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The death and life of great American cities

Jane Jacobs loved Greenwich Village so much that she wrote a book about why that was and why more neighborhoods weren’t like it. She looked at other similar areas in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, etc. as well some failed ones, and gave a few guidelines on what was needed for safe, lively, and desirable city streets.

It has enough whimsical observations of city life to keep things interesting for its too-many—over 400—pages. E.g. on a city park’s homeless population:

Almost imperceptibly, like the hand of a clock, the raggle-taggle reception creeps around the circular pool at the center of the square. And indeed, it is the hand of a clock, for it is following the sun, staying in the warmth.

Or, comparing a safe-but-dirty city street to a desired but decidedly unsafe park:

The sidewalks were dirty, they were too narrow for the demands put upon them, and they needed shade from the sun. But here was no scene of arson, mayhem or the flourishing of dangerous weapons. In the playground where the night-time murder had occurred, things were apparently back to normal too. Three small boys were setting fire under a wooden bench. Another was having his head beaten against the concrete. The custodian was absorbed in solemnly and slowly hauling down the American flag).

It’s all quite lovely. But ultimately, it is an exercise in confirmation bias that misses as many essential points as it reveals. What was arguably the most devastating influence on American cities — Robert Moses — is but a misguided elderly official who, and kudos to him, knows his way around public funds. City planners like big, disruptive projects because of their bad (deductive!) reasoning, not because they give politicians photogenic ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

If you want to know why American cities are the way they are, better read The Power Broker.

Written by Jane Jacobs, 1961

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