bits and pieces.
“This is what a city is, bits and pieces that supplement each other and support each other.”
I’ve been carrying around a copy of Death and Life and thumbing through it whenever I have a dull moment, in honor of Saint Jane’s recent 100th birthday. It’s been a healthy rejoinder as we approach the end of an exhausting election season (only 8 days until the election, y’all) and campaigns attempt to make their closing arguments for the voters finally getting around to turning in a ballot. Jacobs’ famous opus to cities is so innovative because her writing is so accessible, her insight free of existing pedagogical constraints; she sat down with a typewriter in her home in Washington Square in the 1950s and documented the human interactions she saw from her window, from her stoop, from the walk to her children’s school. Her writing identifies and celebrates the mundane, quotidian benefits that accompany living in a community, and interrogates the physical and social infrastructure necessary to sustain the delicate balance. Dozens of pages are devoted to the importance of having a local shopkeeper who could, for instance, sign for a delivered package while you’re away, direct out of town visitors to the nearest park, or discuss the ongoing burglaries with the local beat cop. Implicit in this descriptive rundown on how good cities function and the importance of the stage on which we play our lives is the essential question of how the interplay between governance and neighborhoods should determine what our cities look like, who gets to live there, who they function for, and how to build easier lives for all of us.
What people take away from Death and Life depends on what they’re looking for. Her observations explored the importance of the physical form of the city’s neighborhoods (she was *way* into walkable communities), but equal attention is devoted to the importance of the social ingredients (she was also into having neighborhoods with people of different ages, classes, and backgrounds). There’s a strain of limited government in Jacob’s work often underdiscussed; she thinks the world’s a better place if your city allows you to live near people who could be your babysitter, barista, boss, or boyfriend, and she doesn’t want government investments in infrastructure to get in the way of two neighborhood citizens from making that connection happen.
Jane’s gender, here, is emphatically critical in understanding where she gets these perspectives and why her ideas of how cities functioned were so wildly different from the men who got University degrees to run city government initiatives against her: because of her role as a parent, as a mother, her experience of learning cities through observation, and the emotional labor required of women (then, and now) to build the social ties that keep a community together, she saw how automobile-oriented suburban design proposed for her neighborhood would drastically hurt the social ties that kept her community functioning. She saw that sidewalks were the spaces where “people must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other” as a parent watching her children play in the shared space. She would know; she was the lady keeping tabs. I’ve always thought it odd that she (in the same vein as Rachel Carson) isn’t given more credit as a “feminist,” but the fact that her advocacy centered on reinforcement of family structures and necessity of maternal ethics-of-care as opposed to strident liberation from the patriarchy certainly contributes. Then again, she was famous a full decade ahead of the bra-burning second-wavers, and it’s not a title that Jacobs’ ever explicitly used for herself, anyway.
How important are those experiences, and her ability to name and identify them, justify them against cultural/ political/gendered norms legitimized by local state and federal governments? Well, if there was ever “THE MAN” in the history of America’s urban governance, his name would be Robert Moses, and the story of Jacobs’ successful confrontations and political victories to protect her neighborhood from Moses’ wrecking ball are legendary. Fittingly, the form and sidewalks of her neighborhood allowed her to know every parent on the block, which made it easier for her to flood Washington Park with children when the television crews arrived to discuss whether or not to continue building the highway through the public space. She also knew how to rally her crowd; she reportedly once disrupted a neighborhood meeting held by highway builders by jumping onstage and tearing up the records of the stenographers as protest that they were capturing the community concern.
Jacobs’ ideas were all the more unconventional (and I would argue radical) in that it came at a time in which America’s Great Society Project took one look at the vibrant, thriving, tangled ecosystem of American cities and saw them as messy, hardscrabble, disorderly, and in need of significant reform. Urban Renewal money from the federals government arrived to turn those choatic but self-sustaining neighborhoods into highways, Corbusian towers, municipal projects that had to go *somewhere.* In New York, Portland, and all of America’s cities, it was slum clearing and often times an explicitly racist excuse to remove communities of color from newly valuable urban real estate for other modernist economic development projects. It’s terrifying to imagine all of the individuals (likely, women of color) who possessed Jacobs’ clairvoyance on the functions of a neighborhood but lacked her resources and political clout to protect their neighborhoods from Urban Renewal (and I’m typing this to you from a single family house in inner North Portland, a house where that woman very well might have lived).
