Jane Jacobs didn’t trust urban planners. She once told me that planners would call her all the time and tell her what great work they were doing in her name. Then she would find out that they were following the same old pattern she was opposed to.
Although I am a lifelong planner, she made an exception for me, I think, because I always tried to pay honor to Jacobs’ first principle: challenge planning dogma. Cities are not static so why should our thinking be? We need to always question the easy way of doing things. Is it the right or best way? Does it accomplish all that we want? Can we do more?
I first met Jane in 1999. I had written her a letter of introduction, mentioning that I would be visiting Toronto. When I called her from my hotel, she was very welcoming and told me to come by her house for a visit.
It was one of many on the street with large covered front porches, the kind that New Urbanists love. Inside, she had decorated it with classic 1960s-style furniture, which seemed fitting, since she really was a modernist at heart.
We spoke of urban planning, writing and her reasons for leaving New York. I thought she was so wonderful to leave a city she loved to protect her sons from being drafted into the Vietnam War. But that was the kind of woman she was, always sacrificing herself for the greater good.
Over the years, she taught me a lot about urban planning, but one of the best lessons was to “beware of the abstract.” Often urban planners and architects get these notions about how cities should look or function, and then go about trying to shape the environment to fit these visions without realizing that they may be unworkable. When we fail, we chalk it up to experience, but in doing so we have destroyed a block, a neighborhood or a city. The ramifications are great and we must be cognizant before we proceed.
Many people read Death and Life of Great American Cities and think they know how to plan a city. They take elements like “eyes on the street,” “mixed use” or “small blocks” and then design a neighborhood or town from scratch. When it ends up sterile, they wonder why.
Jane was talking about a specific place in time. Greenwich Village was bohemian, a waterfront manufacturing district with loft buildings interspersed with row houses converted into single room occupancy hotels and rent-controlled tenement apartment buildings. This gave the district spontaneity, diversity and neighborliness. She wanted to save this, so she wrote about it. The folks making city planning decisions at the time were living in very different environments—zoned exclusively for residential use, with factories far from view.
Many decision-makers still live in those exclusive enclaves, but at least today there is a general understanding that some people prefer non-exclusivity and they need to have places to live, work and play, too.
It is impossible, as an urban planner, to understand all the variables that go into creating a successful community. Even with 26 years of experience, I continue to learn how valuable it is to take in the local perspective before marching forward on a planning idea. This is really what Jane wanted Robert Moses to do.
Over the years, I kept in contact with Jane, sharing pictures we took at her house, letters that I had published in The New York Times, and discussing my efforts to help Chelsea, where I live, retain its mixed-use, mixed-income character. She always wanted to know what I was up to but rarely discussed herself, except to say that she was working on a book. I found it heartwarming that she would always answer the telephone, make a quick remark about how she couldn’t stay on the phone too long, and then spend up to an hour talking with me about urban planning in New York and elsewhere.
When I was in a pitched battle to save the manufacturing jobs in Chelsea and the Meatpacking District, she reminded me of how she had fought for the same in the Village 40 years earlier. When, after 6 years of participating in debates on my local community board, I called it quits, she asked me why. I told her I was exhausted—and she understood.
When I decided to write a book on urban planning—yet to be finished—I called her on my birthday to tell her that I was dedicating it to her. Her birthday is a few days before mine and she told me that it was the best birthday present she had received. I was thrilled.
I asked her once why she refused to be interviewed for the PBS documentary on New York. She told me that she didn’t want the emphasis to be on her. It was a community of people that saved the Village; she was just the one who wrote about it.
—Thomas G. Lunke
Director of Planning at the Harlem Community Development Corporation