Jane Jacobs, Andy Warhol, and the Kind of Problem a Community Is

Andy Warhol, January 1963. [Photo by Dennis Hopper, via Wikimedia Commons]. Jane Jacobs, circa 1961 [via AP]

Two Pennsylvanians

Andy Warhol and Jane Jacobs both came to New York City from industrial cities in Pennsylvania —  Jacobs from Scranton, Warhol from Pittsburgh. Yet the kinds of people they found and the social values they cultivated in New York could not have been more different; and their divergent perspectives point to notions of community that still resonate — and still conflict. Warhol’s apparent ideas about urban life undercut some of the ideals that Jacobs’s books popularized, and they begin to suggest why those ideals have not found — and perhaps cannot find — greater traction in the contemporary city.

Throughout 1961 — the year Random House published Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities — Warhol was experimenting with new styles of painting, a medium relatively new to him. Most of his earlier work had been drawings for advertising campaigns and fashion magazines, but in December of that year he began the series of paintings that was to redefine his career as an artist and that point to a different, cooler vision of urban life: the Campbell’s Soup Can paintings. 1 Also in this period, he created seven paintings known as the Dance Diagrams — large-scale reproductions of images found in guidebooks that show people how to execute dance moves, e.g., which foot to move when and where to put it.

Warhol’s “cool” sensibility stood in sharp contrast to the “hot” Abstract Expressionism that had dominated the New York art world in the 1950s. Overtly macho artists such as Jackson Pollock had created a style fueled by emotion, personality and energy, a style that seemed to embody the postwar American sensibility: robust, idiosyncratic, ultimately exclusionary. In the postwar years representational art had not so much fallen as been hurled out of style. So with the flatly representational soup-can paintings, Warhol was undercutting the cult of personality by creating works ostensibly devoid of emotion, point of view, or personality. They seemed to hide in plain sight; they depicted icons of lived American culture — cans, labels, Green Stamps, car crashes, movie stars, flowers — without appearing to have anything to say about them. Was the picture of a soup can a deadpan critique of American consumerism? Or a statement that American identity was better reckoned with through physical realities than through the emotional states of artists? The last person to ask was Warhol, who cultivated a distinctly cool and distanced affect. Nothing really meant anything, he would tell people; he just liked soup and ate it every day for lunch. Whether this was a knowing pose, or whether he actually saw himself as a kind of machine, is a question that has occupied countless art historians.

Andy Warhol at the first Factory, East 47 Street, New York City. [Photo by Ugo Mulas, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution]

Warhol’s early works were not silk-screened (as were the later ones) but hand-painted, and he took pains to disguise the material labor involved in their creation. To make the Dance Diagrams, Warhol used an opaque projector to cast images of dance steps from two popularly available books — Lindy Made Easy and Charleston Made Easy — onto canvas, where he traced and then painted them. When they were exhibited, the paintings were installed on the floor, as if viewers might step onto and use them, rather than regard them as aesthetic objects.

The Dance Diagrams resonate in interesting ways with the contemporaneous vision of urban community that Jane Jacobs was then articulating in Death and Life — and not least because the Diagrams draw attention to the mechanisms of control that underlie all social engagement, even in situations as casual and seemingly spontaneous as what Jacobs so famously called the “ballet of the sidewalks.” Unlike Warhol’s paintings of objects from daily life or his later portraits of icons (Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, et al.), the Dance Diagrams show a socially conditioned process by which two people engage with each other — a ritual of participation, in other words, with the hint that social engagement is nothing but ritual. 2 Much as Jacobs sought to look at the city’s streets with fresh eyes, to draw attention to their nuances and functions, Warhol seems to be asking viewers to consider the codes and gestures by which people move through social space. And while social rituals such as dance steps do provide a mechanism by which we might reach outside ourselves and join a community, they also point to the essentially constructed nature of that community. There is nothing intrinsic about a community of dancers save that its members have consented to observe the codes that make them a community.

This line of thought raises further, deeper questions: What does participating in a dance actually entail? Is there a categorical distinction between following a diagram of dance steps and dancing per se? Those who don’t need a diagram are likely better and more fluid dancers, but knowledge of the codes and expectations is critical to successful participation in the “ballet.” Here, then, lies an inherent judgment: At some point individual behavior will cross a line beyond which a person can be said to be “not dancing” — not functioning as a member of a certain kind of community. Yet this judgment is itself the product of social expectations and codes; and it is here that we start to see how Warhol’s concepts of urban life and community diverge critically from those of Jacobs. Andy Warhol is, in effect, asking why society has created particular forms for physical and social interaction when there are so many other possibilities. Jane Jacobs seems never to have seriously questioned the validity or the socially constructed nature of the community life — the ballet of the sidewalks — that she celebrated. She posits it as an ideal, perhaps even a norm.

Jane Jacobs at a 1961 press conference of the Committee to Save the West Village held at the Lions Head Restaurant on Hudson near Charles Street. [Photo from the New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress]

Jacobs’s challenges to the dominant planning mentality embodied in the postwar urban-renewal programs has become part of planning history; but the mid-century conversation about the nature of urban community had more than two sides. 3 Different conceptualizations of the city abounded, in policy circles and in popular media, with greater nuance than retrospective views have tended to suggest. Some depictions fueled fears that the city was intrinsically dangerous — an idea Jacobs worked hard to oppose — while others underscored the reality that the city was, for better or worse, not just a small town on a big scale. 4

Jacobs’s work is characterized by belief in a certain kind of community — a community with a mix of classes, in which citizens have clearly defined roles, and in which there is constant activity in the streets that is often being observed by what she called “eyes on the street.” Jacobs depicts this kind of “warm” community as lively and engaged, with positive social benefits arising from the free association of people who might have different functions and beliefs but who all exist within a circumscribed social environment called the neighborhood. In Death and Life Jacobs contrasted this environment — exemplified by her own Greenwich Village neighborhood — with others being created in the postwar city, places that she saw as defined by coldness in both building materials and social qualities. The communities being formed in the new housing enclaves were not, by her lights, real communities: They were not only transparently artificial but also reductive — residential zones devoid of retail and commercial activity, bedroom communities where people lived but didn’t work. For Jacobs, what people did for a living was intrinsic to defining who they were and what their neighborhoods were like.

