Jane Jacobs and the Upper West Side
At numerous points in her seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs refers to Manhattan's Upper West Side (UWS) as a "failed" neighborhood. She then proceeds to explain this failure in terms of the area's physical layout, historic changes to the area, and misguided post-WWII efforts to "renew" the area.
However, in the four decades after Death and Life, the UWS underwent a dramatic revival that rebuked some of Jacobs' observations while simultaneously demonstrating Jacobs' criteria for becoming "successful" in ways that she might not have anticipated. This essay describes the history that lead to the "failed" neighborhood of Jacobs' time and the subsequent events that transformed the neighborhood into one of New York City's most expensive residential areas.
The UWS Before Jacobs
Manhattan's Upper West Side is generally considered as bounded by 59th street on the south, 110th street on the north, the Hudson River on the west and Central Park on the east, although some authors (such as Wilson 1987) move the southern boundary as far north as 72nd Street and the northern boundary down as far as 96th street or as far north as 125th Street.
Dutch farmers were the first European settlers of the area in the early 17th century (GSAPP 2007). The area between present-day West 23rd Street and West 125th Street came to be known as Bloomingdale and main road through the area (currently Broadway) was called Bloomingdale Road. The 1830s brought both development of summer residences for the wealthy toward the center of the island as well as a railroad line along the Hudson river. The construction of Central Park in the 1860s elevated the value of the surrounding land and The Dakota on 72nd Street opened in 1884 as the first of many luxury apartment buildings in the neighborhood. The coming of the Ninth Avenue (Columbus Ave) elevated railroad in 1890 and the IRT subway line in 1904, along with further commercial development along the riverfront brought working-class Irish and African-American residents to the area and Russian, Polish and German Jewish immigrants soon followed. Nazi persecution in the 1930s resulted in a dramatic influx of Jews to the area and they displaced the Irish as the area's dominant ethnic group (Pileggi 1969).
Although the area weathered the Depression fairly well and actually experienced a modest construction boom, a citywide housing shortage spurred a 1939 change in housing law that promoted the division of large apartments and brownstones into smaller furnished rooms. The subsequent influx of new (and often low-income) residents resulted in severe overcrowding and an increase in social ills. The housing shortage worsened following World War II, with disinvestment and suburban flight leaving behind large pockets of desperation and danger. The overcrowding, crime and deterioration of the housing stock led to calls for public intervention.
The first major post-WWII "urban renewal" effort in the southern part of the UWS was the Amsterdam Houses, a 13-building 1,080-apartment project between 61st and 64th streets that opened in 1948 and emptied the predominantly African-American neighborhood of San Juan Hill.
Title I of the National Housing Act of 1949 encouraged large scale neighborhood clearance projects and spawned the "Lincoln Square Urban Renewal Area" in 1956, resulting in eradication over the next ten years of most of the poor neighborhoods south of 72nd street for Lincoln Center, Lincoln Towers, the New York Coliseum and a new campus for Fordham University. (GSAPP 2007).
In the northern part of the UWS, the predominantly African-American and Puerto Rican neighborhood of Manhattantown was obliterated by Park West, a massive 38-acre Title I project between 97th and 100th streets off Central Park West that was conceived in 1950 but delayed in completion until 1967 due to corruption and mismanagement (Tattenbaum 1997). The West Side Renewal Project had a similar effect on large parts of the area between 87th Street and 96th Street.
Jane Jacobs and the Upper West Side
It was in the midst of this urban renewal maelstrom that Jane Jacobs wrote Death and Life in 1960, and it is unsurprising that she would view the intermediate results of such a disruptive transformation with horror.
Jacobs first salvo occurs in her introductory chapter and is aimed just to the north of the UWS in Morningside Heights at Morningside Gardens, a six-building middle-class cooperative project that was spearheaded by David Rockefeller and Robert Moses and built along with the low-income General Grant Houses:
...the planning arms of the city government got together, applied more planning theory, wiped out the most run-down part of the area and built in its stead a middle-income cooperative project complete with shopping center, and a public housing project, all interspersed with air, light, sunshine and landscaping. This was hailed as a great demonstration in city saving. After that, Morningside Heights went downhill even faster. (Jacobs 1961, pp 8)
Jacobs stays in the neighborhood in chapter two, "The Uses of Sidewalks: Safety," to describe the popularity of center-street seating in the Broadway Mall that extends up the entire UWS, but notes how such seating is ignored in barren areas of Broadway that are effectively walled off by Columbia University. (Jacobs 1961, 47). Later in the chapter, she derides similar barriers in the proposed fences in Park West Village as examples of devices for "Turf" demarcation that are used for coping with insecurity but actually contribute to the social breakdowns that create the insecurity in the first place. (Jacobs 1961, 63)
In chapter five, "The Uses of Neighborhood Parks," Jacobs notes the deep connection between residents and parks in neighborhoods where there is limited open space, while neighborhoods like Morningside Heights (and most of the UWS) with an abundance of generalized parkland do not develop such a focus and connection (Jacobs 1961, 133). Joseph Papp's popular productions of free Shakespeare in Central Park (which started in 1958) are later cited as an example of one of the types of activities that can be promoted in parks to diversify usage and increase vitality.
