former residence of Jane Jacobs, 555 Hudson Street, New York, NY; photo by Roger W. Smith
The following is an email of mime from today to Lizabeth Cohen, a professor of American Studies at Harvard University.
Dear Professor Cohen,
I read the review in The New York Times Book Review of your Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age. As I said to my wife, it looks like an excellent and very informative book.
I appreciate what was said about it by the reviewer: that it is an even-handed treatment of Logue.
If I may, I would like to share a few thoughts, memories, etc. with you.
I grew up in Cambridge. We lived on Mellen Street near Harvard Square. My parents moved us to the suburb of Canton on the South Shore in my adolescent years, which was in the late 1950s.
In the 1960s, I recall seeing articles in the papers about Logue all the time. As the reviewer notes that your book notes, Logue was revered and received almost unvarying praise. At that age, being the son of liberal, educated parents, I thought that slum clearance was, unquestionably, desirable.
I was an avid Red Sox fan, I regularly read the sports pages in the Boston Herald. I read many articles stating that it was high time Boston had a new park. It was regarded as not even worth or needing proof that Fenway Park was too small (mainly in terms of seating capacity), old, and shabby. The endless refrain was, when are we going to get our new stadium?
No one remembers this, and Friendly Fenway is regarded by one and all as a jewel of a ballpark. A landmark that will never be torn down.
I moved to New York City for good in my young adulthood. After some adjustment, I grew to love it. I made a good friend who was a nonconformist and lived an alternative lifestyle. He was cultured and articulate but lived very modestly in a walkup apartment with a bathroom in the hall on East Fifth Street between Avenues A and B. He helped me to appreciate Manhattan and to begin to think differently. He was prescient. He said to me, at a time when urban renewal and slum clearance were in the air: “I live in a slum and I like it.” He pointed out that PEOPLE were living in these buildings. (And could afford them.)
I am attaching a photo I took on one of my walks recently of Jane Jacobs’s former residence on Hudson Street in Manhattan. I became familiar with her writings in my adult years after moving to Manhattan. I think she is an example of someone whose plain writing and lifestyle, and lack of academic credentials, may make it likely that she gets less recognition than she deserves (which is not to say that her importance and genius are not acknowledged; and I think she was actually a genius). In my opinion, she is up there with some of the great thinkers and writers who very simply take a fresh look at prevailing opinions and wisdom, go back to square one — or “first principles” — and, in plain language, without overtheorizing — looking with their own eyes — get us to see the world anew. It’s sort of like an Emperor’s New Clothes phenomenon.
How did she manage to defeat Robert Moses? At the outset, I am sure it would have been regarded as quixotic to try. If Moses had rammed an expressway through the Village and Soho, it would have ruined Manhattan — is the word rape too strong?
Jane Jacobs did not like Lincoln Center. I don’t like it either. I recall when I was in high school and Jacqueline Kennedy and others on television were providing a virtual tour of our “wonderful” new arts center, Lincoln Center. I assumed it must have been so, and who cared about the gritty (then) West Side neighborhood where Jets and Sharks did battle? I hate to go to Lincoln Center now. Aside from the concert halls, which I find dark and unwelcoming, the whole center is a horrible place to hang out in, should anyone care to. The buildings are ugly.
Usually, the plaza with its fountain is pretty much deserted, and it’s unwelcoming, as is the Center. The surrounding neighbored now has no life; there are a few rip off restaurants across the street. The few blocks behind the Center (between it and the river) are deadly, or better said, dead.
I go back to Boston occasionally. I was too young to remember Scollay Square before Government Center was built (though people often mentioned it). The Government Center complex has a Lincoln Center-like feel, and I found it very unpleasant and unenjoyable to walk or spend time in or around it.
Ugliness and inaccessibility go hand and hand. The Broadway steps leading to the plaza, which is usually nearly empty of live people.
A desolate block right behind Lincoln Center: the east side of Amsterdam Avenue between 66th and 67th Streets. There are two large retail stores on this block that are empty with for rent signs — an indicator that rents are too expensive and the neighborhood cannot support commercial establishments (hence, they are going out of business).
An “inviting” “arts center”? Entrance to Lincoln Center at 65th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway.
Welcome! The steps from Amsterdam Avenue.
Warm and fuzzy. Entrance passageway, with 67th Street on left.
Ramesses II would have been proud.
A public friendly space? (“All are welcome.”)
62nd St between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. (Lincoln Center on left.) Note the vibrant street life.
Happy clusters of people congregate like flocks in front of Lincoln Center.
Addendum: The construction of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, which was opened in 1959, destroyed a neighborhood on New York City’s West Side. The project encompassed 53 acres and involved demolishing 2,100 households as well of hundreds of businesses. Something very similar happened with the United Nations headquarters, which created another urban dead zone with no vitality or street life. Jane Jacobs put it best when she described Lincoln Center as “a piece of built-in rigor mortis.”
