When the First Things junior fellowship brought me to New York City last summer, Jane Jacobs was my tour guide. Her Death and Life of Great American Cities uncovered for me the beautifully ordered systems beneath the apparent chaos of busy streets.
Jacobs was not merely an urban theorist. When her West Village neighborhood was threatened by Robert Moses, who viewed old neighborhoods as cancerous growths to be removed and replaced by shiny new projects and highways, Jacobs became an activist. She became embroiled in several skirmishes—preventing the continuation of Fifth Avenue through the center of Washington Square Park, the demolition and “renewal” of Greenwich Village, and the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have destroyed several neighborhoods.
Moses’s characterization of his opponents as “a bunch of mothers,” although meant to be dismissive, was not far off the mark. Jacobs’s activism was motivated by her love for her neighborhood and what it nurtured and protected—her children and her neighbors’ children, and the bustling cultural life and the friendships it enabled. It’s wrong to be a victim, she told her neighbors. If you love something, stand up and fight for it! Robert Moses’s attitude, Jacobs wrote, “boil[ed] down to a deep contempt for ordinary people.” And this contempt was his downfall. Blind to the strength of ordinary loves and convictions, Moses underestimated his opponents and was defeated.
A few evenings ago, I wandered down to Washington Square Park. The evening was balmy and pulsing with the easy rhythm of the city in summer: old friends chatting, a few tourists taking selfies by the lit-up fountain, flirting adolescents, and the competing rhythms of several musical groups. New Yorkers are characterized as cold and unkind, but the friendly anonymity that pervades such spaces feels safe, kindly, and alive. I thought gratefully of Jacob’s conservational efforts.
And then, in contrast, I thought of the Empire State Plaza in Albany, my previous home. The Plaza looks as if it had been dropped from a brutalist flying saucer, with the commandment that no human were ever to walk upon it. The humans have, for the most part, obeyed. I had visited the Plaza infrequently in daytime (boring), and avoided it after dark (dangerous). The huge buildings around it have a certain majesty, but their scale is inhuman and dystopic. The eggs broken for this concrete omelet: seven thousand people evicted from their homes, small businesses shuttered, and several neighborhoods—each one with a history and identity, clustered around cultural and religious centers—destroyed.
Jacobs’s description of Le Corbusier’s dream city applies to the Plaza: “it tells of someone’s achievement. But as to how a city works, it tells … nothing but lies.” And yet the Plaza proclaims an ugly truth: Without ordinary people, their ordinary loves, and their often-extraordinary faith, the public square is an inhospitable and even dangerous place.
Quite literally, Jane Jacobs worked to conserve the public square. To Moses, she was a sentimental reactionary, clinging to outdated modes of life and standing in the way of progress. But his insults only goaded her to greater efforts, and the fruits of her victories are still enjoyed today.
When he founded First Things in 1990, Richard John Neuhaus was motivated by a similar instinct—that the public square should not be naked, but inhabited and influenced by our convictions and loves. First Things continues to be a voice that seeks to conserve the public square: to affirm the dignity of human life, to advocate for voices of faith, and to create a place where the most weak and vulnerable are cherished, not bulldozed on behalf of the Right Side of History.
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Veery Huleatt is a junior fellow at First Things.