Jane Jacobs’ Talk When Receiving the Vincent Scully Prize (2000)

[Jane Jacobs’ Talk to the Green Building Council in Washington, D.C. November 11, 2000, at the National Building Museum, in receiving the Vincent Scully Prize (transcribed by Chris Bradshaw, pednet discussion list, from a video recording by John Wetmore).  The Title is mine.]

Community Hearths

We take it for granted that some things are improved or enhanced with the passage of time, and the things that the passing of times brings.  Trees grow larger; hedges grow thicker, fine old buildings are put to uses that were never intended or anticipated, as this building has been, and increasingly appreciated as time passes.  But some other things are too seldom enhanced or improved with the workings of time.

Now I am thinking of American city and suburban neighbourhoods.  On the whole, they have very chancy records of dealing well with time and change.  This afternoon I am going to discuss, briefly, four common kinds of failure for city neighbourhoods and make a few suggestions.  Of course, don’t expect me to be comprehensive on such a subject in half an hour.  The best I can do is mention some thoughts, in the hope that they’ll stimulate some other thoughts and maybe better thoughts by others.

My first suggestion concerns immigrants.  Right now, right this minute, in locations extending from the Virginia metropolitan fringes of Washington and the Jersey metropolitan fringes of New York, and the Los Angeles fringes of Los Angeles [chuckles], striving immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, China, the Philippines, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa are settling in woebegone city suburbs to which time has been unkind. Right now, right this minute, these newcomers are enlivening the dull and dreary streets with tiny grocery and clothing stores, second-hand shops, little importing and craft enterprises, skimpy offices, and modest but exotic restaurants.

Now either of two things can befall these newly minted immigrant neighbourhoods.  On the one hand, if members of the new population and their children melt away as they find their feet, the sequel for these neighbourhoods will be a second influx of immigrants, nearer the bottom of the ladder, probably followed by another influx. Ample experience informs us that neighbourhoods serving only as immigrant launching pads repeatedly take a step or two forwards followed by two or three steps backwards while dilapidation inexorably deepens with time.

In contrast, as many a Little Italy and Chinatown attest, along with less celebrated examples, immigrant neighbourhoods that succeed in holding on to their striving populations are neighbourhoods that improve with time.  They become civic assets in every respect: social, physical, and economic. Progress on the part of the population is reflected in the neighbourhood.  Increasing diversity of income, occupation, and vision, education, skills, and connections are all reflected in these increasingly diversified neighbourhoods.  Time becomes the ally, not the enemy, of such neighbourhoods. Self-respecting people, no matter what their ethnic origins, abandon a place if it becomes fixed in their minds that it is an undignified or insulting place to be.

Here’s my suggestion: smart municipalities ought to contradict that perception before it takes firm hold. No time to lose, by making sure that newly minted immigrant neighbourhoods receive really good municipal housekeeping, public maintenance, and community policing, and fair justice services, along with some respectful amenities, too: traffic taming and street trees come to mind.  And, especially, quick, hassle-free permissions for people to organize open-air markets, if they want to and ask to, or run jitney services or make whatever other life-enhancing and improving adaptations they want to  provide for themselves.

Many new immigrants bring along with them more expertise than Americans have in organizing and using such things.  Looking at local jitney services — for local people, not for tourists.  In the Caribbean, for instance, I’ve wished that Americans have arrangements as well-tailored to actual transportation needs and opportunities in suburbs and thin city neighbourhoods.  Simple, straight-forward municipal investments of the kind just mentioned and sensitive, flexible bureaucratic adjustments of the kind just mentioned are minor in comparison to the costs of projects of city mega-projects.  But if those minor costs and adjustments attach newcomers to neighbourhoods in which they can feel pride and pride-of-ownership as they are finding their feet, and afterwards, they carry a potentially huge civic payoff: time and change will then have been enlisted as allies in these neighbourhoods.

My second suggestion has to do with communities’ needs for hearth, or centres, and with related problems.  Damage done to neighbourhoods by commercial incursion where they are inappropriate. The desirability of community hearths is well recognized nowadays.  Much thought goes into designing them for new communities and inserting them into neighbourhoods that have lost community hearths or never had them.  The object is to nurture locales where people, on foot, will naturally encounter one another in the course of shopping, doing other errands, promoting their causes, airing their grievances, catching up on gossip, and perhaps enjoying a cookie or beer under many-coloured umbrellas.