Chapter six, "Uses of City Neighborhoods," is, appropriately, the section of the book where Jacobs unleashes most of her vitriol on the UWS. Jacobs again refers to the UWS as a "badly failed area" and gives high public school turnover rates of 50% to 92% as examples of "social disintegration" (Jacobs 1961, 147). On the following page, in attempting to break the stereotypical equating of poverty with neighborhood failure, Jacobs includes Morningside Heights in a list of neighborhoods with middle- and upper-class populations where, "...bad neighborhoods were created, neighborhoods whose apathy and internal failure grew greater with time instead of less."
Later in the chapter six, Jacobs attributes failure and "incompetence" in the area, in part, to the predominance of "long, monotonous, self-isolating blocks on Manhattan's West Side" that have a tendency to make each street into a, "separate world of its own." Quoting an NYU sociology professor, "The present state of the neighborhood indicates that the people there have lost the capacity for collective action, or else they would long since have pressured the city government and the social agencies into correcting some of the problems of community living." (Jacobs 1961, 157)
This physical and social isolation then finds its manifestation in an anecdote featuring the star of so many neighborhood horror stories, the drug haven - which would evolve in the 1980s into the "crack house." Despite the presence on an UWS street of a predominance of "respectable" residents, drug dealing began on the street in the mid 1950s. Repeated complaints to the police (who might have been compromised by incompetence, corruption, understaffing or unspoken policy) were ignored, and the dealing continued, bringing with it crime and neighborhood decline. As an isolated unit, the street was powerless to resist (Jacobs 1961, 160).
In chapter 8, "Primary Mixed Uses," Jacobs laments the decision to take its most impressive "cultural chessmen" and, rather than distribute them across the city in ways that would strengthen the "matrix" of the city, chose to isolate them in the fortress that became Lincoln Center. She attributes the decision, in part, to the belief of the time that the wealthy would be more apt to contribute to "large decontaminated islands of monuments" rather than to more dispersed (and less visually ostentatious) structures (Jacobs 1961, 219-221).
In chapter 9, "The Need for Small Blocks," Jacobs returns to a discussion of block sizes with an extended discourse on the area surrounding her dentist's office, located on a long block on 86th street between Columbus Ave. and Central Park West. The long residential blocks limit the number of routes available to neighborhood residents and visitors while concentrating a monotony on Columbus Avenue of, "endless stores and a depressing predominance of commercial standardization." The total effect is a, "Great Blight of Dullness" - a term she also uses to describe the seemingly endless residential streets of suburbia. As an alternative, she proposes how the neighborhood could be "opened up" and diversified by splitting the block with additional avenues in a style similar to that used in Rockefeller Center (Jacobs 1961, 233 - 236). She returns to a brief mention of this suggestion in chapter 19, "Visual Order: Its Limitations and Possibilities." (Jacobs 1961, 495)
In chapter 11, "The Need for Concentration," Jacobs contrasts the similar dwelling densities of Chelsea, Harlem and the "badly failed uptown West Side" with the more successful neighborhoods of Yorkville, the midtown East Side and her beloved Greenwich Village. Special mention is made of Riverside Drive, which is dominated by tall buildings and high density but which had long fallen from its late 19th century prominence as an "ultrafashionable" residential destination (Jacobs 1961, 266). She goes on to point out that the problem is generally not the then-common metric of population per acre of land (which unfairly favored low-rise buildings), but overcrowding in terms of persons per room (Jacobs 1961, 269).
