Jane Jacobs’s Spirit Still Hovers

Event: Can One Woman (Still) Make a Difference? Jane Jacobs and New York
Location: St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, 10.31.07
Speakers: Christopher Klemek — Co-Curator, Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York; Roberta Brandes Gratz — Urban Critic; Samuel Zipp — Assistant Professor of American Civilization and Urban Studies, Brown University; Julia Vitullo-Martin — Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute’s Center for Civic Innovation; Laurie Beckelman — President, Beckelman & Capalino (Introduction)
Moderator: Joseph Giovannini — Architectural Critic & Author
Organizers: Municipal Art Society

Future of New York

Courtesy Municipal Art Society

As one who rose from ordinary citizen to celebrity, Jane Jacobs continues to fascinate readers and rouse conversation about what makes cities work. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she encouraged fellow citizens and readers to “look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see.” At this event panelists of urban experts who have written about Jacobs’s work and/or knew her personally provided vignettes into her persona and work.

Urban critic Roberta Brandes Gratz, who knew Jacobs, described her as someone who was both interested in and cared about real people, how they lived, and what their lives were like — important things to know to resolve urban issues. Christopher Klemek, co-curator of Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York now on view at the Urban Center, called Jacobs a “Madisonian” who sought ways to prevent any one faction from obtaining tyrannical control. He noted that Mayor John Lindsay had made overtures to Jacobs to work in government. Klemek reported that later in life she had some regrets about not taking Lindsay up on the offer, but she cared more about creating coalitions and organizations. Besides, both sides of the 1960s political spectrum embraced her ideas, stated Samuel Zipp, assistant professor of American civilization and urban studies at Brown University.

Questions remain about whether current city planning actually incorporates Jacobs’s thinking. Gratz lamented that lessons of the West Village have never been fully realized. While community-oriented structures have been put in place since the 1960s, “private market imperatives dominated by corporate developers, including nonprofits, have gone largely unquestioned,” added Zipp. In some instances, nonprofits are competing for what Jacobs would have regarded as self-isolating land, argued Julia Vitullo-Martin, senior fellow at Manhattan Institute’s Center for Civic Innovation.

Still, times have changed for the better because of Jacobs, believes Vitullo-Martin, citing successful developments citywide from Brooklyn waterfronts to Frederick Douglas Boulevard between 116th and 125th Streets. Jacobs’s influence spreads beyond NYC as well. The local fishing community is taking civic planning action in New Jersey to preserve Liberty State Park. So there is still hope for a Jacobs-inspired future. Jacobs has set a precedent for citizens to get involved, coalesce, and shape development of their communities.

The Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York exhibition aims to “energize a new generation of New Yorkers to observe and recognize the best of our city and become citizen activists for possible change,” according to Laurie Beckelman, president of Beckelman & Capalino, who introduced the event. For more information about the exhibition and related events, and to read blogs and see video podcasts, click the link above.