Let’s think a minute about the natural community anatomy of community hearths.  Wherever they develop spontaneously, they are almost invariably consequences of two or more intersecting streets well used by pedestrians.  On the most meagre level, the most meagre scale, we have the cliché of the corner store or the corner pub that is recognized as a local hangout.  In this cliche, corner is the significant adjective.  “Corner” implies two streets intersecting in the shape of an X or a Y.  In traditional towns, the spot recognized as the centre of things surprisingly often contains a triangular piece of ground.  This is because it is where three main routes converge in the shape of a Y.  In communities where historically much traffic was waterborne, a hearth often located itself at the intersection of a main waterfront street were joined by the exit of a busy dock where passengers disembarked.  When water travel declined, the hearth moved elsewhere.

Large cities, of course, have typically developed not only localized neighbourhoods or district hearths, but one or several major hearths.  And these also have almost invariably located themselves at busy  pedestrian streets intersections.  All but the very smallest hearths, the corner store, typically provide splendid sites for landmark buildings, public squares, or small parks.  Now, the converse logic doesn’t work.  If I had more time, I’d regale you with dismal tales of wannabe hearths that lack the anatomy of well-used intersecting pedestrian streets.  They are poor bets indeed.  They don’t catch on or hold up.  Living, beating community hearths can’t be arbitrarily located as if they were suburban shopping centres for which the supporting anatomy is a parking lot, or perhaps a transit stop.  But given the anatomy of well-used pedestrian main streets, hearths locate themselves.  In fact, they can’t be prevented from locating themselves.  Of course, good design can greatly enhance or reinforce them, as I implied with my remark about landmark buildings and public squares.

Now for the related problem of commercial or institutional facilities intruding into inappropriate places.  From time to time, I glance at plans or artists’ rendering for charmingly designed community hearths surrounded by charmingly designed residences with their yards, and I wonder where future overflows of commerce can be pleasantly accommodated.  Perhaps this consideration doesn’t matter in a village which is destined to remain a village, but it matters very much in a city neighbourhood or in a town or village which becomes engulfed by a city.  In cities, successful hearths attract users from outside the neighbourhood, and they also attract entrepreneurs who want to be where the action is.  These things happen.  In fact, if these things didn’t happen, cities would be little more advantageous, economically and socially, than villages.  They wouldn’t generate urban surprise, pizzaz, and diversity.

So with time and change, originally unforeseen institutional and commercial overflows can occur in city neighbourhoods. Where do they go?  They may have to find and adapt makeshift quarters.  Occasionally, the makeshifts are the white wall.  But most commonly they appear to be jarring, intrusive smears in the residential streets where they were never meant to intrude.  Watching this happen, people think, “the neighbourhood is going to the dogs.”  And so it is, visually.  And so, as a sequel, perhaps socially, in the end, perhaps economically as well.  So much of this form of deterioration disliked and feared that one of the chief purposes of zoning regulations is to prevent it.  Even if the regulations succeed at holding time and change at bay, as enemies, any success they have comes at the cost of squelching city potentialities, meaning new conveniences and  innovation.  Here is where the anatomy of natural neighbourhood hearths can come to the rescue.  One important adapted advantage of open-ended main pedestrian streets forming intersections is that these streets are logical places for convertible buildings before there is need to convert them.  They can be a designed form of neighbourhood insurance, so to speak.    For example, row houses can be designed to convert easily and pleasantly so that shops, small offices, studios, restaurants, all kinds of things, several joined together even convert well to small schools and other institutions.   And, of course, many building originally put up for work , especially loft buildings, convert pleasantly to apartments or living-and-working combinations.

Just as commercial and institutional enterprises in a city neighbourhood or a town engulfed in a city neighbourhood, can burgeon unexpectedly, so can they dwindle and whither unexpectedly.  Those things happen too.  In that case, if shops and other facilities can be easily converted into added housing stock, the result is much better than boarded up fronts.

In sum, I am suggesting that urban designers and municipalities should not even think about attractive hearths with their pretty-coloured umbrellas without also thinking about the indispensable street anatomy required by hearths.  And they should not think about the street anatomy without also providing or encouraging easily convertible buildings on most streets as opportunity to do this arises.  This is a practical strategy for dealing with time and change as allies, not as enemies.

