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Death and Life
How best to use, abuse, and criticize Jane Jacobs
Keeping it 100
Jane Jacobs: 100 and Timeless as Ever
Exemplifying the eternal Robert Moses-Jane Jacobs dialectic, New York’s Astor Place-Cooper Square area has long reflected too much Bob and not enough Jane. Excessive vehicular space has bred human-car conflict points, with pedestrians facing “a super-wide roadway . . . unclear at various traffic lights which way you are supposed to cross,” as noted by Claire Weisz of WXY (formerly Weisz & Yoes). The neighborhood around Cooper Union has become a midrise mélange, ill-serving its role as a campus and gateway between NoHo and the East Village. The chief open space is the under-lit, fenced-off Cooper Triangle, habitable mainly by rodents: A wasted opportunity in the park-starved area between Washington and Tompkins Squares.
Change hasn’t come quickly, but it’s coming. WXY has partnered with the Department of Design and Construction (DDC), Transportation (DOT), and Parks and Recreation (DPR), as well as with landscape architect Quennell Rothschild & Partners, lighting designer Linnaea Tillett, plantsman Piet Oudolf, and contractor Triumph Construction, to remap streets and upgrade the plazas. Adhering closely to the 2011 iteration of a plan vetted in community meetings since 2008, the team is creating an environment that blends landscaping and infrastructure: high-efficiency lighting, granite benches, stepped seating, bicycle racks, a new water main, catch basins, center medians, bioswales, and a dignified allée framing the Foundation Building. Construction began in 2013, and DDC projects opening this summer.
Anticipating Vision Zero by several years, Weisz said, “The plan tried to rationalize the desire lines with the actual street layout,” correcting dangerous conditions. At Fifth and Sixth Streets, “you would find yourself in the middle of Third Avenue without being able to cross the street at a normal crosswalk,” and the subway-entrance island between Eighth and Ninth was “really narrow for the amount of people on it.” With vehicles banned from eastern Astor Place and from Cooper Square below Sixth Street, “you’ll be able to walk pretty easily from Fifth Street all the way to the subway without having to cross traffic.” A tree-lined Alamo Plaza will replace two lanes of Astor Place, and an 8,000-square-foot Village Plaza will emerge from Cooper Square’s west sidewalk, replacing disorienting lanes and dead zones of striped-off asphalt.
“Essentially, the goal is to continue to encourage the street ballet of the neighborhood,” Weisz said.
“We believe this particular design takes the approach of Jane Jacobs to create spaces that favor the community,” said DDC spokesperson Shavone Williams, stressing community outreach from design through construction.
The DDC “was very much a co-designer on this rather than a client working with consultants,” Weisz said. “[The collaboration was] amazing—we have three agencies, almost with equal billing here, and two community boards.” Maintenance partners include Village Alliance for the Alamo and subway plazas, DPR for Cooper Triangle, and Grace Church School for the Village Plaza.
WXY’s design signature includes zipper benches and environmentally friendly cast-iron drinking fountains developed for DPR (shaped to accommodate water bottles and to vent wastewater into planters and gravel, not hard pipes). Distinctive black cobra-head davit poles will support energy-efficient LED fixtures above Village Plaza. Swales will enhance storm drainage, reducing combined sewer overflows. Tony Rosenthal’s rotating cube Alamo, currently off-site for restoration, will return to its original position.
Village Alliance, City Lore, and other cultural activists have worked with DOT to reinstall components of Jim Power’s Mosaic Trail—“a treasure map” revealing local history, said Bowery Poetry Club proprietor Bob Holman, a City Lore board member. “That the city, which has so long ignored this treasure, is helping to renovate the poles displaced by the renovation and will install them as a piece of public art,” Holman said, “is New York City at its best.” With varied color temperatures distinguishing pedestrian spaces, streets, and buildings, the team expected that “Power’s ceramics would really pop.”
Weisz foresees a return of informal vibrancy as the plazas draw lunchers, seniors, performers, students, and others (Though not nocturnal revelers: The Triangle will be locked at night). By inviting people to linger, these plazas may help energize local businesses assaulted by chain stores and rocketing commercial rents.
Interruptions in Manhattan’s street grid represent the revenge of the organic and historic against the hyper-rational. Sites that syncopate the 1811 plan’s marching rhythm are both robust and sensitive: They are activity magnets, yet they create welcome eddies in urban flows.
The Renwick Gallery in Washington, D. C., called the oldest “purpose-built art museum” in the U. S., will reopen to the public on November 13, following a two-year, $30 million renovation.
The event is a highlight of the fall 2015 arts season in Washington. There will be a black-tie gala dinner on November 8, three new books on the museum, and an inaugural exhibition featuring nine prominent contemporary artists.
