Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Galbraith versus Jacobs

Over the weekend John Kenneth Galbraith died at the age of ninety-seven. The New York Times saw fit to publish a full-page obituary--twice. Once a shining beacon of liberal interventionism, Galbraith lived long enough to see his policies discredited—though a dwindling band of acolytes thinks otherwise.

In the "Affluent Society" (1958) and other books Galbraith set forth an idea that seemed persuasive at the time. Americans had gotten rich individually, but at the cost of neglecting the public sector. Changing the balance could only be for the good. Well, under Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon we shifted the balance. The results were not what were expected. Most Great Society programs proved wasteful, and not a few exacerbated the problems they were meant to address.

Serendipitously, Jane Jacobs, ninety, died on April 24 at her home in Toronto, where she had lived for several decades. A native of Pennsylvania, as a young woman she settled in New York City, where she made the observations that led to her pathfinding book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961). Immensely influential, the book is a strong critique of the urban renewal policies of the 1950s which, she claimed, destroyed communities and created isolated, unnatural urban spaces. Jacobs advocated dense, mixed-use neighborhoods. Opposing the arbitrary solutions of big government and business, she extolled the spontaneous invention of individuals. Although the connection is rarely noted, Jacobs was libertarian in the best sense.

Seeking to broaden her critique she went on to write four other books on the role of cities throughout history. She placed great store on her idea of import replacement as a motor for growth of cities. Redolent more of book learning than observation, these subsequent books have proven less successful.

Coming to NYC in 1956 I went to a party where I met a community organizer who condemned public-housing projects. As a New Dealer (in those days) I was deeply shocked. This encounter showed that Jacobs' ideas were in the air.

The synchronicity of the two deaths points up the fact that Jane Jacobs was a principal nemesis of Galbraith. In her first, monumentally great book she challenged the "conventional wisdom" and faced it down. Ironically, Galbraith described his own fate in the famous phrase. In the money quote (I believe) he said that the c.v. would be overturned not by ideas but by events---and so his was, with the failure of so many Great Society programs.

Moreover, JJ, in her successful campaign against the Lower Manhattan Expressway, hit upon the strategy of combining theory with activism. This strategy was to reemerge at Columbia University in 1968, though with mixed results.

Three years ago I heard JJ speak to a huge crowd at City College here in New York. It was inspiring to see for the first time "the little woman who made the big war" (so to speak), but she set forth a rather woolly theory of civilization from Sumeria to the present that was not impressive. Perhaps Toronto is not very stimulating intellectually--though it is in my experience quite a pleasant place.

While I continue to honor her "Death and Life" as a major milestone in my intellectual development, like all such theories it failed to be fully convincing. Every other day now I go for a walk in Morningside Gardens, a middle-class housing development just north of Columbia University that replaced several score of JJ's beloved brownstones. The achievement is in fact impressive, as Morningside Gardens does realize Le Corbusier's vision of the "skyscraper in the park." There are four highrise apartment buildings, centered on a delightful green center, with rambling walks and lots of flowers. With so many such developments elsewhere, the "park" has become a parking lot--but not in Morningside Gardens, maybe because the land is too rocky and hilly.

Another criticism is that Jacobs’ work is impractical and does not reflect the reality of urban politics, which are often totally controlled by powerful real estate developers and suburban politicians. The answer is that we m u s t not cede control to such interests. They were responsible for the vicious urban renewal policies of the 1960s and 1970s that devastated so many of our cities.

To be sure, Jacobs failed to foresee the full consequences of the automobile, ranging as they did from freeways (which are necessary) to edge cities and to the remote exurbs dominated by David Brooks’ Patio Man. Since we cannot reverse sprawl we should seek to humanize it. On the other hand, her ideas about the livability of center cities have helped to spark a return of older residents to these areas with their many amenities. And she has acquired a latter-day disciple in Richard Florida, whose ideas about livability are currently inspiring planners.


Blogger Stephen said...

Jacobs was a hedgehog—and unlike, say Donald Rumsfeld—was right.

Galbraith was a fox, wrong about some things, right about others. One of the early matters in which he was right is the research on those who had been bombed in Germany during WWII. What was found did not deter belief that bombing Hanoi would turn the populace against the regime, and the ex-pilots who brought us the war in Iraq seem to believe that bombing Iran will lead the people to rise against their government.

9:09 AM  

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