I emailed the following comment to my wife last month: “Do you realize that you married a genius?”
Don’t worry, I said it in jest. Or at least half in jest. It’s okay to make such comments, jesting or not, to one’s spouse.
She responded, “Let’s not get carried away, dear.” She tends to keep me from getting a swelled head. She is never awed by me. Admires me, yes. Knows my weaknesses all too well. Takes me with a grain of salt. Isn’t given to making exaggerated claims about anyone, including herself.
I have never liked Lincoln Center. It’s a sterile “arts center” with worse seating and acoustics than Carnegie Hall. The architecture is typical 1960’s (think Shea Stadium): functional but uninspiring. Lincoln Center ruined a neighborhood; the surrounding streets have no street life. There are hardly any restaurants, watering holes, cafes, or places of interest, other than one or two rip-off restaurants on the other side of Broadway, across the street from the main entrance.
Guess what? The pioneering urban theorist and writer Jane Jacobs, who became famous for her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, said essentially the same thing:
… the street, not the block, is the significant unit. … When blight or improvement spreads, it comes along the street. Entire complexes of city life take their names, not from blocks, but from streets — Wall Street, Fifth Avenue, State Street, Canal Street, Beacon Street.
… Believing their block maps instead of their eyes, developers think of downtown streets as dividers of areas, not as the unifiers they are. … The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York is a case in point. This cultural superblock is intended to be very grand and the focus of the whole music and dance world of New York. But its streets will be able to give it no support whatever. Its eastern street is a major trucking artery where the cargo trailers, on their way to the industrial districts and tunnels, roar so loudly that sidewalk construction must be shouted. To the north, the street will be shared with a huge, and grim, high school. To the south will be another superblock institution, a campus for Fordham.
And what of the new Metropolitan Opera, to be the crowning glory of the project? The old opera has long suffered from the fact that it has been out of context amid the garment district streets, with their overpowering loft buildings and huge cafeterias. There was a lesson here for the project planners. If the published plans are followed, however, the opera will again have neighbor trouble. Its back will be its effective entrance; for this is the only place where the building will be convenient to the street and here is where opera-goers will disembark from taxis and cars. Lining the other side of the street are the towers of one of New York’s bleakest public-housing projects. Out of the frying pan into the fire.
— “Downtown Is for People,” Fortune, April 1958
… New York consists of an intricate, living network of relationships–made up of an enormously rich variety of people and activities. … Consider the interdependence, the constant adjustment, and the mutual support of every kind which must work, and work well, in a city like ours.
This cross-crossing of relationships means, for instance, that a Russian tea room and last year’s minks and a place to rent English sports cars bloom well near Carnegie Hall. …
All that we have in New York of magnetism, of opportunities to earn a living, of leadership of the arts, of glamor, of convenience, of power to fulfill and assimilate our immigrants, of ability to repair our wounds and right our evils, depends on our great and wonderful criss-cross of relationships. …
This is all so obvious it should be unnecessary to mention. But it is necessary, for our slum clearers, housing officials, highway planners and semi-public developers have been treating the city as if were only a bunch of physical raw materials – land, space, roads, utilities. They are destroying New York’s variety and disorganizing its economic and social relationships just as swiftly and efficiently as rebuilding money can destroy them.
The most direct destruction is, of course, associated with clearance, and this is a painful aspect of slum elimination of which we are becoming aware. It was described well by Harrison Salisbury, in his New York Times series on delinquency. “When slum clearance enters an area,” says Salisbury, “it does not merely rip out slatternly houses. It uproots the people. It tears out the churches. It destroys the local businessman. It sends the neighborhood lawyer to new offices downtown and it mangles the tight skein of community friendships and group relationships beyond repair.”
…. Our rebuilders have no idea of what they are destroying, and they have no idea of repairing the damage – or making it possible for anyone else to do so. The entire theory of urban rebuilding rests on the premise that subsidized improvements will catalyze further spontaneous improvement. It is not working that way in New York. Living communities, portions of living commercial districts, are so ruthlessly and haphazardly amputated that the remnants, far from improving, get galloping gangrene.
Furthermore, the newly built projects themselves stifle the growth of relationships. We are now conscious that this is true of the huge public housing projects. What we may not be so aware of is that this stifling of variety and of economic and social relationships is inherent in the massive project approach itself, whether public or private housing or anything else.
