Jane Jacobs was one of the great urban theorists of the twentieth century, and an enormously provocative thinker. (Her Systems of Survival is one of my all-time favorite books–in my opinion, right up there with the Death and Life of Great American Cities.)
A recent article about Jacobs focused on a less-well-known aspect of her work: her abiding concern about the fragility of democracy.
As the author noted,
Urban life was Jacobs’s great subject. But her great theme was the fragility of democracy—how difficult it is to maintain, how easily it can crumble. A city offered the perfect laboratory in which to study democracy’s intricate, interconnected gears and ballistics. “When we deal with cities,” she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), “we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense.” When cities succeed, they represent the purest manifestation of democratic ideals: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” When cities fail, they fail for the same reasons democracies fail: corruption, tyranny, homogenization, overspecialization, cultural drift and atrophy.
The article began with a description of an Appalachian village–Higgins, North Carolina–where Jacobs’ aunt was a social worker. The town was a depressing example of decline, an example of civic failure that evidently deeply concerned Jacobs.
In a year when American democracy has courted despotism, Jacobs’s work offers a warning and a challenge. Her goal was never merely to enlighten urban planners. In her work she argued, with increasing urgency, that the distance between New York City and Higgins is not as great as it seems. It is not very great at all, and it is shrinking.
Jacobs’ first book, Constitutional Chaff was a compilation of failed proposals from the Constitutional Convention of 1787, such as a third house of Congress and direct election of a Senate that never went out of session. In the introduction to the book, Jacobs argued that this diversity of conflicting perspectives “reflected the soul of American democracy as vividly as the ratified document itself did.”
In her “magnum opus,” The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs argued that a city–or for that matter, a neighborhood– absolutely requires diversity: “diversity of residential and commercial use, racial and socioeconomic diversity, diversity of governing bodies (from local wards to state agencies), diverse modes of transportation, diversity of public and private institutional support, diversity of architectural style.” She also insisted that concentrating numbers of people in relatively small areas, far from being problematic, is the foundation of healthy communities. Dense, varied populations are desirable, Jacobs wrote,
because they are the source of immense vitality, and because they do represent, in small geographic compass, a great and exuberant richness of differences and possibilities, many of these differences unique and unpredictable and all the more valuable because they are.
If vitality comes from diversity, decline comes from homogeneity. Early indicators of decline in places like Higgins–a decline we increasingly see in small towns across many states, including Indiana–are :
“cultural xenophobia,” “self-imposed isolation,” and “a shift from faith in logos, reason, with its future-oriented spirit … to mythos, meaning conservatism that looks backwards to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview.” She warns of the profligate use of plausible denial in American politics, the idea that “a presentable image makes substance immaterial,” allowing political campaigns “to construct new reality.” She finds further evidence of our hardening cultural sclerosis in the rise of the prison-industrial complex, the prioritization of credentials over critical thinking in the educational system, low voter turnout, and the reluctance to develop renewable forms of energy in the face of global ecological collapse.
The article’s conclusion brings the lesson home.
No reader of Jacobs’s work would be surprised by the somewhat recent finding by a Gallup researcher that Donald Trump’s supporters “are disproportionately living in racially and culturally isolated zip codes and commuting zones.” These zones are latter-day incarnations of Higgins: marooned, amnesiac, homogenous, gutted by the diminishment of skills and opportunities. One Higgins is dangerous enough, for both its residents and the republic to which it belongs. But the nation’s Higginses have proliferated to the point that their residents have assumed control of a major political party.
Assuming voters successfully “vote blue no matter who,” one of the multitude of daunting tasks a new administration must undertake is the rescue of small-town America.
I have no idea how.