The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jacobs, Jane

Nobody cared what we wanted when they built this place. They threw our houses down and pushed us here and pushed our friends somewhere else. We don’t have a place around here to get a cup of coffee or a newspaper even, or borrow fifty cents. Nobody cared what we need. But the big men come and look at that grass and say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful! Now the poor have everything!’ ”

His aim was the creation of self-sufficient small towns, really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life among others with no plans of their own.

Such places are jungles. No amount of police can enforce civilization where the normal, casual enforcement of it has broken down.

To try to secure streets where the public space is unequivocally public, physically unmixed with private or with nothing-at-all space, so that the area needing surveillance has clear and practicable limits; and to see that these public street spaces have eyes on them as continuously as possible.

Last year I was on such a street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, waiting for a bus. I had not been there longer than a minute, barely long enough to begin taking in the street’s activity of errand goers, children playing, and loiterers on the stoops, when my attention was attracted by a woman who opened a window on the third floor of a tenement across the street and vigorously yoo-hooed at me. When I caught on that she wanted my attention and responded, she shouted down, “The bus doesn’t run here on Saturdays!” Then by a combination of shouts and pantomime she directed me around the corner. This woman was one of thousands upon thousands of people in New York who casually take care of the streets. They notice strangers. They observe everything going on. If they need to take action, whether to direct a stranger waiting in the wrong place or to call the police, they do so. Action usually requires, to be sure, a certain self-assurance about the actor’s proprietorship of the street and the support he will get if necessary, matters which will be gone into later in this book. But even more fundamental than the action and necessary to the action, is the watching itself.

If mere contact with your neighbors threatens to entangle you in their private lives, or entangle them in yours, and if you cannot be so careful who your neighbors are as self-selected upper-middle-class people can be, the logical solution is absolutely to avoid friendliness or casual offers of help.

It is…extremely important to recognize that for considerably complicated reasons, many adults either don’t want to become involved in any friendship-relationships at all with their neighbors, or, if they do succumb to the need for some form of society, they strictly limit themselves to one or two friends, and no more.

“togetherness,” itself, is one of the factors that make this kind of organization so difficult. “These projects are not lacking in natural leaders,” she says. “They contain people with real ability, wonderful people many of them, but the typical sequence is that in the course of organization leaders have found each other, gotten all involved in each others’ social lives, and have ended up talking to nobody but each other. They have not found their followers

The social structure of sidewalk life hangs partly on what can be called self-appointed public characters. A public character is anyone who is in frequent contact with a wide circle of people and who is sufficiently interested to make himself a public character. A public character need have no special talents or wisdom to fulfill his function—although he often does. He just needs to be present, and there need to be enough of his counterparts. His main qualification is that he is public, that he talks to lots of different people. In this way, news travels that is of sidewalk interest.

Most public sidewalk characters are steadily stationed in public places. They are storekeepers or barkeepers or the like. These are the basic public characters. All other public characters of city sidewalks depend on them—if only indirectly because of the presence of sidewalk routes to such enterprises and their proprietors.

Besides the anchored public characters of the sidewalk, and the well-recognized roving public characters, there are apt to be various more specialized public characters on a city sidewalk. In a curious way, some of these help establish an identity not only for themselves but for others. Describing the everyday life of a retired tenor at such sidewalk establishments as the restaurant and the bocce court, a San Francisco news story notes, “It is said of Meloni that because of his intensity, his dramatic manner and his lifelong interest in music, he transmits a feeling of vicarious importance to his many friends.” Precisely.

“Street gangs” do their “street fighting” predominately in parks and playgrounds.

squabble over a bag of candy. They were under the casual surveillance

In real life, only from the ordinary adults of the city sidewalks do children learn—if they learn it at all—the first fundamental of successful city life: People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other.

Sidewalk width is invariably sacrificed for vehicular width, partly because city sidewalks are conventionally considered to be purely space for pedestrian travel and access to buildings, and go unrecognized and unrespected as the uniquely vital and irreplaceable organs of city safety, public life and child rearing that they are.

The more successfully a city mingles everyday diversity of uses and users in its everyday streets, the more successfully, casually (and economically) its people thereby enliven and support well-located parks that can thus give back grace and delight to their neighborhoods instead of vacuity.

Our failures with city neighborhoods are, ultimately, failures in localized self-government. And our successes are successes at localized self-government. I am using self-government in its broadest sense, meaning both the informal and formal self-management of society.

The neighborhood of the entire city is where people especially interested in the theater or in music or in other arts find one another and get together, no matter where they may live. This is where people immersed in specific professions or businesses or concerned about particular problems exchange ideas and sometimes start action. Professor P. Sargant Florence, a British specialist on urban economics, has written, “My own experience is that, apart from the special habitat of intellectuals like Oxford or Cambridge, a city of a million is required to give me, say, the twenty or thirty congenial friends I require!”

A city’s very wholeness in bringing together people with communities of interest is one of its greatest assets, possibly the greatest.

We were told at first that the plans would not be changed; the sidewalk must go. We needed power to back up our pipsqueak protest. This power came from our district—Greenwich Village. Indeed, a main purpose of our petitions, although not an ostensible purpose, was to dramatize to the district at large that an issue had erupted.

There are only two ultimate public powers in shaping and running American cities: votes and control of the money. To sound nicer, we may call these “public opinion” and “disbursement of funds,” but they are still votes and money.

