Monday, June 12, 2006

A Clash of Titans: Reflecting on the Evolution of the “Uneasy Alliance” Between Historic Preservationist and Urban Planner

The recent death of social activist and preservationist Jane Jacobs, at the age of 89, occasioned the usual round of reminiscences and reappraisals by cultural critics of her life’s work. Writing in an op-ed piece for the New York Times this past Sunday, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff suggested that wide-spread admiration for and devotion to the themes presented in her iconic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, has misguided public understanding of urban planning by indelibly casting it in opposition to historic preservation. More than forty years after the publication of her book, and perhaps to the chagrin of her acolytes, Ouroussoff wonders: Have we outgrown Jane Jacobs?

When even Tony Soprano, the mob boss protagonist in HBO’s popular series The Sopranos, expresses appreciation for the concept of community emblematic of distinct urban neighborhoods, it’s clear that the Jacobsen philosophy of place is alive and well in the national psyche. Tony’s commitment to old neighborhood values, however, conflicts with his sense of economic pragmatism. By the end of this week’s episode, he’s agreed to sell the property occupied by a favorite poultry shop to the Jamba Juice chain, thereby contributing to a policy of renewal in a gentrifying neighborhood.

Tony’s moral predicament reflects the current state of affairs in the long-term on-again, off-again alliance between preservation sensitivity and planning agendas. It demonstrates an odd inversion of Jane Jacobs’ urban stance. Superficially, the fabric of the community is intact, but merely as a decorative façade—pretty antique buildings housing national chain restaurants and retailers such as Jamba Juice, Starbucks, and Urban Outfitters. In reality, as well as in popular cable programming, our current urban experience is a curious conflation of intimate neighborhood and suburban homogeneity.

Historically, the dichotomy of preservationist and planner is nowhere more evident than in the striking contrast between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. Where Jacobs championed the intimate nature of the urban neighborhood in all its contextual complexity, Moses’ canvas was far more expansive, less localized. “The Moses vision of New York,” Paul Goldberger writes, “was less one of neighborhoods and brownstones than one of soaring towers, open parks, highways…not the sidewalks of New York, but the American dream of the open road.”

In fact, as master planner and builder, Moses’ legacy is writ large in nearly every arena of New York City’s urban environment. It’s paradoxical, therefore, that some of his most ambitious transportation plans for the city, some realized and others not, dismiss the vital fabric that defines its essential character. Jacobs’ profile as an urban activist was elevated stratospherically when she famously organized opposition to Moses’ plans for an expressway through some of Manhattan’s most storied downtown neighborhoods.

Moses’ treatment of New York City as a place to escape from on one’s way to the outlying towns and suburbs, as evidenced by the miles of transportation infrastructure lying across the island of Manhattan, is a plan whose time has come and gone. Today, while the suburbs claim vast numbers of the population, cities have long since reclaimed the affection and investment of those who once fled them.

In their article The Planner and the Preservationist An Uneasy Alliance, Birch and Roby discuss the evolution of a sometimes awkward and contentious relationship between two distinct groups. Preservationists and planners seem to occupy mutually exclusive arenas and promote different agendas, but the territory they seek to protect and use is the same. Considering that their ranks include monumental and mercurial figures such as Moses, the authors, both urban planners, treat their discipline a bit too kindly.

Characterized by starts and famous stops, most notably during the era of urban renewal and the proprietary battles between the likes of Jacobs and Moses, the high point of agreeability between preservationists and planners occurred in the 1970s. The political and cultural climate of that decade stimulated tax reforms and other incentives that benefited both groups leading to a happy union between the two disparate camps.

Written more than twenty years ago, it’s tempting to guess how the Birch and Roby’s sequel might typify the relationship today. And the question of whether we’ve outgrown Jane Jacobs might be better clarified as: how has Jane Jacobs been adapted to our own times?

In Washington, where over the past fifteen years the wide swath of downtown from Farragut North to Chinatown has been entirely transformed, a peculiar hybrid of planning and development and preservation has emerged. Recognizing the inherent beauty of some of its older buildings, city planners have allowed expansive commercial development behind and rising above historic façades. The effect from street level is one of present-day restaurants, bookstores, art galleries, furniture stores, and other retail outlets posing as quaint freshly scrubbed turn-of-the-century brick-fronted storefronts. Refurbished, renewed, and vibrant in all respects, one could hardly complain about the improved appearance resulting from the all-around gentrification.

In the area surrounding the convention center, Verizon Center, and the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian Art Museum (both currently undergoing extensive renovation) for instance, where old buildings weren’t plentiful because they’d already been demolished decades ago, facsimile structures were created. All of this development, sanctioned by city planners and ultimately benefiting all city residents economically, suggests a new phase in the often-difficult-to-assess relationship between preservationist and planner, and it raises some compelling questions; questions that have long engendered debate in the field of historic preservation. For Washingtonians, the most relevant of those questions is: “Is façadism preservation?” After all, it seems to be the most pervasive preservation technique enacted in our city today.

My take on it is this: Preservationists are complicit in a form of gentrification proposed by city planners, and expressed in the work of developers, that borrows the essence of Jane Jacobs’ philosophy while wrapping it in the kind of homogenization that arose from many of Moses’ most offensive enterprises. It seems that preservationists have made compromises, perhaps because we feared losing resources altogether, and ceded ground in ways that might not serve our urban communities or us over time.

Jane Jacobs wrote about the essential character of small urban neighborhoods, championing their integrity and promoting their longevity. Current planning policy in cities recognizes the value of the historic built environment integrated with the new primarily on a superficial level of aesthetics. Preservationists need to separate themselves from the superficial component of this kind of recognition. Our fight has been, and must continue to be, for a comprehensive historic urban experience distinguished not only by surface aesthetics but also the substantive components of diversity and complexity.

Photographs, top to bottom: Jane Jacobs, photographed by Bob Gomel, amid high-rise apartment buildings in New York City, 1963; Robert Moses, photographed in 1959 Arnold Newman—who died last week at age 88—on Roosevelt Island against Manhattan’s East River skyline