nomad economics: wandering with the 99%

… it was the small is beautiful view that Jane Jacobs professed. The city, the urban space was a piece of female architecture, a metaphor for woman and it was being terribly abused. Raped, violated and beaten, it was only a question of when the trauma would succumb under the repeated blows to an ignominious death. The city was the pinnacle of the white male power structure and its space would have to be optimized to provide the maximum economic benefit. The donut effect of Robert Moses led to the inevitable collapse socially, but economically was expansive. Not that the theories of Jacobs were economically neutral; they simply implied a re-working of the Veblen notion of status and distinction within new contexts, and one which Americans were not prepared for; the fleeing American wanted his lebensraum too, wanted to partake in his own expression of the American frontier, pushing the boundaries of the American Dream in each their own small way.

---Sloan's canvas portrays the entrance to the Hotel Lafayette, located at 9th Street and University Place in Greenwich Village, which was a popular haunt for the neighborhood's writers and artists, including Sloan. Descending on the the hotel's double awning-covered stairways is a group of genial people who are finishing their dinner conversations as a doorman hails a distinctive New York yellow Checker taxicab. In his 1944 book Gist of Art, Sloan lauded the hotel: "To the passerby not looking for modern glitter, it has always had a look of cheer and comfort, particularly on such a wet evening as this."--- Read More:

Jacobs represented a return to the Old Country, a European aesthetic based on Charles Baudelaire. But John Q. Public did not view himself as the Poet as rag Picker or the Poet as Fencer or the Poet as flaneur. They wanted the hollywood, the mythological, the white picket fence and James Stewart and Henry Fonda types as neighbors. So, decisions are based on economics, but the American urban condition and its flight to the burbs’ , shopping centers etc. was an ideological choice and an unwillingness to mix with the non-white. It was Rabbit Redux and the world of John Updike. Allan Ginsberg and Kerouac and Kazan were just decoration; window dressing as nominal diversity for mass culture. Socialism was a dead loss for middle Americans who have to pay the heavy lifting of the tax burden and individualism and the frontier myth did not mean subsidizing public transit for the urban poor. But Jacobs was still right, which being from the far left is ironic. Her vision of the trendy neighborhood chic sections lends itself to a gentrification and Yuppie-izing of the urban setting invoking the deepest predatory instincts and invidious comparisons explored by Veblen. But also Veblenian is the status and distinction accorded by sheer waste and destruction, public money poorly spent, siphoned off, grotesque extravagance and architectural vulgarity as long as its expensive, followed by charities and non-profits headed by the extremely wealthy to look into these problems they have helped create. If there were no problems, the necessity of extensive government intervention into the urban public space advocated by Jacobs could not be realized.

The story is well known – a classic David and Goliath. Jacobs, a housewife, mother and part-time architectural journalist, had been drawn into the campaign to prevent New York’s dictatorial planning boss Robert Moses – who had already ripped up swaths of the city – from driving a highway through her native Greenwich Village. She decided to write a book. But her book did not just dwell, negatively, on the harm New York’s car-obsessed, modern-minded planners were doing. Building on close observation of her own and other neighbourhoods, she mounted a thorough and original defence of traditional city forms against both the garden city movement and modernist city planning. She argued that dense, mixed-income mixed-used neighbourhoods, designed around short city blocks with busy amenity-lined streets and small parks, had a huge range of benefits unappreciated by modern urban planners, who mistakenly associated the old city with all the evils of the 19th-century slum….

---As Sharon Zulkin argues in her recent book Naked City, "Jacobs romanticised social conditions that were already becoming obselete by the time she wrote about them." But that doesn't detract from the usefulness of Bernie when he's reconsidered as a lesson in writing. "The social structure of pavement life hangs partly on what can be called self-appointed public characters," Jacobs writes. She is not – of course – employing the term "character" here in the literary sense, but for our purposes she might as well be. Nearly all novelists will have learned to make use of "public characters": secondary figures who can plausibly appear in almost any part of the book, who have good reasons for making those appearances, and who can therefore help to knit together all the curly fibres of a slightly disorganised narrative.--- Read More:

