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Urbanism Patron Saint Jane Jacobs on Our Civic Duty in Cultivating Cities That Foster a Creative Life

“People ought to pay more attention to their instincts.”

Urbanism Patron Saint Jane Jacobs on Our Civic Duty in Cultivating Cities That Foster a Creative Life

Only a few times a century, if we’re lucky, a book comes along to prod the popular imagination with so powerful a challenge to our basic assumptions that it revises common sense and we begin to inhabit our everyday reality differently, looking upon the most mundane aspects of our world with new eyes. Among those rare books is the 1961 masterwork The Death and Life of Great American Cities by the great author, activist, and urbanism patron saint Jane Jacobs (May 4, 1916–April 25, 2006). Upending the old dogma of urban renewal and ushering in a radical reevaluation of what makes cities thrive, Jacobs issued a clarion call for creating a civic culture that nurtures the essential elements of robust public life. Hers was a bottom-up, people-first vision for cities, in many ways a counterpoint to the top-down grandiosity of her archnemesis Robert Moses.

Several months after the publication of her groundbreaking book, Jacobs sat down with Mademoiselle editors Eve Auchincloss and Nancy Lynch for a wide-ranging conversation, preserved in Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (public library) — perhaps the most direct glimpse of the ideas and ideals that animated one of the liveliest, most visionary minds of the past century.

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Jacobs considers how intelligently designed cities enlarge their denizens’ capacity for living a creative life:

Big cities offer the greatest range of opportunity for people with unusual wares or new ideas. It takes a great big city to support either commerce or culture that isn’t absolutely standardized. And if we have big cities that are unable to offer services, then we are not getting the salient advantages.

What stands in the way of reaping these advantages, Jacobs argues, is the artificial lumping together of elements based on superficial characteristics — from the segregation of low-income citizens in housing projects to the clustering of art galleries and museums in designated districts. She examines the larger forces at work:

These things don’t happen inevitably. All this segregation has been deliberately prescribed — like the mammoth museums, the Lincoln Centers, the housing projects. Extraordinary powers of government have been created to make possible such islands of single use, because it was thought that this is the way to organize cities. It’s not just a matter of reversing the process, though, because mere planlessness isn’t enough. We have bad unplanned areas as well as bad planned ones. Change will come about — and I believe it will — first from understanding the problem a city is, and then changing the methods of dealing with it. But there’s a step before that, and this sounds negative, but I think we won’t really get things done differently and better until citizen resistance makes it impossible — or too frustrating — to do things as they are being done now.

Nearly a century after Nietzsche admonished against confusing constructive and destructive rebellion, Jacobs cautions against the illusion that the mere demolition of the status quo is a fruitful form of advancement:

I certainly don’t think we should simply call present methods to a halt and consider that in itself progress. All it is is an opportunity to begin to do things differently and better.

Illustration from Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City
Illustration from Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City

She points to the necessity of eradicating automobile use as an example — a necessity all the more urgent today, as we are finally confronting the gruesome effects of carbon emission on climate change:

I think people are pretty suspicious of schemes that offer them nothing for something. We should get rid of the automobiles, but in a positive way. What we need is more things that conflict with their needs — wider sidewalks, more space for trees, even double lines of trees on some sidewalks, dead ends not for foot traffic but for automobiles, more frequent places for people to cross streets, more traffic lights — they’re an abomination to automobiles, but a boon to pedestrians. And then we should have more convenient public transportation.

[…]

We constantly sacrifice all kinds of amenities for automobiles. I think we can wear down their number by sacrificing the roadbed to some of our other needs instead. It’s a switch in values.

With an eye to her own neighborhood, she considers the elements of a healthy urban community:

Greenwich Village is livable, and the demand for city districts that are lively and interesting to live in and safe on the streets is much greater today than the supply… Of course you wouldn’t want to reproduce the Village, but the same principles that work here can work other places, and do. The mixture of residential, commercial, cultural, and manufacturing buildings all in one neighborhood, the mixture of old and new buildings, the short blocks. In describing the neighborhood I live in in my book I was really describing a fairly ordinary sort of city place. Its values don’t depend on a special kind of ethnic group or a high income. People from cities all over the country tell me that I was describing the kind of place where they live. I’ve been criticized for having a Bohemian or a working-class point of view. I don’t know what class point of view I have, but it’s city life I’ve been describing, and this is recognized by many, many people who live city lives. I think people who say that I am describing one peculiar kind of place — maybe it ought to be preserved, but it has nothing to do with cities in general — just haven’t experienced city life at firsthand. And they aren’t using their eyes.