Jacobs final explicit mention of the UWS occurs in chapter 14, "The Curse of Border Vacuums," where she contrasts the eastern Fifth Avenue border of Central Park with the Central Park West border on the UWS. While Fifth Avenue has a large number of public attractions both on its east side ("Museum Mile") and its western park side, the Central Park West border is dominated by large apartment buildings that attract little pedestrian traffic other than their residents (Jacobs 1961, 347). The primary attractions of the park are deep inside, essentially only usable by day, and, subsequently, contribute little to the immediate border areas of the park. The one nocturnal exception was a path into the park (presumably in the West 60s) that was frequented by folks walking their dogs, which resulted in sufficient foot traffic (and animal protection) to make the area comparatively safe for other people interested in taking an evening stroll.
The Upper West Side Returns to Life
Given Jacobs 1961 critiques of the physical layout of the UWS and the misguided efforts to "renew" it, one might expect today to find a hopeless neighborhood similar to the South Side of Chicago, the North Side of St. Louis or any neighborhood within five miles of downtown Detroit. However, something funny happened on the way to the ghetto.
Social considerations aside, the UWS is geographically blessed with conditions that make it friendly to upper-middle class professionals and their families:
- It is fairly close to the midtown business district
- It is served by two high-frequency subway lines that permit rapid access to the rest of Manhattan
- It nestled between two large, recreation-friendly and, today, well-maintained city parks
- It has a large stock of attractive Gilded-Age architecture surrounded by comparatively wide tree-lined sidewalks.
The ills of the area in the 1950s and 1960s reduced rents, making it attractive to an intellectual class of writers, doctors, academics and others who, ironically, were being driven out of Jacob's Greenwich Village by rising housing costs. This group effectively formed a self-reinforcing and regenerative enclave, largely along West End Avenue (Wilson 1987, 36). The subsequent influx of higher income people in the late 1960s attracted businesses back into the neighborhood, even though crime (largely youth-driven) remained high (Pileggi 1969).
The large-scale renewal efforts that Jacobs so abhorred did have some success in removing concentrations of poor residents (along with their social pathologies and unattractiveness to the wealthy) and replacing their neighborhoods with with middle-class housing. By the 1970s, slum clearance efforts had exhausted the available supplies of large "blighted" neighborhoods in the area and, thereafter, individual tax-delinquent properties were seized by the city and promptly resold to avoid the deleterious effects of abandoned buildings on surrounding neighborhoods (Wilson 1987, 31). The Lincoln Square Urban Renewal project had eradicated the poor neighborhoods in the southern part of the UWS and served as a catalyst for more private development in the area. To a lesser extent, Park West and the West Side Urban Renewal Project served a similar function in the northeast part of the neighborhood.
Although disputes between community activists, developers and the city resulted in delays and modifications to plans, by the 1980s the neighborhood had been, "demographically restructured to a degree unparalleled in Manhattan," and was now largely an enclave for the upper-middle- and upper-class. (Wilson 1987, 39-45). While one can question whether the neighborhood would still have gentrified in a more organic and less disruptive manner without the massive urban renewal programs, their contribution to the neighborhood's economic rebirth is fairly clear.
Jacobs' Criteria for Success
Analysis of Jacobs' observations about neighborhoods requires defining what is meant by "failed" or, conversely, successful. Jacobs never clearly articulates an objective definition for failure or success, although the numerous examples and anecdotes in the book describing different neighborhoods do give implications of her opinions. It is clear that she has a strong preference for diverse, low-rise, tightly-knit older neighborhoods like the one surrounding her apartment at 555 Hudson Street in the West Village. Indeed, Jacob's passion almost seems to be an attraction to the largely vanished New York City of the mid 19th century.
Jacobs also had an unambiguous distaste for the large-scale development of her time, which had as their inspiration Le Corbusier's Radiant City (1920s), Ebeneezer Howard's Garden City (1898) and Daniel Burnham's City Beautiful (1893). Her preferences are more qualitative than quantitative, praising the Boston's North End neighborhood (which many in her time considered to be a slum) as full of "buoyancy, friendliness and good health" (Jacobs 1961, 13). Her repeated insults to neighborhoods she finds undesirable are the adjectives "dull" and "gray," or, expropriating a word from the urban renewers of her day, "The Great Blight of Dullness."
Jacobs' most direct (albeit ambiguous) definition of success in stated in her chapter on, "The Uses of City Neighborhoods":
A successful city neighborhood is a place that keeps sufficiently abreast of its problems so it is not destroyed by them. An unsuccessful neighborhood is a place that is overwhelmed by its defects and problems and is progressively more helpless before them. (Jacobs 1961, 146)
This conceptualization of success is clearly a reaction to the post-WWII decline of cities that she was observing in the 1950s. Jacobs elevates diversity as a primary virtue from which success flows, and she is explicit in spelling out the conditions that lead to diversity:
- Condition 1: The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common (Jacobs 1961, 198).
