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Jane Jacobs, Human Capital & New York in the ’70s

1970s New York was a hellhole by most accounts. The Bronx burned almost perpetually, averaging 12,000 fires a year from 1973 to 1977. Times Square was better known for prostitution and pornography than the M&M’s store and innovative street furniture. Most of Brooklyn, to paraphrase Stephen Malkmus, was still a twinkle in some young trust-funder’s eye.

Despite the crime, filth, and decay that characterized New York in that era, revolutionary music and art flourished amid the squalor: the Ramones, early hip hop, graffiti, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Philip Glass, the Talking Heads and much more came out of that environment while channeling its aesthetic. Artists lived in New York on little money and met each other in the dives, lofts, and block parties where they performed material that wasn’t making anyone money (yet), and wasn’t expected to. For all of its problems, the city was an interesting place for people participating in those scenes (read Will Hermes’ Love Goes to Buildings on Fire for a masterful account of this period).

Today, 1970s New York pervades pop culture: hip hop, punk rock, and disco’s club-centric nightlife are a few of its most enduring products. The horrible condition of the city during that time, inseparable from the art and music that emerged from it, represents a challenging paradox for people who love cities and the possibilities they hold: the ability of transcendent art and culture to somehow redeem urban decay, and the uncomfortable possibility that a trade-off may exist between the two.

Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, still the orthodox urban planners’ bible, didn’t have to resolve this paradox. Drawing heavily upon her own early-1960s Greenwich Village, Jacobs arrived at an empirical understanding of what makes an urban neighborhood a good place to live. By her observations, interesting people and interesting culture appeared in cities and neighborhoods that had avoided blight and maintained a delicate balance of desirable qualities. The urban decay she warns against began spreading through New York during the decade after her book’s publication, in many instances due to direct contradictions of principles she had espoused. Jacobs’ thesis is complicated by the fact that anything good came out of that decay. 1970s New York is an experimental result for which her writing doesn’t quite account (not that she purported to explain everything).

Fifty years after Jacobs’ masterpiece, technological changes have begun to undermine many of the traditional purposes that cities have served. Cities themselves, however, are clearly as important as ever. A school of thought has arisen to explain this phenomenon, led by luminaries like Ed Glaeser and Richard Florida: Cities are the factories that produce the material of today’s knowledge-driven economy, because cities are full of people, also known as “human capital.” If cities can allow people to arrange themselves in the right way, they argue, those cities will generate the best ideas, the best art, the best cultural output, and ultimately the best economic results.

Glaeser and Florida draw heavily upon Jane Jacobs, because her work makes explicit the connections between the physical form of cities and the vitality that results. To Jacobs, this was a direct causal relationship, not a mere correlation. Huge city blocks and single-use zoning could ruin a neighborhood’s street life. There’s a crucial difference between Jacobs and the Glaeser/Florida school, however: Jacobs cared most about improving a place’s overall quality of life, in which case that place’s output—economic and cultural—would follow, thereby reinforcing that quality of life in a virtuous cycle. Glaeser and Florida, however, focus on the place’s output: Economic opportunity should be the goal of urban improvement, because that is the ultimate prize in the knowledge economy. Quality of life will presumably follow. For a city, economic and cultural success are one and the same, because the smartest people (the most valuable knowledge workers) will seek both, and the kind of healthy neighborhoods that Jacobs described are a way to achieve them.

Despite those applications of Jane Jacobs, 1970s New York doesn’t quite fit the Glaeser/Florida model either, although it laid a foundation for it. In that decade, the city’s various underground scenes seemed unlikely to benefit New York City’s economy in any meaningful way, as no market existed for the strange and often experimental art being made. Humans don’t become Human Capital until they start generating Economic Capital, but urbanists should be careful not to understand the weird, illegible, and unmarketable as merely a means to an end, because they risk stifling it in pursuit of something less vital.

One Comment on “Jane Jacobs, Human Capital & New York in the ’70s”

  1. Asad says:

    Economic Capital, but urbanists should be careful not to understand the weird, illegible, and unmarketable as merely a means to an end, because they risk stifling it in pursuit of something less vital.

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