There are many aspects to consider when constructing a city. One must think about the size of the population, the needs of the residents, and the purpose of the area. One must also consider the lives of the residents in these neighborhoods because they correspond to reality. In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs points to the importance of actually living in a city in order to determine its needs and highlights the negative aspects of changing a city without consulting the residents. Gloria Naylor also reflects the failures that could arise if one haphazardly constructs a neighborhood when she describes the setting of her novel, The Women of Brewster Place. Both of these works point to the fact that one must actively participate in and analyze a region instead of blindly erecting an aesthetically pleasing city.
Jacobs begins her book by stating that she will describe cities based on what she has seen first-hand through her experiences in the city, citing the need to see “how cities work in real life” (Jacobs 4). She acknowledges that one must be realistic in determining what will answer the desires of the current residents of a city. She notes that there have been many failures in constructing cities because those involved in the process did not live in the cities before attempting to change them; they based their decisions on idealistic conventions and on stereotypes: “Instead the practitioners and teachers of this discipline (if such it can be called) have ignored the study of success and failure in real life, have been incurious about the reasons for unexpected success, and are guided instead by principles derived from the behavior and appearance of towns, suburbs, tuberculosis sanatoria, fairs, and imaginary dream cities—from anything but cities themselves” (Jacobs 6), and, “The pseudoscience of city planning and its companion, the art of city design, have not yet broken with the specious comfort of wishes, familiar superstitions, oversimplifications, and symbols, and have not yet embarked upon the adventure of probing the real world” (Jacobs 13). Those who do not live in the city attempt to design a neighborhood that will answer their needs instead of the needs of those who are actually living in the region – an outsider is attempting to uproot the lives of those who currently inhabit these environments. The city planners do not care about the consequences of their choices; they are simply carrying out business transactions – they do not have any ties to the lives that they will alter by making these changes to the city: “Bankers, like planners, have theories about cities on which they act. They have gotten their theories from the same intellectual sources as the planners. Bankers and government administrative officials who guarantee mortgages do not invent planning theories nor, surprisingly, even economic doctrine about cities” (Jacobs 11-12). Bankers, planners, government officials, architects, and other involved in the process of building a city do not have any bonds with the citizens of the area and are not influenced by their concerns or by their desired functions for the city; these professionals only take into account the requirements of their positions and completing their tasks. In this estranged bubble that the professionals construct for themselves, they demonstrate their ignorance of the needs of the residents when they base a city’s construction solely on its appearance. Because of this isolated stance, the builders seek to recreate what they have seen and what they expect to be a utopian area, most often abhorring the sight of well-traveled streets:
The street is bad as an environment for humans; houses should be turned away from it and faced inward toward sheltered greens…The presence of many other people is, at best, a necessary evil, and good city planning must aim for at least an illusion of isolation and suburbany privacy. The Decentrists also pounded in Howard’s premises that the planned community must be islanded off as a self-contained unit, that it must resist future change, and that every significant detail must be controlled by the planners from the start and then stuck to. Jacobs 20
The city planners view their task of creating a city as creating a city that they themselves would enjoy, not a city that the actual citizens would enjoy. Thus, they completely ignore the benefits of the street and see it as a breeding ground for violence and for unsightly appearances; they do not see that the street is the meeting place for neighbors and children. Because the city planners do not base their decisions on the reality of the needs of the residents, they seek to create a utopian environment that is based solely on aesthetics.
In the beginning of her work, Naylor describes the creation of Brewster Place as a simple business scheme that was based on political agreements and on monetary desires:
Brewster Place was the bastard child of several clandestine meetings between the alderman of the sixth district and the managing director of Unico Realty Company. The latter needed to remove the police chief of the sixth district because he was too honest to take bribes and so had persisted in harassing the gambling houses the director owned. In turn, the alderman wanted the realty company to build their new shopping center on his cousin’s property in the northern section of town. They came together, propositioned, bargained, and slowly worked out the consummation of the respective desires. As an afterthought, they agreed to erect four double-housing units on some worthless land in the badly crowded district. Naylor 1
The founders of Brewster Place were only concerned with their own interests in the project and did not consider the needs of the citizens nor the effects that the community would have on the surrounding area. Instead of building the neighborhood with the interests of others in mind, the men only thought of themselves and of the benefits that they would receive. Because the men created the community without properly considering the growth that would occur or the preferences of the residents, a wall had to be erected, thus isolating the street from the rest of the area: “The boulevard became a major business district, but in order to control traffic some of the auxiliary streets had to be walled off…So the wall came up and Brewster Place became a dead-end street…Cut off from the central activities of the city, the street developed a personality of its own” (Naylor 2). If the city planners had lived in the area of their proposed project, then they would have realized that there was not enough space to foster a community that would welcome everyone. Furthermore, the neighborhood’s wall separates it from the rest of the city and prevents its benefiting from what the rest of the city has to offer, thus leading to its eventual degradation: “The brightness of the unclouded sky seemed to…[highlight] every broken stoop railing and missing brick. The afternoon sun glittered and cascaded across even the tiniest fragments of broken bottle, and at that very moment the wind chose to rise up again, sending unswept grime flying into the air, as a stray tin can left by careless garbage collectors went rolling noisily down the center of the street” (Naylor 76). As Brewster Place was left to determine its own destiny because it was secluded, it fell into disrepair because its location was undesirable and no one bothered to integrate it into the rest of the area.
There are many similarities between Jacobs’ and Naylor’s observations, all centering around the necessity to encounter a city firsthand in order to determine its needs. First, both Jacobs and Naylor cite the fact that outside professionals who focus on their own agendas without taking an interest in the wellbeing of a city are not the best candidates for city planners. Second, they note the possibility of failure that could arise if an idealistic planner constructs a city instead of having an actual citizen undertake the job. Third, the authors highlight the aesthetic aspect of a street as a determinant of the neighborhood’s success. It is depressing to think that cities are still being built in this manner, when it is obvious that it will lead to disappointment for the residents.