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June 16, 2013 / Leo Hollis

Thoughts on Hudson Street

it was a short walk towards Chelsea where I had come to make a pilgrimage to 555 Hudson Street, the home of Jane Jacobs where she wrote ‘The Death and Life of the Great American City’. I did not really know what I was expecting but I was not disappointed.

Hudson Street was larger than I had imagined; there was little traffic that afternoon but this was clearly a busy route. The White Horse Bar was still there, suitably shabby, a memorial to a particular kind of bohemian night and hard drinking. The barroom itself had changed little from the photographs that showed Jacobs herself seated at the bar. There were table and seats outside on the pavement, filled with people, talking and drinking, enjoying the heat. There was a cafe at the other end of the block, and a small hole-in-the-wall Mexican counter. The street was ramshackle: different colour awnings fronted the row of shops, there were bicycles tied up to lamp posts, two garden benches stood outside one shop where neighbours were encouraged to enjoy the shade and shoo the breeze, a table and chairs sat by the window of dog parlour. A laundrette was next door to a sushi shop, near to a real estate office.

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555 itself was inconspicuous. There was no plaque or sign as one might find in London celebrating the former inhabitant. Instead the large front window advertised Glassybaby: ‘Flowers wilt, chocolates melt, Glassybaby forever’, with a row hand-blown glass candle holders running along the mantel. The door itself was even more anonymous, with three brass numbers screwed above the pane, slightly off the straight line. This was exactly the kind of place I imagined Jacobs would have lived, and the inspiration behind her celebration of such an ordinary, regular and yet idiosyncratic place. It was a reminder once again that even the greatest cities were built from such places, and that these were the spaces from where we should measure the success of the city. It was the life of the street that was the reason that cities are good for us.      

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In 2004 Jane Jacobs wrote what would become her last book, ‘Dark Ages Ahead’. By this time she had left New York and moved to Toronto. She had abandoned the US because she did not want her two boys to be conscripted into the Vietnam War. In Canada, she continued to campaign for her belief in the life of the city, and was a central figure in the protests that halted plans for the Spadina Expressway, as well as campaigning for the renovation of the St Lawrence neighbourhood in Toronto. She also involved herself in the heated Quebec sovereignty issue, arguing that cities should become increasingly separate from countries.

Her final book, however, was an unexpected, gloomy view of the future, a call to save ourselves before it was too late. In it, she predicted the breakdown of the communities that made up the city. In her argument, the sources of these problems did not necessarily come from the city itself but rather the decline of the family in the face of the neoliberal market; the death of scholarship in our universities as students pursued credentials rather learning; the elevation of economics as the predominant ‘science’ so that every idea had to be productive; the take-over of government by big corporations; and finally, what she saw as a culture of short term satisfaction. While all these factors did not come from the city, the results were most apparent in the decline of the fabric and the failure of the urban infrastructure. The city itself was becoming a dangerous place because of the failures of planners, researchers and politicians to notice the signs of decay.

This prognosis was most clearly explained in the example of the Chicago heatwave of 1995, when over one week more than 730 died from heat exhaustion, dehydration, kidney failure, despite warning from meteorologists and the media that dangerous weather was on its way. During those blistering hot days, the hospitals found it impossible to cope. In a vain attempt to help an owner of a fleet of refrigeration trucks offered his trucks to store the dead bodies, but he soon found that they were filled with the bodies of the poor, infirm and elderly, and he could carry no more. Afterwards the autopsies of the dead told am grim, predictable tale: amongst the dead the majority were old people who had run out of water, or had been stuck in flats without air conditioning, abandoned by their neighbours.

In response to the crisis, a team from the U.S Center of Disease Control and Prevention scoured the city for the causes of such a high number of deaths, in the hope that they could prevent the disaster in another place at another time. The results were predictable: the people who died had failed to find help or refuge. In effect, the report,  as Jacobs pointed out, had blamed the dead for their failure to leave their flats, ensure that they had enough water and that the air conditioning was working. Yet Jacobs offers an alternative scenario and she tells the story of Eric Klinenberg who did his own research in the heatwave, independently of the official scientists and rather than focusing in on the faults of individuals, he looked at the districts that were worst hit by the disaster. For example there were 40 deaths per 100,000 people in the North Lawndale neighbourhood, while in South Lawndale there were only 4 deaths per 10,000. Why was this?