It does not diminish the value of the Jacobsian social environment to point out that it posits a healthy neighborhood as a kind of panopticon, with a decided lack of privacy and anonymity. Yet more important, it seems to exclude significant dimensions of actual urban experience. 5 Where, in these idealized neighborhoods, do sad and angry men stew in bars and get into fights? Where are the lonely, the unhappy, the unwell? And where are those who reject social conformity, who choose to be defined not by their jobs but by something else, such as personality or infirmity? Where are the people on the margins — criminals, artists or those who are both? Where are the dropouts, the beatniks, the inept, the clueless and the lost? Jane Jacobs dreamed a society, but it was a society of a certain conservative cast, based on function and ultimately on order. It was a society of productive, social, mutually supporting individuals. It was a society composed largely of well-adjusted libertarians who prospered within the dominant economic framework and who would unite to pursue their common self-interest — specifically, the preservation and continuation of their shared social environment, their neighborhood. It was a society without an internal life beyond Jacobs’s own delight in it.

Two Libertarians

As his career and personality took new shape in the early ’60s, Warhol generated and represented a kind of social environment dramatically at odds with Jacobs’s — and also not much in tune with the thinking of today’s planners as they try to create vibrant public realms. But ultimately it is Warhol’s notion of community — which requires reckoning with people’s complexity and potential unruliness — that seems more realistic today. As Richard Sennett has observed, many traditional ideals of community are rooted in the fear (and avoidance) of traditional participation, even as they claim otherwise. 6

Warhol’s crowd was a self-consciously aloof set of artists, photographers, musicians, actors, show-offs, talentless cretins, fools and geniuses. Few held traditional jobs; many lusted for fame. Collectively they formed a world that became profoundly influential on the American city: a world that celebrated impersonality and disengagement and laid the groundwork for today’s literally spectacular cities, where significant economies revolve around the touristic gaze (what there is to see) and the culture of celebrity (whom you might see there). Countless people come to New York every year hoping to see something spectacular or someone famous. Andy Warhol helped create this new city: a city based on nobody caring who the hell you are, until you become a star. Warhol was famously nonjudgmental, blandly pronouncing whatever people were up to as “great,” but nonetheless he sought to provoke — which in the early 1960s could mean creating flat, detached paintings of soup cans and dance steps that befuddled prevailing norms. Like-minded spirits might find one another in Warhol’s city, but overall it was a cold place, where you had to make your own meanings, find your own friends, create your own style. And even if you could do that — and there was no reason to think you could — you might still get shot by someone who couldn’t handle the cattiness, the rejection and the lack of social support that typified the lives of those who hadn’t yet found the way in. 7

Andy Warhol’s Factory, Midtown Manhattan, circa mid-1960s.

Warhol’s world might not be the model for what planners today consider a vibrant and lasting and productive community; but it has been a significant influence on New York’s visual and financial economies, and understanding this world is important to understanding the nature of urban community today. Indeed, given the influence of New York, the power of this concept extends beyond the framework of what defines an urban community to include the more general question of what we now mean by community at all.

Lots of strivers and misfits, self-styled and otherwise, arrive in the big city every year, and not all of them are searching for what Jane Jacobs wanted to find or to create there — not all are hoping to find what amount to small-town values in the big city. Andy Warhol went to New York to get out of the social backwater of Pittsburgh and to re-create himself by his own lights and by the lights of fame. Andy Warhol became a modern urban creature — a mirror and a product of the speculative capitalism that fuels the art and finance worlds that have thrived in New York as nowhere else in America — in a way that Jane Jacobs never did.

Warhol and Jacobs were different species of libertarians. In the early years of his famous Factory, Warhol created a space where people could — thanks to his largesse and to his professed disinterest in actual personalities — do whatever they wanted, whether brilliant, useful or stupid. He disclaimed responsibility for what his cohort did, and he also forswore control. Yet this environment provided a productive kind of community and support and social and intellectual ferment. 8 The first Factory was in midtown Manhattan, surrounded mostly by offices —suggesting that Warhol’s ideal community at the time was neither humanistic (being, after all, a factory) nor street oriented, and not even residential. (The Factory was Warhol’s workplace — he lived with his mother on the Upper East Side.) Whatever the Factory’s idiosyncrasies, the community that gathered there, and the art, films and music that emanated from it, profoundly transformed the culture of New York and beyond. It isn’t difficult to see Warhol’s influence beyond art, in punk music and rock and roll, in celebrity journalism and affectless fiction, in the spread of irony as a cultural weapon and pose, in the rise of loft living as lifestyle and aesthetic, in the blurring of boundaries between public and private personas, in the art world’s casual and frank commodity fetishism, and in the cultural dominance of hipsters and kidults. Some of these developments might be lamentable, but their cultural weight cannot be discounted. More important, the idea that the city is where young people go to cultivate identities gained great force from the example of Warhol’s Factory.