My third suggestion concerns gentrification of low-cost neighbourhoods to which time has not been kind, but which have valuable assets nevertheless.  Typically,  the first outsiders to notice these assets are artists and artisans.  They are joined by young professionals or other middle-class people whose eyes have been opened by the artists’ discoveries.  For a time, gentrification brings heartening renovation and other physical improvements int a neighbourhood that needs improvement along with new people, whose connections, life skills, and spending money can be socially useful to the neighbourhood’s existing inhabitants, and often are.   As long as gentrification proceeds gently with with moderation, it tends to extend beneficial and diversifying in every way.  But nowadays especially, a neighbourhood’s period of what might be called its golden age of gentrification, can be surprisingly short.  Suddenly, so many many new people want in on a place now generally perceived to be interesting and fashionable that gentrification turns economically and socially vicious.   It explodes into a feeding frenzy of real-estate speculation and evictions.  Former inhabitants are evicted wholesale, priced out by what Chester Hartman has aptly called “the financial bulldozer.”  Even the artists who began the process are priced out.  The eventual ironic result is that even the rich, the people who are being priced in, are cheated by this turn of events.  They were attracted by what they saw as a lively, interesting, diverse, and urbane city neighbourhood, in short by the results of gentle and moderate gentrification.  This kind of urbanity is being killed as the place becomes an exclusive preserve for what has become only high-income people.

Time is not kind to high-income preserves in cities, unless they are small, and cheek-by-jowl with livelier and more diverse neighbourhoods .  One need only notice that many a poor and dilapidated neighbourhoods can take once beautiful, proud, and ambitious dwellings to see evidence that exclusive preserves of the rich do not necessarily hold up well in cities.  The rich, it seems, grow bored with un-diverse dull city neighbourhoods, or their children or heirs do.  This is not surprising because such places are boring [chuckles].

When gentrification turns vicious and excessive, it tells us, first, that demand for moderately gentrified neighbourhoods has outrun the supply of them.  By now, if experience has revealed that key attributes of such places, attributes the artists discover:  a) the streets have human scale,  b) buildings are variably interesting, c) streets are safe for pedestrian use, d) many conveniences are within pedestrian reach, and e) neighbours are tolerant of diverse lifestyles.

A few weeks ago, I was in Richmond, Virginia, and I hadn’t taken a real good look at Richmond for quite a few years.  One of my nephews gave me a tour.  And I was astounded and heartened to see neighbourhoods that I remembered from the last time I had a tour as looking quite hopeless, now very up-and-coming, very attractive, and people doing a lot of do-it-yourself repairs and changes on them. It was quite wonderful.  And I was also charmed to see that neighbourhoods  like this, such as the Sands district and the boulevards, for those of you who know Richmond,  looked very much as though they had been designed by New Urbanists [chuckles].  That tells us something.  It’s pitiful that so many city neighbourhoods with these excellent basic attributes have been destroyed for highway construction, “slum clearance,” urban renewal, and housing projects.

Nevertheless,  some currently by-passed treasures do remain.  And where they do, moderate gentrification, I emphasize moderate, could be deliberately encouraged to help take the heat off of other places being excessively gentrified.

Another way of adding to supply could be by encouraging judicious infilling in neighbourhoods with human scale, but not enough compactness and density to make candidates.  However, more than increased supply of desirable city neighbourhoods is needed to combat socially vicious evictions of the existing inhabitants.  Artscape, a Toronto organization, is concerned specifically with the promotion of the interests of artists, has come to the conclusion, that the only sure form of preventing artists from being priced out of their quarters is ownership.  In this case, ownership by non-profit organizations.  The same is probably true for many other existing inhabitants.  Ownership by cooperatives, by community development corporations, land trusts, non-profit organizations, whatever ingenuities can be directed to the aim of retaining neighbourhood diversity of population.

