The heat’s being turned up on the sidewalk chalkers. In early August, police cited two teenagers in Doyleston, Pennsylvania for drawing pictures of whales and sea turtles on their city’s sidewalks; they’re going to have to make a court appearance and pay a fine. According to a recent Mother Jones article over the past 5 years, at least 50 people (or their parents) have been cited for sidewalk or stoop chalking: notably a 6-year-old girl in Park Slope, Brooklyn, who received a graffiti citation.1
Civil society, as a phrase, has been receiving attention lately as well: Yuval Levin, in the recent issue of National Review, for example, has an article outlining the Obama administration’s contribution to the hollowing out thereof.2 The president’s vision, as Levin describes it, is of a society where the longest-term exclusive relationship that exists is that between the individual and the government.
Decades before “civil society” attained its present status as a buzzword, however, Jane Jacobs was writing about sidewalks. The relationship of the one to the other is what I’ll be addressing here.
By the time she died in 2006 at the age of 89, Jane Jacobs had seen her ideas become part of mainstream urbanism; had seen them be appropriated by everyone from city planners to anti-planners, from libertarians to socialists; and had seen them be dismissed as passé. But when she originally published her Death and Life of Great American Cities, its contents were explosive, flying in the face of everything that 1961 knew about urban design.
Written in the heart of what was then a thriving lower-middle-class Greenwich Village full of Italian immigrants, and children (including hers) playing in the street, the book is a kind of love song to neighborhoods like hers, and is based in large part on her intimate, everyday observations of what exactly it was that made Hudson Street work.
In the face of contemporary urbanist orthodoxy that touted the virtue of big-budget “urban renewal,” and slum-clearance that often targeted neighborhoods because they were densely populated, she argued that density was, in nearly all cases, a good in a neighborhood. In the face of “projects” that contained brand-new buildings with good ventilation set in large swathes of green lawn because Open Space Is Healthy, she argued that few arrangements were more likely to produce a dead zone than this one, which she castigated as the “Radiant Garden City Beautiful” approach to urban design. In the face of zoning codes that neatly sorted areas of the city by income and by use—this is where you work, and this is where you live if you make so much a year, and this is where you shop—she championed mixed-use and mixed-income neighborhoods. And in the face of planning devoted to making room in cities for cars, she argued that where concessions were made to the automobile, economic and social ruin would follow.
The heart of her critique, though, lay in her contention that the blinkered utopianism of her era’s planners led to the squashing of all the characteristics that actually make a city livable—all the “intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially.”3 This genuine diversity, which can only spring from many people’s plans and schemes interacting in a physical space, serendipitously giving rise to an emergent order, is killed, usually, by the cult of the “Big Plan,” even the kind of big plan that seemed to have all the best intentions for bringing “nature” into a city, or “unslumming” a neighborhood. It is utopianism itself that causes the problem, argues Jacobs; “[a]s in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planners in charge.”4 In the face of a national passion for large plans and grand schemes, she insisted that the job of big plans was to make room for small ones, the plans of the ordinary people who lived and worked in a place. And she insisted that any big plans that did exist must be based in the observational and lived reality of how cities actually work.
The Libertarian Jacobs?
To be fair, it’s easy to see why libertarians have been, in the years since her death, making attempts to claim Jacobs as one of their own. She was allergic to poorly executed large government projects, which she took to be most of them; and she firmly believed that the entrepreneurial spirit, whether exhibited in business or elsewhere, was generally in conflict with the big plans of those in power. She was also very aware of the destructive nature of what she called “cataclysmic money,”5 government largesse that, in sweeping through a community, swept it away.
Libertarians like to tell themselves nice stories about being in favor of small businesses, and so Jeff Riggenbach of the Mises Institute released a podcast about a year ago attempting to appropriate Jacobs for the libertarian camp. Their attraction, as I’ve said, is understandable—Robert Moses, who was Jacobs’ Lex Luthor, was surely the very model of a modern progressivist heavy, of the kind that libertarians love to hate. Jacobs herself, the Greenwich Village matron, scratches their anti-authoritarian itch. Jacobs, “whether she knew it or not,” claims Riggenbach, “was a libertarian…[t]he conclusions she reached… were remarkably similar to those Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek had reached earlier by different routes.”6
Riggenbach and others in his camp have focused especially on her similarity to Hayek, whose celebration of the emergent complexity of the abstract marketplace they see reflected in Jacobs’ celebration of the emergent complexity of the embodied city streets. In Jacobs’ fight against Moses, they see a parallel with every libertarian’s fight against planned economies. But it’s in drawing these comparisons too closely that the libertarian writers go wrong.
“A city,” claims Riggenbach, “is, at base, a marketplace. It is a spontaneous order. It cannot be planned. The people who try to plan cities have failed above all because they have not comprehended the way the spontaneous order of cities works.”7
But Jacobs would not say that a city is, at base, a marketplace; nor can it be run as though it were. It contains markets, stores; but it also contains homes. And it contains something else as well: a public square, a public life, a public good. A city is not a marketplace, not a small town, not a collection of homes: a city is, at base, a city, and its distinctive features—its selfhood—are those of public life.
Riggenbach’s fundamental misunderstanding of Jacobs points to the central blind spot of libertarianism in general: libertarians cannot see the public, the civic. It’s invisible to them: they look directly at it and reduce it to a collection of private endeavors, and almost always to the kind of private endeavors that make, or use, money. When they do see the public, libertarians inevitably conflate it with “government,” or the “state:” to them inevitably a separate, alien, fundamentally violent force.
