Jane Says/Gates to the city

There are few things more wonderful in life than walking down the front steps of the New York Public Library, out into the bustle of rush-hour Fifth Avenue and what remains unseasonably warm weather, having just read this:

When I get home after work, the ballet is reaching its crescendo. This is the time of roller skates and stilts and tricycles, and games in the lee of the stoop with bottletops and plastic cowboys; this is the time of bundles and packages, zigzagging from the drug store to the fruit stand and back over to the butcher’s; this is the time when teen-agers, all dressed up, are pausing to ask if their slips show or their collars look right; this is the time when beautiful girls get out of MG’s; this is the time when the fire engines go through; this is the time when anybody you know around Hudson Street will go by.

That’s Jane Jacobs, it hardly needs to be said, whose Death and Life of Great American Cities I am subjecting to a particularly close re-reading as part of my City Is Here research.

This is very much a description of a certain place at a certain time; I can’t help but note the orthographic (“drug store”, “fruit stand,” “teen-agers,” all now collapsed in standard usage) and material (“bottletops,” “butcher’s,” “slips”) tells. Right down to the fire engines, this is also the world of the Bank Street Readers I grew up on.

But in its basic lineaments it’s also, still, recognizably our world, and the place I entered as I passed by the sentinel lions. Oh, what a beautiful city.

3 responses to “Jane Says/Gates to the city”

  1. Michael R. Bernstein says :

    The sentinel lions remark reminded me to recommend that you check out Elizabeth Bear’s fantasy novel ‘Blood and Iron’. I think you’ll like it.

  2. AG says :

    Uh, why? I mean, not to be a jerk about it, but I despise fantasy, with the sole exception of Perdido St Stn et sequelae.

    Anything with, like, elves? Hate it with the searing white-hot hatred of a thousand suns.

  3. Greg Borenstein says :

    Reading this post in connection with the conversation we’ve been having about sci-fi dystopias, it’s interesting to read Jacobs in that same mode, as a sci-fi vision of the city. It’s ironic that her vision is both conservative (in the sense that, while embedded within modernism, it looked to the past for its positive examples) and utopian (the lost city she describes is rather edenic and peaceful).

    One of the great contributions of the New Urbanists was to take this retrospective vision of Jacobs and make it proscriptive and progressive. The fact that I live in a city (Portland, Oregon) where riding a bicycle and conducting community gardening and grass roots neighborhood betterment projects are considered forward thinking innovations is a testament to the success the New Urbanists have had not just in resisting the modernist vision of the future as dystopian, but in replacing it with something positive of their own.

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