Thank God for Jane Jacobs the Highway Slayer

lomex
An artist’s conception of the unbuilt Lower Manhattan Expressway, a mostly-elevated highway linking the Williamsburg Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, and Holland Tunnel that New York came perilously close to building. Image via NYC Roads

Jane Jacobs’ legacy is so broad and complex I’m not going to attempt a big thinkpiece to mark her 100th birthday. In lieu of something long and wordy, I’ve got two short paragraphs and some images of the Robert Moses road monsters she slew in the 1960s.

Car-centric planning was inimical to the things Jacobs valued most about cities — complexity, human energy, social contact. Her conception of the “erosion of cities” and “attrition of cars” clearly permeates Streetsblog’s coverage today. What a blessing that she was born, moved to New York, and led the uprising against these city-devouring road projects.

Library of Congress
No big deal, just lines on a map. Photo: Library of Congress via Untapped Cities
washington_sq_park
The sunken roadway through Washington Square Park that Jane Jacobs and what Robert Moses described as “a bunch of mothers” staved off. NYT archive image via Gothamist
  • Michael

    She saved almost as much damage as her NIMBY-ism and downzonings caused!

  • Mike

    As somebody who lives near the Barclays Center, I must say that I wish the forces of NIMBYism were more successful in certain cases.

  • Michael

    And as someone who wants to be able to afford to stay in the city, I respectfully disagree.

  • Vooch

    If preventing LOMEX was good wouldn’t Remov’g the FDR & BQE be even better ?

  • ddartley

    Funny that the proposal images make my blood boil as if they’re a current threat.

  • reasonableexplanation

    In that first drawing of the LOMEX; are those proposed high-rises along the highways?

  • Stuart

    Nimby is an intellectually lazy concept, a way to shut off honest debate by attacking your opponents motives.

  • Michael

    Considering that she dedicated her life to not seeing anything new being built in her literal backyard, one she was the most successful NIMBY ever.

  • BBnet3000

    What new was going to be built in her backyard? As the article running on Streetsblog US mentions, a neighborhood she was heavily involved in zoning in Toronto has seen huge growth, including highrises.

    Stopping huge roads and urban renewal does not equate to stopping development or hurting affordability.

  • Michael

    Except that she was HUGELY influential in the 1961 downzoning that largely eliminated the city’s ability to grow and still contributes to this day to the lack of housing stock growth in NYC as a whole.

    Being anti urban renewal (which often didn’t add density, btw) and anti huge roads did not make her a NIMBY. Everything else did.

  • BBnet3000

    I’ve never read about her connection with the 1961 Zoning Resolution. Source? (even if its a full length book)

  • Michael

    Her (and her husband) are all over the public testimony for it. How about we find some place she supported a single private development?

    My favorite quote about wanting all the benefits of density, with none of the density that comes along with it, from L&D:

    “The last thing we need is new construction. What we need, and a lot of others need, is old construction in a lively district.”

  • Charles Siegel
  • reasonableexplanation

    Those look pretty good actually. Why were the high rises killed along with the expressway?

    Seems like more housing like that is sorely needed, especially considering that most buildings near the W’burg and Manhattan bridges are relatively old, lower density 5-10 story buildings.

  • Charles Siegel

    There was not a housing shortage back then. Rents were so low that whole neighborhoods – notably the south Bronx – were being abandoned because they couldn’t charge enough to cover maintenance. The middle class was moving to the suburbs, so rents were going down in much of the city.

    In 1970, I lived in a two-bedroom apartment a few blocks from Columbia University that rented for $80 per month. (My share was $40 per month – equivalent to about $400 today after correcting for inflation.) Now, the owner is trying to kick out rent controlled tenants and raise the rent to $3000 per month.

    Paul Rudolph’s design might look good as an abstract sculpture, but it doesn’t look like good placemaking. The design in “How Would Jane Jacobs Zone” (immediately below this article) looks like good placemaking to me.

  • bolwerk

    “Urban renewal” (possibly the most cynical term ever) usually reduced diversity of use, but seemed to keep population density relatively similar. The absurd result of this was the same number of people with fewer places to employ them or things for them to do.

  • bolwerk

    NIMBY is a perfectly condign term. Many really loud people really don’t want any change at all and don’t care about facts or logic or economics or other people’s needs.

