Gentrification and Its Discontents – Magazine – The Atlantic
Completely agree with Benjamin Hemric’s critical comment (below), about Benjamin Schwarz’s article (which in turn is a review of books by Sharon Zukin and Michael Sorkin and their collective take on Jane Jacobs.
While I agree that there is much to criticize in Michael Sorkin’s and Sharon Zukin’s lamentations about gentrification, it’s very disheartening to see that in his article, writer Benjamin Schwarz seems to accept the very same myths about Jane Jacobs that Sorkin and Zukin appear to subscribe to. I think that if one looks at what Jane Jacobs ACTUALLY WROTE (rather than accepting at face value what people “say” she wrote) one will quickly see the differences between Jacobs and Sorkin and Zukin — and also see why Sorkin’s and Zukin’s critiques are so misguided.
It seems to me that the following, in order of appearance in the article, are the pernicious myths that Mr. Schwarz has, sadly, incorporated into his article:
1) Myth incorporating statement #1: “She [Jacobs] largely formed her conclusions in “Death and Life . .” . . by closely reading the neighborhood life around her house on Hudson Street . . . “
The name of Jacobs’ first and most famous book is “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” NOT, “The Death and Life of Greater Greenwich Village.” In it, Jacobs writes about many sections of New York City (e.g., East Harlem, W57th St., Rockefeller Center, Yorkville, etc.), AND about parts of a lot of other American cities too (e.g., the North End of Boston; Rittenhouse Square, Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the four Center City parks of Philadelphia; Back of the Yards, Chicago, etc.).
For a number of years prior to writing “Death and Life . . . ,” Jacobs was a writer for a prestigious, glossy, national publication, “Architectural Forum,” and she visited, researched (e.g., explored and interviewed government officials, etc.), and wrote about cities all over the country. Furthermore she herself credited experiences in Philadelphia and, especially East Harlem, with really opening her eyes to the ways cities do and don’t work.
It’s not so much that she didn’t write about other sections of New York City AND about other “Great [meaning large] American Cities” too. It seems, rather, that a) some people, for various reasons of their own, insist on talking just about the Greenwich Village portions of this book (which, furthermore, is only one of her several books dealing, directly or indirectly, with cities); and it seems that b) many other people, people who never seem to have actually read Jacobs (especially cover to cover), then base their opinions on what these other people have said.
2) Myth incorporating statement #2 (emphasis and lettering is mine — BH): “What Sorkin calls the ‘pathology’ of gentrification is obliterating THOSE ELEMENTS OF THRIVING URBAN LIFE THAT JACOBS FAMOUSLY IDENTIFIED: [a] diversity of uses; [b] the mom-and-pop stores; . . . [c] the ‘cheek-by-jowl checkerboard’ of rich, poor, and middle class; [d] the distinctive identity of neighborhoods.”
Jacobs was interested in why certain city districts and cities thrived, while other city districts and cities stagnated and declined. She identified the following FOUR general conditions for generating city diversity and health: mixed primary uses; small blocks (or plentiful streets); aged buildings (a diversity of building types); high-densities (“the need for concentration”).
It also should be noted that for Jacobs, diversity meant far more than just “mom-and-pop” stores, etc. It meant the whole diversity of a “great” city, including skyscrapers, department stores, highways (especially for trucking), big medical centers, etc. Plus, it should be pointed out, Jacobs also writes in “Death and Life . . . ” about the need for cities to have the right kind of political structures, public policies, etc. In subsequent books — which are more or less extensions of “Death and Life . . .” — she further examines the economic needs of cities in more detail.
Also, it should be pointed out that, for Jacobs, the distinctive identity of neighborhoods was secondary. What was important to her was whether a district was “successful” or not (whether it could attract “people with choice”). Given the specifics of location, climate, population, businesses, a neighborhood is likely to be distinctive anyway if it is genuinely successful.