Illustration from Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City
Illustration from Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City

But despite the powerful large-scale forces at play, Jacobs argues, what is preventing the cultivation of such thriving communities is our tendency to mistrust our instincts about our own needs, which in turn curtails our ability to exercise our power as citizens in having those needs met:

If it’s a community, if it’s stable, if people stay put, then you have a livable place. People ought to pay more attention to their instincts. There is an intuitive sense of what is right and comfortable and pleasant… When a lot of experts say one thing, then people stop trusting themselves. This is a mistake. After all, everybody who lives in the city can be an expert about cities.

[…]

There’s this notion that certain groups of people must be sacrificed for the common good, but nobody quite defines what this common good is. Actually, of course, it is made up of a lot of smaller goods. It’s not at odds with good for people in the concrete.

[…]

People do have feelings, they express them in every way they can, even while they are being ridden over roughshod. But they’re intimidated by experts who tell them what they feel is selfish and ignorant, and unfortunately they are willing to believe it.

Writing mere months before Eleanor Roosevelt made her timeless case for the power of personal conviction and our individual responsibility in social change, Jacobs points to one particularly acute manifestation of this civic resignation:

Suburbs are perfectly valid places to want to live, but they are inherently parasitic, economically and socially, too, because they live off the answers found in cities. But I don’t blame only the planners. By implication I blame everyone who knows in his bones that things are being done wrong and won’t trust himself enough to act like the citizen of a self-governing country. We’ve had an awful abdication of the responsibility of citizens.

Responding to the common lazy criticism that hers is a kind of physical determinism giving too much credence to the city’s ability to shape our values and our way of life, Jacobs offers an illustrative metaphor:

Suppose you are designing a room for a meeting. That’s very different from determining what the meeting is going to decide. Society is an endless meeting, where people can be heard and seen and things can happen. But what the meeting decides is out of the hands of the designer except insofar as he is another member of society. The planners of garden cities had it all decided what the meeting should decide, what life should be like for people, what was and what wasn’t good for them. This is true of all utopian thinking.

[…]

I believe that lively cities where society can operate in an intense way make meetings out of which very fertile and ingenious decisions can come. But if people are isolated, fragmented, if one income class is set off from other income classes, the meeting simply does not occur. If different kinds of talents don’t come together, if different sorts of ideas don’t rub up against one another, if the necessary money never comes in juxtaposition with the necessary vision, the meeting doesn’t occur.

Ultimately, Jacobs argues, what is keeping us from effecting change in our own cities is a certain learned helplessness that begins early in life and is calcified by the education system:

If I were running a school, I’d have one standing assignment that would begin in the first grade and go on all through school, every week: that each child should bring in something said by an authority — it could be by the teacher, or something they see in print, but something that they don’t agree with — and refute it.

Complement Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations with this illustrated love letter to Jacobs, then revisit her contemporary E.B. White on the poetics of what makes a great city.

BP

Duck, Death and the Tulip: An Uncommonly Tender Illustrated Meditation on the Cycle of Life

“When you’re dead, the pond will be gone, too — at least for you.”

“Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” Rilke wrote in contemplating how befriending our mortality can help us feel more alive. Nearly a century later, John Updike echoed this sentiment: “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” And yet however poetic this notion might be, it remains one of the hardest for us to befriend and reconcile with our irrepressible impulse for aliveness. How, then, are those only just plunging into the lush river of life to confront the prospect of its flow’s cessation?

The German children’s book author and illustrator Wolf Erlbruch offers a wonderfully warm and assuring answer in Duck, Death and the Tulip (public library) — a marvelous addition to the handful of intelligent and imaginative children’s books about death and loss.

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One day, Duck turns around to find Death standing behind her. Terrified, she asks whether he has come to take her, but he remarks rather matter-of-factly that he has been there her entire life.

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At first chilled by the notion of Death’s lifelong proximity, Duck slowly, cautiously, curiously acquaints herself with him.

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Death gave her a friendly smile.

Actually he was nice (if you forgot for a moment who he was).
Really quite nice.

With great economy of words and minimalist yet enormously expressive illustrations, Erlbruch conveys the quiet ease that develops between the two as they relax into an unlikely camaraderie.