Jacobs, in contrast, sought to free individuals not from cultural constraints or norms but from what she saw as the blind or arbitrary dictates of government. She believed that people, on their own and free from the nonsense of bureaucracies, would work toward productive and beneficial social ends, simply by living their lives, albeit within the dominant economic and social system. Warhol cared about that system only to the extent that his material success within it enabled him — and those around him — to live as they chose. Warhol himself was apparently not as wild as some of his groupies, but he seems to have valued people who used their freedom to push society’s boundaries more than he sought out those who contributed to a Jacobsian web of mixed uses — and I suspect he would have considered her “eyes on the street” to be invasive and pointless surveillance. The Warholian performative life needs to be seen, but it doesn’t need to be observed.

Jane Jacobs, center, at the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village, 1961. [Photo by Cervin Robinson]

Jacobs praised those who joined forces to stop highways, build housing or develop economic capacity. She even wrote admiringly of those who united under the banner of nationalism. But it seems unlikely that she would have had the same degree of praise for those who came together to escape the dominant culture or to pursue fame for its own sake, or who were united in disdain for the gemütlichkeit values that Jacobs found in Greenwich Village. Jacobs failed to see the value of impersonality in the city, whereas Warhol (perhaps partly on account of his homosexuality, which he often masked as asexuality) engaged that impersonality — both in the concrete of the city and through his impenetrable social mask — and as a result he helped create an urbanism that itself engages with and reflects the complex and large-scale economy and society we actually live in.

Interestingly, one of Warhol’s few political stances in the 1960s was against Robert Moses, whom many have styled as Jacobs’s ideological opposite. But unlike Jacobs, Warhol made no statement against the highways or housing projects associated with Moses, as Jacobs and her allies did; rather, he was protesting the censorship of his work at the time of the opening of the 1964 World’s Fair. 9 Warhol’s engagement with Moses was over art, not politics or land use or community values. Most tellingly, Warhol did not particularly publicize the bout and largely backed down from Moses.

Community and Complexity

Jane Jacobs’s legacy is complex; she helped to fuel the movement through which urban planners were weaned from the conviction that they held some special key to understanding human behavior and shaping human environments. Yet it is easy to feel today as if the mid-century official hubris that Jacobs battled gave way to an equally monolithic professional framework — one that idealizes a sentimental picture of urban community while too often neglecting economic and especially social complexity.

But the idea that Jacobs favored idyllic or steady-state solutions is itself a common misunderstanding, which has led allies and enemies alike to caricature her analysis and influence. Jacobs certainly enabled the interpretation of her work that still predominates within new urbanism and other derivative movements — namely, that certain bourgeois aspects of urban life are consonant with what amounts to a deep and largely unquestioned belief in small-town values. The true flaw in Jacob’s concept of the city, however, is not that she envisions a big-city neighborhood as a small town but that her libertarianism supports the fantasy that urban dwellers will self-interestedly choose that communitarian world over any other; her faith in instinctive cooperation and socially sustaining behavior in contemporary American cities verges on the starry-eyed. This unrealistic expectation of human behavior might in part underlie the partial or complete failure of so many attempts to build communities based on her ideals.

Hudson Street, between West 11th Street and Perry Street, named in honor of Jane Jacobs, 2009. 

The creation of a genuine and effective community — if we admit the possibility — requires not only work and sacrifice but also, in critical dimensions, a shared sense of purpose. But in truly complex cities shaped by myriad agendas and diverse populations, such shared purposes tend to arise only among communities of narrowly like-minded individuals — or, on a larger scale, among those motivated by nationalism (for which Jacobs expressed a qualified admiration in Dark Age Ahead). Mobilizing people with shared stakes and beliefs can be difficult enough, but urban complexity inherently diminishes the homogeneity that encourages such solidarity.

Andy Warhol’s Factory was for some an unstable and upsetting environment. Excesses of all sorts happened within its walls, and for every white-hot innovation there were hours of tedium and artworks that seem cheap or under-baked. But the messy vitality of the place, and its implicit urbanism, demonstrate one way a mass of individuals can come together — all the while pursuing their own agendas — and generate a transformative community. This raises the possibility that a “cold” community — based on self-interest and disengaged from the issues and mentalities and prejudices that tend to inform “warm” Jacobsian communities — can have more impact, more resonance, in the contemporary city precisely because it recognizes and incorporates the essential driving selfishness of urban individuality.

Accommodating antisocial or even irrational qualities is a persistent challenge in planning practice. Doing so without condescension is an even greater one. Recognizing that an urban community needs to accommodate those who value impersonality and those who thrive in modernist landscapes and those who do not wish to have any eyes on their street is critical to developing urban planning practices that will have value and enjoy broad support. But when planners instead follow what is seen as the Jacobsian path and promote a narrow spectrum of essentially middle-class and nonurban values, it should not surprise us when the community or city they hope to shape fails to respond as expected. The city is essentially heterodox, beyond the effective control of even the best-intentioned ideology.

Political resistance to the imposition of ideology seems particularly vibrant today: we are in the midst of a significant contest over the nature of the state and its power. For some, the need for self-determination outweighs the need to contribute to or share responsibility for the larger society. The related belief in the essential virtue of untutored wisdom threads through Jacobs’s work, and we can draw a line from the kind of community empowerment that Jacobs promoted in Death and Life to the present overvaluing of individual perception evident in so many public discussions of community planning. In 1961, it was unquestionably the case that planners and other professionals were not listening to individual community members; today, it is too often the case that planners and others do not insist upon the value of their education, training and analytical abilities. This over-privileging of the individual perspective is, of course, part of a larger shift in Western mentalities.

