Urban Nostalgia

The Economy of Cities.
by Jane Jacobs.
Random House. 268 pp. $5.95.

Reading Jane Jacobs in New York in the summer of 1969 is, I imagine, a little like reading Walden in a Chinese commune. Mrs. Jacobs, former associate editor of Architectural Forum, has long been a critic of the steel and concrete style of grandiose urban renewal and a defender of the little neighborhood and the little shop; in The Economy of Cities, she has lifted the case for diversification to the level of economic theory. Yet her book often reads like a passion of worlds long gone, separated by continents and ages of time, a romance washed up from a distant shore, well reasoned, documented and persuasive, but mythic nonetheless. A fable of creation. Against the surliness of store clerks and bureaucrats, and against the brave new world of ABM and NASA, rises a cosmos of potters and saddlers, of pin makers and wheelwrights.

The Economy of Cities is not written as a romance; it is, indeed, a difficult and sometimes technical book, doubly unsettling because, first, it turns much of the conventional wisdom around, and, second, because it ends with an unresolved enigma. “Current theory,” Mrs. Jacobs writes, “assumes that cities are built upon a rural economic base. If my observations and reasoning are correct, the reverse is true: that is, rural economies, including agricultural work, are directly built upon city economies and city work.” The city work that is genuinely vital comes from small producers and tradesmen who can add “new work to older work,” rarely from huge units, and never in one-industry towns. Among her models—perhaps one should say heroes—are the bicycle manufactures of Tokyo who created an industry from the skills and experience of hundreds of little repair shops, and a New York dressmaker named Ida Rosenthal who, some forty years ago, became dissatisfied with the way her creations hung on her customers. Mrs. Rosenthal there-upon invented the brassiere and thus built the foundations of the Maidenform Company. In both instances new work was added to older work; in both, the entrepreneurs were small producers who shifted their activities; both reflect, according to Mrs. Jacobs, the vitality of cities.

The book is a chronicle of the economic mutations that take place in the healthy underbrush of urban diversity. Cities which specialize in one industry—Manchester in the 19th century, Pittsburgh or Detroit in the 20th—tend to stagnate because they do not have the interest or opportunities for diversification, for adding new work. Similarly, where guilds or large corporations monopolize certain activities, no development is possible; when they begin to lose their export markets (to other cities) they are unable to add new work. The highly efficient textile industry of Manchester was once regarded as the model of a bright future. But when the export market shrank there was no work to replace it and the city became a depressed town. Birmingham, on the other hand, was regarded as messy and inefficient, a collection of small enterprises in every area imaginable. Birmingham remains economically healthy, in Mrs. Jacobs's view, because it was able to replace lost exports with new work.

In the course of her argument Mrs. Jacobs effectively destroys conventional ideas about the vitality and function of cities. If great cities are dependent on harbors or waterways, then there should have been a metropolis at the mouth of the Connecticut River; and Jersey City would be as important as New York. And if cities depend initially on agriculture, then India would be wealthier than Japan. Agricultural wealth, she contends, is dependent on city work; on fertilizers and tools, on tractors and hybrid plants. The yeoman farmer has long been regarded as a creature of the romantic imagination. Mrs. Jacobs has further reduced him to an economic and technological parasite—send The Economy of Cities to your legislator before the mayor asks for his new appropriations upstate.


At bottom, though, despite its tough and persuasive reasoning, The Economy of Cities is a sort of urban pastorale. Mrs. Jacobs has always preferred diversity and small units to uniformity, and she has been highly influential in shaping the new wisdom in urban planning. In a way she rationalized and formalized what many people instinctively liked about cities: the little shops, the unexpected parks—all that came to be represented in the cliché of “the human scale.” In The Economy of Cities the possibilities for future vitality are placed squarely on the base of diversification. The future, if there is one, is not in the elimination of mass production but in the creation—often from presently ignoble occupations—of diversified new work. The junk dealer and trash collector may thus be the progenitors of a variety of entrepreneurs who convert waste and pollutants to useful products; the garment industry, making clothes for special tastes and markets, may be the model for other enterprises in which “variations are not a result of expanded volume in differentiated production but in which they are primary.” Which is to say that the product is only feasible (a dress, or a hat, for example) if it is different from others of its kind. The mass production item (e.g. the automobile) is only feasible because it is mass produced. We had always assumed that mass production was the ultimate form of economic organization, Mrs. Jacobs writes. But perhaps it's just another phase.


Clearly Mrs. Jacobs has a message for economic planners, and especially for Americans trying to bring the blessings of prosperity to the underdeveloped world (whether in Harlem or in Afghanistan). But just as clearly they have something to say back to her. Do all cultures behave the same way under similar economic conditions? Do the conditions that produce stagnation according to one set of criteria generate vitality according to another? Is there a relationship between, say, the vitality of Birmingham and the novels of Dickens, or between the economic activity of medieval Paris and the cathedral at Chartres? And what is the relation among economic vitality, slums, and sweatshops? How many generations of deprivation precede the new entrepreneur? Does the exploitation of factory workers in Lowell and Lawrence, Mass., in the 19th century necessarily precede Ida Rosenthal's brassiere? Why is it that the German economy appears to be vital while the British economy is sick? Did we revitalize the Germans (and the Japanese) by flattening their cities, and destroying the old political and economic order? Mrs. Jacobs properly points out that stagnant economies export capital and/or devote it to civic adornment and “all sorts of philanthropies, extravagances, and displays of vainglory.” (She believes, incidentally, that the economy of the United States “is in process of stagnating.”) To her, Henry Ford assembling automobiles from the works of little machine shops, body shops, and other manufacturers is far more noble than the Ford Foundation which, in her view, is dispensing capital to the wrong people in the wrong way. But is the test of vitality always in the marketplace? And if size tends generally to be an obstacle to development, how do you accumulate and organize the vast resources required to produce and manage cyclotrons, data systems, and moon shots?


The final enigma of The Economy of Cities comes almost as an afterthought (on the next-to-last page): “What kinds of government . . . [can keep open] the opportunities for economic and technological development instead of closing them off?” Which is to say, what is the relationship of this world, the world of conglomerates, missiles, urban hostility, and suburban sprawl, to the world of small entrepreneurs and shops? Is there a way of getting from here to there; is that way the same for all cultures and conditions; and is the trip one that everybody really wants to make? The Economy of Cities is a tough and surely an important book. But its significance may rest more in its sentimental vision of a vigorous and perhaps mythic past than in a complete and uncompromising confrontation with the problems of civility and health in contemporary urban life. In an age of supercorporations, superstates, and guerrilla warfare, a vision of cities as centers of decentralized enterprise may signal, more than anything else, the wish of megalopolis for the simple life: perhaps The Economy of Cities is the scenario of John Lindsay's dreams.

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