Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Jane Jacobs

I've been reading Jane Jacobs' 1961 book - The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It's odd how, so often, I try to read certain books for years, and can't get into them, and then, when the time is right in some unfathomable way, I suddenly find my interest sustained.

The book - a city planning broadside from a sociological/anthropological perspective - is relevant for me now as I continue to try to better integrate our middle class, white congregation into the poor neighborhood of color in which the historic church building stands. When I think about sharing the church - as so many congregations now do, as their memberships and revenues decline - I think of it as a way to enliven the whole neighborhood with the comings and goings of lots of different kinds of people who hold lots of different beliefs and have lots of different plans.

Reading Jane Jacobs gave me one of those "Ah-hah!" moments: others far more observant and experienced than I, have found that human bustle has infinite, immeasurable, intangible benefits, and that there is a broad spectrum of legitimate activities beyond the kinds of things our particular congregation may currently like to do.

Strangers become an enormous asset on the street on which I live [Hudson Street in Manhattan], and the spurs off it, particularly at night when safety assets are most needed. We are fortunate enough, on the street, to be gifted not only with a locally supported bar and another around the corner, but also with a famous bar that draws continuous troops of strangers from adjoining neighborhoods, and even from out of town. It is famous because the poet Dylan Thomas used to go there, and mentioned it in his writing.

This bar, indeed, works two distinct shifts. In the morning and early afternoon it is a social gathering place for the old community of Irish longshoremen and other craftsmen in the area, as it always was. But beginning in midafternoon it takes on a different life, more like a college bull session with beer, combined with a literary cocktail party, and this continues until the early hours of the morning. On a cold winter's night, as you pass the White Horse, and the doors open, a solid wave of conversation and animation surges out and hits you: very warming. The comings and goings from this bar do much to keep our street reasonably populated until three in the morning, and it is a street always safe to come home to. The only instance I know of a beating in our street occurred in the dead hours between the closing of the bar and dawn. The beating was halted by one of our neighbors, who saw it from his window and, unconsciously certain that even at night he was part of a web of strong street law and order, intervened.

A friend of mine lives on a street uptown where a church youth and community center, with many night dances and other activities, performs the same service for his street that the White Horse bar does for ours. Orthodox planning is much imbued with puritanical and Utopian conceptions of how people should spend their free time, and in planning, these moralisms on people's private lives are deeply confused with concepts about the workings of cities. In maintaining city street civilization, the White Horse bar and the church-sponsored youth center, different as they undoubtedly are, perform much the same public street civilizing service. There is not only room is cities for such differences and many more in taste, purpose and interest of occupation; cities also have a need for people with all these differences in taste and proclivity.

The preferences of Utopians, and of other compulsive managers of other people's leisure, for one kind of legal enterprise over others is worse than irrelevant for cities. It is harmful. The greater and more plentiful the range of all legitimate interests (in the strictly legal sense) that city streets and their enterprises can satisfy, the better for the streets and for the safety and civilization of the city.


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