Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Encountering a city in relation to Jacobs' analysis

Encountering a city means that one experiences both the good and the bad that the area has to offer. No city is perfect. Jane Jacobs, in her The Death and Life of Great American Cities, repeats numerous times that one must prevent a city from failure, as the city will thus become undesirable. I believe, on the other hand, that this cycle of life and death of a city is crucial to its development and to its history. As one delves into the reasons for a city’s failure, one learns about the potential that the area once had and the opportunities that could arise there in the future.

Jacobs, in her analysis of cities, gives many descriptions of the deaths that a city could encounter, highlighting in the second half of the book the lack of diversity that results from success. Jacobs states that each successful city eventually decays due to replication and to the lack of diversity that occurs: “Thus, from this process, one or few dominating uses finally emerge triumphant…From this point on, the locality will gradually be deserted by people using it for purposes other than those that emerged triumphant from the competition—because the other purposes are no longer there…In time, a place that was once so successful and once the object of such ardent competition, wanes and becomes marginal” (Jacobs 243). As people recognize the economic opportunities that are available in a certain area, they build their own versions of the desired establishments, thus leading to increasing competition and to a need to relocate, which further leads to desolation in the sections as the residents do not see the novelty that the first business once had. There is no remaining diversity in the area because there are only duplications of the existing organizations. According to Jacobs, this lack of diversity then leads to “pockets of nothing much at all, places which the most intensive new combinations of diversity have by-passed or over which they have leapfrogged…There is space here, but nothing to catalyze uses for it” (Jacobs 248). Instead of having these sections of constant replications, Jacobs states, there needs to be an incentive to move these businesses to other areas which might have a need for their purposes: “The problem is to hamper excess duplications at one place, and divert them instead to other places in which they will not be excess duplications, but healthy additions…They must be places where the use concerned will have an excellent opportunity for sustained success” (Jacobs 252). Only if establishments place themselves in unique locations will they be able to prosper because they will be the only providers of a service that benefits a community. Jacobs highlights the trend that duplicating businesses leads to degradation in an area because the residents will not see the novelty that the organizations bring and thus will leave the section to die from competition.

Jacobs’ error lies in her inability to notice that a city’s failures in the past form an important part of the area’s history and can be an indicator of the possibilities that could uplift the city. Jacobs never delves into the history surrounding the cities’ businesses, only stating that they arrived, they multiplied, they destroyed diversity, and they died – there is no analysis as to why these particular organizations decided to found themselves in that certain area. For example, a bookstore may have chosen its location because it was close to a prosperous elementary school. Thus, other bookstores decided to take advantage of the advantageous location and built their establishments there. Jacobs only focuses on the second part of this example, where the stores duplicate themselves, instead of focusing on the fact that there was a particular school in the area that needed their services. The crucial point of this history lies in the school – the center of the city’s future in that it provides an education to the children who will shape the city in the years to come. One needs to research this failure of the bookstores in order to understand that area of the city. Failure is part of a city’s history. Encountering a city lies in encountering both its prosperous and its decaying sections. One needs to delve deeper in an area in order to unearth its past, even if this past includes failure. The study of history is based on success and on failure. One can learn from both of these. Moreover, this cycle of life and death is necessary in order to ensure that progress and maturity occur in the area. If a city remains the same, there is no guarantee that it will survive. It is this constant state of change that garners people’s attention. Furthermore, nowhere does Jacobs state that these businesses that were once crowded-out could return to the open pocket in order to once again cause the area to strive. She just assumes that they will lay in decay forever. She demonstrates no hope for the ability of the residents to come to the deserted section with a new idea that may alleviate its current situation. In addition to negating the value of a decaying area, Jacobs also ignores the possibilities of rebirth and of re-growth that could result from destruction.