Citizen Jane: Battle for the City BBC4

This documentary featured the pioneering journalism and activism of Jane Jacobs who led the battle to stop the wholesale replacement of cities and their vibrant communities with freeways and tower blocksin New York City. Her main opponent was Robert Moses who became a local hero for promoting open spaces and building public parks, but after World War II he became the voice of property developers, claiming the slums had to be demolished,  the new estates would be cleaner and healthier, and that crime would be eliminated. The mass rebuilding was designed from above, developers assumed if they included open spaces people would use them, and if they didn’t then they were stupid. Money knows best!

But Jacobs lived in Greenwich Village where she observed how the streets worked, how people socialised on their way to work or shops, how people looked out their windows, or sat on their front steps to engage with their the local community. A young woman claimed she felt safe on the streets at 2am because there were men in nearby cafes watching, so we gained  a sense of not just a vibrant community, but one that was alive around the clock, aware of the normal patterns and able to mobilise if something went awry. Jacobs and others compared the city to a living organism, full of chaos but which somehow ran efficiently, that served its inhabitants.

But many of these thriving communities were swept away after the war in the name of progress. New civic precincts were created where people were expected to gather, buta s Jacobs wrote, these areas were avoided by all but the very poor who had fewer options as to where they could loiter. She wrote this was not rebuilding, but the sacking of cities.

Moses demanded the clearing of East Harlem, replacing it with precincts to stop crime, but these desolate estates stopped people from going out; many people felt trapped in their homes, and crime flourished.

The Swiss artist/architect Le Courbousier was cited; he proposed well planned cities surrounded by parklands to rebuild post-war Europe, but his designs found little interest here. Instead, they were modified and applied in the USA. He had advocated tower blocks of offices surrounded by low rise housing, but in the states and Britain, they just put up tower blocks of flats surrounded by windswept playgrounds and carparks. They were, of course a disaster, and all the US precincts have been demolished while here there is such a housing shortage that many are still in use.

When Moses planned to put a freeway through New York’s Washington Square, he entered Jacobs’ home patch. The square was a thriving open space for families, music, and entertainments. Jacobs organised a brilliant campaign, managing to get Eleanor Roseveldt and even the New York mayor to oppose Moses’ plan. The protesters were derided by the planners as a bunch of housewives, but they won.

Soon after the victory, Jacobs published her pioneering book, Death and Life of American Cities. They sent a copy to Moses who returned it, describing the book as “intemperate, inaccurate and libellous”, advising them to sell it as junk to someone else. Lewis Mumford derided her as “mother Jacobs’ claiming she was peddling homeopathic remedies when surgery was needed to remedy the cities.

Then West Village was designated as a slum, earmarked for demolition. Jacobs saw herself as a writer not a street fighter, yet the campaign to save her neighbourhood was brilliant. People wore sunglasses with crosses on them she claimed there was nothing more  inert than local government and planning – they were happy to step back and give free rein to big business developers, displacing local people and creating enclaves for the rich. Jacobs called such behaviour criminal. Sounds all too familiar to Londoners now.

She wrote of how the creation of sterile streets created new forms of ghettoes which made lots of money fast for developers. They became dumping grounds for the poor rather than mixed communities where support was available. The effect was particularly bad for black communities who were often displaced far from their homes, isolated from any facilities. The precincts soon became the most dangerous places on earth. They were torn down 30 years later.

Then Moses supported the South Bronx expressway that tore apart local communities, claiming it would increase traffic flow, but it only added to congestion and took 17 years of disputes to complete. Then he proposed to tear apart Little Italy with the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Finally a government official arrived with the bottle to stand up to him – Nelson Rockefeller. Moses resigned in 1970 and Jane moved to Toronto.

The program was intercut with planners and journalists noting the growth of urbanisation, but making distinction between urbanisation and cities. Acres of identical, faceless tower blocks do not make a city. What is happening in China – described as Moses on steroids – is utterly terrifying, and commenters claim they will last 60 years, so are the slums of the future. Regions full of people with no chance of escape, no hope. Utopia for developers is the worst form of dystopia for those forced to live there.

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