New York’s quango despot Robert Moses, addicted to models and graphics, seldom ever getting out of their cars, with ‘pavement-pounders’ such as Edward Bacon and the shopping mall designer Victor Gruen, who truly knew and explored their city on foot. Yet even they, it seemed, had failed to create a ‘real’ city with the blunt instruments of state-driven town planning.

 

In Philadelphia Jacobs was taken to a ‘bad street’ that she later remembered as being ‘just crammed with people, mostly black people, walking on the sidewalks and sitting on the stoops and learning out of the windows’. The ‘good one’, meanwhile, just had one boy kicking a tyre into a gutter. Her biographer Robert Kanigel quotes her asking the planner, ‘Ed, nobody’s here. Now why is that? Where are all the people? Why is no-one here?’ ‘To her fury,’ Kanigel says, ‘he just wasn’t interested in her question.’ Even a planner with the best of intentions had failed to understand what made a city interesting, exciting and economically successful, and create new spaces that would follow suit. From this insight came the impulse that led her to write what is probably the single most widely read book on cities published in the twentieth century.

 

The reason [the Heygate Estate] had to go, even before the interests of real estate and cash-poor councils are considered, could be summed up as: ‘Jane Jacobs says no’.

 

The Death and Life of Great American Cities couched itself from the start as an attack on the orthodoxies of city planning, as Jacobs saw them in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That was, in Kanigel’s words, "a time when old city neighbourhoods were being erased, highrise housing projects erected in their place; when slums were slums and everyone knew exactly what they were, or thought they did; when anyone who wanted to live in the city would have been seen as just a little weird."

 

The dominant urban ideas of the era were considered disparate at the time, but were linked together by Jacobs into a scathing portmanteau: Radiant Garden City Beautiful. The components came from France, Britain and the US, respectively: Le Corbusier’s mid-1930s Radiant City, a vision of a city of towers in landscaped parkland, where housing was rigorously zoned away from industry, leisure and a central business district; Ebenezer Howard’s Edwardian Garden Cities of To-Morrow, a proposal for the creation of verdant, self-contained new towns to accommodate what would later be called ‘overspill’ from the metropolis; and the City Beautiful Movement, which took hold of American planners in the 1900s, favouring the creation of grand, vaguely Parisian classical ensembles, usually for government, usually after clearing a non-‘beautiful’ part of city to create them, in the heart of American towns and cities. It’s worth noting that the major building project in America at the time of Jacobs’s writing – the creation of miles upon miles of low-density suburbs by private developers, subsidised richly by the Eisenhower-era state – doesn’t feature in the portmanteau, as it didn’t quite fit any of these three parts. That’s because the argument was more about ideology than practice – the fact that Radiant Garden City Beautiful had seduced architects and urban planners to overlook what the city really was, the ways in which its built structure and economy worked on its own terms, in favour of a received idea of how cities ‘should’ be. The result, in her view, was ‘the anti-city’. The anti-city destroyed the treeless pavements, which looked messy but functioned well, in favour of pointless greensward where ‘Christopher Robin goes hippety-hoppety’. It destroyed human networks and replaced them with emptiness and formality. Her alternative to this was not a new proposal or a new image but something that, she claimed, already existed, and needed only to be strengthened and helped – ‘the ballet of Hudson street’, the vision of mutual aid and ‘complex order’ that she saw daily outside her window or as she sat on her doorstep in Greenwich Village.

 

Death and Life’s reputation was bolstered as the sixties went on by the successful campaigns Jacobs herself was involved in, such as stopping the Lower Manhattan Expressway that would have destroyed her home in Greenwich Village, and which would have obliterated that ballet and replaced it with the linear forward motion of cars ploughing along concrete flyovers. Robert Kanigel takes his title from one of Death and Life’s most famous concepts, ‘eyes on the street’, which encapsulates well Jacobs’s combination of humane optimism and anti-statist laissez-faire; crime, she argued, was actually lessened by the density and constant activity of the builtup nineteenth-century city, because so many people could see what was going on at all times, making policing almost unnecessary – if someone was robbed or attacked there would be dozens of eyewitnesses, an instant deterrent. The title of Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring’s Jacobs anthology, Vital Little Plans, quotes her alternative slogan to Chicago architect and City Beautiful ideologue Daniel Burnham’s ‘make no little plans – they have no power to stir men’s hearts’. But the subtitle – the Short Works of Jane Jacobs, author of the Death and Life of Great American Cities – is revealing in a different way. An active writing career of seventy years, from 1936 to 2006, was dominated by that one book. Both Kanigel and Zipp/Storring are keen to make a case for what she did before and after Death and Life, but the space devoted to the various parts of her career tells its own story. Only a quarter of Eyes on the Street is devoted to the fifty years of Jacobs’s life that succeeded the book’s publication.

