by Benjamin Schwarz
May/June 2016 The American Conservative
A bevy of trend-conscious city planners, opportunistic real-estate developers, municipal officials eager to grow their cities’ tax bases, and entrepreneurial urban gurus (most prominently the consultant Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class) ballyhoo the national renaissance of what inevitably gets described as the Vibrant Urban Neighborhood. The VUN—with its standard-issue bike shops and vintage clothiers, its “authentic” live-work spaces and dive bars, its predictable purveyors of vinyl records and locally-sourced foodstuffs, its de rigueur venues for generically hip “live music,” its uniform throngs of overwhelmingly unmarried and childless active or aspiring knowledge workers ritualistically intoning the shibboleth of “diversity”—has metastasized from those erstwhile white-hot centers of hipness—Williamsburg, the Mission, Wicker Park, Silverlake—converting Bell Town and Bushwick, Echo Park, Seward, and the Pearl District, transforming D.C.’s H Street Corridor, LA’s Highland Park, and dozens of other districts.
Right-thinking and self-congratulatory NPR and New York Times lifestyle reporters greet this youth-fueled phenomenon as the triumphant return of a rich and (yes, inevitably) “diverse” urban community life that was squelched by the postwar shift to automobile-dependent, conformist, soulless suburbia. But in fact the burgeoning of the VUNs merely demonstrates that consumption and entertainment have become the dominant means of self-definition and of what passes for political expression—and, concomitantly, it signifies not the triumph of urban life but of our crabbed vision of the promise and potentialities of neighborhood and community.
That the VUNs are “walkable” and “lively,” as they are invariably styled, is no accident: the planners and local officials, merchants, and developers who essentially created those places could not help but absorb the recipe for livable and economically thriving districts—vary the uses, keep the scale small and the blocks short, preserve the physical fabric of neighborhoods, encourage a dense concentration of people—that Jane Jacobs codified in the ur-text of urbanism, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. As the urban historian Samuel Zipp nicely puts it, this recipe has been long established as “the lingua franca of planners.”
But although Jacobs acutely dissected the commercial needs and unique commercial possibilities of cities by closely reading the neighborhood life around her house at 555 Hudson Street in the far west of New York’s Greenwich Village in the late 1950s and early 1960s, she exquisitely grasped that the primary purpose of neighborhoods lay entirely elsewhere—in the fostering of family and community life and in the development of its necessary concomitant, a deep if unobtrusive civic-mindedness. Commerce, she recognized, merely supported that purpose. Today’s VUNs, districts that have come to be defined as the very model of successful urban neighborhood life, conspicuously lack the cynosure of the neighborhoods Jacobs examined—children, and the efforts to protect, nurture, and socialize them under the watchful but unobtrusive eyes of the community.
To appreciate the lost promise of that life and the import of and inherent tension within Jacobs’s understanding of it, we have to apprehend both the distinctive perspective Jacobs brought to writing about city neighborhoods and the vanished world of those neighborhoods, generally, and of New York and her own peculiar enclave, specifically.
Most contemporary celebrants of “vibrant” cities would find the urban neighborhood life of Jacobs’s time—even in New York, by far the country’s most sophisticated, chaotic, and lively city—largely bereft of what has come to be understood as vibrancy. True, the city had the magazines and publishing houses, Madison Avenue advertising, Broadway, and Tin Pan Alley, but its streetscape and ethos, its rhythms, its accents, and way of life were defined by its being, like virtually every other American metropolis, overwhelmingly working-class. As late as 1950, New York was by far the world’s largest industrial center, and even Manhattan was predominantly and the Village was largely a center for labor. Sewing rooms and small-scale manufacturing lofts riddled the districts adjacent to Jacobs’s—the east-central Village, SoHo, and Tribeca (where, even as late as the end of the 1970s, I worked in a belt-and-handbag factory during my summers off from high school); a working waterfront scalloped Jacobs’s own far West Village (New York’s port was easily the world’s largest, employing 200,000 people; my mother, who lived around the corner from Jacobs’s house from the late 1940s to 1960, always recalled the neighborhood as a port district); and Jacobs’s neighboring businesses included a brewery (New York made one-fifth of the world’s beer). So, yes, there were lofts and warehouses aplenty—but those cool and “authentic” industrial spaces were given over to, well, industry.
