A Letter

A friend recently showed me this letter from Jane Jacobs (also included below). Do you know who Jane Jacobs is?  If not, go out now—right now—and buy The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It will change the way you see cities. It contains the astute observations of a then New York City resident who understands that neighborhoods, not highways or funding districts, are the building blocks of cities. She articulated things that people who live in healthy neighborhoods know without thinking, but that hadn’t yet become topics of conversation in urban planning circles.

Her words have sometimes been used to justify urban design practices that I strongly disagree with, but I don’t blame her for that. She asked the right questions, it’s up to us to find the right answers.

Jane Jacobs moved from New York to Toronto in 1968 (partly to protect her draft-aged sons), but clearly continued to think about the city where she developed her urban ideas and ideals. She often comes to mind when I see my elderly neighbors on the stoop (‘eyes on the street’ make it safer, she wrote), when I see a good mix of uses in a neighborhood, or whenever I see a lively, healthy place. But she is particularly in my mind as I try to grapple with the changes in my own neighborhood. The other night I was biking down the fantastic new bike lane on Kent and nearly got knocked over by people unloading an immense flat screen TV from an even more immense SUV to take into one of the huuuuuge new condo towers along the water. And with some sadness I realized that the people with the TV probably fit into the new Williamsburg better than I do.

I certainly hope my realization was wrong, and there are definitely still parts of the neighborhood I love, but the character has shifted as the condos (many now converted to apartments) slowly fill up as the economy slowly sputters back to life. Change, I well know, is an integral part of any living city and its neighborhoods, and as an architect I know that my whole profession is predicated on taking something away: trees, an old building, or even empty space. Before the building plans come the demo plans. But it’s important to direct and control change, or things will fall apart. As I look around this neighborhood I wonder how long the infrastructure will last. The L train is more crowded each day, often to the point I worry someone will get hurt. The sewer lines, I can only imagine, must be strained, like the water mains, and let’s not even talk about the electric grid. Yes, there are some fantastic new resources like parks and bike lanes, but the less glamorous stuff and the small but critical details seem to have been largely overlooked.

And so back to the letter. Jane Jacobs could see (as could anyone who looked) that the recent massive re-zoning of Williamsburg  and Greenpoint was not well thought out and was not based on sound principals. And in this letter (reprinted in the Williamsburg Greenpoint News+Arts) she tells Mayor Bloomberg exactly that a year before she died (you can click on the letter to enlarge):



This entry was posted on Sunday, August 8th, 2010 and is filed under urbanism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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3 Responses to “A Letter”

  1. Greg

    I was in graduate school for urban planning when the 2005 rezoning was underway, and i was involved in a number of projects related to it. My disgust with the way the rezoning was handled was strong enough that by the time I finished the program I no longer had any interest in working in planning.

    Part of the problem is that developers in this city drive the planning process, and usually get 90% of what they want. But in this case the DCP was also culpable. One of the projects we did (on which we had prominent developers consulting) demonstrated it was possible to achieve the same level of community benefit (privately funded waterfront parks) and so forth with the same FAR, and far less height (12 stories). The effect would have been to create something more like Riverside drive in terms of the massing. I think the psychological effect of having luxury towers loom over the neighborhood is a strongly negative one, and could have been avoided.

    I feel similarly about the changes in the neighborhood, where I’ve lived for more than ten years. It’s not just gentrification with the latest demographic – we could perhaps call it Murray Hillification. But I’m guardedly optimistic that the neighborhood can absorb the newcomers without going into douchebag toxic shock. It’s geographically a large area. It isn’t a pretty neighborhood like brownstone Brooklyn, so I think the appeal with always be limited for that set. There will continue to be a vast stock of substandard housing to offset the islands of new luxcondos.

  2. Naomi

    Hi Kirsten.
    This post reminds me a bit of a thoughtful essay by Arlene Goldbard in “What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs”. In it, she notes that “our interventions can only be as good as our perceptions” and talks about ways of “developing the lens of awareness that make us better, clearer perceivers of cities, and therefore better creators and tellers of the stories that ultimately shape them”. Actually, you might want to take a look at this book. It’s got essays by Janette Sadik-Khan and Janine Benyus that you might like. http://www.newvillagepress.net/book/?GCOI=97660100041170

  3. Kirsten

    thanks so much. Greg, I, too, try to feel cautiously optimistic about the neighborhood–a new bakery just opened around the corner from me. that makes me happy! and Naomi, I will definitely look for that book. thanks for the recommendation.