My final suggestion concerns the hazards of a somewhat different form of popularity.  As I mentioned earlier, some community hearths and their associated street anatomies, attract many outsiders and are widely enjoyed.  This is not a bad thing.  On the contrary, the hazard is this: as leases for commercial or institutional spaces expire, tenants are often faced with shockingly increased rents.  Property taxes on the premises can soar too, instigating even further rent increases.   This only prevents commercial overflow, so much the worse.  The upshot is that many facilities are priced out of the mix.  The hardware store goes.  The bookstore closes.  The place that repairs small appliances moves away.  The butcher chops and the bakeries disappear.  As diversity diminishes, into its place comes a kind of monoculture.  Incredible repetitions of whatever happens to be most profitable on that street at that time.  Of course, these optimists don’t all succeed. Six of the seventeen new restaurants die off rather rapidly.  And five of the seven gift shops don’t make it through the next Christmas.  Into their places come other optimists, who hope that something will be left in the till after the debts costs on the renovations and incredible rents are paid.  But starting gradually, while times are good, and rapidly when they aren’t, the street becomes dotted with vacancies.  The old conveniences don’t return to fill them.  They can’t afford to.  All of this is not owing to competition from malls or big-boxes, but because success has priced out diversity.

A popular pedestrian main street running through my own neighbourhood is now afflicted by this dynamic.  However, fortunately, the hardware store remains, so does the bookstore, one butcher shop with its associated European grocery, and a large general bargain and outlet store.  Not only do they remain; they flourish.  One, the hardware store, has doubled its space.  The secret of their stability is that they own the buildings where they do business, and so were not vulnerable to being priced out by soaring rents.  The banks also remained.  They own their buildings.

This has caused me to think about home ownership.  When it became public policy in the United States to encourage home ownership, financial devices, such as long-term mortgages, small down-payments, and mortgage acceptance corporations, and agencies, primarily the FHA, proved successful at promoting the policy.  Tract housing sold to homeowners under these arrangements were sprawling and otherwise ill-conceived for fostering a sense of community, but that is another matter.  At least fostering ownership worked.  Today, some 65 percent of Americans households own their own houses or apartments, the highest percentage in the world.

This has made me wonder whether similar techniques would enable or encourage small  businesses, especially those whose success depends heavily on location, to own their own premises.  Of course, not all would want to.  And among those that did, all would not be able to.  But that is also true of households.  Why shouldn’t it become public policy to foster business stability and stability of city streets and neighbourhoods by enabling enterprises to protect themselves through ownership against abruptly rising rents.  In other words, I have arrived at much the same conclusion as Artscape.  That ownership is the surest protection against being priced out of a place of work.

These four suggestions may seem trivial compared to other municipal concerns, such as racism, poor schools, traffic, unemployment, illegal drugs, inadequate tax revenues, crime, persistent poverty, what to do with garbage, how to lure tourists, whether to build another stadium or convention centre, and so on.  Nevertheless, neighbourhoods that decline are pretty serious, too.  Two steps forward followed by three steps back is no way for a city to progress.  And it doesn’t help to solve other municipal problems, either.  The pattern makes them more intractable.  This pattern isn’t new. It has practical causes.  And, unless these forms of civic ineptitude are faced and overcome, American city neighbourhoods are as unlikely to deal well with time and change in the future as they’ve been in the past.

The suggestions I’ve made may not be politically possible.  There may be better or at any rate different means of accomplishing similar aims.  My purpose is to help stir up some creative thinking now lacking about the effects of time and change on city neighbourhoods.  Above all to stir up thinking about how to enlist time and change as practical allies, not as enemies that must be regulated out and fended off on the one hand, or mentally surrendered to, on the other.  We might as well learn how to make constructive alliances with the workings of time because time is going to continue happening. That’s for sure.   Any living thing is involved with time and the changes that time brings, and that  includes human beings; anyone who raises children knows this.  It involve repairing or restoring ecosystems. Anybody involved in that understands that the hazards and the opportunities and the whole course of how things go is different with time and it’s true of city neighbourhoods.

So, to repeat myself, we might as well come to grips with this, I think.  Thank You.

One Response to “Jane Jacobs’ Talk When Receiving the Vincent Scully Prize (2000)”

  1. Notes from my fourth Jane’s Walk: “Uptown Rideau: Main Street Interrupted” | Hearth Health Says:

    […] = = = = Jane Jacob’s 2000 Washington Talk upon Receiving the Vincent Skully Award = = = = (found on this site: https://hearthhealth.wordpress.com/about/previously-published-works/odds-and-sods/jane-jacobs-talk-w&#8230😉 […]

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