Jane Jacobs: “Who Is This Crazy Dame?”

Nicholas J. Healy Sr.

It is difficult today to recognize how radically city planning and architecture have changed from their heyday in the late 1940s to the early 1960s. In that era, under the catchword of “urban renewal,” cities and towns across America vied for federal funding to achieve “slum clearance” and construct new buildings emphasizing landscaping, light, and air, which were typically high-rise apartments separated by extensive lawns and shrubbery. They were designated exclusively for low-income families (to justify the billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies) and rapidly themselves became slumlike in terms of crime, dilapidation, and garbage-strewn walkways. Indeed, they today often represent the worst areas of our inner cities, having become islands of “permanent slums” and inhibiting the revival of neighborhoods where they are located.

The leading intellectual force in city planning in the mid-twentieth century was Le Corbusier, a Swiss-French architect who disdained traditional notions of beauty and emphasized modern concrete buildings that were fully utilitarian. In the 1920s he proposed his “Plan Voisin,”  which would bulldoze a large section of Paris and replace its narrow streets, monuments, and houses with a series of giant sixty-story cruciform apartment buildings surrounded by park-like greens. Fortunately, this was never adopted, but it demonstrated a complete lack of appreciation of what made Paris so attractive to residents and visitors alike. Le Corbusier, a pioneer in modern architecture, influenced an entire generation of architects and city planners, including those at the forefront of city renovation in America.

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