The Andy Monument, project by Rob Pruitt and the Public Art Fund, located in Union Square near the site of Warhol’s second Factory, 2011. [Photo by James Ewing, via Public Art Fund]

Contemporary rhetoric arguing for less government control over daily life is arising from many sources. Yet this rhetoric and Jacobs’s work exist on a continuum, at one end of which is today’s violently proud know-nothingism. There are distinct echoes of Jacobs’s libertarianism in both American anti-government rhetoric and, even more vividly, in the movement under way at this writing in Britain toward a “Big Society” under the leadership of David Cameron. In this scheme, the central government will end or scale back many of its traditional activities in the belief or hope that individuals or small groups will pick up the slack. It seems clear that any political program requiring the governed to embrace responsibilities previously handled by government will meet with success only to the degree that the people in question define themselves as a “community” — that is, if they believe they are pushing away the paternalistic hand of government, rather than being denied basic privileges. In a strange convergence, the British appear to be betting — much as Jane Jacobs did — that promoting the notion of community might produce community itself. There is something perverse in the use of the concept of community empowerment to eliminate or cripple programs once seen as critical to the shared pursuit of well being in a democratic society.

This is not to suggest that Jane Jacobs consciously promoted an ideal that may well diminish the strength of communities. But the implications of her work — and the uses to which it has been and is being put — require moving beyond the platitudes and engaging fully with the complexity of urban experience. The contemporary city is in many ways more Warhol’s than Jacobs’s — and that’s not a bad thing. Warhol did not promote the idea of community, yet he helped create the actual thing, even if his wasn’t the kind of community that Jacobs or most contemporary planners might endorse. Whether or not the results are aesthetically or politically pleasing, our cities must make room for the misfits, the self-defined, the antisocial, the anti-communitarian and the spectacular, as much as they do for tight-knit neighborhoods and engaged citizen-activists. The dance among these different interests and complex forces is a difficult one, and there is no simple guide to how to perform its steps. 10

Editors' Note

“Jane Jacobs, Andy Warhol, and the Kind of Problem That a Community Is” appears in Reconsidering Jane Jacobs, an anthology of essays co-edited by Max Page and Timothy Mennel, and published this month by the Planners Press of the American Planning Association. It is published here with the permission of the publisher and the author.

See also “Jane Jacobs and the Death and Life of American Planning,” by Thomas Campanella, from the same volume, and on Places.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jacobs’s landmark The Death and Life of Great America Cities, and the fifth anniversary of her death, at age 90.

  1. The paintings were not finished until 1962, but he began the series at this time. Neil Printz and Georg Frei, eds., Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1, Paintings and Sculpture, 1961-1963 (New York: Phaidon Press, 2002), 64. I was the managing editor of this book.
  2. For the context of these works as acts of participatory aesthetics, see Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Andy Warhol’s One-Dimensional Art, 1956–1966,” in Andy Warhol, ed. Annette Michelson (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001), 1-48.
  3. The best overview of postwar urban renewal in New York City is Samuel Zipp, Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  4. One of the more revealing depictions of the evolving nature of urban community at this time was the ABC series Naked City, which ran from 1958 to 1963 and was notable for the extent to which it was shot on the streets of New York and ranged across the city’s class strata.
  5. As Georg Simmel noted in “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903), urban experience is inherently impersonal and defined by mechanisms of exchange that limit any one individual’s exposure to others; it therefore cannot be encompassed by small-town social relations, if only for reasons of scale. Simmel’s essay is included in On Individuality and Social Forms, ed. Donald N. Levine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 324-39.
  6. Sennett’s The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970) remains a bracing depiction of the devolution of the concept of vibrant and diverse urban communities and its implications for contemporary cities. In Sennett’s view, a strong urban community can exist only in an environment that is open about its internal divisions and conflicts and that does not even strive for orderliness.
  7. Warhol was shot and severely wounded in 1968 by aspiring playwright Valerie Solanas, whose misandrist work he had declined to produce.
  8. See, for example, Marco Livingstone, “Do It Yourself: Notes on Warhol’s Techniques,” in Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, ed. Kynaston McShine (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1989), 63-78.
  9. The story of Warhol, Moses, and the Thirteen Most Wanted Men mural is told in wonderful detail in chapter 3 of Richard Meyer, Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). In response to these events, Warhol did begin work on a series of portraits of Robert Moses, but the works are lost. Neil Printz and Georg Frei, eds., Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 2, Paintings and Sculpture, 1964-1969 (New York: Phaidon Press, 2004),
  10. My thanks to Colleen Frankhart, Nancy Levinson, Robert Mennel, Edmund Morris, Max Page, Robert Perris, and Carolyn Torma for their comments on earlier versions of this essay.
Timothy Mennel, “Jane Jacobs, Andy Warhol, and the Kind of Problem a Community Is,” Places Journal, April 2011. Accessed 29 Sep 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/110427

Comments are closed. If you would like to share your thoughts about this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.

Past Discussions View
  • Ian Shimkoviak

    04.27.2011 at 16:32

    Brilliant piece. Thanks!

  • Nick Kaufmann

    04.27.2011 at 20:32

    I'm not sure Jacobs would entirely disagree with this point. She never claimed everyone had to be like the category of nosy/helpful urban characters she discussed in Death/Life (of which she was a member herself). She only wrote that those kinds of people serve many vital functions in an urban setting for the majority who indeed don't want to get too involved in others business. I think she speaks more from the perspective of the 'strength of weak ties' than one of "small town" values. Many of her theories would not work without and in fact rely on the concept of anonymity.