Then there’s the building itself, which opened in 1863 and was designed in the Second Empire style. With the project’s completion, Washington gains a thoroughly renovated landmark with restored historic features and an entirely new infrastructure that will enable it to continue serving as the home of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s (SAAM) Contemporary Craft and Decorative Arts program.
The 156-year-old building, which stands across from the White House at Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street NW, was saved from the wrecking ball in the 1960s at the urging of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The original architect was James Renwick, Jr., for whom the building was later named. John Carl Warnecke and Hugh Newell Jacobsen worked on it in the 1960s. Westlake Reed Leskosky is the architectural design and engineering firm for the latest renovations.
“The Renwick Gallery is the first purpose-built art museum in America and an architectural masterpiece. We are delighted to renew this great historic building for the next half-century,” said Elizabeth Broun, the director of SAAM.
Renwick drew architectural inspiration from the Louvre in Paris, Broun noted. “When the building first opened,” she said, “it was hailed as the ‘American Louvre,’ symbolizing the young nation’s aspirations for a distinctive culture.”
“It’s important architecturally because it helped launch the Second Empire style in the United States,” said Charles J. Robertson, deputy director emeritus of SAAM and author of American Louvre: A History of the Renwick Gallery Building, available in December.
As part of the project, contractors removed false ceilings to reveal two long-concealed ceiling vaults on the second floor. They restored the original 19th-century window configuration throughout and repaired original moldings. They upgraded art storage areas, repointed exterior brick, repaired stucco, remodeled restrooms and replaced mechanical systems.
Public spaces are now illuminated entirely with LED lighting. The Grand Stair has a new red carpet by French architect Odile Decq—another sign of French influence in the building.
Of the three books, Robertson’s American Louvre traces the building’s history and innovations. Craft for a Modern World, The Renwick Gallery Collection, by Nora Atkinson, focuses on the permanent collection. On Wonder, by Nicholas Bell, documents the debut exhibition.
The refurbished “Octagon Room” will contain an exhibit about the building’s history.
Wonder, the inaugural exhibition, features installations by Jennifer Angus, Chakaia Booker, Gabriel Dawe, Tara Donovan, Patrick Dougherty, Janet Echelman, John Grade, Maya Lin, and Leo Villareal.
A recent essay on Hurricane Katrina by geographer Richard Campanella offers a canny glimpse of a catastrophe’s utility as an instrument of politics. Noting that “most incoming freshmen at the New Orleans university where I teach know Katrina ‘the trope’ much better than Katrina the actual incident,” he implies that when people insist upon the event as a climate change bellwether, as the symbol of a broken social contract, or as the embodiment of government failure, they are inadvertently stripping away its literal meanings.
Amid the many books and articles published to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the storm and subsequent levee failure, Roberta Brandes Gratz’s book We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt their City is not innocent of this tendency. It is nevertheless a welcome contribution to an animated conversation about the city and its uncertain future.
Gratz’s Katrina “tropes” are government incompetence and the redemptive power of grassroots action. The villains of her story are, by and large, FEMA, sclerotic city agencies, and politically connected contractors who produced little of value despite being awarded billions of recovery dollars from the federal government. Her strong-willed, energetic heroines and heroes, by contrast, take site- and neighborhood-based rebuilding into their own hands and achieve spectacular end-runs around bureaucratic obstructions.
Courtesy Nation Books
The good guys—much like Gratz herself—understand the intrinsic value of historic preservation, appreciate vernacular architecture, and abhor cultural homogenization. They also incorporate sustainability and resiliency principles into restored landscapes and buildings, aligning with the theme of “living with water” as opposed to resisting it. In this recovery narrative, elite city planners, clueless or depraved government functionaries, and return-obsessed developers are in many cases outmatched by grassroots civic groups and small, local entrepreneurs.
This is an appealing juxtaposition, one that Gratz is eloquent in arguing. Brought alive in these pages, the indifference and condescension of powerful actors in both government and the private sector toward people trying to put right their homes and lives is staggering. For example, homeowners in the Lower Ninth Ward, an isolated low-wealth (but not, contrary to official myth, low-lying) neighborhood on the east bank of the Mississippi River, faced blatantly discriminatory restrictions on access to their property for months after the storm, and then confronted perverse regulations that based payouts for rebuilding not on costs but on depressed pre-Katrina home values. In light of such barriers, the countless small triumphs described here—a renovated house, a bayou overlook restoring a long lost view to Lower Ninth Ward residents, an implemented recovery plan in the Broadmoor district—are truly impressive.