3) Myth incorporating statement #3: “When you come right down to it, the image of vibrant, diverse, but neighborly city life . . . that champions of urbanism summon is really the ideal of the West Village neighborhood . . . “
While this may be Sorkin’s and Zukin’s ideal, this was not Jacobs’ ideal. Jacobs was interested in what “worked” in cities and what didn’t work — and a significant portion of her book, for instance, is devoted to areas that are even largely non-residential (e.g., “downtowns,” etc.). Read what Jacobs has to say about Wall Street, Rockefeller Center and W. 57th Street, for instance. (She does NOT recommend turning Wall Street into Greenwich Village.) For Jacobs, truly healthy cities had a diversity of districts as well as districts that were internally diverse.
4) Myth incorporating statement #4: “Progressive, reformist city planners . . . favored a relatively low-impact urban-renewal scheme to build hundreds of below-market rate homes in the neighborhood — a plan Jacobs and a group of largely affluent residents successfully fought on the grounds that it would destroy the area’s character.”
This seems to me to be a misinformed and very sloppy history of the West Village urban renewal controversy — largely leaving out the Jane Jacobs and West Village Committee side of the story (which seems to me to be backed up by the evidence that I’m aware of).
While city officials claimed the the urban-renewal scheme would be low-impact, the amount of money that was allocated for the intial study indicated that this claim was a deception, and that the plan was indeed to essentially wipe out the neighborhood. Plus, even city officials themselves were open about their desire to separate commercial uses from residential uses — which would be hard to do without destroying many businesses and homes. And a number of prospective sponsors even talked about grandiose plans, like putting buildings on top of platforms, etc.!
On top of all this, because the city’s planned concept (whichever sponsor would be chosen) involved the demolition of so much existing sound housing, the city’s plan would have produced less NET housing — and at a much greater cost — than the plan that Jacobs is identified with (which was ultimately built).
Finally, the purpose of the Jacobs identified plan was to produce more affordable housing for, particularly, moderate-income FAMILIES — which is the primary reason they were designed without expensive and child-unfriendly elevators — while the city’s plan, on the other hand, seems likely to have been geared more to the affluent and childless (like so many of the other urban “renewal” projects of the era).
5) Myth incorporating statement #5: ” . . who, like Jacobs and her husband, eschewed the central part of the Village, around Macdougal Street, that the tourists were blighting.”
Don’t know for certain whether this is a myth or not, but it certainly would seem to be greatly out of character for both Jacobs and her husband to be “snooty” in this way. Can Mr. Schwartz provide any substantiation for this assertion?
6) Myth incorporating statement #6: “Thanks in no small part to the fact that Jacobs’ recipe for livable and vibrant cities — keep the scale small, preserve the physical fabric of neighborhoods . . . “
Again, THIS is NOT Jacobs’ “recipe” for healthy cities. Some people may claim it is, but they do so by ignoring large sections of her first and most famous book, “Death and Life . . .”, as well as ignoring her six other major books, which mostly relate, directly or indirectly (e.g., economies, political structure, etc.), to the health of cities.
7) Myth incorporating statement #7: ” . . . they pine for — and mistake as susceptible to preservation — the same sort of transitional moment Jacobs evokes in “Death and Life.”
While there may be SOME truth to this myth, nevertheless for the moment I’m going to call it a myth because it also ignores a very large truth — one that is, perhaps, one of the distinguishing differences between Jacobs and Sorkin and Zukin.
Although Jacobs was indeed against the self-destruction of diversity, and thus was, to some extent trying to “preserve” diversity, she was greatly in favor of fighting the self-destruction of diversity by SPREADING “gentrification” (not her word) around (e.g., “competitive diversion,” etc.). The more “gentrifiable” (again, not her word) areas that are created in cities, the less pressure there is for the self-destruction of diversity in city areas that are already “gentrified” (again, not her word).
So rather than being against “gentrification,” the way Sorkin and Zukin are, Jacobs was all for it. One could even say that “Death and Life . . .” is essentially a handbook for creating more and more “gentrifiable” neighborhoods — if one also recognizes, as Jacobs did, that the more “gentrifiable” neighborhoods there are in a city, the more affordable and diverse “gentrified” city districts are going to be. The greater the supply, the lower the cost is going to be for the “consumer.”
– Benjamin Hemric
May 13, 2010
Those interested in Jane Jacobs’s books will find Benjamin Hemric’s other comments are also worth reading. He doesn’t have his own blog, but googling his name turns up a number of thoughtful posts on urban-issues comments boards.