Jane Jacobs’ Frankensteins

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When Jane Jacobs died in 2006, the Silverleaf Tavern on Park Avenue named a drink in her honor. A Jane Jacobs, which costs $14, consists of Hendrick’s gin, elderflower syrup, orange bitters and sparkling wine.

Elderflower syrup: This is not an ingredient you would associate with the White Horse Tavern, a Hudson Street bar where Jacobs was famously photographed holding a beer and a cigarette. Near the apartment where she wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the White Horse was home to the kind of democratic shoulder-rubbing that Jacobs idealized. 

The problem, of course, is when you do too good a job of convincing people that democratic neighborhoods are great, the neighborhoods tend to get less democratic. Aficionados of elderflower syrup supplant working-class beer drinkers, and rents rise accordingly. The aficionados, fans of Jacobs all, change the neighborhoods, just not in the way she would have wanted.   

Anthony Flint’s Wrestling With Moses (Random House) focuses on just a handful of Jacobs’ clashes with the legendary urban planner Robert Moses; and, at 195 pages, it’s far shorter than either Jacobs’ Death and Life (458 pages) or Robert Caro’s Moses account, The Power Broker (at 1,344 pages, a notorious bruiser). It’s practically an urban-planning beach read, so perhaps it’s not surprising that their legacies get short shrift. 

We get tantalizing hints of the ideological tangles involved in the Jacobs/Moses showdown: Starry-eyed liberals love Jacobs, but so do the conservatives who see Moses’ projects as expensive government meddling. Mr. Flint gives us a Jacobs who’s aware that her position is a delicate one, but who doesn’t seem particularly fazed by this. The West Village was transforming even as Jacobs and her ilk took up residence. She is wary of placing neighborhoods “under a kind of museum glass” through historic preservation, but what about placing them under the shadow of glass condo towers? 

The places that Jacobs valued and protected—Washington Square Park, Soho, the West Village—might have been teetering on the brink of decrepitude in her time, but now they’re breathtakingly affluent. “Parks are for people,” went one of her early slogans—and it’s a good thing, because parks are free and apartments aren’t. 

Mr. Flint treats gentrification as evidence for Jacobs’ prescience. After recounting her successful crusade to protect Washington Square Park, he points out that today the surrounding neighborhood offers townhouses to “rival those on Fifth Avenue as desirable real estate,” and “hotspots in the city’s restaurant scene, like Mario Batali’s Babbo.” 

Babbo is one thing, but the scenes of cheery baking and gardening that pepper the book are more interesting: They suggest an unexpected comparison, one that Mr. Flint seems to circle in his epilogue. The rise of sustainable food, he says, goes hand in hand with the triumph of Jane Jacobs.

“The value of local businesses and local economy, a bedrock theme in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is … at a premium. The local food movement emphasizes the availability of locally produced food,” Mr. Flint writes, noting that “Locavore” was the New Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year in 2007. 

Maybe Jacobs’ spiritual sister is evangelical foodie Alice Waters. Both indisputably admirable in their intentions, they’re easily co-opted wrongly by fans—for Jacobs, the earnestly New Urban residents of neighborhoods like the West Village, who can afford to reap the benefits of organic neighborhood growth, no matter that the gentrification this often brings creates socio-economically homogenous areas. Whole Foods is to Alice Waters as Greenwich Village is to Jane Jacobs.

Mixed-use neighborhoods, like sustainable nectarines, are hard to grow for the masses.



Jane Jacobs’ Frankensteins