 

See Owen Hatherley speak on Tuesday, 13 July at 1pm at Festival of Place: The Pineapples. Free.

Register

 

Jane Butzner was born in 1916 into a wealthy Protestant family in Scranton, a declining coalmining town in Pennsylvania; she did not go to university, but managed with impressive speed for the time to carve out a career as a copywriter and freelance journalist, largely for a metallurgy trade journal, Iron Age, and married Robert Jacobs, an architect specialising in hospitals. She published her first book in her twenties – Constitutional Chaff, a long-out-of-print annotated collection of discarded drafts and failed proposals for the Constitution of the United States (Death and Life, published twenty years later in 1961, is often described incorrectly as her first book). In both Eyes on the Street and Vital Little Plans, you find Jacobs discovering 1930s New York as a revelation; and some of that is already couched in the terms of Death and Life. Kanigel notes that one single block of Jones Street, location of her first Manhattan flat, had at the time she moved there, terraces of 1840s houses interspersed with 1920s apartments, a sweet factory, a French laundry, an ice dealer’s cellar, a barber shop and three speakeasies, all unaffected by zoning regulations. Yet she was susceptible then to the alternative visions of imaginary cities that she would later do so much to discredit decisively. One highlight was the 1939 World’s Fair, organised by Robert Moses as a vision of spaced-out towers, flyovers and abstract, futuristic architecture. Much later, she recalled to an interviewer, ‘I thought it was so cute. It was like watching an electric train display somewhere.’ Did you have an inkling that this was going to turn out to be Dallas in 1985?, asked her interlocutor. ‘No, of course not.’

 

Vital Little Plans ignores her dabbling in constitutional archaeology, and instead begins with two New York microcosms Butzner had published in Vogue in the mid-1930s. Zooming in on the ‘flower district’ and the block or so of diamond sellers on the Bowery, these are amazingly similar to her later work. There is the interest in complex economies, urban activity and trust – ‘there has never been a robbery in the centre’, she claims of the diamond district – and there is her ability to sketch dramatic and somewhat sentimental urban panoramas, full of activity. "Under the melodramatic roar of the ‘El’, encircled by hashhouses and Turkish baths, are the shops of the hard-boiled stalwart men, who shyly admit that they are dotties for love, sentiment and romance … apprentices, dodging among the hand-carts that are forever rushing to or from the fur and garment districts, dream of the time when they will have their own commissions houses. Greeks and Koreans, confessing that they have the hearts of children, build little Japanese gardens."

 

Owen Hatherley's latest book, published by Verso
Owen Hatherley's latest book, published by Verso

It is not coincidental that this sort of thing sounds so close to contemporary urban marketing copy, whether offered by magazines like Monocle or by estate agents, when selling ‘vibrant’ inner-city neighbourhoods. Jacobs’s densely populated, living vision won out comprehensively, in Europe and North America at any rate, against the long-obsolete dioramas of the world’s fairs and architects’ models; even the biggest developers, and the most enormous projects, now try to, in the words of Michael Bloomberg, ‘build like Moses with Jane Jacobs in mind’. The editors of Vital Little Plans tell us that we live in a ‘triumphant era of urban symphony’, where the things that once marked Jacobs out as a subversive and eccentric – a love of street life, old and worn city-blocks, informality and small-scale capitalism – are total orthodoxy. Her pamphleteer language, vividly readable and unafraid of causing offence (or of caricaturing opponents) has been codified into town planning cliché: social exclusion, mixed use, mixed tenure, active frontages.

 

Reading between the lines of Eyes on the Street, however, the major reason for Jacobs’s transformation from cranky freelancer to universally feted urban guru (‘the Mother Teresa of urbanism’, as Mike Davis, a rare dissenter from the church of St Jane, once put it) becomes her encounter with the slum, as concept and, decreasingly, as reality. It was the slum, for the planners of Radiant Garden City Beautiful, that made drastic urban transformation necessary. At first, Jacobs did not disagree with this. But gradually, between the 1930s and 1960s, she came to reject the notion that slums even existed. This can partly be blamed on the editors of the Soviet daily Izvestia. One of Jacobs’s many freelance jobs was for Amerika, a magazine financed by the state department from the Second World War onwards as a showcase of American life for the Soviet market. Her work for this magazine – and her membership at that time of leftist institutions including the United Federal Workers and the American Labor Party – earned her surveillance from the FBI and a thick file during the McCarthy era. To her credit, she responded angrily to their enquiries, asserting (truthfully) that she had no sympathy with communism but condemning their surveillance in the strongest terms.

 

The interiors, facilities, living standards and maintenance all differed... but this was all irrelevant. Each of them did the same thing: they killed the street.

