Sunday, 30 January 2011

Jane Jacobs - some critical remarks

Last month I read Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Vintage 1992, orig. 1961). A curious book - I like much of it, yet disagreed with something on almost every page. Let me use this entry to clarify to myself exactly what I found so objectionable.

Hudson Street
First something briefly on her general argument. Against "current city planning" with its huge housing projects, suburbs and depopulated lawns, she defends the vitality of inner city street life and the intricate street "ballet" of places like her own Hudson Street - the hustle and bustle of people coming and going, greeting neighbors, drinking pop at the stoop, keeping an eye on the street, looking after children and helping strangers.

Street safety is an important part of this picture. Unlike in small towns or suburbs, safety in the city means keeping safety among strangers. "The bedrock attribute of a succesful city district is that a person must feel personally safe and secure on the street among all these strangers" (Jacobs 1992:30). I like her insistence that public peace is not kept primarily by the police, but by “an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves” (ibid 31f). In other words, "publicness" is seen by her as a source of safety, rather than as a source of danger.

Here's an example of this publicness in action: looking out from her window, she sees a person, possibly a pederast, trying to get a little girl to go with him.
As I watched from our second-floor window, making up my mind how to intervene if it seemed advisable, I saw it was not going to be necessary. From the butcher shop beneath the tenement had emerged the woman who, with her husband, runs the shop; she was standing within earshot of the man, her arms folded and a look of determination on her face.
Soon other people emerge from the bar and other shops, as well as the fruitman. ”Nobody was going to allow a little girl to be dragged off, even if nobody knew who she was. I am sorry – sorry purely for dramatic purposes – to have to report that the little girl turned out to be the man’s daughter” (ibid.39).

Sounds idyllic. Yet she betrays her clear awareness of the possible unease this account might arouse by a defensive remark: “Safety on the streets by surveillance and mutual policing of one another sounds grim, but in real life it is not grim” (ibid.36). Her own mention of surveillance and policing strongly suggests a few questions that may be relevant to raise here: Is the idea of “publicness” as a source of security really opposed to surveillance society? Isn’t there a risk that in both, the problem is that the very concern with security will lead to exclusion?

Here's Mike Davis about L.A., the “fortress city” where the police battle “the criminalized poor”:
Today’s upscale, pseudo-public spaces... are full of invisible signs warning off the underclass ‘Other’. Although architectural critics are usually oblivious to how the built environment contributes to segregation, pariah groups – whether poor Latino families, young Black men, or elderly homeless white females – read the meaning immediately. (Mike Davis, City of Quartz, Verso 1990:226)
The difference compared to how Jacobs portrays "safety on the streets" is not the employment of a certain design of the built environment to discourage pariah groups from entry, nor is it the existence of surveillance and exclusion per se. The difference is in the agent of policing. In Jacobs’ case it's the stratum of residents and everyday users of the street who do the policing rather than the police or security firm. But how much will that matter to those who are seen as security risks? In either case those people will probably be able to "read the meaning immediately" and the effect will be similar.

My first criticism of Jacobs would be that she is overly concerned with security. Wherever security becomes a main concern, the stranger will almost certainly suffer. Wherever there is a sense of community coupled with fear and insecurity, one will find the seeds of a bunker mentality that will harm the very "publicness" Jacobs tries to defend. Don Mitchell is surely right when he asserts that in today's societies we need to put up with a certain amount of insecurity if we want to have a truly public space.