    So much of the misunderstandings of Jane Jacobs boil down to assuming she was prescribing the urban village as a vision for what should be the prevailing form in the city. Of course her urban villages such as the North End-- and newer 'middle class nonurban-urban' inventions like Celebration, Fla. are completely different entities, but she wasn't saying either one should be packaged and sold everywhere. While there are trends & schools of thought that promote and romanticize these forms now, which I think are the author's real target for criticism here, that was not what Jacobs was interested in doing.

    Jacobs was championing diversity, not togetherness in cities.

    She was not promoting the benefits of being a member of a tight-knit urban community to all, but rather explaining the benefits that those communities give to YOU, the anonymous resident, misfit, artistic iconoclast or passerby. Whether it's safety, eyes on the street (they don't have to be yours!), local flavor, people to sit on committees so you don't have to, not to mention the economic benefits that tight-knit ethnic or class-based communities bestow on the city as a whole with their niche industries.

    This kind of urban rootedness, your "warm community", actually creates very fertile soil for "cold" communities like Warhol's, precisely because it ALLOWS him and his cohorts to be disengaged from the "issues mentalities and prejudices" (read 'the concerns of everyday life').

    Unfortunately there is an impulse to claim that because cities are the only places where this new kind of community can be found, they have or should have nothing to do with other kinds.

    You get people like Koolhaas celebrating the "generic city":

    "The Generic City is the city liberated from the captivity of center, from the straight jacket of identity. The Generic City breaks with this destructive cycle of dependency: it is nothing but a reflection of present need and present ability. It is the city without history. It is big enough for everybody. It is easy. It does not need maintenance. If it gets too small it just expands. If it gets old it just self-destructs and renews. It is equally exciting – or unexciting – everywhere. It is “superficial” – like a Hollywood studio lot, it can produce a new identity every Monday morning."

    Take someplace like Tokyo or Mumbai that seems to fit this description and have a walk through it as Jane Jacobs would have us do, and I think you'll find plenty of 'old fashioned' primary relationships and communal interdependence propping up the dream of the fast-and-free generic city.

    I agree with your critique of certain neo-communitarian movements, New Urbanism or other camps as tending to abstract and romanticize community and trying to 'inject it' into places with unintended consequences. But I don't think it's a question of them somehow threatening the anonymity and freedom of the city, which is pretty laughable considering the built-to-order metropolises going up in Asia and the Middle East. I think if anything some of these attempts at 'building community' are a byproduct of the dominance of the generic city and are working under the same logic that says 'we can invent new histories, new identities'. But this is an entirely different activity from trying to preserve and encourage real, diverse communities in cities.

    The true freedom of the city is not the ability to eschew rooted social structures but to be able to move through them freely, to sample and embrace their strictures to whatever degree you desire. Favoring mutability to the point that these rooted structures are driven out ultimately ensures that you will only have one to choose from. You can be anything that you want but there is nothing to be.

  • Jason Stockmann

    04.28.2011 at 18:30

    Interesting article. But the writer might be drifting a little far afield into meta-community and political implications. In my reading, Jacobs' "Death and Life" was more utilitarian than philosophical. She was primarily concerned with the bread and butter mechanics of daily life in a city. What works, what doesn't. I don't think she presupposed very much about the sensibility of her neighbors, and she certainly didn't cast them as cozy, earnest Midwesterners who defined themselves through their work and were bent on keeping their neighborhoods boring, surveilled, and civil (not that this is such a bad thing). She revels in the heterogeneity of individuals that a city attracts, including immigrants, strivers, and the supposedly eccentric to whom this article accords so much attention. I can see Jacobs' roster of neighborhood businesses as seeming a little quaint -- the butchers, barber shops, social clubs, bank branches, and corner pubs -- but I don't find her appraisal of human behavior quaint at all. She writes at great length about the inevitability of crime in cities, and the ways to moderate its effects on a street. She also writes extensively about slums, and the different overlapping layers of immigrants in her own neighborhood. She talks about squalor and over-crowding, but in a utilitarian way, as something any sensible person would wish to escape.

    Jacobs accepts the chaos and swirling complexity of urban life; this is integral to the emergent phenomena she is describing, and antithetical to the systematic utopian planning she is combatting. For Jacobs, cities allow networks and collaborations to form between the like-minded, but they provide plenty of space for individuals to slip back into modern anonymity, if they so wish. I don't see where in all of this Jacobs strips individuals of their subjectivity, eccentricities, artistic license, political autonomy, or actual privacy. She points out that there must be a clear and sharp division between public and private spaces in cities. Punkt. Streets become a panopticon only in the most basic and literal sense -- so that they will not descend into pandemonium, incivility, and violence, which are the antithesis of true freedom. Her panopticon carries no political undertones beyond that most basic premise of the social contract, which sadly is too seldom explicitly stated; namely, that freedom from the fear of violent death is the first and most important precondition for civil society. Jacobs does not purport to solve the problem of alienation in the modern metropolis, but the healthy neighborhoods that she describes certainly don't seem like they would worsen the problem.

    So while I admire this writer's thoughtful attempt to contrast Jacobs and Warhol, I don't think he understands Jacobs. Or if he does, he is caricaturing her on behalf of his argument.

  • Michael Mehaffy

    04.29.2011 at 16:49

    This is a very interesting and I thin revealing comparison between Jacobs and Warhol. But I think Timothy Mennil gets some things badly wrong about Jacobs. (And about Warhol too, for that matter -- which I'll come to.) About the former I think I can say a few things with some accuracy, having just finished teaching a class on her book Death and Life. (And knowing a good bit about her other work.)

