Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Jane Jacobs, HOPE VI, and Ward 6

Today, I read all of Jane Jacob's famous The Death and Life of Great American Cities. For many people who study cities, Jane Jacobs is one of the most important urban thinkers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. From my reading of her book, I can say that Jane Jacobs would have never approved of the demolition of the Arthur Capper public housing project and the creation of the, mixed-income Capitol Quarter funded by the HOPE VI program. Yes, she believed in the diversity of incomes, races, housing types, and businesses, which nurture the liveliness and life of cities. Yes, she criticized low-income public housing as part of her general condemnation of the urban renewal that demolished great swaths of American cities to make way for more "rational" communities, like that in SW DC. Yes, she was an early supporter of the housing renovation movement, urban density, and local political control in opposition to powerful city planners who sought to destroy communities in the name of "progress." At the same time, Jacobs would have agreed with one of the commenters on my earlier post, a member of the Arthur Capper community, who wrote:
I do not believe there was any justification for the extreme government intervention. I believe there should have been discussion on how to co exist with among new residents moving in buying property and those coming back to the neighborhood who were renters. The promise that was made for residents returning was broken. Those actions cause distrust.
Jacobs would have also rejected such extreme government intervention that removed all the Arthur Capper residents. Instead, she would have called for gradual change to bring in new residents to coexist with those already there and to create an even more lively city.

Arthur Capper public housing was built in 1958 as part of DC urban renewal. Yet, we should not understand Arthur Capper through the perspective based on certain, not necessarily correct, images of Chicago public housing, as large, impersonal, inhumane housing blocks. In contrast, Arthur Capper residents remember BBQs, football games, concerts, and a vibrant social life. In 1961, when she wrote her book, Jacobs would not yet have had much contact with the social life that developed in public housing like Arthur Capper. In her analysis of the "ghetto" and the "slums" of her day, Jacobs did see social life. According to her, the problem with the ghetto and the slums was not the buildings or the people, but rather that people were moving too quickly out of the area. She wished that cities would not draw in the middle class from elsewhere but rather transform the poor into the middle class.

HOPE VI can, in fact, be seen as just another kind of urban renewal, like the kind that Jacobs fought against. Rather than funding the gradual improvement of the Arthur Capper buildings and surrounding area, the government waited for it to fall apart. Then, once the area had been declared "severely distressed" and thus eligible for HOPE VI funds, enormous investments suddenly flowed into the area. Something like $700 million became available. This, in Jacobs' words, "cataclysmic" money arrives to wipe out the buildings and the people, seeking to create community anew. Planners sought to do exactly the same thing during urban renewal.

Jacobs suggests that low-income housing projects be salvaged by reweaving them into the city fabric. This reweaving is not done by erasing the housing project and displacing all its residents. Instead, in chapter 20 "Salvaging Projects," she argued that cities should:
  • Design new streets around the public housing that connect with streets beyond the project. The ground floors of the public housing should be redesigned to incorporate street-side uses, and new street-side buildings could be incorporated into open spaces. These street-side buildings of shops, offices, etc. should connect up with lively streets nearby.
  • Use vendors with carts to provide services and liveliness, if funds are not available for redesigns.
  • Improve safety inside public housing by employing residents as elevator attendants during the day and night.
  • Abandon maximum income limits, so that people can remain as they advance economically.
  • Make gradual, rather than cataclysmic, investments in public housing and the surrounding areas.
Rather than demolish and displace, as HOPE VI has done, we might instead consider Jane Jacobs' steps to reweave public housing into the city and further enliven the city.

P.S. One can be very critical of other aspects of Jane Jacobs' work. See my previous post about how Jacobs' work is often used.


  1. This is a rather odd proclamation.

    I don't know if Jacobs would approve of Hope VI or not, but I am quite certain that she would not approve of the very creation of projects like Capper Carrollsburg in the first place.

    For the faults of Hope VI, at least the physical elements hearken back to the kinds of urbanism Jacobs documented - mixed use, mixed income, densely developed, with a design that embraced the city. The modernist housing projects of the era tended to segregate by income, segregate by land use, featured 'towers in the park' designs, etc.

  2. Yes, it sounds odd because of the way that Jane Jacobs has been understood. She was against the very creation of projects and urban renewal and she was very much in favor of mixed income, etc, as you say. However, her main criticism is of arrogant "orthodox" urban planners who seek to demolish communities, including segregated ghettos. In face of cataclysmic destruction, Jacobs sought gradual change. See chapter 20 in her book, where she talks about how to reincorporate low-income public housing back into cities. Also, "towers in the park" refers to images of Chicago public housing, not Capper Carrollsburg. Former residents of CC remember the numerous businesses (restaurants, record stores, etc) around their homes with great fondness.

  3. Towers in the park does not refer to public housing at all (plenty of middle income and luxury, privately financed projects adopted the same design philosophy), rather public housing often used that philosophy. The intent need not be all high rise, either - the idea was to raze everything and replace with modern structures and more greenspace - the low rise elements aimed to do this just as much as the high rise ones did.

    Plus, the Capper Seniors building was the very embodiment of a tower-in-a-park planning paradigm:

    On the one hand, I get what you're saying - essentially, two wrongs don't make a right. That said, you can't simply fix the physical ailments of housing projects like this without substantial physical changes. Residents might remember businesses around their homes, but the key word there is 'around,' as those buildings were still single-use housing projects.

    Also, don't confuse the 'orthodoxy' of planning in the 60s when Jacobs was writing to today: if anything, today Jacobs is planning orthodoxy.

  4. Hello Johanna, I am a student that has chosen to study Ward 6 for a course. I would like an opportunity to meet you in person to discuss issues concerning area and learn more about this unique section of DC. What is the best way to contact you?

  5. Anuli, feel free to contact me at johanna.bockman@gmail.com


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