Book Quotes: Jane Jacobs on Gentrification

“Gentrification” is a word that we preservationists have thrown at us alot. And unlike other arguments against preservation (such as “there’s just too many old buildings around here for the young folks”), gentrification is one that I believe has merit in some cases. At times, although our motivation is pure (“save the buildings!”) we allow ourselves to be used by developers who have in mind only land grabs from established neighborhoods. That kind of preservation is the kind that makes people who live in working-class and lower middle-class historic neighborhoods hostile toward the idea of preservation. I’m not saying I have an answer to this problem, but I do think preservationists should be more sensitive to the social implications of large-scale projects on neighborhoods, whether they are considered “preservation” projects or not.

Jane Jacobs is one of the earliest I know of who identified gentrification through rehabbing as a problem for established neighborhoods. Here’s what she has to say about it in her chapter “The Uses of Sidewalks: Safety.”

Not everyone in cities helps to take care of the streets, and many a city resident or city worker is unaware of why his neighborhood is safe. The other day an incident occurred on the street where I live, and it interested me because of this point.

My block of the street, I must explain, is a small one, but it contains a remarkable range of buildings, varying from several vintages of tenements to three- and four-story houses that have been converted into low-rent flats with stores on the ground floor, or returned to single-family use like ours. Across the street there used to be mostly four-story brick tenements with stores below. But twelve years ago several buildings, from the corner to the middle of the block, were converted into one building with elevator apartments of small size and high rents.

The incident that attracted my attention was a suppressed struggle going on between a man and a little girl of eight or nine years old. The man seemed to be trying to get the girl to go with him. By turns he was directing a cajoling attention to her, and then assuming an air of nonchalance. The girl was making herself rigid, as children do when they resist, against the wall of one of the tenements across the street.

As I watched from our second-floor window, making up my mind how to intervene if it seemed advisable, I saw it was not going to be necessary. From the butcher shop beneath the tenement had emerged the woman, who, with her husband, runs the shop; she was standing within earshot of the man, her arms folded and a look of determination on her face. Joe Cornacchia . . . emerged about the same moment and stood solidly to the other side. Several heads poked out of the tenement windows above, one was withdrawn quickly and its owner reappeared a moment later in the doorway behind the man. . . . On my side of the street, I saw that the locksmith, the fruit man and the laundry proprietor had all come out of their shops and that the scene was also being surveyed from a number of windows besides ours. That man did not know it, but he was surrounded. Nobody was going to allow a little girl to be dragged off, even if nobody knew who she was.

I am sorry–sorry purely for dramatic purposes–to have to report that the little girl turned out to be the man’s daughter.

Throughout the duration of the little drama, perhaps five minutes in all, no eyes appeared in the windows of the high-rent, small apartment building. It was the only building of which this was true. When we first moved to our block, I used to anticipate happily that perhaps soon all the buildings would be rehabilitated like that one. I know better now, and can only anticipate with gloom and foreboding the recent news that exactly this transformation is scheduled for the rest of the block frontage adjoining the high-rent building. The high-rent tenants, most of whom are so transiet we cannot even keep track of their faces, have not the remotest idea of who takes care of their street, or how. A city neighborhood can absorb and protect a substantial number of these birds of passage, as our neighborhood does. But if and when the neighborhood finally becomes them, they will gradually find the streets less secure, they will be vaguely mystified about it, and if things get bad enough they will drift away to another neighborhood which is mysteriously safer. 

This is the 3rd post in a series. Wouldn’t you love to read the rest of the series?

Jane Jacobs on City Planning

Jane Jacobs on Streets

Jane Jacobs on Old Buildings

Jane Jacobs on the Environment and Suburbia

Categories: Books, Gentrification, Historic Preservation, Urban/Rural Issues

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