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Duck suggests they go to the pond together, and although Death has always dreaded that, he reluctantly agrees. But the water is too much for him.

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“Are you cold?” Duck asked. “Shall I warm you a little?”
Nobody had ever offered to do that for Death.

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They awake together in the morning and Duck is overjoyed to discover that she is not dead. Here, Erlbruch injects the lightheartedness always necessary for keeping the profound from slipping into the overly sentimental:

She poked Death in the ribs. “I’m not dead!” she quacked, utterly delighted.

“I’m pleased for you,” Death said, stretching.

“And if I’d died?”

“Then I wouldn’t have been able to sleep in,” Death yawned.

That wasn’t a nice thing to say, thought Duck.

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But since any friendship is woven of “a continued, mutual forgiveness,” Duck eventually metabolizes her hurt feelings and the two find their way into a conversation about the common mythologies of the afterlife central to our human delusion of immortality:

“Some ducks say you become an angel and sit on a cloud, looking over the earth.”

“Quite possibly.” Death rose to his feet. “You have the wings already.”

“Some ducks say that deep in the earth there’s a place where you’ll be roasted if you haven’t been good.”

“You ducks come up with some amazing stories, but who knows.”

“So you don’t know either,” Duck snapped.

Death just looked at her.

Having failed to resolve the existential perplexity of nonexistence, they return to the simple satisfactions of living and decide to climb a tree.

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They could see the pond far below. There it lay. So still. And so lonely.

“That’s what it will be like when I’m dead,” Duck thought. “The pond alone, without me.”

Death sometimes read minds. “When you’re dead, the pond will be gone, too — at least for you.”

“Are you sure?” Duck was astonished.

“As sure as can be,” Death said.

“That’s a comfort. I won’t have to mourn over it when…”

“…when you’re dead.” Death finished the sentence. He wasn’t coy about the subject.

As summer winds down, the two friends visit the pond less and less, and sit quietly in the grass together more and more. When autumn arrives, Duck feels the chill in her feathers for the first time, perhaps in the way that one suddenly feels old one day — the unannounced arrival of a chilling new awareness of one’s finitude, wedged between an unredeemable yesterday and an inevitable tomorrow.

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“I’m cold,” she said one evening. “Will you warm me a little?”

Snowflakes drifted down.

Something had happened. Death looked at the duck.

She’d stopped breathing. She lay quite still.

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Stroking her disheveled feathers back into a temporary perfection, Death picks Duck up and carries her tenderly to the river, then lays her on the water and releases her into its unstoppable flow, watching wistfully as she floats away. It’s the visual counterpart to that unforgettable line from Elizabeth Alexander’s sublime memoir: “Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss.”

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For a long time he watched her.

When she was lost to sight, he was almost a little moved.

“But that’s life,” thought Death.

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As the river spills off the book and we turn to the last page, we see Death surrounded by other animals — a subtle reminder that he will escort the fox and the rabbit and you and me down the river of life, just as he did Duck. And perhaps that’s okay.

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Complement the immeasurably beautiful and poetic Duck, Death and the Tulip with the Danish masterpiece Cry, Heart, But Never Break and Oliver Jeffers’s The Heart and the Bottle, then revisit a Zen master’s explanation of death and the life-force to a child.

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Probability Theory Pioneer Mark Kac on the Duality of the Creative Life, the Singular Enchantment of Mathematics, and the Two Types of Geniuses

“Creative people live in two worlds. One is the ordinary world which they share with others and in which they are not in any special way set apart from their fellow men. The other is private and it is in this world that the creative acts take place.”

Probability Theory Pioneer Mark Kac on the Duality of the Creative Life, the Singular Enchantment of Mathematics, and the Two Types of Geniuses

The great Polish-American mathematician Mark Kac (August 3, 1914–October 26, 1984) possessed one of the most dazzling minds of the twentieth century. In pioneering probability theory, he paved the way for a radical new conception of truth and ushered in the first generation of scientists trained to think probabilistically — a more accurate assessment of knowledge, making room for uncertainty, be it scientific or otherwise. This probabilistic mode of judgment is all the more necessary today as the growing complexity of the world is swirling us into exponentially increasing uncertainty, which we attempt to tame through artificial absolutism.