Yes, the city was home to artists, theater people, writers, and young people from the provinces aiming to join their ranks. But, in pursuit of cheap rents, members of the then-Creative Class found themselves embedded in existing neighborhoods defined by their majority working-class populations—hence, say, the Abstract Expressionists lived among the Ukrainian families of the East Village, Boston’s bohemians found themselves tolerated and even indulged—much like other “characters” who were fixtures of both urban neighborhoods and small towns—by the Italians and Jews in their West End enclave, and Jacobs and her well-educated urban pioneer families ornamented what was a largely Italian and Irish neighborhood of workingmen and their families with a heavy sprinkling, thanks to the waterfront, of Galician maritime workers. (A few Spanish restaurants survived in the neighborhood long after the Galicians disappeared—El Faro, on Greenwich Street near the old piers, closed a few years ago, and the fly-in-amber Sevilla, on Charles Street, is still in business.)
And, yes, the city and its neighborhoods were marvelously “walkable”—which meant that, along with the occasional cabinetmaker, antique store, patisserie that enjoyed a borough-wide clientele, ethnic café, and shabby used bookstore, a monotony of shoe repair shops, hardware stores, and locksmiths; laundries and dry cleaners and tailors; corner groceries, butcher shops, and fish stores; drugstores and candy stores; and mostly mediocre bakeries and lunch counters defined the streetscape. (Overwhelmingly, these are the lost establishments for which Jeremiah Moss displays such Canute-like rue in his plaintive, angry, captivating blog, Vanishing New York.) The plethora of “purely localized conveniences” meant that “the common run of city people,” as Jacobs recognized, “depend greatly on their neighborhoods for the kind of everyday lives they lead.” This bestowed a self-contained, even a provincial, quality on those neighborhoods, which meant that their commercial life, which far more closely resembled that of a small town circa 1940 than it does that of today’s VUNs, helped sustain the intimacies of long neighborhood association.
Of all Jacobs’s observational achievements, none was as profound and fresh as her minute and subtle understanding of the quotidian neighborhood life that her experience as a mid-20th-century woman and mother conferred. Jacobs was a working journalist, but—no surprise—was also primarily responsible for childcare and for managing her household’s affairs. She also found children fascinating, particularly their inner lives and the ways they negotiated the world. Her tour de force montage of the 24-hour “sidewalk ballet” on her Hudson Street block is probably the most celebrated passage on an American city ever written, but key to the authority and precision of that piece is the author’s participation in the routine of neighborhood life. She listened to shifts in predawn street life as she stayed up through the night with a sick child; she watched but did not interfere as her children’s city life expanded; as she ran her errands, she observed shopkeepers serving as the ganglia of the neighborhood’s extensive communications network and the ways the neighborhood kept its easeful vigilance even as it maintained its toleration; and she struck the right balance of openness and reserve with her neighbors. Jacobs’s “intensely lived domesticity,” the great humanist Marxist philosopher (and great New Yorker) Marshall Berman recognized, “makes her readers feel that women know what it is like to live in cities, street by street, day by day, far better than the men who plan and build them.”
A careful reading of The Life and Death’s close analysis of neighborhood life reveals that the irreducible purpose of that life wasn’t to deliver—as that professional celebrant of the VUNs, Richard Florida, would have it—“indigenous street-level culture, a teeming blend of cafes, sidewalk musicians, and small galleries and bistros, where it is hard to draw the line between performers and spectators” but rather, as Jacobs put it, to provide the means for “assimilating children”: to guarantee a place for children to play and to develop. Whereas the denizens of the VUNs, the Marxian geographer Jamie Peck notes disapprovingly, spurn “places oriented to children … and many of the mundane and time consuming tasks of social reproduction,” Jacobs’s neighbors had different priorities. Indeed, if Jacobs put the needs of children and the workaday tasks adults undertake in raising them at the center of neighborhood life, she put play at the center of children’s lives. Although anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have only recently begun to fathom that children’s play might be the primary adaption that nature has found to develop the human brain, in a passage of great acuity and sympathy Jacobs explained both the crucial role of play and the crucial role of the community—in her case, the city neighborhood—in providing the delicate and ever-adjusting balance of security and latitude, scrutiny and independence necessary for children and adolescents to play and thereby acquire an individual identity and imagination. From the exercise of that function upon them, Jacobs realized, children absorbed the fundamental ethos of a healthy civic life: the understanding that “people must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other.”