    There are a few canards, like this one:

    "Jacobs certainly enabled the interpretation of her work that still predominates within new urbanism and other derivative movements — namely, that certain bourgeois aspects of urban life are consonant with what amounts to a deep and largely unquestioned belief in small-town values."

    She did? Sorry, this is nonsense! She explicitly rejected the small-town values of, say, Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities -- and for that matter, those of more recent urban planners like Lewis Mumford. She made it clear that big-city neighborhoods are NOT inserted bits of small-town life.

    "The true flaw in Jacob's concept of the city, however, is not that she envisions a big-city neighborhood as a small town but that her libertarianism supports the fantasy that urban dwellers will self-interestedly choose that communitarian world over any other; her faith in instinctive cooperation and socially sustaining behavior in contemporary American cities verges on the starry-eyed."

    Sorry, this is equally nonsense. It is such an egregious mischaracterization that I have to ask if Mennil really know the lady's work. At the core of her argument was an economic argument as much as any other kind of argument. This was not rooted in faith, but in observation on how real places actually worked, and succeeded or failed. She didn't stop with conjecture, but offered structural hypotheses that could be tested. (Most of them are holding up remarkably well.)

    I fear he gets it completely wrong when he calls Jacobs a libertarian. As her book makes clear, she was for subsidized affordable housing, zoning, all kinds of libertarian taboos. However, she was for doing them in a way that actually worked!

    Here is where I think Mennil's comparison to Warhol might explain this myopia. Warhol, in his account, seems to be all about poststructuralist "complexity" - which is to say, compounded disorder, and not at all what complexity scientists mean by the term. (Nor what Jacobs meant.) The city has to have its lonely drunks, its depressed suicidal people, and so on. This is the vision of the city, and apparently, of art. What does it mean? Oh, it's beyond semiotics! It's just sheer experience, sensation, what is, revelation of the deconstruction of an artist's constructed meaning into the bare structures of narrative. Sorry, I've seen this movie before, and it's a mess.

    The point for Jacobs is that there are indeed ways of actually giving the drunks and the depressed people and the marginal people a choice whether to get out of the slums (or the slums of their lives) and actually find more health. And there are ways to help neighborhoods to have more health. Or less. Who knew?

    We do not need to "leave all the lonely drunks alone" because "well you know, that's just what a city is." I fear this is a poststructuralist rationalization of the worst sort -- accomplishing little more than letting an artist write themselves a blank check. (And have a bit of fun in the circus. Warhol was certainly a leader in that field.)

    Well, we can tolerate playfulness, absurdity, even irresponsibility when it comes from artists, once in a while at any rate. We don't have to go into their galleries. But we have to live in cities -- all of us, the healthy and the infirm. If we are urbanists, and city-makers, then such actions are affecting people's lives. Leave them be to express the angst of our time, the way it is, etc? If we were doctors, that approach would get us into handcuffs, or malpractice lawsuits.

    So it is with the urban malpractice that passes for sophisticated "complexity" today.

    Michael Mehaffy

  • Timothy Mennel

    04.30.2011 at 01:33

    @Nick - Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments, many of which I agree with. I do think, though, that there's a difference between celebrating diversity--which Jacobs plainly did--and accepting the possibility that some of the elements that make up that diversity may not value that particular conception of diversity. I don't question that Jacobs valued artists; she treats them, however, like an aesthetic amenity--they're welcome and valuable because they add texture and flavor to her kind of city life. That's not the same thing as recognizing a genuinely different worldview.

    @Jason - Thank you as well. I think you might be overreading me slightly--I don't think Jacobs saw all her neighbors as "cozy" or "midwestern," and I certainly don't think "Jacobs strips individuals of their subjectivity." I do think, though, that her vision of the city is less urbane and heterodox than she claimed. The key issue I would stress here is that "reveling" in heterogeneity--as I agree Jacobs did--can be condescending to the individuals and sensibilities that make up that heterogeneity and thus fail to see the other urban possibilities that they might engender.

    @Michael - Clearly I failed to recapitulate your own frazzled perceptions of what Warhol's work consisted of and where his genius lay. I don't recognize the Warhol I was describing in your evident frustration with others' writings--nor do I see what my argument has to do with poststructuralism or with flavors of complexity theory that seem to agitate you. Second, I think you're eliding a distinction between "small-town values" and "small towns." Of course Jacobs didn't see the city as a collection of small towns--but she did very clearly try to inculcate values that are commonly associated with small towns into urban environments that are not necessarily predisposed to them. Last, yes, planners of all sorts might indeed find greater traction in the broader social dialogue if they were able to be less condescending to publics who don't share their values. I've seen that movie before myself, and it, too, is a mess.

  • John Massengale

    04.30.2011 at 12:32

    "but she did very clearly try to inculcate values that are commonly associated with small towns into urban environments that are not necessarily predisposed to them"

    This is the crux of at least part of your disagreement with Mehaffy - and me.

    I was born in New York, I live in New York, and I have the feeling that I would disagree significantly with a list of values that you say are small town rather than big city.

    In the case of New York, we're a big place with a lot of different people and attitudes. Speaking for myself, I'm a social moderate and fiscal progressive, but I know I share this city with a lot of others with other opinions, including the editorial board at the Wall Street Journal, whose opinions I never agree with.

    In the case of Koolhaas, Delerious New York is a brilliant book, but I'd call his nihilism and misanthropy very last century rather than very New York.

  • Nick Kaufmann

    04.30.2011 at 15:18

    "The key issue I would stress here is that "reveling" in heterogeneity--as I agree Jacobs did--can be condescending to the individuals and sensibilities that make up that heterogeneity and thus fail to see the other urban possibilities that they might engender."

