Jane Jacobs died today, at the age of 89. She was best known for her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It's a book I often think of-- I just pulled out my copy and realized that I never actually finished reading it-- my place is still marked with a postcard from a friend I've been out of touch with for years. But the parts of it that I did read really resonated somehow, and made me appreciate the things I love about urban life. I read that book, and its appropriate counterpoint The Power Broker during the first year or two that I lived in New York. I think they contributed to my idea of what this city is about, and my feeling that I'll never want to leave.
Sometimes people wonder why New Yorkers put up with the things they have to to live here-- the expense of course, and the noise and grime and crowds. What Jacobs reminds us is how wonderful cities can be, not only as centers of culture but as places where people benefit just from being near each other in high-density environments.
For all that the book may be out of date, there are things about it that I think of every day-- for instance, tonight, when I saw a bike messenger almost assault a woman who had accidentally bumped into him with her shopping bag in a busy area near Union Square. I stopped, as did 20 or more other people, all hovering nearby, trying not to get involved, but waiting to make sure things didn't escalate and ready to jump in and help if they did. A couple of people yelled back at the guy, and one was calling the police on her cellphone. When the bike messenger rode off, a few people stuck around to help the woman pick up her bags that he had kicked down the sidewalk and just make sure she was okay. City neighborhoods may not work quite the way they did when Jacobs wrote about them but people here still do look after each other more than you might think, and it's true that there is safety in numbers.
For me, and many other New Yorkers, I'm sure some of Jacobs' ideas are somewhere in the background whenever we answer the question "why don't you move to someplace cheaper?"
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
Posted at 11:14 PM