In her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs makes a valid and interesting argument concerning the state of the nation's cities. Even though the book was first published over forty-five years ago, the information that Jacobs presents is still relevant…
As I was reading the text, I felt compelled to verify the facts that were presented against my own personal experience of growing up in a major East Coast city. It is always a treat to re-examine my own home town from someone else's perspective. Without a doubt I found Jacobs' poignant assessment of city life was something with which I could strongly identify. Each section of the text highlights a critical aspect of the city that becomes through Jacobs' voice a substantial statement about the inner workings of the urban community. At first glance some of the subject matter might seem peripheral but for the exceptional insight and understanding demonstrated by the author. I didn't know that a man-made landscape could be considered a living organism until Jacobs made the reference to a city being a kind of ecosystem. Everything needs to be balanced and in harmony for all of the occupants to survive in such a fragile place.
Nothing makes you think "city" more than the idea of the sidewalk, which is the pedestrian's portion of a city street. Investigating the sidewalk is surely an essential component to gaining an understanding of any urban community. In a crowded city filled with businesses, municipal structures, and parked cars these are just about the only public spaces left for people to spend their time. A safe place to walk is only one of the many functions that the sidewalk fills in a typical city. The sidewalk is like a living conduit that connects all of the separate houses and turns them in to a neighborhood. In a big city, the sidewalks seem to go on and on forever. You could imagine that it would take years to explore all of the streets in even a modest sized community. Like most inner city kids, I spent my entire youth playing on the sidewalk. The streets where I lived were always buzzing with activity. In the mornings many small children marched past my house on the way to the local elementary school. Adults strolled to their cars and sped off to work, while the elderly folks tended the garden or simply sat on the stoop socializing. The corner store two doors down from me was another hub of intense movement. Many different people would come and go at slightly different hours of the day, so that there was a constant stream of foot traffic. There were the morning deliveries of newspapers and mail. Maintenance workers and meter readers seemed to visit on a regular basis. Cars carrying tourists who got lost on their way to the airport would occasionally cruise past and stop to have a look. At dusk the teenagers would carouse and mingle. A variety of people used the sidewalk each day for their own purposes, and sometimes those lives would intersect with each other. As Jacobs states, "lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city's wealth of public life may grow" (95).
As I look back I can see that I had lived in a healthy community. There were other neighborhoods that I knew about which were decidedly unhealthy. The local housing projects for example were the places that my friends and I scrupulously avoided. For some reason these tenements were tucked away in a part of the city that was easy to bypass. The ...
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