R.I.P. Jane Jacobs: a eulogy from Duncan Murrell

When Duncan Murrell relocated to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he was partly inspired by writer and urban theorist Jane Jacobs, who prevented Robert Moses from turning lower Manhattan into an expressway, and who died yesterday. Murrell remembers Jacobs below. (Photo swiped from the Boston Globe obituary).

I blame Jane Jacobs for the miserably hot and wet night I just spent in my powerless New Orleans squat. It rained like hell last night, this morning the street in front of my house sprung a pond, and I walked down the street to get a paper and found out that Jacobs had died yesterday, age 89. When I say I blame her, I say it out of gratitude and respect. I’m sorry she’s gone.

I read The Death and Life of Great American Cities years ago. That book has since been my field guide to urban neighborhoods, healthy and dead alike. I’m sure that other people who understand planning better than I do will have much to say about the influence of that book on planning and architecture, which has been substantial if controversial at times. That’s not why I carry it with me. The book, and Jacobs’s whole body of work, engages something much bigger than architecture and planning.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a humane book, a book about what we aspire to be and how we aspire to live, a book that stands in opposition to the idea that other people are to be escaped, or turned away. In Jacobs’s view, isolation was the problem in failing neighborhoods, and if you take that a step further, you see what she was suggesting about human life more generally. Any writer could learn something from her understanding of isolation and its varieties.

Jacobs was tough-minded, and a piquant writer. She had no time for squishy ideas about how communities might work. She wanted to know how they did work. That meant being right in the middle of it all and watching closely for months and years on end. I’m here in New Orleans because I love the city, and I live here now because Jacobs set a damned high standard for anyone writing about cities. I reckon you either take up Jacobs’s challenge or don’t bother.

Jacobs’s books are on the table next to me. I’ve seen some of the things Jacobs wrote about with disdain in 1961 repeated here, after the flood. I’ve listened to planners ignore the examples of successful city neighborhoods in favor of their own pointy-headed notions of how people ought to live. I’ve seen the lower 9th Ward depicted as a failed neighborhood by planners who had never seen it, certainly had never lived there before the storm, and did not realize that, despite some street crime, in large part it was not a failed neighborhood, but a successful one built house after house by the working class and middle class people who actually lived there. (Jacobs famously described the same misdiagnosis of the North End in Boston.)

Perhaps most importantly for me, Jacobs’s example demands that a writer remain aware always, noticing the little connections between people, watching the streets evolve during the day. And so I’ve come to understand and feel the dreamy, unstable vibe that dominates the city now, different than before. Everything is just a little bit off, not quite right, twisted or broken in some unexpected way. And I mean everything from the street signs to the crap in the gutters to the people I thought I knew. There’s not a single moment I’m outside my roooms here in the Bywater when I’m not having to negotiate some new oddity (“Well, of course there are three squashed cars on the sidewalk in front of my house today! Why wouldn’t there be?”) or someone who finally decided to let go and freak out. Yesterday it was my friend M, who came into the corner cafe in the morning, drunk and apparently mute. She would only communicate by raising her eyebrows, winking, and chewing on her hair furiously.

It can be very beautiful down here, too, but you have to force yourself to look up at it and notice. Jacobs would have noticed.


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