Strikingly echoing Jacobs, Miles Orvell, the historian of small towns, finds that the very notion of “community” and “small town” has rested “on the most concrete and material sense of place, namely, where children play.” Keen readers of The Death and Life have long noted, usually disparagingly, that Jacobs summoned “an idyllic picture of small town life in the midst of the big city,” as the sociologist of urban life Sharon Zukin avers. Many of her critics believed that Jacobs was not objectively recording what she observed but instead was imposing a pastoral construct on the grit and authenticity of urban reality. Those critics are anachronistic. Rather than today’s thrumming city of rootless meritocrats, the New York, even the Manhattan, of Jacobs’s time was mostly an agglomeration of somewhat inward-looking, largely self-sufficient neighborhoods. (As young marrieds in the mid-1920s and early 1930s, my Korean grandfather and French-Canadian grandmother, neither of whom mastered English, mostly confined themselves to the several blocks surrounding their upper Manhattan apartment.) In chronicling the development of New York’s built environment, the architect Robert Stern recognized that “much of New York is a city of attached and semi-attached one-, two-, and three-family houses, interspersed with apartment blocks usually no more than six storeys high. For this reason … New York and most other American cities are … collections of small towns.” The geographer John Jakle argues that at the beginning of the 20th century “Americans came to configure cities in ways highly reminiscent of their small-town roots—American cities becoming substantially small town-like if not in physical form then in social constitution and function, especially… at the neighborhood level … early-twentieth century cities were really clusters of small towns.”
The city and neighborhood Jacobs dissected in the mid-20th-century grew directly out of the city Jakle adumbrates, and two additional, justly celebrated works that portray mid-century urban neighborhood life support the view that a truly vibrant city was, in fact, largely a network of gemeinschaft enclaves. In his appositely titled study The Urban Villagers (1962), the sociologist Herbert Gans revealed Boston’s working-class Italian and Jewish West End—a neighborhood obliterated by developer-manipulated urban renewal just as Gans was completing his book—as a child-oriented community centered on an intensely sociable street life, where “children of all ages played … and teenagers would ‘hang,’” all under the attentive eyes of the neighborhood; where “women went shopping every day, partly to meet neighbors and to catch up on area news in the small grocery stores,” where the residents were imbued with “an empathy for the pace, crowding, and excitement of city life”; and where “many West Enders had known each other for years … everyone might not know everyone else; but, as they did know something about everyone, the net effect was the same … For most West Enders, then, life in the area resembled that found in the village or small town.”
In the same vein, Robert Caro’s meticulously reported, lyrical evocation of the Bronx’s working- and lower middle-class East Tremont neighborhood—on the eve of its destruction in the mid-1950s by Robert Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway—summoned a community largely defined by its drive to nurture its children both by protecting them and by giving them ever-widening spheres of independence as they grew. The East Tremont that Caro reconstructed was a neighborhood made radiant by the close, multilayered, long-established, evolving ties among its inhabitants, “friends whom you had grown up with and were going to grow old with, boys and girls—turned men and women—who knew and understood you … East Tremont was a sense of continuity, of warmth, of the security that comes—and only comes—with a sense of belonging.” Of course, far more than the East River separated Jacobs’s urban village on the island of Manhattan from the urban village of East Tremont in what was always New York’s least chic outer borough, but (and especially given the ideal of urban life that the VUN offers) their similarities were far more significant, as Berman, who grew up in East Tremont, recognized in 1982:
Any child of the Bronx who goes through Hudson Street with Jacobs will recognize, and mourn for, many streets of our own. We can remember attuning ourselves to their sights and sounds and smells, and feeling ourselves in harmony with them … But so much of this Bronx, our Bronx, is gone today, and we will never feel so much at home anywhere again.