…There is a direct line between Veblen and Jacobs, and it runs through Veblen’s most famous student Lewis Mumford. Mumford was an early supporter of Jacobs, but turned on her quickly, her first book tore into the Garden City movement, an idea dear to Mumford’s heart. A first book, Death and Life of Great American Cities (1992, originally 1961) that defined her fame as completely and thoroughly as Veblen’s first Theory of the Leisure Class (1994, originally 1899). You can call them the pop hits, although in the end both works are fully justified in their successes. The radical americanism blooms early and with good reason, at it’s root lies a deep empiricism, an intensive reliance on extensive observation. Both “Death and Life” and “Leisure Class” are epic navigations through the heart of American culture, and the authors never quite got it up to repeat the process with anything close to that initial intensity…. Read More:

Of course Jacobs did not get it all right. She exaggerated the importance of urban form in shaping larger social developments – but so do most planners. And she thought urban conservation would always serve the interests of the working class, when too often it has become a middle-class nimbyist cause. As Edward Glaeser argues in his new book Triumph of the City, working-class people have largely been squeezed out of the sort of urban neighbourhoods Jacobs defended, and the middle class who now dominate them are too often allowed to stop developments that might enable poorer people to move back in.

---Rouse argued that big plans could give the world exciting new communities. Jacobs said big plans lead to big mistakes and stifle imagination and alternatives. Rouse claimed big plans avoid wasteful haphazard piecemeal development. Jacobs saw big plans as routinizers, formulas, smootherers. This was 1980. Jacobs had long before helped defeat Robert Moses on three city-changing projects. Her efforts accelerated his demise. She was world-famous for several books. But she didn’t for one moment think that what she had to say was heard with the same impact as it would have been if her words were spoken by men. Too many people today claim they plan according to Jacobs' precepts while embracing Robert Moses’ pursuit of big, bold visions. Jacobs, of course, thought big too, but in a different way from Moses – not big demolition and car-based projects but big physical and social infrastructure like mass transit and library systems or big urban networks of smaller components like interconnected neighborhoods.--- Read More:

…In their radical americanism Jacobs and Veblen stand nearly alone as thinkers willing to dive into the middle, to attempt to take Darwin’s’ thinking into the realm of the social, to see new entities that European thought never fully grasped….

But time and experience has vindicated most of Jacobs’ claims. Her arguments that relatively dense, lively city neighbourhoods tend to discourage crime, foster inter-generational and inter-ethnic integration and promote “social capital” have become received wisdom – though it took the police and local authorities a long time to catch up with her and not all of them are there yet. (Jacobs would have hated gated communities and commercially owned “public realm”, just as she would have opposed the spread of CCTV. She would have been appalled by the poor quality and mean character of many of the flats that have been built in the last decade.) Read More:

---In 1969 Jacobs moved to Toronto, and was involved in stopping the Spadina Expressway, arguing that cities are for people not cars. Although cited as the originator of the term “social capital,” Jacobs’ concept of urban development is the struggle by neighbourhoods for “self-government,” and her ideas are far removed from advocating accum

ion of any kind of capital.--- Read More:

…Jane Jacobs and Thorstein Veblen stand, cut relatively free from indoctrination of European intellectual tradition, and looking at our economic world they see it units that few others have ever noticed. You can think of it as a radical multiplication of possibilities. Rather than the calculus of just individuals, selfishly maximizing their own utility, you have an environment filled with fascinating economic institutions. Private property and joint stock companies. Commons and co-ops. Neighborhoods and trade unions. Family trusts and perhaps the last feudal
fief remaining in Europe on the isle of Sark. Tax exempt organizations and local vigilantes. Veblen and Jacobs identify and explore a few of these in their writings, sometimes with great even stunning insight and sometimes with a maddening lack of rigor. But what it is really crucial, what is so completely liberating is the potential embedded in their world view. Perhaps they never even realized it but in their Radical Americanism they can free us from the economics bound to hedonistic individuals on one side, a formless omnipresent society on another and the equally persistent nation state on one more. If there is a way forward towards a better economy it is in this middle ground, big enough to not just be individuals alone, but small enough to grasp and work with. Its a future in vibrant neighborhoods, institutions of trust, and experimental organizations. A future of multiplying possibilities. Read More:

