Jane Jacobs – The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Assignment 4: Instruction Sets For Strangers, Major Studio 1

Title: The Death And Life of American Cities

Author: Jane Jacobs

Collaborators: Eliza Bruce, Miyeon Kim and Priyal Parikh

Professor: Anezka Sebek

Class: Major Studio 1

Review of Chapters 13 to 16:


Part 3 of The Death and Life of American Cities, entitled “Forces of Decline and Regeneration,” deals with the cycle of success and failure, or “slumming and unslumming,” in American cities.

In the first chapter of this section, Jacobs details the “self-destruction of diversity” that occurs as a result of a successful city. Starting in neighborhoods, each city witnesses the success of certain businesses, and, as investors observe these trends, money is poured into similar businesses. The resulting competition drives out the less affluent and smaller scale business owners, and replaces them with more of the same type of storefront. As a result, not only are some neighborhoods oversaturated with one or two types of businesses, but also other neighborhoods are thus deprived of profitable businesses. The distribution of affluent residents follows a similar pattern, and the result is clusters of residents with small ranges of incomes in each neighborhood. Jacobs outlines this “fad” cycle by describing her neighborhood, on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village.

It started out as a “nondescript street (244),” until Charles Abrams, one of the principle property owners, built a small night club and movie theater on the street. As they became popular and successful, they changed the activity of the neighborhood, bringing in more people during nights and weekends, which added growth to the area in the form of special shops. These shops brought even more people, during the day and evening, and thus a variety of new and interesting restaurants. As the restaurants were the most profitable per square foot of enterprises on the street, restaurants bought out these unique shops and nightclubs and varied use storefronts until the area no longer had a diverse lineup of businesses.

From Eighth Street down, the men are earning it.

From Eighth Street up, the women are spending it.

That is the manner of this great town,

From Eighth Street up and Eighth Street down.

With this quote in the first chapter, she lays the plot for the chapter 14 titled “The curse of border vacuums”. In this chapter, she explains how massive elements like railways, parks, hospital grounds, university campuses, etc. create boundaries around them. They divide cities into pieces. These boundaries eventually create a vacuum around these spaces limiting people either within the boundaries or outside them. These boundaries have active physical and functional effects on their neighbors. The negative impact can be seen immediately next to the boundaries, as these spaces usually tend to grow inwards.

There are many examples of such vacuums. These include Central Park, Lower East Side and Morningside Heights. Sometimes people and media add to this vacuum; as was the case with Lower East Side. She describes how a crime in Lower East Side reduced its value and human interaction due to the excess media attention that particular crime received. She calls such spaces special lands as people walk around their perimeter but not through them. On the other hand, a general land is described as a space with regular circulation of people. These general lands are supposed to be most attractive areas and are not usually adjoining the massive single elements. Thus, she suggests increases interactions between inner and outer areas of these elements to reduce vacuums creating by boundaries of these spaces.

In chapter 15, Mrs. Jacobs is talking about why some slums stay slums and other slums regenerate themselves even against financial and official opposition. Thus, she titles it “Unslumming and slumming”.

According to Mrs. Jacobs, slums operate as vicious circles. A slum is usually caused by population instability; i.e. when people move in and out too quickly, slums have low population. Slums tend to spread and spreading slums require greater amounts of public money. So the Urban Renewal planned a project to stop slums by replacing them, but they failed. This is because replacing them does not overcome problems that created these slums in the first place.

She proposed that unslumming could happen only when dwellers take an interest in improving area. People should make slum dwellers desire to stay and develop neighborhoods instead of unlumming slum. To make it clearer and better, diversity is the key to unslumming, such as business growth or economic developments. Moreover, respecting them, and understanding their history will be an important key to help them.

Finally in chapter 16 “Gradual money and cataclysmic money”, Mrs. Jacobs discusses money as a factor of decline and regeneration. Specifically, three kinds of investment: (1) conventional, nongovernmental, lended credit, (2) governmental money (by taxes or government borrowing power) and (3) “shadow world” money, made and spent illegally. All three types of money are responsible for what Jacobs refers to as “cataclysmic” changes in cities. This cataclysmic change, as opposed to gradual change, is not natural or stable. Decay is linked to these forms of investment through a cycle, beginning with the withdrawal of conventional money. From there, the area is run by shadow money, as it dips into despair.  Then, planners eventually select the area as a candidate for cataclysmic government money for clearance and renewal. This last step does not encourage mixed use, and continues to destroy diversity.

Mrs. Jacobs, through this section, outlines four forces of decline for a city: (1) successful diversity as a self-destructive factor, (2) deadening influence of massive single elements, (3) population instability as an obstacle to diversity growth and (4) effects of public and private money. However, she does not stop at simply defining the problems. She also points out solutions to each problem: (1) diverse lineup of businesses to avoid self-destruction of diversity, (2) increased interactions between the outer and inner areas of massive single elements, (3) solving problems leading to slums rather than unslumming them and (4) creating a balance between general and cataclysmic money in areas.