September 21, 2016

Adam Gopnick on Jane Jacobs – 6

Adam Gopnick in the New Yorker does a reflection on Jane Jacobs’s life and ideas in her centenary year, with so many astute observations that PT will pull out a selection and run one every hour today.


Books written in a time of crisis can make bad blueprints for a time of plenty, as polemics made in times of war are not always the best blueprint for policies in times of peace. Jane Jacobs wrote “Death and Life” at a time when it was taken for granted that American cities were riddled with cancer. Endangered then, they are thriving now, with the once abandoned downtowns of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and even Cleveland blossoming. Our city problems are those of overcharge and hyperabundance—the San Francisco problem, where so many rich young techies have crowded in to enjoy the city’s street ballet that there’s no room left for anyone else to dance.

The first stirrings in Jacobs’s day of what we call “gentrification” she called, arrestingly, “unslumming,” insisting that the process works when a slum, amid falling rents and vacated buildings, becomes slimmed down to a “loyal core” of residents who, with eyes on the street, keep it livable enough for new residents to decide to enter. (This sounds right for, say, Crown Heights or Williamsburg, where the core of Hasidim and Caribbeans, staying out of convenience or clan loyalty, made the place appealing to new settlers.) It now seems self-evident to us, but did not then, that a city can fend off decline by drawing in creative types to work in close proximity on innovative projects, an urban process that Jacobs was one of the first to recognize, and name: she called it “slippage,” and saw its value. We live with the consequences of slippage, called by many ugly names, with “yuppie” usually thrown in for good measure.


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  1. “Jane Jacobs wrote ‘Death and Life’ at a time when it was taken for granted that American cities were riddled with cancer. Endangered then, they are thriving now . . . Our city problems are those of overcharge and hyperabundance—the San Francisco problem, where so many rich young techies have crowded in to enjoy the city’s street ballet that there’s no room left for anyone else to dance.”
    Hardly. American cities are riddled with cancer. I think of pictures of the miserable suburban street in Ferguson where Michael Brown died, or even of the wealthy wasteland that is Silicon Valley. The problem as I see it is not that too many people want to live in the cities: it is that we have too little city for them to live in. Gopnik does mention this:
    “good housing that will alleviate the San Francisco problem will probably look more like Roosevelt Island than like the West Village, simply because more Roosevelt Islands can be built for many, and the West Village can be preserved for only a few. Refusing to . . . think about how the Roosevelt Islands can be made better, rather than about why they are no good, is not to be honest about the challenges of the modern city. The solution can’t be pining for old neighborhoods, sneering at yuppies, and vilifying social planners.”
    I don’t know anything about Roosevelt Village. But I do know that the solution is too often to intensify the already booming old core rather than try to develop desirable suburbs that would absorb that demand. Gopnick is resigned that West Village can only be preserved, not built. Why not? Sprawl is expensive and inefficient. I simply cannot believe that the resources don’t exist. What’s stopping us? Sure it takes time for a neighbourhood to develop its identity, but is that even happening with anything built in the past half century? Or is it the market that he so incoherently praises (it can be a one-size-fits-all hero, but not a one-size-fits-all universal villain)?
    In our region, almost every discussion is laser focused on improving the City of Vancouver. I suspect that’s because that’s where the social planners with the power and the people with the money live and work, so naturally it’s what they care most about. But so long as it is the old neighbourhoods that get the juice there will be sneering at yuppies and vilification of planners. Jacobs’s analysis is as relevant as ever in most of the places where people actually live.

    1. Excellent comment, I had the same reaction. The whole article reads like it was written from inside one of America’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, as no doubt it was, but it’s funny how arrogantly it seems to assume that the experience of Manhattan or San Francisco is universal.
      O the plus side, out of the spotlight, there is work going on in the region in line with Jacobs principles, although it is halting and far from a full implementation. I think of ‘high streets’ like the one North of Coquitlam centre or Dawson in Burnaby, or I consider the ongoing plan to create a grid in Surrey Centre.
      But then I consider areas like Golden Triangle in Poco or the turning ramps at Ioco and Guildford in Port Moody and I realize the yawning gulf between what is possible, qua Jacobs, and what we are building today in so many places.

    2. An article today tells an old story that underlines the point that many urban areas are not thriving. From “To understand Charlotte’s rage, you have to understand its roads”:
      “What white power couldn’t destroy for decades, the roads soon did. The black doctors and university professors who lived in McCrorey Heights used to be able to walk to work at Johnson C Smith University while their kids walked to school at Biddleville Elementary, down a street lined with black-owned businesses. “A new expressway went through in the 1960s, wiped out a street of houses, wiped out the school, wiped out the businesses,” said Hanchett. “Economic segregation was already coming into focus. But the interstates created moats.””

  2. There is such a chasm between what people want and what is available.
    Take the developments at Cambie & Marine, or near Coquitlam Centre, or Brentwood … these towers are machines for making money. Liveable? Well, you can live in them. Desirable? Marketers like to call these TODS “neighbourhoods”, or “vibrant liveable communities”.
    They’re as much communities as CAFO’s are fine dining. The one big selling feature is that you have access to transit – not too exciting. The rest of it is a mall experience with traffic.
    I spent over ten years in a prototypical Vancouver three storey walk-up apartment building. It packed a lot of people in. And it works for all generations – oldsters can take the first floor units.
    Big problem was the lack of soundproofing. And, of course, just one smoker can make a building disgusting. Another problem is dogs, which this building, fortunately, did not have.
    It’s good that Gopnik has taken some time in his ivory tower to keep the memory of Jacobs fresh. It’s a kind of nostalgia really.

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