Front Page Titles (by Subject) JOHN WEICHER, Conservatives, Cities, and Mrs. Jacobs - New Individualist Review
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
JOHN WEICHER, Conservatives, Cities, and Mrs. Jacobs - Ralph Raico, New Individualist Review 
New Individualist Review, editor-in-chief Ralph Raico, introduction by Milton Friedman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this publication is held by Liberty Fund, Inc. The New Individualist Review is prohibited for use in any publication, journal, or periodical without written consent of J. M. Cobb, J. M. S. Powell, or David Levy.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Conservatives, Cities, and Mrs. Jacobs1
FOR MANY YEARS, conservative political theorists and practical politicians, attempting to demonstrate the relevance of their beliefs to the twentieth century, have regularly run into the rebuttal, “But you don’t have any solutions to city problems. What you say about states’ rights or self-reliance, or individualism, used to be valid, but it isn’t now when most Americans are living in cities and super-cities. What are you going to do about them?”
Conservatives and libertarians have seldom had an answer. Many of them tend to regard cities as things to be avoided; advocates of this view range from philosophers in solitary retreats to small-town politicians denouncing Big City Democratic Machines. Others have said the only problem is that conservatives just haven’t tried to organize and sell their message in cities. This is true enough. But one reason they have not tried is that nobody has told the organization what to say; nobody has worked out implications of conservatism or libertarianism for cities. About the only talking point conservatives have had is that property taxes are too high. If they have opposed urban renewal, it has been because they don’t like Federal intervention in local affairs, and they have offered no substitute plan for dealing with the obvious problems confronting our cities.
Although it was not her intention, Jane Jacobs has gone far toward providing conservatives with an urban program. Mrs. Jacobs says little about politics, and what she does say is not particularly conservative; she favors government subsidies for low-income housing, for example. But her politics are not important, and her book is. The Death and Life of Great American Cities is permeated with conservative and free-market attitudes. As she castigates the planners of housing-project Utopias that leave no room for their inhabitants to make any plans of their own, one is reminded of Edmund Burke: “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs. When I hear the simplicity of contrivance aimed at and boasted of in any new political constitutions, I am at no loss to decide that the artificers are grossly ignorant of their trade, or totally ignorant of their duty.” Mrs. Jacobs says much the same thing. “City processes in real life are too complex to be routine, too particularized for application as abstractions. They are changes made up of interaction among unique combinations of particulars.” Her whole book is an elaboration upon two themes: “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and Burke’s statement, “I must see the things, I must see the men.” Mrs. Jacobs shows us the things and the men.
Diversity, she insists, makes a city or city neighborhood successful. The various components of this diversity support each other in creating liveliness. After an illuminating discussion of how city neighborhoods function socially, in which she establishes her case for diversity as a good things, Mrs. Jacobs gets to “the most important part of this book,” the four ingredients which generate it:
(1) A neighborhood must have two or more primary functions, in order that people are outdoors at different times for different purposes.
(2) It must have short blocks, so that streets are not isolated and the neighborhood can be knit together.
(3) It must have old as well as new buildings, in varying conditions.
(4) It must have a high density of population, both working and residential.
Each prerequisite—and almost every other statement in the book—is illustrated with examples from existing American cities, generally New York or others on the East Coast. I am inclined to wonder if Mrs. Jacobs’ apparent greater familiarity with Eastern cities may not have led her into a few mistakes. For instance, she sets the minimum density for her fourth prerequisite at 100 dwelling units to the net residential acre, a figure which is higher than now exists in most of Chicago. Mrs. Jacobs herself points out that the very successful Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood in Chicago has a density of “well under” 100, which she explains by pointing out that it covers a larger geographical area than the usual mile and a half square of most neighborhoods, and that it is politically powerful and skillful. As on most other subjects, Mrs. Jacobs has interesting things to say about city politics, including examples of how to fight City Hall and how to get money for gradual redevelopment of a neighborhood (instead of being blacklisted by banks or subjected to huge projects financed by “cataclysmic money”). But she does not suggest any special reasons why other neighborhoods could not be as politically potent as the Back-of-the-Yards, even if they were also below 100 dwelling units per acre.
However, with the way population is growing in this country, this question may become academic quickly; cities may have to be as dense as Mrs. Jacobs desires simply in order to absorb people. In the Chicago area, huge apartment houses are being proposed for the North Shore suburbs, which now contain only single-family homes.
The one important factor Mrs. Jacobs leaves out is race and ethnic background. She is quite right in pointing out that successful and unsuccessful neighborhoods are not those which keep Negroes out and let them in, respectively. When whites with freedom of choice leave a neighborhood, something is wrong with it, and the lower-income Negroes (or whites) who move in are an effect and not a cause of failure. But this is not the whole story.
