“Citizen Jane: Battle for the City”

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

Jane Jacobs is coming to Tacoma!

Or at least a movie about her is coming to Tacoma (“Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” begins May 26 at the Grand Cinema).

Who is Jane Jacobs? Besides being the author of several books on the design, destruction and (possible) revival of American cities (Death and Life of Great American Cities, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, and Dark Age Ahead, among many others) she was the foremost advocate of creating a civil, affordable and yes, accessible urban atmosphere in New York City in the boom years of its urban renewal fever of the 1950s and ‘60s.

Her beliefs were radical – and obvious. Cities are for people – and should be designed to facilitate – not inhibit – near-constant, mostly informal, human connections. The more diverse and active city streets are, the safer they will be. As Jane put it, “This is something everyone knows: A well-used city street is apt to be a safe street. A deserted city street is apt to be unsafe.”

This principle applies to streets and neighborhoods as well as parks and any other public spaces

I always marvel at the resistance to making public space of all kinds open to people of all kinds, for all kinds of uses at all times of the day.

A city is made of the mix of uses and personalities, the random encounters of people only partially familiar with each other and even the mutually advantageous relations between strangers.

Most major cities have a central plaza or public square where people can linger without obligation or even need. A key premise of her urban philosophy is that people like to spend free time where there are other people. Isolated places tend to stay that way. Most of us get the unspoken message of why a place is abandoned or neglected.

Jane Jacobs would insist that every city has its own momentum – either thriving or declining. And her prescription for a thriving city is very simple – invite, or at least allow those impacted by decisions to participate in the decision-making process.

In Tacoma the past year or so, two of the most controversial issues (the proposed world’s largest methanol plant and the developments in the Proctor neighborhood) were ideal cases of how NOT to come to a long-term, mutually agreeable conclusion.

As Jane wrote, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

The worst enemy any neighborhood – or city – could have is the outside investor with no stake or even interest in the community. Developers have one objective in mind – maximizing their investment. Those of us who live in thriving neighborhoods know that enduring community takes time, not money; money can destroy community but it cannot build it.

We, the residents of a neighborhood, do the real investing – we put our lives and our future on the line for the neighborhood we call our own.

Too much of our city, and perhaps modern every city, is dedicated to cars. Note what Jacobs says in her book Dark Age Ahead: “Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities.”

Jane was a champion of walkability and insisted that the safest neighborhood was the one with the most “eyes” on it – street-facing windows and porches.

The pace of a neighborhood is its pulse. It should not be too fast or too slow. The pace should be a human – not mechanical pace. Children of all ages should be welcome and safe.

A healthy business community is one with a wide variety of businesses of different sizes – but mostly small and independent. As we have seen here, large investors come and dislocate our local economy – and then they leave and dislocate our economy again.

Our downtown has been largely empty for many years, even as our city leaders have courted, promised and even bribed (with massive multi-year tax breaks) large investors.

But what fills downtown Tacoma’s little corners and abandoned warehouses are surging artists and independent businesses. Some may not be here in a year or two, but some will certainly grow and expand and become permanent participants in and contributors to our community. Tacoma is a unique place; we do things our own way. We tolerate chain stores and generic fast food places, but they don’t speak to us and we don’t hang out there as we would at a locally owned place.

Notice how customers behave at Bluebeard’s on Sixth Avenue compared to a typical coffee stand. Look at the faces of people at the various farmers markets around town. And compare them to the faces of people at any given mall. It is obvious which places people enjoy and like to spend their time. It is equally obvious which places offer essential goods or services and shoppers spend as little time or money as possible there.

Big projects and look-alike housing units do not build neighborhoods or communities. But they can kill them.

Jacobs lobbied for preservation of old buildings and railed against housing or business built at the same time. Sterile cities and neighborhoods are home to no one.

Jacobs proposed short city blocks with multiple corners and appealing and attractive detours for pedestrians – tiny shops and alcoves tucked away from the major roadways.

I’ve seen some of the early plans for Tacoma. Many of them emphasize “thoroughfares” and “efficient traffic flows.” Their intent is to get people in – or out – of the city as quickly as possible. Their purpose is to “facilitate commute time” – certainly not to invite people to linger and make the most of their time here – and with others.

I love downtown Tacoma. I love its grand old buildings and their historic unique architecture. I love the tiny, innovative shops, cafes and occasional artistic flourishes, but the reality is that I almost never spend much time there. I either rush through or make one stop with the focus of my attention on the time left on my parking sticker.

This is no way to organize a welcoming city. A city that works is one where all feel welcome and safe, where the focus is on the food, service or camaraderie – where the experience is savored – not “efficient.”

As you drive, or even better, walk or bike, around Tacoma, take note of the streets and neighborhoods where you feel good – and welcome.

North Yakima in the North Slope neighborhood is one of my favorite streets. It has over-arching ancient trees (spectacular in the spring or fall, shady and cool in the summer), wide sidewalks and ample pedestrians. And it still works as a main arterial. Why can’t we have more streets like that?

And can’t we have more neighborhoods that welcome food trucks or carts? People love these and they inject much needed novelty, connection and energy into our lives and neighborhoods.

Jane Jacobs would argue that we should – and could. We are not all urban design professionals, but we all know what “works” and we all know what barren and sterile streets and neighborhoods do to the “feel” of a place.

In my neighborhood I see people out walking in all kinds of weather, every season and almost any time of day. I see kids, couples, runners and people with dogs or baby strollers. Each one of them, at their own pace and on their own agenda, makes the neighborhood a little more human.

Read Jane’s books or see her film and then let’s work together – and maybe even “battle” for our neighborhoods – to make Tacoma a city we can all be proud of and explore and enjoy with the ease and simplicity of a child.

For more details and to see a short preview, go to: http://www.grandcinema.com/films/citizen-jane-battle-for-the-city/ 

Photo by Morf Morford

Photo by Morf Morford