And you know what, American cities are going through some crazy shit right now. Gentrification, subprime mortgage crises, the entire restructuring of the American economic model for local journalism, Uber and Airbnb, increasingly devastating natural disasters, the deregulated financial market that highly concentrates capital in select urban centers, influence of money in politics, the arrival of (ugh) the millenials and their growing political power… and that’s not even beginning to touch how cities are so centrally, viscerally related to how the country deals with all of our national and international problems, like Climate Change, Education, or Historical Legitimized Racial Plunder (thanks, TNC). The fiercely recalcitrant property rights movement in America neatly coincided with devastating austerity cuts to the social services that provided housing, care, public transportation and education, joining generational turnover in fundamentally altering who could exist in cities, the lives they could live, and where in cities they could live them. Sometimes our cities are complicit in or explicitly guilty in the death of its our own citizens, and if you think that’s a step too far, ask about the criminal negligence in New Orleans, Ferguson, Chicago, Flint, local efforts to criminalize houselessness, or what may be to come with rising oceans in Miami or drought in Los Angeles.
This makes the interpretation of Jacobs’ views all the more important. She wrote plenty of other books discussing her models of how cities impact local economies and would later do rad things like move to Canada to protest the Vietnam War, but Death and Life is the book that politicians who want to successfully dogwhistle that they understand cities on the campaign trail to grab my attention. Too often right now, Jacobs is channeled, cited and lauded for her “area citizen fighting off a government highway to save a neighborhood” aura when her diagnosis’ of the necessity of urban diversity, density and sidewalk life is conveniently forgotten. Hearing Jacobs cited as a reason to limit automobile traffic in a certain neighborhood always makes me cringe; yes, Jane wanted you to be able you to safely walk your kids to school, but she would disapprove of the notion that the makeup of your neighborhood should be homogenized as determined by the onerous restrictions that limit density. She’s also admired by neighborhood architectural preservationists, who often claim her because of advocacy for preventing demolition (and not necessarily because she believed having a wider range of old and new buildings made it easier for newly starting families and businesses to find somewhere they could afford, although Jacobs’ economic libertarianism outlines her interest in housing stock as such). In many ways, she’s the libertarian hero that many Ayn Rand enthusiasts would have a crush on if they weren’t fixated with empires, trains and conflating liberty with misogynist narcissism. How else to read a statement straight from Death and Life like “no other expertise can substitute for locality knowledge in planning” than to acknowledge that in her world, it’s the government’s job to set the stage and get the fuck outta the way ’cause citizens know best?
Fifty years ago, “proposed local government action” posed the biggest threat to the well-being of Jacobs’ neighborhood, but for much of the newly urban America today (disproportionately people of color, young people, single women) the benefits that Jacobian urbanism espouses are systemically denied based on government inaction on public transportation, housing reform, including explicitly the housing crisis), investment in jobs, and accessible education options. Even in cities with an abundance of new capital and growth, the comforts of home ownership, exceptional public education, public transportation, access to employment, child care, and on and on and on are increasingly more of a privilege, with skyrocketing rents in particular desperately limiting the adequate provisions of all of the above to communities that need them the most. It doesn’t have to be this way. Broadly, this isn’t an indictment of any specific local governance (at least, the majority of local governments I’ve spent any time around and can speak to) as much as an expression of municipal exhaustion from underfunding thanks to a whole slew of anti-tax measures in the 1990s, global capitalism, and hiccups of misaligned megaproject that don’t adequately address neighborhood scale economic revitalization needs.
A feminist-informed Jacobian lens of studying how cities work by analyzing these hidden relationships (and strength of these relationships as predicated by the form and accessibility of the neighborhood) likely wouldn’t find a Robert Moses as the root of the problem. Robert Moses will be the antagonist to Jacobs in the inevitable film they make someday (and I hope that movie is coming soon), but I’ve always sort of saw Frank Lloyd Wright as Jacobs’ true intellectual antithesis: she opposed urban government intervention that hindered her neighborhood and was skeptical of Old White Dudes telling her what to do with her community, but unabashedly believed in the importance of a vibrant, communal, independently governed, adequately funded and moderated public space (and all the housing, parks, sidewalks and schools implicit in such social contract).
Ideally, in the twenty-first century, her name wouldn’t be used to sell a neoliberal exclusivity for urban development but rather an assertion of the needs to provide responsive, accessible, neighborhood-based governance that works to more successfully tackle affordability, demographic change, and the beauty of the ballet that plays out on our sidewalks everyday. She believed in a built form that put “eyes on the street,” because she invented that term herself. A built environment that encourages an ethic of care is increasingly relevant as we design our cities and prioritize investments, as more and more individuals live alone and in nontraditional family structures.