On the maximum side, I know of no district larger than 200,000 which operates like a district. Geographical size imposes empirical population limits in any case. In real life, the maximum size of naturally evolved, effective districts seems to be roughly about a mile and a half square. Probably this is because anything larger gets too inconvenient for sufficient local cross-use and for the functional identity that underlies district political identity. In a very big city, populations must therefore be dense to achieve successful districts; otherwise, sufficient political power is never reconciled with viable geographic identity.

It takes surprisingly few hop-skip people, relative to a whole population, to weld a district into a real Thing. A hundred or so people do it in a population a thousand times their size. But these people must have time to find each other, time to try expedient cooperation—as well as time to have rooted themselves, too, in various smaller neighborhoods of place or special interest.

The idea was to pick two wildly dissimilar individuals—say a headhunter in the Solomon Islands and a cobbler in Rock Island, Illinois—and assume that one had to get a message to the other by word of mouth; then we would each silently figure out a plausible, or at least possible, chain of persons through whom the message could go. The one who could make the shortest plausible chain of messengers won. The headhunter would speak to the headman of his village, who would speak to the trader who came to buy copra, who would speak to the Australian patrol officer when he came through, who would tell the man who was next slated to go to Melbourne on leave, etc. Down at the other end, the cobbler would hear from his priest, who got it from the mayor, who got it from a state senator, who got it from the governor, etc. We soon had these close-to-home messengers down to a routine for almost everybody we could conjure up, but we would get tangled in long chains at the middle until we began employing Mrs. Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt made it suddenly possible to skip whole chains of intermediate connections. She knew the most unlikely people. The world shrank remarkably. It shrank us right out of our game, which became too cut and dried.

With urbanization, the big get bigger, but the small also get more numerous.

(When city manufacturers get big and self-sufficient enough they may go to suburbs or little towns, which depend economically too on the powerful incubating effects of those wonderfully productive places, intensive big cities.)

If you look about, you will see that only operations that are well established, high-turnover, standardized or heavily subsidized can afford, commonly, to carry the costs of new construction. Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings.

If you look about, you will see that only operations that are well established, high-turnover, standardized or heavily subsidized can afford, commonly, to carry the costs of new construction. Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings. Supermarkets and shoe stores often go into new buildings; good bookstores and antique dealers seldom do. Well-subsidized opera and art museums often go into new buildings. But the unformalized feeders of the arts—studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and a table can absorb uneconomic discussions—these go into old buildings.

Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.

today’s new buildings are the old ones.

Old buildings will still be a necessity when today’s new buildings are the old ones.

Who could anticipate or provide for such a succession of hopes and schemes? Only an unimaginative man would think he could; only an arrogant man would want to.

Beyond a corner of the project, hideously clumped on a stretch of pocked asphalt left over from a gas station, are a few of the other things the project people apparently need: quick loans, musical instruments, camera exchange, Chinese restaurant, odd-lot clothing. How many other needs remain unfilled? What is wanted becomes academic when mingled building age is replaced by the economic rigor mortis of one-age construction, with its inherent inefficiency and consequent need for forms of “protectionism.”

Brooklyn cannot well compete with suburbs for capturing big and well-established manufacturers seeking a location. At least it cannot at present, certainly not by trying to beat out the suburbs at their game, on their terms. Brooklyn has quite different assets.

A new corpse is laid out. It does not smell yet, but it is just as dead, just as incapable of the constant adjustments, adaptations and permutations that make up the processes of life.

But a good mingling of the old buildings must remain, and in remaining they will have become something more than mere decay from the past or evidence of previous failure. They will have become the shelter which is necessary, and valuable to the district, for many varieties of middling-, low- and no-yield diversity

The economic value of new buildings is replaceable in cities. It is replaceable by the spending of more construction money. But the economic value of old buildings is irreplaceable at will. It is created by time.

Densities are too low, or too high, when they frustrate city diversity instead of abetting it. This flaw in performance is why they are too low or too high.

Monotony of this sort is generally considered too oppressive to pursue as an ideal by everybody but some project planners or the most routine-minded real estate developers.

Kate Simon, author of New York Places and Pleasures, is saying much the same thing when she suggests, “Take the children to Grant’s [restaurant]…they may bump into people whose like they may never see elsewhere and may possibly never forget.”

We are accustomed to thinking of streets, or neighborhoods of streets, as divided into functional uses—entertainment, offices, residence, shopping or the like. And so they are, but only to a degree if they maintain their success.

Railroad tracks are the classic examples of borders, so much so that they came to stand, long ago, for social borders too—“the other side of the tracks”—a connotation, incidentally, associated with small towns rather than with big cities.

Wherever a significant “dead place” appears on a downtown street, it causes a drop in the intensity of foot circulation there, and in the use of the city at that point. Sometimes the drop is so serious economically that business declines to one side or the other of the dead place. Such a dead place may be an actual vacancy, or it may be a little-used monument of some sort, or it may be a parking lot, or it may simply be a group of banks that go dead after three o’clock in the afternoon. Whatever it may be specifically, the role of the dead place as a geographic obstacle to the general land has overcome its role as a contributor of users to the general land. The tension has gone slack.

“An edge may be more than simply a dominant barrier,” writes Lynch, “if some visual or motion penetration is allowed through it—if it is, as it were, structured to some depth with the regions on either side. It then becomes a seam rather than a barrier, a line of exchange along which two areas are sewn together.”