Gratz implies that these accomplishments merit a more central role in the post-Katrina story than continuing residential vacancy and the plight of renter households (for whom policy did less than nothing), and one is inclined to concur. Still, the book unhelpfully perpetuates the idea that larger-bore efforts to influence (let alone staff) the government are a hopeless cause. The rental housing crisis (abetted by the cowardly destruction of the bulk of the city’s public housing), the persistence of low-wage work, and the region’s coastal restoration challenges require systemic action and leadership. But there is little discussion in the book about how to promote effective, equity-minded governance on a level broader than that of the neighborhood.
All of this will be familiar to readers of Gratz’s previous books and to readers of Jane Jacobs, on whose work Gratz models her own. But if the book is formulaic at points, Gratz also has a keen eye for the way in which the systems that skewed in favor of the white and the comfortable in the storm’s immediate aftermath are now skewing that way in more subtle but equally troubling ways. She vividly explains why the ongoing privatization of schools and transit, decisions to dedicate scarce resources to infrastructure for wealthy tourists, epidemic police brutality, and the failure to maximize the ecological potential of new amenities like the Lafitte Greenway are of enormous consequence in 2015. What is most valuable about We’re Still Here Ya Bastards at this moment of mass retrospection is its intelligent glance forward at upcoming struggles, and its argument that the actions of elected officials and administrators in Washington, Baton Rouge, and Orleans Parish matter as much now as they have at any time in the past ten years.
Among the most overused and least understood words these days are “working with the community” and “community input.” Developers, designers, and planners bring a project to a community and then try to “work with” that community on its acceptance; they tinker somewhat in response to “public input.” But they come to “educate” the community, not to “be educated” by it, and fail to recognize that local wisdom trumps distant expertise more times than not. Missed is recognition that building on that local wisdom offers the best chance of project acceptance and success.
In Building Together: Case Studies in Participatory Planning and Community Building, designer Roger Katan and planner Ronald Shiffman illustrate the true meaning of collaborative design and planning through which the destiny of a community remains in local hands. Examples are offered with a great substantive and geographic range: a new multi-service center and renovating buildings to create a settlement house combined with elderly housing in East Harlem; a locally-conceived housing cluster in the Paris suburb of Meudon, France; accommodating the expansion of a local manufacturer without undermining its surrounding residential neighborhood in Greenpoint, Brooklyn; working with a self-help community of homeless people to develop self-built and self-managed housing in Pereira, Colombia. There are more, a diverse assortment, even a micro-credit union as a tool for neighborhood self-management in 1976 that evolved by 2012 into a national savings federation in Burkina Faso in West Africa.
None of these efforts are new, which means each story is revealed over time from creation to completion. But in one sense, they are timeless, all with relevance to the needs of diverse societies today. But one key to them all is what Shiffman calls “consistency over long periods of time. No one parachutes in and leaves.”
Katan and Shiffman followed different paths and came together in the 1960s, an interesting but challenging time. Moroccan-born, educated at the École des Beaux Arts and MIT, Katan had left a dream design job with the architectural firm of Louis Kahn in Philadelphia to live and work in East Harlem while teaching at Pratt Institute; Shiffman, Pratt-educated in architecture and planning, was then a graduate student hired to work for a unit at Pratt that was to morph into the Pratt Center for Community and Environmental Development inspired by the writing of Jane Jacobs. Shiffman had just been asked by Pratt to work with residents to develop a program to address urban decline in Bedford Stuyvesant; that work led to the establishment of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the first community-based development effort in the country. They worked together on some of the projects offered in the book, but mostly they were following parallel paths, admiring and learning from each other. These projects represent the early stirrings of what has become known as “advocacy planning.” They were young, somewhat idealistic, but with skills of great value to people who needed everything and not a clue where to begin, surely a circumstance true today. Young professionals, take note.
Nineteen-sixties urban renewal was at its height. Few were the Davids to this Goliath. Maybe Katan and Shiffman were too young to know better, but they forged ahead and, in the process, learned lessons worth absorbing today. Urban renewal may not be today’s Goliath, but surely high stakes, high impact development of all kinds is everywhere.
Some of the lessons offered here have been learned to some extent. More cross-disciplinary collaborative work is occurring; some silos are being penetrated. Indigenous building techniques from around the globe are gaining respect and new adherents. The public in some places is better educated about development, often eager to offer sophisticated alternatives to inappropriate plans. Local empowerment is not an alien concept. Professionals are learning to listen, really listen, to citizen voices making possible new and formidable partnerships. Equity and socially responsible design are not the foreign concepts they were in the 1960s, but are not as prevalent as they should be. The winds of change are out there bringing more of these ideas and practices to the forefront. A new generation seems poised to take up the challenge. For inspiration and some ideas for directions to follow, no better place to begin can be found than in the pages of this book.