The civil servant Robert Moses was a symbol, if not a leader, of a powerful modernist movement to rebuild American cities worldwide. Moses remains controversial to this day because while he rebuilt blighted city areas with his new housing projects he also introduced new problems to the city. Jane Jacobs in “Downtown is for People” criticized the redevelopment projects, not just the practical problems they would cause but also the modernist ideal behind them.
Jacobs states clearly that the projects will deaden city life. She criticizes the modernist city ideal: spacious, depopulated, uniform, and monumental, as having “all the attributes of a well kempt dignified cemetery”. The dominant design philosophy places buildings ahead of people, with the goal of fulfilling an “abstract logical concept” and ideal of what a city should be like. In Out Culture, What’s Left of It, Theodore Dalrymple criticizes the French projects for similar reasons. He cites Le Corbusier, a Swiss totalitarian architect and urban planner. “The despot is not a man… It is the… correct, realistic, exact plan… that will provide your solution once the problem has been posed clearly… This plan has been drawn up well away from… the cries of the electorate or the laments of society’s victims. It has been drawn up by serene and lucid minds.” (Dalrymple 2005)
Jacobs and Dalrymple both state that modernist building projects are fundamentally inhumane. I have some first hand experience to testify in their favor. I helped my friend move into an apartment building in the Bronx last November. The first thing I noticed was how massive, forbidding, and uniform all the apartment buildings were, similar to how Jacobs described the redevelopment projects. Inside the brick behemoths the stairs and hallways were narrow and the lighting was dim, and very thick metal doors sealed the elevators. The apartment itself was decently sized but had poor lighting, so the apartment was often dark.
Jacob’s alternative to Moses’ modernist “grand plan” is to “micromanage”, to make the city with the people in mind. She proposes we should focus on the street and local neighborhood in our building projects. Streets should be aesthetically pleasing, which means they should look beautiful, have contrasts in color and shape, and should have many different engaging places for people. She says downtown streets should be seen as dividers and not unifiers. I interpret her words as suggesting downtown is full of different people who seek to be in their own little niche, not as a population to put into large boxes that all look the same.
Reading Jacob’s proposal on a better way to build a city reminds me of Williamsburg and the Greenwich Village. – I lived in Williamsburg for five years before I went to graduate school. – Williamsburg in particular looks similar to a small-scale community. Every street has at least one small, independent shop with their unique brand of clothes and doo-dads. Williamsburg has a comely and warm feel to it. Perhaps I am being nostalgic, but I wish I spent my time better in Williamsburg enjoying it more. But alas! Perhaps Jacobs would like Williamsburg and see it as some kind of small-scale city. It is a small scale community, at least.