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The Death and Life of Chicago

A group of clergymen in Chicago, appalled at the fruits of planned city rebuilding there, asked,

Could Job have been thinking of Chicago when he wrote:

Here are men that alter their neighbor's landmark . . . shoulder the poor aside, conspire to oppress the friendless

Reap they the field that is none of theirs, strip they the vineyard wrongfully seized from its owner . . .

A cry goes up from the city streets, where wounded men lie groaning . . .

- from the Introduction to Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)

The passing last week of Jane Jacobs, whose The Death and Life of Great American Cities exposed the folly of Establishment urban planning while arguing persuasively for the small, sacred triumphs of organic serendipity from which most great neighborhoods spring, spawned an array of commentaries at times grudging and beside the point, or failed to really connect with conditions today parallel to what Jacobs railed against so many years ago and throughout her life.

By all accounts, Jacobs didn't spend much time in Chicago (though she touted the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood in her book). Jacobs fled her beloved Greenwich Village for Toronto when it turned sour at the exploitive touch of the trendseekers and the developers who cater to them, as well as the pols who work hand-in-glove with the lot of them.

I find it hard not to think about Jacobs when walking nearly every day on the streets of my once-beloved Wicker Park, to see still more sterile castle condos, inhabited by invisible people hostile to corner taverns and other less-than-shiny storefronts, replacing the humble working-class home or venerable three-flat; to see the buildings divided from the sidewalk by parking lots; to see the forbidding and dominating suburban-styled chain stores snuffing out the last remnants of quaint and original merchantry. I see the city writ small along Milwaukee Avenue, including the adjacent intersection of Beach and Wood, where the Big Tony's ribs and pizza parlor is now the Beachwood Commons condominiums, with balconies for yuppies to lord over a street too dirty for them in its original form; I see a city that does not truly care for its citizens - has it ever? - or for building community, for all the acclaim that goes to the unquestioned redevelopment of its widely acclaimed mayor, as if there were no other path or sensibility that would have "saved" the city; I see a city whose neighborhoods once so unique in character are melding into one giant honeypot for a select few whose pull gives them imperial imperative to push others around like chess pieces.

I see a lot of "extraneous people," as Jacobs once described the poor victims of urban planning, trampled on. They are often those who love the city the most, but have the least means to preserve it, except those qualities which ought to be the currency most valued by the policy makers, whose hidden hands instead drive processes such as gentrification that you are led to believe are "natural"; those qualities being a passion for a neighborhoods, not a way station to the suburbs; a thirst for the stability of roots balanced with a creativity energy for the evolution of unique form; a love - not a fear - of the ordered disorder of street life and the dynamism it brings to urban living, in contrast to the sanitizing "order" of city planners that ironically loosens roots, stability, character, caring, and unleashes its own disorder continually at odds with community. Those qualities are neither appreciated nor in vogue.

The mixed use of light industry, entertainment, small business, and residential dwellings that Jacobs so (rightly) pegged as a key to urban neighborhoods and which once in part defined not just Wicker Park but many city neighborhoods, has largely been vanquished in Chicago, as everything and everyone is put in their place. It is a mistake. The money people are the means, but not neither the beginning nor the end. We are disposing of that which ought to be most valued, and replacing it with that which is most disposable.

Jane Jacobs knew what made cities great. I'm not at all sure that Richard M. Daley does.

Here is Jacobs, for example, on the need for aged buildings, in a passage from The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Look around your neighborhood and try to imagine that the mayor and his team believe the same.

"Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings, I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation - although these make fine ingredients - but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings.

"If a city area has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction. These high costs of occupying new buildings may be levied in the form of rent, or they may be levied in the form of an owner's interest and amortization payments on the capital costs of the construction. However the costs are paid off, they have to be paid off. And for this reason, enterprises that support the cost of new construction must be capable of paying a relatively high overhead - high in comparison to that necessarily required by old buildings. To support such high overheads, the enterprises must be either (a) high profit or (b) well subsidized.

"If you look about, you will see that only operations that are well established, high-turnover, standardized or heavily subsidized can afford, commonly, to carry the costs of new construction. Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings. Supermarkets and shoe stores often go into new buildings; good bookstores and antique builders seldom do. Well-subsidized opera and art museums often go into new buildings. But the unformalized feeders of the arts - studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and a table can absorb uneconomic discussions - these go into old buildings. Perhaps more significant, hundreds of ordinary enterprises, necessary to the safety and public life of streets and neighborhoods, and appreciated for their convenience and personal quality, can make out successfully in old buildings, but are inexorably slain by the high overhead of new construction.

"As for really new ideas of any kind - no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be - there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings."

Maybe it's time for new Chicago to use some old ideas.

- with Tim Willette


Posted on May 1, 2006

MUSIC - Britney's IUD.
TV - Vizio's Best Product Is You.
POLITICS - Climate Deniers' 4 Top Scare Tactics.
SPORTS - The McEnroes In Antarctica.

BOOKS - Foxconned.


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