Shifting from the elegiac to the beseeching in his very next sentence, Berman demanded: “Why did it go? Did it have to go?”—which are the urgent questions for anyone who yearns for urban community life. Of necessity, they lead to the subject of “gentrification,” a process that of course overwhelmed and transmogrified Jacobs’s urban village into a VUN on steroids, a starchitectural precinct that commands some of the highest real-estate prices in the country. The hoary debates surrounding gentrification can be disposed of with two of Jacobs’s incidental but hard-earned and devastating observations. First, the very physical features that make city districts successful neighborhoods make them desirable to discriminating outsiders, which means that “those who can pay the most” come to populate those neighborhoods. “These,” Jacobs recognized, “are usually childless people”—the very denizens of the VUNs. Which means that “families are crowded out,” and that, perforce, the character of the district is transformed fundamentally. A city residential precinct that is not defined by the needs of family life is essentially an urban playground, not a community. (Two words begin and end any real effort to create truly vibrant city neighborhoods: public schools. Although, of course, the state of today’s urban schools involves intractable issues such as immigration policy and a general social and cultural decline that are far beyond the ken of municipalities.)
But wait, experts and wonks of all political stripes touchingly plead, surely some alchemy of policies and programs can create and sustain family-oriented neighborhoods by stanching hyper-gentrification, the VUN-ing of cities, and the resultant middle-class exodus from those thriving metropolises that just happen to be generators of enormous wealth and the focal points of enormous private investment. The owlish, maternal Jacobs was often accused of sentimentalism, but long and bitter experience made her a cold-eyed realist once such immense sums—what she called “cataclysmic money”—were involved. Public policies, she recognized,
are windbreaks, so to speak, which can stand against the gusts of economic pressures, but can hardly be expected to stand fast against sustained gales. Any forms of zoning, any forms of public building policy, any forms of tax assessment policy, no matter how enlightened, give eventually under sufficiently powerful economic pressure.
Ultimately, global capitalism, the most voracious force for change in history, is responsible for those ever-accelerating processes that are crowding families out of city centers. Programmatic efforts to stanch those processes and somehow preserve upright urban family life amount to quixotic attempts to render fixed and solid that which inexorably melts into air.
All of which leaves us with very little. Yes, New Urbanist housing developments—which essentially transplant some of the physical elements of Jacobs’s small-town-in-the-city to the suburbs and exurbs—potentially offer a richer community life than do subdivisions of McMansions, but such developments are rarely within financial reach of the broad swath of the middle class. To the extent that such developments are confined to the haute bourgeoisie, they replicate the admittedly enticing if somewhat limited sociability offered by such relatively dense, leafy, long-established, and expensive suburbs as, say, Pelham, N.Y.; Whitefish Bay, Wis.; Upper Arlington, Ohio; or South Pasadena, Calif. It would certainly be very nice if there were even more such towns, but duplicating them by building new towns along New Urbanist principles (principles largely developed from a close reading of Jacobs) in order to engender greater social cohesion within prosperous populations already inclined toward civic-mindedness and community engagement amounts to an easy solution to an easy problem. In any case, the assumption upon which New Urbanist solutions rest—that a change in the physical layout of towns will result in a change in ways of life—may have some merit, but it seems to me that it puts the cart before the horse: you can replicate the neighborhood, but not—absent the economic conditions and social (and gender) relations that nurtured it—the neighborhood life.
Clearly—and in some ways, thankfully—the conditions that created the kind of rich and nurturing urban village life that Jacobs and Gans and Berman and Caro imperishably revealed have been long obliterated. The very sense of attachment to group and place that those urban villages produced and that was needed to sustain them—and a concomitant outlook toward life, to borrow from Orwell, that saw in middle age merely a future for one’s children and not for oneself—can obviously not be reconciled, as Berman acknowledged, to an outlook that demands that “no neighborhood or environment can be anything more than a stage along life’s way, a launching pad for higher flights and wider orbits.” (Hence Jamie Peck’s characterization of the vaunted and self-satisfied members of the “Creative Class” who populate the VUNs: “a circulating class of gentrifiers, whose lack of commitment to place and whose weak community ties are perversely celebrated.”) Berman—a committed modernist—recognized the sweeping away of the urban villages as a tragic necessity. As something of a historical determinist, I see no way that they can be recreated in any form and to any degree. But a decent respect for the world we have lost would seem to dictate that it not be profaned by the VUNs—the shopping precincts of that “circulating class of gentrifiers”—assuming its mantle.