---Sempe---Early on, Jacobs says: "Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvellous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of pavement use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance." But the art form of the city is not really dance. The art form of the city, described so well in that passage, is the novel. Read More: image:

JHK: Well, it seems to me that American life has changed very little in that regard. In fact I actually go around on the lecture circuit telling audiences that we are a wicked people who deserved to be punished…and I am not religious. So what was your state of mind. Were you ticked off at American culture? Was it the culture of civic design? Was it Robert Moses? Was it some combination of those things? Was it the Bauhaus? What was it that was getting under your skin in those days?

JJ: Well what was getting immediately under my skin was this mad spree of deceptions and vandalism and waste that was called urban renewal. And the way it had been adopted like a fad and people were so mindless about it and so dishonest about what was being done. That’s what ticked me off, because I was working for an architectural magazine and I saw all this first hand and I saw how the most awful things were being excused….

…Now that was real dishonesty. And they were documenting stuff for it. The other was one who was just greatly respected, a well known architect who could give his opinion that this area should go. And he told me that on the whole those buildings were so well constructed that they were undoubtedly better than anything that would ever be erected in their place. Now, he also said that some of the buildings were just so beautifully detailed that it was heartbreaking that they must be wrecked. And yet both of these architects knew better, but supported the destruction of that area.

JHK: But isn’t that the whole tale of the mid-20th century? That scores and scores of architects and planning ficials went along with something that was really pernicious?

JJ: T hat’s right and they did it dishonestly. And how could they justify that. Because I would argue with them about these things. They could justify it because urban renewal was a greater good, so they would bare false witness for this greater good. Why was this a greater good? Everybody knew it because slums are bad. But this isn’t a slum. Oh well. You know, the whole thing. They didn’t care how things worked anymore. That was part of it. That was part of what was making me so angry. Also they didn’t seem to care what part truth and untruths had in these things. That’s part of how things work. And do you care about it….


Moses may have gotten a lot done, built a great deal in the name of “the people”, but the truth is that he wanted little to do with the people who would live in the city he created. Their voices were dispensable, their homes were dispensable. And that is why he couldn’t conceive of the importance of neighborhoods.

Jacobs, on the other hand, knew that if you neglect neighborhoods, you do so at the city’s peril. People who no longer have faith in the future of the place in which they were brought up or where they are raising a family, will, if they can afford it, leave for a more predictable, safer place. Read More:

Read More:

Read More:

Read More:

The Situationists’ engagement with city life included a practice they called the dérive. The dérive, an exploration of urban neighborhoods, a version of the nineteenth-century tradition of the flâneur, and an inversion of the bourgeois promenade of the boulevards (concerned as the latter was with visibility to others, while the flâneur’s was directed toward his own experience), hinged on the relatively free flow of organic life in the neighborhoods, a freedom from bureaucratic control, that dynamic element of life also powerfully detailed by Lefebvre and Jane Jacobs. Both Baudelaire and Benjamin gave the flâneur prominence, and by the end of the twentieth century the flâneur was adopted as a favored, if minor, figure for architects wishing to add pedestrian cachet to projects such as shopping malls that mimic public plazas—thus closing the book on the unadministered spaces that the Situationists, at least, were concerned with defending.

The Western art world has periodically rediscovered the Situationists, who presently occupy what a friend has described as a quasi-religious position, embodying every aspiring artist/revolutionary’s deepest wish—to be in both the political and the artistic vanguard simultaneously. The ghostly presence of the Situationists, including Debord, Asger Jorn, Raoul Vaneigem, and Constant, predictably took up residence at the moment the very idea of the artistic vanguard disappeared. The cautionary dilemma they pose is how to combat the power of “spectacle culture” under advanced capitalism without following their decision to abandon the terrain of art (as Duchamp had done earlier). Read More:

This entry was posted in Feature Article, Ideas/Opinion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>