Jane Jacobs: Tale of Epaminondas – and a Tale from Fortune
The planning has started again for “Jane’s Walks” – scheduled for May 4-5 this year:
Do you have a story to tell? Do you know your neighbourhood like the back of your hand? or perhaps you’re a recent newcomer and can share your experience of learning about your new city? Do you have an idea for a fun, informative, unusual way of looking at cities and neighbourhoods? You could lead a Jane’s Walk!
Looking back at some old files, I came across this fascinating text from Jane Jacobs at the time she was fighting Robert Moses over a road extension through Washington Square Park. In some places, it could be as relevant today as it was in 1958.
You all know the story about the little boy, Epaminondas, whose mother put a note in his hat, told him to keep it safe there and deliver it to his grandmother. When his grandmother then gave him a pat of butter, Epaminondas carefully put it into his hat, and arrived home with trickles of butter running down his neck. ‘Oh, Epaminondas’, said his mother, ‘you should have wrapped it in green leaves and doused it in the spring water on your way home’.
On his next visit to his grandmother, Epaminondas was given a puppy dog, which he of course wrapped in green leaves and doused in the spring on his way home.
On his next visit he dragged home a loaf of bread on a string, because that is what he should have done with the puppy dog. And so on. Epaminondas was great at learning from experience. He just kept picking the wrong experience.
Do you know what Epaminondas became when he grew up? He became a city traffic commissioner.
He pushed just as many cars, just as fast as he could, through the downtown [city centre] streets
because he had learned that was what you do with cars on a highway. He got the city fathers to
condemn blocks of small shops near department stores for parking space, because he had been told
there was always parking space near department stores out in the suburbs. He made life very inconvenient for bus riders by converting all the downtown streets to one-way, because that made the streets operate more like parkways, and he knew parkways are a success in the country.
He made life more inconvenient for people actually using the downtown – for pedestrian shoppers, people on their way to lunch, people in a rush to see a man across the street about a deal, people strolling from dinner to a show – by cutting down the number of places they could cross the street, making them wait longer to cross it, and inundating them with cars, cars, cars.
And while the downtown trickled off like melted butter, Commissioner Epaminondas determinedly closed his eyes to the real nature of the strange area he was dealing with, and searched for still more experience from the open highway and the suburbs to guide him on his next move. He was cheered on by some of the leading downtown merchants, who had the illusion that they would make better in an imitation of a tenth-rate suburb than in a first-rate downtown.
It is impossible to talk about downtown planning, the topic I have been asked to speak on, without
talking about traffic. Because how we handle traffic and transportation is going to determine – is
already determining – whether we shall have any downtowns worth planning in the future. As Francis Belle has pointed out in his Fortune article, ‘The City and the Car’, if we attempted to provide parking space in the largest cities for all the motorists who want to come to them, there wouldn’t be anything left worth coming to.
And if we attempt to admit an even larger and larger number of the cars that want to come, there will not be anything left worth coming to either. This is the issue behind the fight which citizens of Greenwich Village have been waging against a scheme to run a highway through Washington Square Park (left), for example. The object of this resistance, in which it now appears we shall be successful, is to save from traffic blight the heart of an area that is now so attractive to visitors that it supports, among many other things, more than four hundred restaurants.
But some of us are equally concerned about the effect on Fifth Avenue, for the park highway link would make possible and probable the conversion of this major shopping street into a one-way artery to the bridges and tunnels of downtown Manhattan.
Before concluding that it was in the best interests of both the area and the city to close this part to traffic instead, and thus discourage growth of traffic in the area, a group of planners to which I belong took a look into the future. Using the projection of 10% increase in traffic annually, a figure given us by Deputy Traffic Commissioner Gravelle, we found (in 1958) that each of the major avenues would reach capacity by at least 1970, and several of them much sooner, even if every avenue were made one-way, signal cycles adjusted, all parking eliminated, sidewalks narrowed to the minimum and trees cut down.
“At present only 17% of those entering Manhattan south of 59th Street use private cars; we concluded it was not very sensible to wreck such havoc on the city for 100% of its users, simply to stave off the car saturation point a few more years and a few more percentage points. Even if a smaller figure of annual increase is predicated, it simply advances the saturation point a few more years, and the ultimate result is just as clear and just as destructive and futile.
Down in Greenwich Village we are as progressive as anybody. Sometimes we are accused of being too progressive. But we concluded that piling in more cars, to the detriment of every other city value – and as a mere stop-gap measure at that – is no more progress than erosion is progress.”
- Jane Jacobs, Address to the New York State Motorbus Association, Nov 10, 1958
And speaking of New York, traffic and 1958, here’s a reprint of a ‘Classic Fortune’ article from that year: The great highway program
… a September, 1958, look at the birth of the interstate highway system. The article calls out a number of issues that were then being minimized but that would plague communities for decades, such as the fact that the highway engineers were building roads for speed, cost and convenience, as opposed to thinking about neighborhoods being paved over. Or that building the system was just the start of the costs to come.
Great illustrations, too:
The highway is open to traffic, but the job is never done. As the cars roar by, a repairman mounted on a mobile ladder fixes a faulty light. Maintenance, of course, can get a lot more complicated. Repairing worn pavement is a major item and there is an expensive snow-removal job every winter. Over twenty-five years a highway’s maintenance bill amounts to about a tenth of its original cost, and federal aid helps pay for none of it. Before long, the extra traffic generated by the new highway will produce new jams, like the one beneath the overpass. The engineers and surveyors will start all over again on a new highway.