Take the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts for example. It is planned entirely on the assumption that the logical neighbor of a hall is another hall. Nonsense. Who goes straight from the Metropolitan Opera to the Philharmonic concert and thence to the ballet? The logical neighbors of a hall are bars, florist shops, non-institutionalized restaurants, studios, all the kinds of thing [sic] you find on West Fifth-seventh Street or along Times Square or generated by the off-Broadway theatres down here in the Village. True, halls and theatres are desirable to each other as nearby neighbors to the extent that their joint support is needed to generate this kind of urbanity and variety. But Lincoln Center is so planned and so bounded that there is no possible place for variety, convenience and urbanity to work itself in or alongside. The city’s unique stock-in-trade is destroyed for these halls in advance, and for keeps, as long as the Center lives. It is a piece of built-in rigor mortis. [italics added] …
Lincoln Center shows a brutal disregard for still another type of urban relationship. It will have a catastrophic effect on Amsterdam Houses, a ten-year-old, 800-family public housing project. Amsterdam Houses is now bordered by factories, railroad tracks. garages and institutions except on its eastern side. On that one side, fortunately, it faces, across the street, forty-eight lively neighborhood stores, part of a non-project, ordinary community. The stores and the non-project community will be cleared out to make way for Lincoln Center. The tenants of Amsterdam Houses will therefore no longer have neighborhood stores or any contact with non-project community life, which they desperately need. Instead they will have the Metropolitan Opera. This project will be utterly shut off to itself and isolated. I should think its people would explode. What kind of irresponsibility it this that deliberately and at great expense, makes intimate neighbors of public housing and the Opera, depriving each of the neighbors it needs?
— “A Living Network of Relationships”; speech at The New School for Social Research, April 20, 1958
Jane Jacobs and I both think, see, and say the same things. I am convinced she was a genius. She stood urban planning and the way people think about cities on its head.
Ergo, I am a genius.
But, I see in her writing and views similarity to my own writing and cast of mind. For example:
We are both by nurture and nature contrarians.
We are liberal on many social and political issues, but we have a deep, ingrained strain of conservatism. Some commentators perceived Jacobs, who was arrested for anti-government and antiwar protest activities, as being reactionary.
We both rely on good old plain thinking more than education or professional credentials. We try to think everything through anew, to see it for ourselves — through our own eyes — to examine it “from the ground up.” We don’t tend to be influenced by accepted doctrines.
We both distrust big government and social engineering.
We are both essentially apolitical, but apt to be attacked for our views.
She is refreshingly jargon free. She writes simply and clearly (and, persuasively).
Does my writing compare? I will leave it to the judgment of readers of this blog. But, you know what, I think it does. So there!
I attended a concert yesterday evening at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan. It began with Beethoven’s symphony No. 1.
I felt like I was lifted off the floor. An experience not unlike what Walt Whitman describes in Leaves of Grass: “The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies, / It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess’d them.”
It’s good to hear music performed live. Too much listening to recorded music can produce, in effect, what is called “stereo ear.”
Every Beethoven symphony is compelling and can stand on its own; there are no inferior ones (meaning inferior to another symphony of Beethoven’s). Beethoven’s symphony No. 8, for example, is equal to any of the others, though not that often performed.
Beethoven’s Fourth is a gem and probably equal to his Fifth.
Each symphony is unique, different – e.g., the Pastoral and the Seventh each are equally interesting, yet totally different from one another and from Beethoven’s other symphonies.
The Eroica and the Ninth are each completely original. Monumental works unlike no other symphony of Beethoven’s or any other symphony in the classical canon.
A question: I’m sure Beethoven had good teachers; no creative genius emerges ex nihilo. But, whose works are Beethoven’s modeled after?
Answer: no one. They’re completely original.
I will admit that in the first symphony, one can see indebtedness to Haydn’s late symphonies, but it already is definitely, unmistakably Beethoven.
The second work on the program was Mozart’s “Great Mass” in C minor (K. 427). The Kyrie of the Great Mass is better, I would say, then the Kyrie of Mozart’s Requiem.
Listening to a soprano singing the Laudamus te of K. 427 is to experience ecstasy. It’s like what Whitman experienced in 1855 during a performance of Verdi’s “Ernani”: “A new world — a liquid world — rushes like a torrent through you” is how he described it.
Carnegie Hall. What a venue! To think that they were going to tear it down in in the late 1950’s. There are no bad seats; you can hear perfectly and have a great view of the stage from the second tier.
I have never liked Lincoln Center. It’s a sterile “arts center” with worse seating and acoustics than Carnegie Hall. The architecture is typical 1960’s (think Shea Stadium), functional but uninspiring. Lincoln Center ruined a neighborhood; the surrounding streets have no street life. There are hardly any restaurants, watering holes, cafes, or places of interest, other than one or two rip-off restaurants on the other side of Broadway, across the street from the main entrance.
The audience at Carnegie Hall yesterday evening was a typical New York one. Rapt. Totally attentive and focused. (And, one can sense, knowledgeable.)
You could not hear a SOUND in the audience. I know there are some hacking coughs that a cougher can’t prevent or control, but, at the same time, it is my belief that most coughs by audience members at concerts are nervous coughs brought about by impatience or boredom or whatever. I swear I did not hear a single cough yesterday, not one.