This is why it’s so exciting that transportation advocacy in Portland is suddenly breaking out, with so many groups learning to start from the premise of the inherent need to work together to support each other. From the PDX Transformation folks, new regional energy for Safe Routes to School, the continued excellency of groups like APANO, AARP, Families for Safe Streets and Better Block… the prospects for local shifts in Portland haven’t looked as bright in decades, so long as the state and federal governments don’t muck things up, which is pretty much what Saint Jane would say is how things are supposed to work.
Knowing that Portland’s support for the gas tax next week would provide the funding for sidewalks in East Portland, investments in safer routes to schools, and a vote of confidence in our local governments to reward the citizens who have clamored for specific East Portland crosswalks through their neighborhood associations has kept me going the last couple months. This is first time in forever that Portland citizens have been asked through the ballot box to demonstrate an interest in providing the funding for a transportation system that functions better, both by investment in maintenance and investment in human scale spaces. This is countered by the sad reality that our rapid ascension of urban affordability and traffic safety issues hasn’t been quick enough to prevent significant displacement and unnecessary traffic violence, and will likely continue to do so without continued political coalition building. That will take learning both how to sell livable streets to disinterested parties, and also (more importantly, I’d argue) more listening as to why. People, at their heart, vote to validate their lived experiences, and I’d argue that successful urbanism will require more receptive listening from governments and community advocates to adopt policies that work. That means connecting your urbanist needs to other’s causes, and learning how the values we collectively share can be represented in how we talk about, govern, use, share, and invest in our public space.
Finding ways to cooperate, share resources and live together is the central question of democracy, and the physical manifestation of our capability to invest in our common well-being is the city, and coalition-building is massively important. This central challenge is all the more exasperated in 21st century Mongrel Cities, a term adopted by lefty urbanists to note the inherently exasperating difficulty of building public trust (let alone public infrastructure) in cities with unrecognizably new populations, media streams, economic and meteorological climates. “How can we stroppy strangers live together without doing each other too much violence?” asks a lefty urbanist from Australia, in a matter I find rhetorically meaningful. How indeed! It probably involves talking to people who don’t look like you, prioritize different things than you, have different needs than you, vote differently than you, and learning that people *really like crosswalks* when they’re near affordable housing, bus stops and elementary schools. Finding a way to get Boomers onboard to support a new political coalition for a YIMBY politics rooted in what Minneapolis’s Federal Congressman Keith Ellison calls a politics of “generosity and inclusion” to reshape America’s cities and suburbs is an underdiscussed challenge towards the functionality of the cities that drive America’s economy and culture (as well as the cities left behind, that currently don’t).
I don’t think any of us know the answer to how we live together when there’s so much political upheaval at stake. Nationally, a visceral and pugilistic rejection of the legitimacy of political governance led to the overthrow of one of our political parties, and the skepticism of the capabilities of the other party continues to grow. Locally, the hegemony of the paradigm of automobiles and single-family-homes, the physical manifestations of varying gendered and capitalist assumptions of production of labor (and the building block of most American cities), is starting to be amended by individuals who have never read Jane Jacobs but see themselves in the benefits that urban provides, and wondering how to ensure these benefits are accrued by more than just the lucky few for moral reasons, for political reasons, for quality of life for *all* reasons. I bring this up because our local governments are our first line of defense to supporting and building the communities we want to live in, and the health of our democracy is critical for the ability for local governments to respond to citizens’ needs for affordable housing, education offerings, sidewalks. And right now I’ve never felt more simultaneously inspired and terrified by our capacity to rise to the interlacing challenges and avoid turning Portland into San Francisco. At this point, we’ll be lucky if we don’t elect Donald Trump, which, yikes.
With that said, when you’re casting your ballot, I hope you’re looking at the names associated with every cause and individual on the line. It really matters that we invest in cities, in ways that confidently and appropriately collaborate with community partners, that provide good jobs and a social safety net. It does matter that politicians stand forth and propose meaningful solutions to actually fund those damn sidewalks with all the ballets.
After all, as Jane said herself: “this is what a city is, bits and pieces that supplement each other and support each other.”
If you live in town, check out the Fix Our Streets Portland Facebook Page, and please share some of the content there if you’re planning on voting for it. Ballots are due to Multnomah County Elections office by 8pm on May 17.
Aaron Brown is the Campaign Manager for Fix Our Streets Portland, and Board President of Oregon Walks, the state’s pedestrian advocacy organization.