Jacobs made no such mistake: she looked at New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s and was able, by a kind of miracle, to see a city: a place that was not a too-impersonal small town or a too-dense suburb, but a thing in itself. How that thing worked, how the public and the civic rubbed shoulders with the private and the commercial—these were her subjects, and her writing on them is both prescient and unsurpassed. Her conclusions—about the virtues of independent businesses, the benefits of the small as against the large, the necessity of what she referred to as “locality knowledge,”8 and yet the role that larger structures such as city government can and should take to nurture the complex web of small plans that makes up the ballet of the streets—these are conclusions that anyone familiar with Distributist ideas about subsidiarity will recognize.
Part of her ability to see the cityness of a city lay in her ability to see that there is a public world that is something quite different than the world of government planners: the neighbors who, in a vivid anecdote in the book, stand in their doorways, vigilant against the possible abduction of a little girl, are acting as public figures. They were prepared to call in the formal representatives of the state—the police—should that have been necessary, but they were not themselves the state: they were the public. Her ability to make this distinction lay in the fact that her thinking was so completely embodied: she saw Hudson Street before she thought about the state; she saw her particular neighbors before she thought about the “public.”
Jacobs was no more consciously in the tradition of Chesterton than she was in the tradition of Hayek. And perhaps that’s just as well. Perhaps we—we distributists—can use the libertarians’ love of Jacobs as a kind of bridge: in their love of her, we can see what the larger good is that they love but don’t fully understand. That good is surely the good of a multiplicity of human endeavors, which coalesce into the emergent complexity of a network of independent businesses, that Jacobs describes. That’s subsidiarity, and if libertarians don’t see the whole of it, at least they’ve got that part right.
Gilbert and Jane
Jacobs’ work focuses on the street, not the home; the doorway and the fire escape, not the rooms behind them. She sees this physical public sphere as the place where the personal and the political intersect. Reading her in parallel with Chesterton, one is struck with the degree to which GKC acquiesces to the traditional Victorian division between the public and the private. There are times when it seems that Chesterton championed the home as the place that was safe—safe for the moment at least—from the big plans of the public world. And indeed it’s true that the home is the primary place where humans give the physical world the imprint of their personalities. But Jacobs (like Chesterton in every story he wrote that involved a quest carried out across the London cityscape) will not surrender the public sphere to the big planners. She will not leave the public spaces of the city to the people like Robert Moses whom she refers to acerbically as “the highwaymen,” whose public plans leave no rooms for the public plans of others. Rather, she insists that the little man, the ordinary man, has a public role to play. Your small business scheme, she seems to say; your presence at the pub, your presence with your children in the playground, are civic and public goods, not just private goods. What we really need is a solution that focuses on the common citizen, one that helps families become financially independent of these huge institutions that only want to keep them in debt.
And perhaps it is in this area of the civic, the public, that modern urban expressions of Distributism will find their most distinctive shape. Cities are not small towns and—despite the agrarian dreams of beekeepers in Brooklyn—they are not the countryside: as Philip Bess has been emphasizing, in his work promoting what might be called Thomist urbanism,9 the city has a particular telos, a particular role to play in a civilization that is not filled by any other institution.[ix] If an urbanite cannot reasonably expect to keep a flock of sheep, that does not mean that there is no role for urban people and households in a Distributist world. What it does mean is that we must consider what the distinct characteristics of city life are: and when we do this, we find that historically, the city is the place where civics are embodied; the polis is the place where politics are played out. Not that rural people don’t have political opinions or should not have a political voice: the world needs far more radicalized agrarians, not fewer. It is, nevertheless, historically true that cities, in a very particular way, specialize in the public.
And indeed, the most important thing that Jacobs does, throughout the book, is to put meat on the bones of civics. The “public sphere” for her is no Habermasian abstraction: it is a sidewalk, well used by people who are appropriately engaged with their lives, their neighbors’ lives, and the life of the street. It was above all the abstraction of the planners that she objected to: they were “uninterested in the aspects of the city which could not be abstracted to serve [their] Utopia.”10
Because we are embodied creatures, any discussion of civil society that forgets that civil society takes place in cities, and that cities are made of streets and buildings and shops and homes and offices and police stations and parks and people—and sidewalks—is bound to fail. In this way, Jacobs was not just an activist, not just a cultural commentator: she was crusader— whether she knew it or not—against one of the oldest heresies, the poisonous fantasy of gnosticism, which seeks a final divorce between the physical and the spiritual, the realm of ideas and the realm of bodies. What we can recognize—what Chesterton would have recognized—is that in this battle, Jane Jacobs was fighting on behalf of a good that was far larger than Hudson Street.
- Josh Harkinson, “Chalk a Sidewalk, Go to Jail,” Mother Jones. Tuesday, Aug. 14. Avail. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/08/war-chalk-arrests.
- Yuval Levin, “The Hollow Republic,” The National Review, Aug. 13 2012. Avail. http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/312771/hollow-republic-yuval-levin?pg=1.
- Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 14.
- Ibid., 17.
- Ibid., 293.
- Jeff Riggenbach, “Jane Jacobs: Libertarian Outsider,” April 28, 2011, transcription avail. http://mises.org/daily/5243/Jane-Jacobs-Libertarian-Outsider.
- Jacobs, 418.
- Cf. Philip Bess, “The Architectural Community and the Polis,” in Humanist Art Review, July 2001, avail. http://www.humanistart.net/features/bess/nature.htm.
- Jacobs, 19.