Classic revisited

August 11, 2010

Years ago, the poet and essayist Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) would treat readers of the now defunct Saturday Review to a one- or two-page reconsideration of a literary classic — everything from The Epic of Gilgamesh, through the Greeks, onward to Chaucer, Cervantes, and Shakespeare, and ending with Kafka, Ford Madox Ford, and William Carlos Williams.

These wonderful essays, in which Rexroth tied the classics to modern life, were collected in two volumes, Classics Revisited (the name of the series) and More Classics Revisited. Rexroth's essay was the first thing I turned to when my Saturday Review arrived in the mail.

I bring this up because I've been re-reading another classic —The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. My original copy, purchased in 1967, has a broken binding, and I have to laugh at the price (when was the last time you saw a 458-page paperback for $1.95?)

What amazes me about Jacobs's book, first published in 1961 and still in print, is how much it still speaks to the issues of what makes cities great. True, we don't talk about "slum clearance" anymore. The author's archenemy, Robert Moses, is dead. Many of its examples, based largely on the author's life in New York City, today seem quaintly historic.

But if you wipe away the dated references and think about the book the way a theologian might approach a religious or philosophical text, there is a central core of wisdom in the restrained anger of her words. Jacobs tore down the prophets of urban dogma — "The Decentrists," epitomized by Lewis Mumford; Le Corbusier and his Radiant City; Ebenezer Howard and his apostles in the Garden Cities movement — who saw cities as messy, disorganized places that needed to be cleaned up and homogenized.

Instead, Jacobs offered a new testament of urban life, one that posited a more "organic" urban structure. She saw the value in density, which created environments that put "eyes on the street" and thereby made urban neighborhoods safer. She understood and described the complex social structure of city life in a way that no one had done before.

The central lessons of this book still apply. Jacobs was passionate about sidewalks as the means to nourish diversity in the urban experience. People need places to walk and poke around in, she wrote, so it was important to have streetfronts with retail stores and eateries and other diversions for pedestrians along their route.

Recently, however, I've been seeing condo projects going up where the developers, quite admirably, have put space for retail on the ground floor, most of which is being taken up by medical, dental, or legal offices. Believe me, there is nothing interesting about a law office. This kind of thing saps the life out of cities.

If you've never read The Death and Life of Great American Cities, I urge you to do so. If you have read it, but not recently, take an hour or so some evening to skim through it. It will be time well spent.


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