Klinenberg’s research looked at the differences between the two communities and revealed findings that put an emphasis on neighbourhood failures rather than individual folly. North Lawndale was a community in decline; it had nowhere for old people to go: no stores, gathering places or parks. And as a result there was no functioning community to look out for the most vulnerable in times of trouble. The failures of the district had been a long term problem and could be charted systematically: it had lost many residents to the suburbs and these numbers had not been replaced by newcomers. As a results the local shops found the market slowing up and had also moved on. As the eyes on the street became fewer, so too did the sense of community. Klinenberg showed that it was not the individuals who should be blamed but the community as a whole. Why had this neighbourhood been allowed to wither and fade away? Who was watching? Who was looking the other way?  

Yet if we are honest we can find similar neighbourhoods closer to home, in every city. They are not the slums, but they are struggling. The crime rate is higher than it used to be. The fabric of the streets is looking slightly too shabby. the shops are closing, and perhaps the library is empty.  Too often we wait until the community burns in a riot, or falls into disaster before we act. But are we too late? Has Jacob’s predictions of the impending Dark Age come to pass already?

I don’t think so.

Thinking about a better city is often dismissed as utopian dreaming, and there is a long history of thinkers, planner, politicians and architects who have imagined such a dazzling mirage. Thomas Moore’s ‘Utopia’ itself was a sly joke on a place that did not exist in contrast to ‘eutopia’, the ideal metropolis. And this ideal has taken many forms: it has found political form respectively in Plato ‘Republic’, Karl Marx ‘communism’ and Henri Lefevbre’s ‘The Right to the City’, that have all sought in different ways to construct the best society out of the human power structures that make up the city. Planners like Patrick Geddes, Le Corbusier and Ebeneezer Howard  have also hoped to find paradise in the creation of its physical form. For economists, the city is the ideal marketplace where trade and exchange can flourish: for some this means the complete liberty and freedom of exchange without restrictions; for others the city provides laws and regulation. Meanwhile for thinkers, such as Scott Burnham, the city can be a place that – if we get it right – can encourage and nurture trust. As we have seen there have been many historic examples of cities that were built to change our behaviour – to suppress revolution, to make us more rational, to encourage us to kiss – and often this has had unexpected results. Even today we can find architects, planners and politicians who think that they have the design solution to making the city a place that might make us greener, fitter, smarter – perhaps even happier.  

The ways that we come together have changed over the centuries, and this has had a huge impact on the way we interact and behave with each other. Walking through New York, heading southwards along Hudson Street, it is hard to forget that Manhattan is a nineteenth century city, created on a grid first set out in 1811. Looking up to the skyline, one can still see water towers on top of the brick buildings that were created after Elisha Otis’s technological innovation, the safety elevator, that allowed architects to scale over five storeys high for the first time. We can see similar creative and engineering innovation in Sir Joseph Bazaelgette’s London, Baron Haussman’s Paris, Boston after the fire of 1872, the San Francisco that was built from the rubble of the 1906 earthquake. These were cities that were born of an engineer’s dream. Today, we have as much right as these Victorian masters to think the city anew. Yet we must not repeat their mistakes.

As the Victorians saw the city as a problem that could be reconstituted by buildings and infrastructure – railways, lifts and sewers – today, we see our own city in a different view: it is a complex, connected place that is constructed around people, not buildings. In addition, unlike the historic metropolis this city is not a problem that can be rationalised and ordered. Rather we must understand its complex nature and work with this counter-intuitive rhythm rather than against it. The acknowledgement that we live life on the edge of chaos should not stop us from dreaming of a better city ourselves. By understanding the city more we can make it a better place. We must trust that the metropolis brings out the best aspects of ourselves: trusting, open, connected individuals working within a something that is bigger than each one of us.

As I walked from Hudson Street, I acknowledged that it was Jacobs who taught me that it is the people that matter, the way that they are allowed to interact, intermingle and connect. In addition, that the street is the essential, energetic measure of the life of the city. As Jacobs reminded us, if we can make sense of the street, we can then hope to reconstruct the life of the city in a way that is for the benefit of all.

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