    The flip-side of this is Koolhaas reveling in homogeneity:

    "But the generic city, the general urban condition, is happening everywhere, and just the fact that it occurs in such enormous quantities must mean that it's habitable... We all complain that we are confronted by urban environments that are completely similar. We say we want to create beauty, identity, quality, singularity. And yet, maybe in truth these cities that we have are desired. Maybe their very characterlessness provides the best context for living."

    "Reveling" itself --or, reducing, fetishizing or what have you-- is the problem here, although hetero/homogeneity in urbanism and how each may effect notions of diversity and freedom is an interesting dialectic/paradox that can lead to many conclusions.

    I wouldn't charge Jacobs with reveling-- many of her followers may be guilty of it. Jacobs made sure to mention in Death and Life that it was her methodology not necessarily her conclusions that she wanted people to take home. As far as I can tell she was supremely open to 'other urban possibilities' as long as they came from an engagement with what is actually going on at the level of the street. It seems like it was more important to her that notions of urbanism come from lived experience rather than preconceived ideals than it was that her specific conclusions be validated and adopted. As far as schools of thought go I think it's an encouraging sign that she inspires not just academic discussion but events like Jane's Walk (http://www.janeswalk.net/) that allow continual engagement with her ideas out on the streets, giving both the opportunity to confirm Jacobs original conclusions as well as a chance to come to one's own. There will always be revelers within schools of thought, but I would argue hers is one of the more reflexive and open to reinterpretation.

  • Timothy Mennel

    05.01.2011 at 02:37

    @Nick-- Well said. I see more reveling in Jacobs than you do, but perhaps it's just a matter of degree.

    @John-- I just want to clarify that I think there's a big difference between what New York is (or can be) and what Jacobs made of it. That was one of my motivations in writing this piece. I lived in New York for about a decade all told and found that what I saw and experienced wasn't always consonant with what Jacobs wanted to find and promote there. You and others might not characterize Jacobs's values as "small town" ones, as I do, but the larger point is that her idealized city isn't everyone's.

  • robert steuteville

    05.01.2011 at 09:02

    Mr. Mennel writes:

    "It does not diminish the value of the Jacobsian social environment to point out that it posits a healthy neighborhood as a kind of panopticon, with a decided lack of privacy and anonymity."

    "Jacobs certainly enabled the interpretation of her work that still predominates within new urbanism and other derivative movements — namely, that certain bourgeois aspects of urban life are consonant with what amounts to a deep and largely unquestioned belief in small-town values."

    @ Nick: ... "some of the elements that make up that diversity may not value that particular conception of diversity."

    @ Michael: ... "Second, I think you're eliding a distinction between "small-town values" and "small towns." Of course Jacobs didn't see the city as a collection of small towns--but she did very clearly try to inculcate values that are commonly associated with small towns into urban environments that are not necessarily predisposed to them."

    @ John: You and others might not characterize Jacobs's values as "small town" ones, as I do, but the larger point is that her idealized city isn't everyone's.

    Mr. Mennel doesn't say what "small-town values" he is talking about, but he associates them with New Urbanism. What New Urbanism has taken from Jacobs — and other sources of inspiration including personal observation — are the human benefits of physical characteristics that Jacobs describes. Among these characteristics are "eyes on the street," mixed-use, small blocks, diversity of walking routes, and others. They are as important to the design of small towns or walkable suburbs as they are of cities.

    A real question is whether Jacobs's concept of "eyes on the street" is freeing or imprisoning. to Mr. Mennel, is imprisoning — ("panopticon"). So, perhaps, are the shopkeepers and ordinary people who live on the Jacobsian street, who may not understand or feel a degree of hostility toward the eccentrics in Warhol's circle.

    Jacobs, new urbanists, and others who have followed in her footsteps have always considered "eyes on the streets" and the other characteristics of the Jacobsian street, to be, on the whole, freeing. They enable people to live, work, and play together. By allowing building types to coexist and the street to be a place where all kinds of people can mix and meet, people can live close to where they work. They also allow the proximity that enables creative people to work together very closely and launch artistic movements. In that sense, important aspects of Jacobs's idealized city are everyone's — although they may not know it. There is no contradiction between Jacobs's view of the city and Warhol's.

    The latter could not exist without the former. I think what bothers Mennel is that the former can exist quite nicely without the latter. Warhol is a self-centered and narcissistic luxury, a product of a particular time — and therefore not necessary. Jacobs and all she describes are necessary and will outlast the current celebrity culture. Her view of urban places accurately describes what makes ordinary cities and towns function in basic and exalted ways.

  • Bill Buchanan

    05.01.2011 at 14:17

    I don't think Mennil is arguing with Jacobs but with a second-hand conception of Jacobs that does exist.

    Jacobs argued that urban anonymity gave you freedom from obligatory community of proximity and the freedom to find a community of compatibility.

    Some like to think that Jacobs showed that the city, or the city with "eyes on the street" leads to some sort of cloying community for all, but she was harder than that. One result of the loss of the the community of proximity is that some will find no community at all, and live in urban isolation, perhaps shunned by the cool kids or just lost, without the safety net of the community of proximity. Such is the trade-off.

    She did advocate for physical characteristics that would lead to the streets being less comfortable for those wanting to do harm and more comfortable and safer for the rest, so that things like avant-guard art and bohemianism can blossom.

    But I think even an aesthete like Mennil need not fear that he'll no longer be able to savor others' sef-destruction, despair and death, no matter what is done to the form of the city. Smack and poverty will still be there. Surely gluttony is not his aesthetic, surely a teeny-tiny portion of sorrow and misery,exquisitely prepared, will be even more piquant.