Mrs. Jacobs credits the unionization of the packinghouse workers living in Back-of-the-Yards with helping to overcome the old nationality antagonisms and creating an effective district. My own impression is that anti-Negro feeling also played an important part. In 1956, I worked in a packing plant during the summer, when the Democratic National Convention was held in the International Amphitheatre two blocks away. A few days before the convention, the United Packinghouse Workers of America held a rally during the lunch break, at which officials of the UPWA and NAACP spoke. I asked another worker after the rally what it was all about, and he said, “They told us to support Harriman because Stevenson was against the Negroes.” He added, “If Stevenson is, he gets my vote.” This man represented the general attitude in the neighborhood, I think; certainly he was representative of the plant. Of course, people want to preserve a neighborhood because they like it, and not just to “keep the Negroes out,” but the latter motive can be a powerful catalyst in the process of preserving and upgrading a neighborhood. On the positive side, as Mrs. Jacobs admits, “strong city neighborhoods are frequently ethnic communities,” because one factor which can promote a sense of community is a common ethnic background. A series of articles in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1959, “Why Neighborhoods Stay Good,” noted that several of the successful neighborhoods were composed almost entirely of one or another nationality group. Probably in time this factor will become less and less important, but it does not seem accurate to ignore it now.
CITY PLANNERS get a thorough going-over in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Mrs. Jacobs attacks the concept of public housing projects, which destroy neighborhoods and call attention to the poverty of their residents. She offers a proposal that, for those who support the idea of subsidized housing, is far more rational than 15-story prison towers and “grass, grass, grass.” She also has some trenchant criticism of the accounting practices used in evaluating costs and benefits of public housing and urban renewal; a full accounting would include the losses of businessmen who are forced to leave the project area, being wiped out in the process and receiving next to nothing for their property. “They are subsidizing these schemes, not with a fraction of their tax money, but with their livelihoods, with their children’s college money, with years of their past put into hopes for the future—with nearly everything they have. . . . The community as a whole has not seen fit to bear that whole expense, and it is never going to. Redevelopment officials and housing experts blanch when it is suggested. . . . Were the involuntary subsidies which make these schemes possible included as public costs, the enlarged public costs would bear no conceivable relationship to anticipated tax returns [i.e., increased taxes from the improved area].
This is a familiar story in public finance. The Army Engineers have been notorious for their fantastically inflated estimates of benefits for public works projects, but cost-benefit studies of individual projects by competent academic economists have started to push the Engineers toward more realistic accounting. Similar results might be expected from studies of urban renewal projects which included the losses of businesses wiped out by the project and other costs now overlooked, particularly real estate taxes, which are now not charged on public housing. If, as Mrs. Jacobs believes, the additional costs make urban renewal projects totally uneconomic, then those who advocate them should either base their arguments on non-economic criteria, or else drop the projects altogether; justification by false accounting is the least defensible alternative.
MRS. JACOBS also has written the finest short discussion of Metropolitan Government that I know of. She points out that city governments currently are unable to solve the problems of inter-department communication, and that there is no point in creating still larger governmental units when the largest ones we now have are unfathomable bureaucratic labyrinths. What is needed is a system of geographic administrative districts within cities. In each district, locally, municipal services would be planned and coordinated, since it is on a local scale that most city planning is really carried out. The administrators of the police and other services would know their districts intimately; also, each district would be helped to function as a unit, politically and socially. Not all services could be so decentralized, of course, but many could be. I would be inclined to add one more to those Mrs. Jacobs mentions: schools, with locally-elected school boards. Mrs. Jacobs is critical of efforts to plan city neighborhoods on a basis of elementary school districts, but in Chicago, at least, the average public high school district contains about 80,000 to 90,000 people, which is just under her estimate of minimum effective district size. Schools can be effective means of unifying districts, particularly if local control is established.
I have mentioned just two of the areas in which Mrs. Jacobs clarifies a problem for us. In discussing automobiles, neighborhood parks, already-existing public housing, The Death and Life of Great American Cities offers new ideas. Moreover, from the number of quotations taken from urban specialists, one gets the impression that the ideas have been gradually occurring to the professional students of cities, so that we may see a revamping of current city planning within a reasonably short period of time; Mrs. Jacobs is a pioneer, but not a solitary one. In parts she is synthesizing the work of other people who have mentioned some of the points she makes. And this is all to the good, because we ourselves, the city dwellers, have made the mess we live in. “It is so easy to blame the decay of cities on traffic . . . or immigrants . . . or the whimsies of the middle class. The decay of cities goes deeper and is more complicated. It goes right down to what we think we want, and to our ignorance about how cities work.” “We have, therefore, no one to blame for this but ourselves.” Mrs. Jacobs has given us new visions and new techniques for achieving them. It may yet be that conservatives can show they have something relevant to say about cities, and all of us will find that cities are not inherently unmanageable, and can be made fit to live in.
[1 ] A review of Jane Jacoba, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961).
[* ] John Weicher is an Associate Editor of New Individualist Review.