Marc Jacobs shop on Bleecker Street

One of the Marc Jacobs shops on Bleecker Street

I pulled out the articles I wrote for the WestView News after a meeting in Great Barrington to plan a Jane’s Walk in “The Hill” neighborhood. I was surprised to see that I’d started the first of them with a little about Jane’s Walks – obviously an idea that’s been at the back of my mind for a long while. Here’s information about our Jane’s Walk 2024.

Less Marc Jacobs, More Jane Jacobs

January 2011, WestView News

By Karen Christensen

A group in Toronto called Jane’s Walk organizes free neighborhood walking tours in cities around the world. The purpose is to put people in touch with their environment and each other. But there isn’t a Jane’s Walk in the West Village: the New York neighborhood where Jane Jacobs lived. Perhaps we should change that?

I was walking on Horatio Street on my way to Grand Central to get the train to Great Barrington, the small Massachusetts town where I (mostly) live and work. A bright yellow card in a dusty window caught my eye. Tucked among geranium plants and vases, it proclaimed, “More Jane Jacobs Less Marc Jacobs.”

I did not ask, “Jane Who?” because I had just started reading her seminal 1961 treatise, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Jacobs (1916-2006) championed new community-based approaches to planning for over 40 years. Her book became perhaps the most influential American text about the inner workings and failings of cities, inspiring generations of urban planners and activists. Her efforts to stop downtown expressways and protect local neighborhoods invigorated community-based urban activism.

It was her message —“Community not Commerce”— that made me pay fresh attention to the part of New York that had become my second home. The West Village — once Jacobs’s home (an iconic photograph of her was taken in the White Horse Tavern) — was part of “A Smaller Circle,” the book I’m writing about the search for community.

In Great Barrington, I’m surrounded by people who used to live in Manhattan. I myself moved here from London 18 years ago. But I have become part of the great 21st-century migration from the countryside into cities.

In China, ten million people are moving every year from rural areas to China’s huge cities. How, I wonder, can those cities be made to work in terms of human health and happiness and environmental sustainability? These questions are part of what led me to Jacobs. What would she make of the West Village in 2011, and what lessons are there in this urban district that might apply elsewhere in the world?

Jacobs is famous for her emphasis on street life, and for her love of city life in general. This is in contrast to the writer Lewis Mumford, who also lived in the Village but left it as soon as he could for a planned community in Queens and then for Amenia, New York, not far from Great Barrington.

When I was a young environmentalist in England, it was Mumford’s ideas that got attention. We all wanted to leave the city in search of the good life, and that’s why people move to Great Barrington. But the Berkshires has a tourist economy, and I see the same thing in the West Village. The Village tourists are more varied than those on Main Street, but it’s the same problem: all these people are strangers to one another and to the people who live here.

Incorporating strangers is one of the things Jacobs said cities were all about. She wrote about “eyes on the street,” not in a spirit of “crime watch” but of conviviality, understanding that people like to watch other people. This simple fact should be part of city planning, she said. The more people are on the street, the more people inside shops and homes and restaurants will watch, the safer people will feel outside, and so on. In that sense, today’s streets are working well, though better in some places than others.

Jacobs wrote about the importance of lively borders and mixed economic activity, and she was scathing about Lewis Mumford and others who promoting inward-looking communities, tied to certain size limits they claimed were “human scale.” As I watch activity around the High Line, or when I am in Beijing, I realize that there are no absolute rules about what makes a community or district work.

But there are hundreds of specific ways to build good cities and better small towns. Preserving old buildings, for one — not only because they are beautiful but because their costs have been amortized. When some rents are cheap, interesting start-ups will be able to afford to stay.

If Not for Jane Jacobs, We Wouldn’t Be Here

February 2011, WestView News

By Karen Christensen

Fifty years ago this month, in February, 1961, the West Village was slated for demolition.

If it hadn’t been for a woman living at 555 Hudson Street, with her husband and three young children, the West Village we know today would not exist. There would be washed out ’60s high-rise blocks of the type you see in cities across the country, where so-called “urban renewal” planners had their way. The brownstones, the buildings of the Meatpacking District, perhaps even the High Line, would have been bulldozed and cleaned up.

One month earlier, that woman, Jane Jacobs, had turned in the manuscript of her landmark “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” a book that transformed the way people thought about cities. It is full of accounts of real places, and especially of the neighborhood where Jacobs herself lived. Many of her ideas about what makes for successful cities came from what she saw from her second-floor window or when doing her grocery shopping.

Her book’s publication was still six months away when, on February 21, she opened the New York Times and read an article entitled, “Two Blighted Downtown Areas Are Chosen for Urban Renewal.” One of them was the “fourteen blocks bounded by Eleventh, Hudson, Christopher, Washington, Morton and West Streets.”

Jacobs had been at the forefront of a successful campaign to prevent the city from extending Fifth Avenue right through Washington Square. She put aside work on her next book and concentrated on saving her own beloved neighborhood. In those days, having community activists turn up to protest government actions was almost unheard of, but Jacobs knew how to deal with the press and was not afraid of confrontation with officials. She and her neighbors would sit around the kitchen table making their plans, drinking martinis and smoking. They also made a restaurant called the Lion’s Den their unofficial headquarters.

The West Village’s mixed-use buildings were evidence that it was a slum that should be cleared, said the city planners. Yet in her book, which came out while the battle was still going on, Jacobs argues that one of the things that makes a neighborhood appealing and safe is the result of mixed use — a diverse neighborhood where people keep different hours, which leads in turn to a more lively street life. She also writes about “unslumming,” the gradual improvement by the people who live in a place. It depends on their staying put even when the community is not perfect. (I find myself wondering what lessons this has for the online community of today, where we can so easily move away.)

I suspect that Jacobs would be disappointed by today’s street life, here and nearly everywhere in the developed world. She loved seeing children playing and shopkeepers chatting. Only when I go to China do I see streets full of people, sometimes dancing or playing badminton. But Ninth Avenue now is a public square (or irregular triangle) and the High Line is packed with people just hanging out and taking photos — surely it is the most photographed spot in New York. In springtime, Abingdon Square is almost as crammed with people as the flower beds are with tulips and daffodils. Yet the planners back in the 1960s thought that tiny parks weren’t worth bothering with and that, instead, open concrete expanses around boxy identical high-rises was the “modern” way to live.

Mayor Robert Wagner, running for reelection that autumn, capitulated. He said that he was sympathetic to West Villagers’ desire to maintain their “neighborhood life, which is an example of city community life at its healthiest.” But another threat lay ahead: the Lower Manhattan Expressway, the “Lomex.” If that had been built, there would be a major highway 50 feet above your head. But, of course, you wouldn’t be here today, nor would I.

Next month, I’ll tell the story of the Lomex.

Karen Christensen is CEO of Berkshire Publishing Group in Great Barrington, MA, and a part-time resident of the West Village. She writes about online and off-line community building and is the author of “The Armchair Environmentalist” (Hachette 2008).

The WestView News then got caught up in one of the controversies that plagued its long, long run. After exchanging emails with staffers and the publisher and attending an editorial meeting in his lovely garden, I decided that wasn’t the right battle. Not long after, I launched the Train Campaign.

karen christensen's corona typewriter on t s eliot's desk

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