Mathematics literally saved Kac’s life. His student work earned him a post-doctoral fellowship to study abroad, so he left Poland for Johns Hopkins University in December of 1938. World War II broke out months later. His entire family, along with millions of other Jews, was killed by the Nazis.

Kac went on to lead a long and creatively fertile life — one he considered, despite this unfathomable share of misfortune, a tremendously fortunate one. “I must pay tribute to that powerful but capricious lady, Chance, who chose to bestow her beneficence on my personal life even though I spent much of my mathematical life trying to prove that she does not really exist,” he wrote with his characteristic mix of wit and wisdom in Enigmas of Chance: An Autobiography (public library) — a small, wonderful 1976 book I discovered via a passing mention in an interview with the trailblazing astronomer Vera Rubin. (Here is further proof of my longstanding conviction that literature is the original internet — such citations, allusions, and cross-references between books are the wondrous “hyperlinks” connecting human knowledge throughout our “common record.”)

Mark Kac
Mark Kac

Kac writes:

Creative people live in two worlds. One is the ordinary world which they share with others and in which they are not in any special way set apart from their fellow men. The other is private and it is in this world that the creative acts take place. It is a world with its own passions, elations and despairs, and it is here that, if one is as great as Einstein, one may even hear the voice of God. The two worlds are intimately and intricately connected. Jealousy, the desire for recognition and competitiveness, for example, are part of the ordinary world but they are among the forces which propel into the second. Similarly, dreams and triumphs in the second have a way of merging with less than lofty thoughts of rewards in the first.

With an eye to the particular challenge that autobiography presents to the creative person, he adds:

To create a coherent and truthful picture of life in the two disparate and yet interrelated worlds is a nearly impossible task.

In discussing his great heroes and influences, Kac delineates another dichotomy in creative culture — the bifurcation of brilliance by degree and by kind:

In science, as well as in other fields of human endeavor, there are two kinds of geniuses: the “ordinary” and the “magicians.” An ordinary genius is a [person] that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what he has done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. They are, to use mathematical jargon, in the orthogonal complement of where we are and the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible. Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark. They seldom, if ever, have students because they cannot be emulated and it must be terribly frustrating for a brilliant young mind to cope with the mysterious ways in which the magician’s mind works.

He points to the nuclear physicist Hans Bethe as an example of an “ordinary genius” and to Richard Feynman as a “magician.” (Kac’s distinction appears in James Gleick’s superb biography of Feynman and there is a high probability that it inspired the title of BBC’s documentary about the legendary physicist, No Ordinary Genius.) I would add Alan Turing to the “magicians” category, and of course Albert Einstein.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne

In the postscript, Kac considers what lends mathematics its enduring enchantment — what renders people besotted with it:

Mathematics is an ancient discipline. For as long as we can reliably reach into the past, we can find its development intimately connected with the development of the whole of our civilization. For as long as we have a record of man’s curiosity and his quest for understanding, we find mathematics cultivated and cherished, practiced and taught. Throughout the ages it has stood as an ultimate in rational thought and as a monument to man’s desire to probe the workings of his own mind.

[…]

The urge to understand and to create mathematics has always been remarkable, considering that those who have devoted their lives to the service of this aloof and elusive mistress could expect neither great material rewards nor widespread fame.

A champion of nuance, Kac challenges Bertrand Russell’s famous assertion that “mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.” Kac finds it to be a “dull and rather miserable picture of mathematics” and yet “not wholly wrong,” “just hopelessly incomplete and one-sided.” Instead, he considers what grants mathematics its richness as a mode of illuminating reality:

I am reminded of something Balthazaar van der Pol, a great Dutch scientist and engineer who was also a fine musician, remarked to me about the music of Bach. “It is great,” he said, “because it is inevitable and yet surprising.” I have often thought about this lovely epigram in connection with mathematics… The inevitability is, in many cases, provided by logic alone, but the element of surprise must come from an insight outside the rigid confines of logic.

It warrants noting that the altogether marvelous Enigmas of Chance is part of a series of scientists’ autobiographies funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which has probably done more for science and its social life than any other entity in the past half-century. Complement it with this beautiful love letter to mathematics by the pioneering 19th-century English mathematician James Joseph Sylvester, the illustrated life of the eccentric mathematical genius Paul Erdos, and the great English mathematician John Horton Conway on tinkering, thinkering, and the art of being a professional nonunderstander.

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