Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Thoughts on Jane Jacobs and Some NYC Neighborhoods of Today

Here is another assignment from my Geography of NYC class.  As laid out in Jane Jacobs' iconic book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities",  the essence of a successful city is its ability “to sustain city safety, public contact and cross-use” (p. 144).  [Note: page numbers are from the Vintage Books paperback edition, 1992.]

Jacobs uses the term diversity to refer to a “most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially” (p. 14).  For Jacobs, diversity is synonymous with vitality or street life and she believes that the mixing of different types of people is a key ingredient for a city.  In Jacobs’ day (1961), the West Village met all four of her conditions for successful diversity.  Jacobs believed these conditions to be both necessary and sufficient to achieve diversity in a city.

Nearly 50 years later, how well do Jacobs’ conditions hold up?  Examining four neighborhoods (West Village, East Harlem, Forest Hills, and Williamsburg) and three of Jacobs’ conditions for diversity as a case study, it seems to me that only one of those neighborhoods (Williamsburg) fully qualifies as being diverse according to Jacobs’ definition.  Each of the other neighborhoods fails to meet at least one condition.  The three conditions that I chose to examine are:

Condition 1   Multiple Primary Functions -- The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two.  These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.  Jacobs believes that people come to an area for three reasons:  they live there, they work there, or they visit to get a change from their own neighborhoods.  Jacobs says that a mix of all three is the ideal situation, but at least two of them are needed.

Condition 2   Short Blocks -- Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.  Jacobs believes that it is important that people can easily follow different routes through the area, rather than all being funneled onto the same streets.

Condition 3   Aged Buildings -- The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones.  Jacobs likes a variety of building ages and conditions because it allows an economic variety of people and businesses to establish themselves in the neighborhood.

The fourth condition, which I don't discuss herein, is Concentration -- The district must have a suffiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purpose they may be there.  This includes people there because of residence.
Below, I discuss each neighborhood in turn, and how it meets or fails to meet each of Jacobs’ conditions.
West Village

The West Village has a vibrant street life, but by-and-large is comprised of well-to-do residents and visitors to the area.  The economic mix that Jacobs likes is no longer present.
Today’s West Village has two of the three primary uses, enough to meet Jacobs’ primary use condition.  It is primarily a residential area with small shops lining the commercial streets.  The area no longer has any significant working population other than the shop employees.  It does, however, have a very large number of visitors.  Gay people are drawn by the fame of Stonewall and Christopher Street, while the High Line and the Meat Packing district draw crowds from all over the city and beyond.  The Cage, restaurants, shopping, nightclubs, and several theaters also draw visitors at all times of day and night, keeping the area continually bustling.
The West Village meet Jacobs’ short blocks condition, with blocks smaller than those in the typical Manhattan grid and many off-grid streets that help lead pedestrians on differing routes.  The High Line provides a notable exception to the rest of the West Village.  A former border vacuum, the High Line is now a tourist destination, drawing visitors through the West Village.  Once the visitors arrive at the High Line, however, they are physically removed from the street.
The West Village’s historic district designation is at least partly responsible for its place as a tourist attraction, simply because the older architecture gives the West Village a different feel from other areas of the city.  The West Village offers a combination of history and visual appeal that is unique in New York, thus drawing abundant visitors at all times of the day.
The designation also prevents the West Village from meeting the aged buildings condition.  The buildings in the West Village are now less diverse than was the case in Jacobs’ time, the only new buildings being on the periphery where the historic district restrictions don’t apply.  Also, this designation has resulted in the area becoming a well-to-do enclave, which keeps essentially all of the buildings in good repair (again, with only a few exceptions in the periphery around the High Line).  The end result is that the West Village now lacks economic and social diversity, and thus does not meet Jacobs’ definition of diversity.
East Harlem