Here's my second criticism: Jacobs lacks sympathy for things marginal. In a recent book, Sharon Zukin classes Jacobs will the "gentrifiers" (Naked City, Oxford University Press, 2010:12), which seems like a fair assessment. Jacobs' book contains plenty of evidence of her aversion to shady strangers, dark edges and rats. She doesn’t hesitate to categorize a long list of places as "dead places" which often make ”destructive neighbors”: junk yards, used-car lots, vacant lots, parking lots, or buildings that are abandoned or underused (Jacobs 1992:230, 257ff, 263, 334). Problematically, her accounts of "destructive" or "dead" places easily slips into explicit arguments about unwanted people.
The perverts who completely took over Philadelphia’s Washington Square for several decades... did not kill off a vital and appreciated park. They did not drive out respectable users. They moved into an abandoned place and entrenched themselves (ibid 98)
This is a seemingly progressive argument, asserting that it's not the unwanted people per se who are to blame for the deterioration of the park, but the prior lack of vitality of the district. But the unwanted people remain unwanted even in her account, and getting rid of such people is clearly seen as one of the benefits of the kind of urban vitality she is advocating. To be sure, she states that it is not ”illuminating to tag minority groups, or the poor, or the outcast with responsibility for city danger” (ibid.31) and she laments the discrimination and ostracization of peoples of color (ibid.63, 72). To be fair, one shold thus say that what she wants to exclude are certain phenomena such as delinquency or crime, rather than any specific category of people. But a strict demarcation between acts and people is hard to make: if residents are supposed to keep watch over the street, they will go on outward appearance of people and their criteria will inevitably involve prejudice.

A point which emerges clearly from her book, although she never states it explicitly, is that vitality excludes. She talks about neighborhoods or districts being "attractive" to people as a criterion of “success”, but, perversely, a lively city lacking what she calls ”dead” spots may be more exclusive and inhospitable to some people than a city in which such spots are allowed to remain. For instance, vacant lots or untidy and neglected parks may be a haven for children, young people or the homeless. Vitality is not a way to make a district more attractive to strangers in general, but to a select category of desirable strangers. Jacobs' portrayal of the life of streets and pavements mixes an air of seeming tolerance for strangers with an allergy to certain kinds of strangers. The explanation for this curious sorting of strangers is not hard to find. It has to do with the viewpoint adopted by Jacobs in her book, which overlaps with the viewpoint of the local shopowner. She shuns all uses and users who scare away customers - or so it seems to me.

I also have a third criticism, but here I will be brief. Her “successful” city is an inner city, a city centre, with plenty of shops and strangers. How realistic is it to use that as a model for the city as a whole? Not very. No matter how well designed a suburb is, it it highly unlikely that will ever become like Hudson Street. The neglect of the world outside the inner city is connected to her strange diagnosis of whatever is unwelcome as symptoms of ”unsuccessful” city design. Although she vaguely mentions larger systemic factors as possible explanations of poverty and slumming, she is clearly not very interested in them. By concentrating solely on factors related to urban design, she makes it sound as if better design could make slums disappear, along with criminals, perverts and other unwelcome marginals.

Let me end with a note on the character of the "public space" that emerges from the pages of Jacobs' bok. A comparison with Don Mitchell, who gives a very different account of public space, will be illuminating. To both, public space is the name of a certain social phenomenon, which is far from stable and which can appear but also disappear depending on the circumstances. In both it is tied to a certain experience of space. If the quintessential public space for Mitchell is created by an act that upsets the order and makes the marginal urban outcast visible, to Jacobs it consists in the everyday “ballet” of street life. To use Rancière's terms, Jacobs' publicness hinges on a certain "ordering of the sensible" which mustn't be upset by the public visualization of the “uncounted part”, of those who are not supposed to be there. Her public requires the exclusion or suppression of the private to a sphere where it won’t disturb anyone or scare away people or make them feel unsafe. A space in which the private can no longer be excluded – such as a street or park rife with criminality, prostitution, "perverts", or homeless people – is one that has “gone bad” and lost its public character. In Mitchell, by contrast, publicness arises precisely when this ordering of the sensible is challenged and upset, when the "uncounted part" takes a place and makes it public by visibilizing themselves.

As mentioned, there are also things I like her book: her attempt to defend some form of urban public life rather than the illusory safety of privacy or small-town community, her defense of the inner city against suburban housing projects and shopping centres located outside town, the fact that she adopts the viewpoint of street-level pedestrian experience rather than that of most urban planning or car-drivers. But the problem is that she thinks Hudson Street can be generalized and that she doesn't seem to like marginals. To criticize her valorization of security and vitality is not to advocate dullness and insecurity, but to attack her partiality. To insist on her kind of vitality means making a city attractive only to certain people and unattractive to others. To insist on her kind of security means security to some and insecurity to others. The question would be: is there a way to conceive of a city that is attractive and safe for all?

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