 

While working for Amerika, Jacobs wrote a piece on contemporary American architecture. Published in the early fifties, at the height of the Cold War, the piece immediately elicited a hostile article in Izvestia, which pointed out her avoidance of the question of slums. In an era when, according to her subsequent collaborator Daniel Seligman, ‘17 million Americans live in dwellings that are beyond rehabilitation – decayed, dirty, rat infested, without decent heat or light or plumbing’, this was a fair point, however much those slums might have looked rather desirable by comparison with the urban Soviet Union at the time. ‘Let’s see if we can’t clear up what a slum is’, challenged the Izvestia editors. Arguably, Jacobs would spend the rest of her career trying to do precisely this, by declaring the concept obsolete – that is, asserting that slums, as conventionally understood, didn’t exist. The worst thing a place could be was not noisome, impoverished, dirty or crumbling, but boring; an insight she later expanded into the assertion that the worst thing an economy could be was stagnant. In the early 1950s, however, she still believed in replacement, rebuilding and the inevitable clearance that came with that, writing in Amerika of ‘futuristic apartment complexes, slums erased, a new American cityscape replacing them’.

 

‘A too-hasty glance’, Kanigel writes of the famous house on Hudson Street from which Jacobs watched her ballet, ‘might have suggested that (the Jacobs family) had moved into a slum’. It was rat-infested when they moved in, with a garbage dump in the yard, and they did a lot of work to make it nice – their own contribution to what Jacobs would later call ‘unslumming’. The change in her perspective came when she started freelancing at Architectural Forum and began visiting the new projects that were replacing the slums. At first, she saw the work of Ed Bacon and the architect Louis Kahn in Philadelphia as a third way, between blanket clearance and laissez-faire. She even advocated the destruction of the city’s old market – ‘slum markets are like slum housing: there are big profits in them for some people, at the expense of all people’ – but then, upon finding the small boy kicking his tyre around, she came to reject Bacon’s Philadelphia, much as she did the work of Robert Moses in New York, which she had always disdained. The shift comes in a series of essays at the end of the 1950s, most importantly ‘Downtown Is for People’, published in the widely read paperback anthology The Exploding Metropolis, edited by William H Whyte under the auspices of Fortune, where the essays by Jacobs, Whyte, Seligman and English contributors Ian Nairn and Gordon Cullen were distinguished by the fact, unusual for the time, that they ‘were written by people who like cities’.

 

Jacobs’s argument in these essays – that cities can and should be understood on foot, by ordinary, non-expert people – gradually becomes an overwhelming fixation with the damage done to cities by projects. Here she uses an expanded definition which goes beyond just the conventional public housing project – the American analogue to the English council estate or the German Siedlung – to encompass any single-use development in the inner city, anything which has been zoned so that it is just housing, just industry, just culture, just business. The specific projects that offended Jacobs were the ‘urban renewal’ of much of East Harlem, moving the population into large, spacious high-rise flats such as the George Washington Houses, the ‘middle-income’ (a euphemism for what would now be called luxury flats) towers of Stuyvesant Town in Lower Manhattan, and the cultural ‘ghetto’ of the Lincoln Center, which itself faced a dense concentration of housing projects such as the Amsterdam Houses. These projects were, and are, heavily segregated in terms of class and race – indeed, only the ones that mainly housed working-class people of colour were actually called ‘projects’ – but for Jacobs, they were all essentially the same thing, pieces of the deadly anti-city imposed on the teeming life of America’s greatest metropolis. The interiors, facilities, living standards and maintenance all differed – as did residents’ perception of their new homes – but this was all irrelevant. Each of them did the same thing: they killed the street.

 

In the Architectural Forum essay ‘The Missing Link in City Redevelopment’ – included in Vital Little Plans – Jacobs rightly stressed the unthought-out consequences of destroying the dense, multifunctional old streets and their replacement with, at best, one or two ‘community centers’. ‘The stores themselves’, she pointed out, ‘already work as “social centers”, especially the bars, candy stores and diners’. The ground-floor units where the shops usually are were not solely used for commerce, either. ‘Most political clubs are in storefronts. When an old area is levelled, it is often a great joke that wardheeler so-and-so has lost his organization. This is not really hilarious.’ And what were they replaced with? In the George Washington Houses in East Harlem, she notes, there is a ‘community center, but it is a children’s center’ … ‘eradicating the hand-to-mouth co-operative nursery schools, the ballet classes, the do-it-yourself workshops, the little exotic stores which are among the great charms of a city’. The replacements are utterly inadequate, and because of this residents are forced to improvise, creating social spaces out of what were intended as solely functional entities: ‘absolutely the only place that showed signs of working as an adult social area was the laundry. And we wonder if the planners of the project had any idea its heart would be in the basement’. What projects do, Jacobs writes in ‘Downtown is for People’, is, ‘whatever the activity’, to ‘take a part of the city’s life, abstract it from the hustle and bustle of downtown, and set it, like a magnificent island, in splendid isolation’. Commerce here is big business: ‘when a new building goes up’ in these new, shiny, high-rent spaces, ‘the kind of ground-floor tenants it gets are usually the chain store and the chain restaurant’.