East Harlem doesn’t meet Jacobs’ diversity definition for several reasons.  Although it has pockets of vibrant street life, other areas are near deserted.  Economically, it is a lower-class area, so is lacking economic diversity.
East Harlem does meet Jacobs’ primary use condition, with a mix of residential areas and public facilities (hospitals and museums) that both offer employment and draw visitors.  A few of the stores on 125th Street and the Harlem Metro North station also help draw traffic to the area.  The new Costco on 116th Street, although perhaps a primary function, will probably attract more cars than foot traffic to the area; it is, however, a potential source of jobs for the residents.
East Harlem has a good mix of aged buildings.  There are buildings of all ages and conditions.  There is some new development along 125th Street and 3rd Avenue, along with older tenements, newer apartment houses, a mix of commercial store sites, and even casitas.  New development will be able to continue in the future because the city is holding on to vacant parcels scattered throughout East Harlem as it awaits the right development opportunity.
East Harlem fails, however, to meet Jacobs’ short blocks condition.  Much of East Harlem is on the standard Manhattan grid.  Additionally, it is the home to a number of super blocks, due in large part to its public housing, subsidized housing, and public institutions such as hospitals.  Additionally, the elevated Metro North tracks running through East Harlem provide a physical barrier between the lower class areas and the middle class areas.  Finally, although they are long-gone, the 2nd and 3rd Avenue elevated trains provided another physical barrier, the effects of which have yet to be eradicated.  I believe that the combination of these results in the spotty nature of the area’s diversity.
Forest Hills

Forest Hills is really two completely separate areas.  Forest Hills Gardens is essentially a suburb, and is devoid of social or economic diversity and of any street life.  Although Forest Hills has the street life, it is a very well-to-do area without social or economic diversity.
As might be expected, Forest Hills Gardens does not meet any of Jacobs’ conditions.  There is only one primary function, residences.  The blocks are long (although they are not gridded).  Additionally, the Long Island Railroad tracks provide a border vacuum that isolates the area.  Finally, there is no building variety in Forest Hills Gardens, as it was constructed at a single point in time under strict building codes.
Forest Hills, on the other hand, has multiple primary functions.  Just down Queens Boulevard from Forest Hills are courthouses and associated offices, offering employment and a reason for visitors to be in the area.  Additionally, there is at least one Cord Meyer office building nearby.  Although there is no manufacturing or industry to speak of, the array of restaurants and shops does provide an additional draw for visitors, as does Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church.
In Forest Hills the blocks are smaller than the Manhattan grid, which helps support the ample foot traffic and street life.
Where Forest Hills is lacking is in the aged buildings condition.  Cord Meyer, which continues to develop in the area, has been building a new tower each decade.  Although these new towers help meet Jacobs’ goal for buildings of different ages, the fact that they are all towers does not meet her goal of having a variety of building types and heights.

Williamsburg alone has the combination of street life and the social and economic diversity desired by Jacobs.  Not surprisingly, Williamsburg is the only one of the neighborhoods that meets all of Jacobs’ conditions.
Williamsburg contains all three primary functions:  there are many residents, there are small manufacturing and industrial-type jobs in the area, and there are reasons for visitors to come at all hours (Boricua College, nightclubs such as the Knitting Factory, and a variety of temples and churches).
The blocks in Williamsburg, while not as small as those in the West Village, are smaller than the standard Manhattan grid.  Williamsburg is also broken up at different points by bends in some of the major streets and by the meeting points of two different grid patterns.  There is a major border vacuum created by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Williamsburg Bridge approaches and bus plaza, which serves to keep the Hasidic part of Williamsburg physically separated from the Hispanic and hipster area.  Although there is little mixing, both areas have a vibrant street life and economic diversity.
Williamsburg also has a good mix of different building ages.  Additionally, the buildings are in varying states of repair.  New buildings have been added recently, and might threaten to overwhelm the neighborhood if the momentum hadn’t been slowed by the recent economic downturn.  Williamsburg is the only one of the four neighborhoods with economic diversity in its residents, and this is clearly facilitated by the building diversity.