  • Patrick Sewell

    06.21.2011 at 14:09

    I agree with @Bill Buchanan. Mennil seems to be projecting Andres Duany onto Jane Jacobs. While it is interesting to compare Jacobs and Warhol, the two were not so different at Mennil says. Furthermore, Mennil seems to reveal a lack of understanding of Jane Jacobs through his assertion that she views a city neighborhood as a "cozy" "panopticon."

    Other commenters have made similar points, and I agree with most of them, so here are some contrasting quotes from Mennil and Jacobs:

    --Mennil: "Jacobs failed to see the value of impersonality in the city"
    --Jacobs: "Cities are full of people with whom, from your viewpoint, or mine, or any other individual's, a certain degree of contact is useful or enjoyable; but you do not want them in your hair. And they do not want you in theirs either....The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts.... Most of it is utterly trivial, but the sum of it is not trivial at all.... The absence of this trust is a disaster to a city street. Its cultivation cannot be institutionalized. and above all, it implies no private commitments." (Emphasis hers)

    --Mennil: "It does not diminish the value of the Jacobsian social environment to point out that it posits a healthy neighborhood as a kind of panopticon, with a decided lack of privacy and anonymity."
    --Jacobs: "Privacy is precious in cities. It is indispensable. Perhaps it is precious and indispensable everywhere, but most places you cannot get it. In small settlements everyone knows your affairs. In the city everyone does not--only those you choose to tell will know much about you."

    --Mennil: "The creation of a genuine and effective community... requires... a shared sense of purpose. But in truly complex cities shaped by myriad agendas and diverse populations, such shared purposes tend to arise only among communities of narrowly like-minded individuals"
    --Jacobs: "Neighborhood is a word that has come to sound like a Valentine. As a sentimental concept, 'neighborhood' is harmful to city planning. It leads to attempts at warping city life into imitations of town or suburban life. Sentimentality plays with sweet intentions in place of good sense."

    --Mennil: "The true flaw in Jacob's concept of the city, however, is not that she envisions a big-city neighborhood as a small town but that her libertarianism supports the fantasy that urban dwellers will self-interestedly choose that communitarian world over any other; her faith in instinctive cooperation and socially sustaining behavior in contemporary American cities verges on the starry-eyed. This unrealistic expectation of human behavior might in part underlie the partial or complete failure of so many attempts to build communities based on her ideals. "
    --Jacobs: "Lately a few planners, notably Reginald Isaacs of Harvard, have daringly begun to question whether the conception of neighborhood in big cities has any meaning at all. Isaacs points out that city people are mobile. They can and do pick and choose from the entire city (and beyond) for everything from a job, a dentist, recreation, or friends, to shops, entertainment, or even in some cases their children's schools. City people, says Isaacs, are not stuck with the provincialism of a neighborhood, and why should they be? Isn't wide choice and rich opportunity the point of cities? This is indeed the point of cities."

    --Mennil: "Warhol did not promote the idea of community, yet he helped create the actual thing, even if his wasn't the kind of community that Jacobs or most contemporary planners might endorse."
    --Jacobs: "Neighborhoods in cities need not supply for their people an artificial town or village life, and to aim at this is both silly and destructive."

    In summary, Jacobs valued privacy, at least as much as Warhol, and Jacobs was not trying to make communities - she isn't Andres Duany - she was trying to make cities. Diverse, varied, open-to-all, but also safe Cities. Too bad Mennil didn't understand that before he wrote a book about her.

  • matt anson

    08.08.2011 at 09:18

    I can't say if Tim accurately referenced the intent of Jane Jacobs, but I think if she promoted the advantages of neighborhoods where people worked, lived, and knew each other's social status, a loss of privacy to some extent must have been inherent in her ideal of urban life. Everyone values privacy as they themselves define it.
    I live in a little city in New England. When I read the local paper I often wonder about issues this essay may have shed a little light on; why there are problems with a planned housing development, different attitudes towards changes in neighborhoods; how different people living together deal with each other and changes to their communities.
    As one of America's violently shamed know-nothingist caste, I thought Tim could have cut a few of those 150 word sentences in half. Though I only have a peasant's undergraduate education, I enjoyed reading this. I liked the little hash marks in the scroll bar on the side of the essay. It made it easy to jump between comments, end notes and the body of the essay. Oh, I loved that reference to the panopticon; thank goodness for Google. Matt Anson.

  • Maria Ayub

    08.12.2011 at 17:51

    This was a good, thought provoking essay. I just want to recap on the following points that seem, at least in my opinion, important:

    1. Warhol was another incomer, just one of the many expecting gratification and recognition for his work, two reasons why people move to large urban centers. His engagement in the artistic community just happened to "color" the artistic environment of that era in a city like New York. He had a particular disengagement that was characterized his style and persona. It was an attitude, not some urban philosophy by any means. He was above all, a celebrity phenomena, and those haven't stopped filling the roster of characters that make a city worth living.

    2. New Urbanism works best for making something out of nothing, new neighborhoods in places where there were none before. You can loosely follow Jacob ideas and do something that is well meaning and livable, but that is not what Jacobs was necessarily aiming at. Her work is centered on keeping the dynamics of established neighborhoods very much alive.

    3. Privacy and freedom are some of the reasons why people moved to cities, along with better pay, career options and places to visit. But it serves to know your neighborhood well, unless you really want to walk even more, and neither you have to feel some kind of pie in the sky adulation for it, hefty taxes will take that notion out of your head fast.