Cobblestone Conservative

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

Austin Bramwell explains how Jane Jacobs saved New York City’s soul:

In Death and Life, she cited not one paper nor analyzed one set of data.

What she did do was observe. Jacobs had a knack for spotting patterns in commonplace things. Social scientists sometimes call it “field study.” When it works, field study makes what once went unnoticed seem obvious. (Have you ever noticed that people usually laugh just to be polite and not because anyone said something funny? If not, you will now.) Death and Life’s popularity is still growing in part because so much of what Jacobs wrote is confirmed in daily life.

For example, she famously argued, the safety of a city street depends on the number of eyes watching it. The more pedestrians and storefronts a city street has, the more inviting it is to other pedestrians. Casual passers-by contribute more sets of eyes, making the street even safer, and so on in a virtuous cycle. Death and Life develops this simple idea in rich detail.

A mix of residences and stores, for example, creates safety and comfort by giving more people more reasons to use the sidewalks. Parks, playgrounds, and open spaces, by contrast, create menacing vacuums attractive to criminals and perverts. Narrow streets and short blocks, even if inconvenient for cars, enliven a neighborhood by increasing the flow of foot traffic. Large works such as “cultural centers,” by contrast, blight their surroundings by imposing artificial barriers to pedestrians. On page after page, Jacobs showed how the physical environment either facilitates or hinders what she called the “sidewalk ballet.”

The architects of urban renewal saw none of this. Instead of preserving short, narrow streets, they were combining blocks into “superblocks” with parks and “promenades.” Instead of permitting shops and stores, they were segregating residents in towers and forbidding “incompatible” commercial uses. Instead of expanding sidewalks, they were adding playgrounds and planting grass. Instead of nurturing small-scale street life, they were erecting freeways and public centers.

Jacobs called their practices “bloodletting,” after the discredited notion of treating disease by draining the patient’s blood. The theory of bloodletting — that destruction must precede the cure — recurs all too frequently in the West. Idealists and reformers find it irresistible. Just a few years ago, many thoughtful people argued that to rid the world of terrorism, we must “drain the swamp” of the Middle East by toppling every government within it. So too, 60 years ago, many thoughtful men believed that to eradicate poverty and social dysfunction, we must raze the cities where they persist.

He calls her a cobblestone conservative, despite her rather liberal reputation:

On the left, some are disturbed by her choice of protagonists. Jacobs’s evocation of the “sidewalk ballet” sounds like nostalgia for the good old days of white middle class America; her “eyes on the street” like a technique of enforcing conformity; her loathing of rowdy misbehavior like fear of difference. Her writing and activism, meanwhile, killed off federally financed programs to house the poor. Though she lived in Greenwich Village in the 1950s, Jacobs never mentions the countercultural heroes, such as the Beat poets, who lived next door. She does, on the other hand, have kind words for housewives and shopkeepers. Put it all together, and Jacobs sounds suspiciously reactionary, a Bohemian Ronald Reagan.

Well, yes. Jacobs was reactionary. She fought to preserve a certain way of life — city life — that had come under attack. Like any good reactionary, she romanticized it somewhat. Further, she loved cities not because they harbored the poor but because they welcomed entrepreneurs, middlemen, and small manufacturers. In her peculiar book-length dialogue Systems of Survival Jacobs contrasted the commercial values (honesty, thrift, initiative, enterprise, collaboration, trade, and optimism) found in cities to the “guardian” values (tradition, hierarchy, loyalty, largesse, love of fate) found anywhere that territory requires defense. While Jacobs admits that civilization requires both sets of values, and even adopts the Platonic solution of segregating the “guardians” from the “traders,” she clearly admires commercial values the most. She was bourgeois in every sense of the word. She even voted against Franklin Roosevelt.


  1. High rise housing surrounded by open space and broad avenues sounds terrible if you assume they were designed to cultivate the optimal human existence for its patrons. They sound great, however, if you want easily contained human corrals surrounded by wide open fields of fire that are perfect for timely whiffs of grapeshot.

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