urbanite take

A Chicagoan opines on land use, transportation and the walkable city

D&L Introduction: in which I join the book club

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I have a shameful confession to make: I’ve never finished The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. As an urbanist and city enthusiast, it’s more or less expected that you will have read the book, even if you don’t agree with all the tenets in the book.

This is why I’m so excited that the City Builder Book Club has selected Death and Life as the book that they are jointly reading through the spring. I’m taking this opportunity to finally finish what is one of the central texts of the urbanist movement; since I only found out about it last week, I’m a little behind, but I’m posting on the Introduction now, will be posting on Chapters 2 and 3 later and should be on track by next week.

But to the Introduction: I’ll start, a bit contrarily, with the end. I’ve only lived in Chicago for a year and a half, but even after living here such a short time, I’ve sensed the 1895 World’s Fair and Daniel Burnham’s architectural legacy are ingrained in the municipal psyche. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard his apocryphal “Make no little plans.” And though it is certainly criticized, his Plan of Chicago, with its broad Parisian-style boulevards, lakefront open spaces and monumental city center, and its roots in the City Beautiful movement are often invoked as one of the most respected and important elements in Chicago’s planning history.

All this is to say is that it’s a little bit jarring when I arrived at the end of the Introduction to find Jacobs disdainful of the City Beautiful movement. She dismisses the City Beautiful movement as resulting in a “City Monumental,” resulting in grandiose monumental boulevards intended to serve as centerpieces of the city but ultimately failing in their venture. As she says, when the “fair became part of the city,” somehow the juxtaposition didn’t seem to work so well.

But I shouldn’t be surprised, and in a way, that’s the whole point of the Introduction. Much of this opening salvo is devoted to describing then-widely-accepted ideas of city planning and top-down municipal development that Jacobs clearly finds completely inimical to how cities actually work.

She touches relatively briefly (on pages 14 and 15 in my edition, the Vintage House tan-colored paperback) on her thoughts on diversity and the four essential conditions, but really, much of the Introduction is devoted to taking down ideas she doesn’t like, in preparation for what we assume will be the book’s carefully laid-out thoughts on what the city should look like.

The cognitive dissonance of the Boston planner who calls the North End the worst slum in the city yet appreciates the “wonderful, cheerful street life” in the summer; the combined fallacies of the “Radiant Garden City Beautiful” à la Lincoln Square in New York City; the essential idiocy of improving cities through completely anti-urban measures; and an apt comparison to the pseudoscience of bloodletting (which, if I’m not mistaken, shows up again in Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking!) are all depicted in energetic fashion by Jacobs in this section.

And for me, as a reader, this works. Perhaps it’s easier to see this in hindsight, having observed the aftermath of much of the twentieth century’s misguided urban renewal efforts. I saw Cabrini-Green come down in pieces in the time I’ve lived in Chicago, have been to the cozy streets of Boston’s North End and have marveled at how we could ever think that Le Corbusier’s towers in the park could be livable.

But I think that even if I were reading this in the midst of its first publication, in the 1960s, without the benefit of New Urbanism and smart growth and all the developments of the 21st century, this Introduction is alluring enough and critical enough of accepted doctrine that I would be tempted to continue in, to find out what a city should really look like.

And so we’re off! Next up are chapters 2 and 3, on the use of sidewalks: contact and safety.

Written by Andrew ACG

February 6, 2012 at 9:47 pm

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  1. […] A City Guy (Chicago, USA) is an urbanist who is taking the opportunity to finish reading Death & Life this time around, […]

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