 

It would certainly have been useful for the planners of the new Elephant and Castle to have got out and walked before they used Jacobs’s lines to denounce the ‘projects’ of the Elephant and Castle

 

All of this was based on a fundamental lack of interest in what a city is, rather than what a city could be. ‘No-one can find what will work for our cities by looking at the boulevards of Paris, as the City Beautiful people did; and they can’t find it by looking at suburban garden cities, manipulating scale models, or inventing dream cities. You’ve got to get out and walk.’ This sounds like excellent advice. It would certainly have been useful for the planners of the new Elephant and Castle to have got out and walked before they used Jacobs’s lines to denounce the ‘projects’ of the Elephant and Castle, wilfully blinding themselves from the fact that they had all of the ‘exotic stores’, co-operative institutions and urban activity she claimed was impossible in an anti-street ‘project’. The problem is that the primacy of walking eventually led Jacobs into a theory of urbanism based almost solely on what you’ll see from wandering around. ‘We are apt to think of big cities as equalling big enterprises, little towns equalling little enterprises. Nothing could be less true’. This is the sort of Jacobs slogan that sounds much smarter than it actually is – cities have long been as much a matter of big business as they are of ‘mom and pop stores’. Her approach also tends to ignore the less pleasant aspects of small-time commerce. Her ethical, functional and economic preference for small business over big business, constantly reiterated in her work after Death and Life, would sound odd to many people who have ever rented from a small landlord, or worked for a small shopkeeper; when someone’s livelihood depends on your rent or your work, discipline may well be more brutally enforced than it is by a distant, indifferent corporation or municipality.

 

What Herbert Gans, one of Jacobs’s informants when writing Death and Life, called a ‘blindness to race and class’ comes out again and again from these essays, partly due to political changes Jacobs could not have anticipated. In ‘A Living Network of Relationships’, a 1958 speech to the New School, Jacobs describes an advertisement for the luxury Park West development in Manhattan, a typical project in her terms: "Three apartment houses set upon a vast meadow. The scene is more rural than anything within twenty miles of New York, let alone above 97th street and Amsterdam Avenue. ‘Your own world in the heart of Manhattan’, says the ad. This advertisement, objectively a lie, is unfortunately subjectively true. It is an honest picture of the fundamental rejection of the city which is part and parcel of New York’s slum clearance and rebuilding program. None of us can have our own world in the heart of Manhattan."

 

In Jacobs’s city nobody suffers, except from the tedium-inducing consequences of urban renewal

 

If you weren’t paying attention, this could sound like an attack on the rich of Manhattan annexing space the city badly needs, but that sort of rabble-rousing is quite far from Jacobs’s intention. It wouldn’t matter, qualitatively, for Jacobs, if it were former slum residents given this ‘vast meadow … in the heart of Manhattan’. It simply shouldn’t be in Manhattan at all, for it is the anti-city, a space that can only be wanly contemplated, but which has no function, no use, no life, no point, a gratuitous, wasteful and dangerous void without eyes on the street. ‘None of us can have our own world in the heart of London’ could be taken as a rallying cry by Southwark Council and Lendlease in their densification and destruction of the projects of the Elephant and Castle. Within those slab blocks of the Heygate Estate was a green, tree-filled environment – not necessarily a vast meadow, but nonetheless a space with no function other than to be pleasant and quiet for the residents of one of the noisiest and most polluted places in Europe.

 

The architects of these projects would have congratulated themselves for the fact they made it possible for the London poor to gaze out on a vista of trees and listen to birdsong right next to two of the most congested roundabouts in Britain; such spaces were intended to be a salve and a relaxation from lives of hard factory and dock labour, and a relief from housework. None of this features for a second in the accounts of Eyes on the Street, or in the essays of Vital Little Plans. In Jacobs’s city nobody suffers, except from the tedium-inducing consequences of urban renewal.

 

Even aside from the old questions of slum housing – overcrowding, vermin, dilapidation, damp – nobody on Jacobs’s street has a tiring and grim job, nobody is struggling to pay the rent, nobody has the anxiety of unemployment and nobody is much bothered about inequality, which barely exists. How could it, when the mainly black and Latino social tenants of George Washington Houses and the private owners at the whites-only Stuyvesant Town were actually in the same place without realising it?

 


 

An excerpt from Owen Hatherley’s Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances, which you can buy here

 

 

Owen Hatherley will speaking at the Festival of Place: The Pineapples on 13 July at 1pm on the spectacular rise, fall and return of Brutalism for free, register here to attend

 

 

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