- Condition 2: Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent (Jacobs 1961, 233).
- Condition 3: The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones (Jacobs 1961, 244).
- Condition 4: The district must have a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purpose they may be there. This includes people there because of residence (Jacobs 1961, 261).
What Jacobs Got Right and Wrong
Using Jacobs' four criteria, the Upper West Side that she pilloried and saw little hope for can now, arguably, be considered successful.
Diversity of primary uses (condition #1) drives temporal and geographic dispersion of traffic, thus increasing security and a sense of vitality. While the UWS is dominated by residential usage (34% of lot area usage), there is a ample commercial activity (18% of lot area usage is commercial or mixed residential/commercial), significant public attractions (two large movie multiplexes, Lincoln Center, numerous museums, numerous bars) and ready access to two large recreation-friendly parks (NYCDCP 2009b). While the streets are noticeably more quiet during the very early morning hours, some pedestrian traffic can be observed on most streets 24 hours a day.
In terms of crime, the UWS (encompassed by the 20th and 24th precincts) in 2008 had around 10.7 crime incidents per 1,000 residents and 1.4 murders per 100,000 residents, well below the city average of 14.2 incidents / 1K and 6.3 murders / 100K. Crime in the neighborhood was a problem in Jacobs' time and through the 1990s, but numerous factors and initiatives (citywide and nationwide) reduced the per capita crime incident rate in 2008 to 19% of what it was in 1990 and the per capita murder rate to 14% (NYPD 2009).
Population density (condition #4) is somewhat more difficult to evaluate since the ratios of living space to geographical area are dependent on building construction. Jacobs is careful to point out that density per square mile (which was often used in her time as a bias favoring suburban development) can be good while overcrowding in terms of persons per room is generally bad (Jacobs 1961, 268). By that criteria, the UWS excels, with only 5.6% of its housing units exceeding 1.0 occupant per room in the 2000 Census, compared to 10.5% for Manhattan and 14.6% for New York City as a whole (NYCDCP 2009b).
Given those observations, the UWS of 2009 can be said to meet Jacobs' first and fourth conditions. However, the second and third conditions are a bit more problematic.
Mixed ages of buildings (condition #3) has less to do with the aesthetic values or sentimental connections to structures than with providing a diversity of building conditions (and associated rental rates) that permit the presence of a diverse economic range of businesses. In the absence of rigorous statistical analysis of rental rates, building conditions and business types, it is difficult to provide quantitative evidence of a presence or absence of condition #3. However, casual observation over the past two decades indicates a gradual replacement of low income businesses (such as the Webers discount store on Broadway at 70th Street) with high income businesses (the bank that replaced the Webers), or subdivision of large storefronts into smaller ones (as with La Caridad Restaurant on 78th Street or the Hallmark greeting card store on Amsterdam at 73rd Street). Indeed, this process may be part of an economic "sorting" of the neighborhood that Jacobs predicts will ultimately undermine its diversity and contributes to its decline, especially if future economic troubles affect the city for an extended period of time (Jacobs 1961, 317-324).
The need for short blocks (condition #2) is probably the condition most open to debate as to its necessity. Jacobs viewed vibrant sidewalk activity as a virtue in itself as well as a bulwark against crime and other social ills. However, it can be argued that the long blocks on the UWS provide isolation from vehicular traffic and social activity noise, contributing to an almost suburban sense of serenity on blocks that still remain within an urban context and permit ready access to the amenities of the city. Indeed, if the large public housing projects of the 50s and 60s can be considered "vertical slums", some of the denser, wealthier areas of the UWS might be considered "vertical suburbs," complete with the exclusivity and social isolation of their counterparts outside of the city.
Although the benches on the Broadway Mall still remain vacant more often than not, to the south at Columbus Circle, the fountain was rebuilt in 2004 to surround the statue and a sitting area, creating a surprisingly popular contrast to the forbidding seating to the north. In 2009, Broadway in Times Square was completely closed to vehicular traffic, creating an sitting and pedestrian area while removing much of the chaotic traffic snarl that once characterized the confluence of Broadway and 7th avenue in an are of high pedestrian traffic.
