A few months ago, while hanging out with Maggie and Jamie, we got to talking about Jane Jacobs' book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I was intrigued by their description, and ordered a copy from the library. Turns out they did such a good job of summarizing it, I didn't really need to read the whole thing myself. I ended up reading only the first couple of chapters, but they've stuck with me.
Jacobs, writing in the early 1960s, talks about the misguided goals of urban planning, particularly how high rise housing in low-income neighborhoods are detrimental to a city's "life." She argues for the importance of sidewalk culture, pointing to the protective power of "eyes on the street." Unofficial patrols--old ladies sitting on their stoop, shopkeepers, kids playing in the street-- do the best job of keeping a neighborhood safe. Alternately, outdoor spaces that have been built in between housing projects with the idea that green space equals good space, have become dangerous sites for crime and drug use.
Yesterday I witnessed my own example of sidewalk culture. Upon returning from an early evening stroll with Sprout, I was met at the door to my building by John the Handyman. He had just applied a new coat of finish to the stairs, and it was still too wet to walk on. While waiting for it to dry, I sat with Sprout on the stoop. There are several familiar characters in my neighborhood, and one of my favorites is a sassy young-ish mom of two wild sons. She can be spotted strutting through the neighborhood, cigarette in hand, dyed orange hair slicked back into a tight pony tail. She's got an extremely loud voice and a terrible potty mouth. I was surprised to see her banging on the door of my across-the-street neighbors-- a handful of hipsters living in a basement apartment. It seemed unlikely that she knew them, and I figured her kids' kickball must have gotten lost in their backyard or something. Then I realized what was going on-- they had left their keys in the door. "Do you know who lives here?" she called to me from across the street. "Yeah," I answered, "I just saw the guy leave to walk his dog. I'll keep an eye out until someone's back." Just then, one of the hipster residents poked her out and retrieved the keys, gratefully thanking me and the pony tail lady.
I think Jane Jacobs would have been proud.