    I disagree with the kind of development that brought us Barclay’s too, but I don’t think not wanting things built is the right way reason to object. The sheer scale of that project makes it way more than just a simple highrise development. It radically altered the neighborhood.

  • AnoNYC

    There was a housing shortage at that time. There was a lack of adequate housing for the middle class. Cities around the country were looking to build robust high rises like pictured in the LOMEX rendering, to compete with suburbs.

  • rao

    The neighborhood in the article, King-Spadina, wasn’t her neighborhood. Her neighborhood in Toronto was the Annex, a generally low-density district on the northern edge of downtown. It actually does incorporate some high-rise apartments, but it could handle further intensification because it has the best transit access in the city. Toronto actually made this neighborhood the hub of its subway system in the 1950s because it was thought this would become the new downtown commercial center. A series of events, some of which were related to Jacobs’ influence on public policy, and others not, helped to freeze the neighborhood in time and push the intensification into other parts of the downtown, which to this day have worse transit than the Annex.

  • Emmily_Litella

    BANANA – Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything

  • Charles Siegel

    There was not an overall regional shortage of housing

    in New York, as there is today. In fact, middle-class housing was being abandoned to the lower class – and lower class housing was being abandoned, period.

    It was just the opposite of what is happening today, when there is a housing shortage so serious that low-income and middle-income housing is being gentrified by the upper-middle class.

    In the longer run, neighborhoods like Soho, with old-fashioned urban fabric did a much better job of competing with the suburbs than high-rises like Rudolph’s – as Jacobs said they would.

    Would you rather live in Soho or in Paul Rudolph’s Tracy Towers in the Bronx?

    http://www.archnewsnow.com/features/Feature180.htm

  • Joe R.

    I think a more relevant question for nowadays is would you rather live in Soho and pay $3K a month, or live in a high-rise and pay the inflated-adjusted equivalent of the $80 a month you paid in 1970? NYC isn’t accommodating all the people who want to live here by building at turn of the 20th century densities like Soho. Moreover, a lot those buildings are rat traps and probably are approaching the end of their useful life anyway. To be sure, there are lots of other factors conspiring to keep housing costs high here, like real estate speculators, but some of our zoning isn’t helping things.

    The whole “towers” approach could have been much better if they incorporated schools, medical, and retail on the lower levels of those buildings. Not having to physically leave the building for a lot of things is certainly a big selling point.

    Jane Jacobs did a lot of good but some of the things from her legacy, like community boards and overzealous landmarking, are now actually preventing the city from moving forwards. Both made sense in the context of her times when they ploughed highways through cities without bothering to consult the locals, and razed structures like Penn Station. However, community boards are now often an obstacle to repurposing streets away from private automobiles, which is ironic considering their original intent. As for landmarking, I understand the need to preserve some of the more important parts of the city’s past but far too many unremarkable buildings are landmarking. Both community boards and landmarking are conspiring to make much of NYC frozen in time.

  • Vooch

    What is density of West Village ?

  • bolwerk

    Yes, but BANANAism is often more about “fiscal conservatism” than urban planning.

  • BBnet3000

    All I see in all the public transcripts is her husband asking for the zoning to allow more residential development in the fallow industrial parts of the Village.

    That quote is really taken out of context. The “we” in that quote is not society in general, it’s a bunch of specific uses that flourish in older buildings. You can see this in the Financial District today. There’s back offices and city offices in a lot of the somewhat aging towers, and a lot of services (ie Dentists and Tailors) in the even older buildings. Plus some class A tenants in some brand new buildings, though frankly the demand for that has moved uptown.

    Likewise look at the companies that flourish in the Garment District, NoMad, etc. Outside of the areas with somewhat of a tech boom, we’re looking at companies that would not be able to compete for class A space, but flourish in NYC in older buildings. If they didn’t have these buildings they’d probably be out in the suburbs (and many companies in some of the same industries are).

    This gets a little more complicated with residential, but I just don’t think it was obvious in her time that demand was going to require such extensive new building in older neighborhoods. At the time there was tons of new affordable housing being constructed in uptown Manhattan and Queens in particular (not to mention the flight to the suburbs) and the proverbial starving artists could afford to live/work in huge studios in Soho. Yes, we should probably densify the village more today, but in 1961 the only alternative to was looking like dispossessing people of their homes and businesses and bulldozing half of it to build ugly towers on superblocks like those that litter much of the Lower East Side.