In the absence of the demographic and social conditions that made crime such a serious problem in Jacobs' day and with the presence of numerous doormen and service workers to serve as hired "eyes" for the community (Jacobs 1961, 51), the need for community bonding to address immediate block problems is less pressing than it might be in more troubled communities. Regardless, given the astronomical values of property in the neighborhood, it seems highly unlikely that breakup of long blocks could even be considered unless some major economic or physical catastrophe impacts the neighborhood at some future time.
Other Criteria of Success
In contrast to Jacobs' amorphous views of what constituted a successful city, the attractions of suburbia at the time were more concrete: "good schools, private space and personal safety" (Jackson 1985, 244) - things the New York City of 1960 was at a loss to provide even to its most affluent residents. In 2009, it can be argued that those criteria are met in the UWS - if you have the money to pay for them.
Personal safety has been addressed in the area's comparatively low crime rates. Private space needs can be said to be satisfied by the aforementioned low rates of overcrowding, although folks who covet private backyards and multiple activity rooms are likely to be disappointed on the UWS unless they are extremely wealthy. The UWS is home to a number of fine private schools and a handful of comparatively strong public schools, although competition for admissions and erratic quality make the task of educating a child much more difficult than it would be in many suburban areas.
Given the difficulty of defining success or failure within Jacobs' nonobjective criteria, it might be helpful to consider quantitative definitions of success.
If successful neighborhood is defined as one where people like to live, in a capitalist system success might be partially measurable in rent, property values and/or population growth. One of the dictionary definitions of success is, "The attainment of wealth, favor or eminence" (MWO 2009c). Failure is defined as, "Lack of success" or "Deterioration" (MWO 2009b), which itself is defined as, "Inferior in quality or value" (MWO 2009a).
In terms of rentals and housing value, the UWS ranks around average for Manhattan and well above average for the rest of the city. In the 2000 Census, the median monthly gross rent in Community District Seven (CD-7, which covers the UWS from 59th Street to 116th Street) was $972, which was well above the Manhattan median of $796 and the citywide median of $712 (NYCDCP 2009a). In market rate rents, the UWS as of May 2009 had doorman studio / 1-BR / 2-BR rates of $2,075 / $3,154 / $5,373, which were around average for the Manhattan core (Harlem and southward) of $2,332 / $3,299 / $5,112 (TREGNY 2009). Median housing value for owner-occupied units in the 2000 Census was $1,100,000, which was exactly the median for Manhattan and well above the citywide median of $211,862 (NYCDCP 2009a).
Given the high density, level of build-out and growing affluence on the UWS, the significant population growth that might be expected in a "successful" less-developed area should not be expected on the UWS and the 2000 Census population for CD-7 of 207,699 is fairly close to the 1980 population of 206,671 (NYDCP 2009b). The 2005-2007 American Community Survey estimate population of 215,834 does indicate some growth, and that number could reflect either the addition of a number of housing units in Lincoln Square and Riverside South, or simply a correction for undersampling in 2000. Curiously, the area has an unusually high percentage of women (54.7% female, 45.3% male), although the birth rate per 1,000 population of 13.7 is fairly close to the NY State average of 13.0 and the U.S. average of 14.2, which indicates level of reproductive vitality that could be expected from a healthy neighborhood (USCB 2009, HJKFF 2009).
For those people without Jacobs' specific tastes in civic life, the post-WWII decline of urban neighborhoods might be better viewed less as the micro level problems of neighborhoods than symptoms of larger social and economic factors that were unique to that period of time. The conditions she gives for building strong neighborhoods may be less causes than results.
While Jacobs abhorred the destructive, heavy-handed and racist urban renewal tactics of her day and prejudged them as failures, they ultimately accomplished what they were intended to do. Using a common adage from Christianity, the church is the people, not the building. The problems of the immediate post-WWII UWS were problems of "the least of these" and when those people were cast out of the garden and replaced with comparatively docile upper- and upper-middle-class residents, the problems of the poor abated in the way that Moses envisioned.
The crimes of the poor degrade their neighborhoods, but the crimes of the wealthy enrich their neighborhoods. Whether the placid, enriched Upper West Side has any "vitality" is a question of aesthetics and philosophy that the author will leave for the reader to decide.
The first draft of this paper was initially written for the Political Economy of Cities course (URBG 787.18) in the Urban Affairs and Planning Department at Hunter College during the Summer of 2009. Special thanks to Prof. Brian Sahd for his insight and guidance.
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