September 21, 2016

Adam Gopnick on Jane Jacobs – 8

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.


If Jacobs’s micro-observations are still thrilling, at least one of her big ideas now seems just wrong. She believed in that virtuous, reoxygenating circle whereby density—and short blocks and small green spaces—guaranteed diversity. This no longer seems so, at least not in Manhattan. In the past fifteen years, the density of my Upper East Side block has remained constant, and the play of old and new buildings, parks and streets is unchanged. (No one can build without several years of planning hearings.) But we have lost two toy stores, a magazine store, a cigar store, and a stationery-and-card store, and gained two banks, a real-estate office, a giant Duane Reade drugstore, and, to the bafflement of the neighborhood, three French baby-clothes stores. (The best theory is that these are part of the settlement in hedge-fund divorces.)

This pattern is felt everywhere in the city. The old neighborhood is helpless in the face of new pressures, because it had depended on older versions of the same pressures, ones that Jacobs was not entirely willing to name or confront. What kept her street intact was not a mysterious equilibrium of types, or magic folk dancing, but market forces. The butcher and the locksmith on Hudson Street were there because they could make a profit on meat and keys. They weren’t there to dance; they were there to earn. The moment that Mr. Halpert and Mr. Goldstein can’t turn that profit—or that Starbucks and Duane Reade can pay the landlord more—the tempo changes. The Jacobs street, a perfect reflection of the miracle of self-organizing systems that free markets create, becomes a perfect reflection of the brutal and unappeasable destruction that free markets enforce. The West Village may be unrecognizable today, but it is not because the underlying forces working upon it have changed. It is because they have remained exactly the same. The seeming contradiction between the Jacobite Jane and the Jacobin Jane arises from the reality that markets in street frontage, as in everything else, are made and unmade in a moment.

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