    I’m not saying that every NIMBY since hasn’t claimed to be channeling the ghost of Jane Jacobs to “protect the character of the neighborhood” against any densification. That’s pretty much exactly what’s happened.

  • Michael

    Well said, and of course today we have the hindsight to see the outcomes of the city-wide downzonings.

  • BBnet3000

    Not to mention that they couldn’t just build on the land they had and over the railyard, they just HAD to use the government’s eminent domain power and dispossess people and knock down the existing urban fabric.

  • Charles Siegel

    That may be the most relevant question in New York today. But it wasn’t the most relevant question in New York 50 years ago, and it isn’t the most relevant question in most US cities today.

  • AnthonyFlint

    LOMEX was a gleam in Robert Moses’ eye beginning in earnest in the 1950s — the extension of 5th Avenue through Washington Square Park ultimately would have connected to the mainline coming out of the Holland Tunnel in an unthinkable interchange at Thompson and Broome streets. LOMEX itself was beaten back on several occasions, but Moses kept bringing it back. The Paul Rudolph high-rise scheme was added in the later stages of the 60s, in an attempt to sell the project.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Fascinating!

  • Kevin Love

    Yes.

  • Kevin Love

    No. It is about social conservatism. Fiscal conservatives believe in a free market.

  • Kevin Love

    That is totally, 100% false. Jane Jacobs supported the development of the “Kings” neighborhoods in Toronto. See:

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/industry-news/property-report/going-all-in-with-a-pair-of-kings/article28745451/

  • bolwerk

    I put “fiscal conservatism” in scare quotes because their outcomes are rarely fiscally conservative anyway, but fiscal conservative != laissez-faire.

    Either way, the point was BANANAs usually care about stuff outside their backyard, so their motivations are usually different. NIMBYs may not care about, or may even in principle support, things BANANAs are categorically against.

  • Michael

    You’re right about her activism later in life (although “supported” might be a bit strong).

    However, her role in NYC was NIMBY gentrifier.

  • AnoNYC

    Well yes but if you wanted to live in NYC and have your excess space, detached house, yard, car, and homogenous population you had to pay big money or move to cheaper cookie cutter suburban housing on the fringes. So there was a shortage of affordable housing in NYC that fit the desirable characteristics of the middle class of the time.

  • douglasawillinger

    Relocate the FDR into a box tunnel beneath a new park, perhaps even with beach spots along the East River.

  • douglasawillinger

    I would favor that, highways with a greater use of existing corridors, reducing building removal to a minimum., and using box tunnels as per the Riverside Drive South extension just north of 57th Street.

  • douglasawillinger

    LOMAX- build as tunnel, with duel stack beneath Broome Street, thus saving the Cast Iron buildings; no elevated spur to Manhattan Bridge, replaced with cut and cover tunnel beneath Canal Street; full cut and cover for the rest, removing of course that foolishly placed Essex Crossing project. And add two tubes to the Holland Tunnel, and employ variable rate cashless tolling.

  • Joe R.

    I feel Robert Moses’ highways would have had a heck of a lot less opposition if he had put them all in tunnels until they left city limits. Granted, highways still act as enablers of car use with all the negatives that implies, but at least underground highways wouldn’t have ruined the urban fabric. Had Moses been smart, he would have also built parallel subways, maybe even parallel underground bikeways, while the ground was already being dug up for the highway. That would have been the carrot to get the city to accept more of his highways.

    Unfortunately, he couldn’t see past his own notion of the car being the sole answer to transportation.

  • Joe R.

    For what it’s worth, by the mid or late 1970s even detached single family homes in the city were going begging, relative to today’s ridiculous prices anyway. A house in the suburbs still was often less but not by as wide a margin as nowadays. A lot of white, middle class people at that time just plain didn’t want to live in the city at all, even when they could get a house dirt cheap. They wanted their 1/2 an acre, their pool, not having their house close enough for neighbors to look in the windows, and so forth. Many also wanted a brand new house.

    It took well over a generation for large numbers to realize suburban life wasn’t all it was cut out to be. In the meantime, cities lost a lot of viable housing stock while we overbuilt suburbs and exurbs.

  • Vooch

    Drivers would never pay for it. Drivers only like free.

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