Chapter 2 of Death and Life of Great American Cities is the chapter that made this book famous. Due to one beautifully simple turn of phrase, D&L transcended being a mere book and became a cultural touchstone. The term I speak of is (but of course) Eyes on the Street.
Eyes on the Street is to Jane Jacobs like Hallelujah is to Leonard Cohen. You don’t need to know the songwriter to know the song. Even if you’ve never read D&L before, you’ve probably still heard of Eyes on the Street; it’s become that ingrained in urbanist thinking.
Eyes on the Street is now such a known concept in city building it’s hard to believe there was a time not so long ago where the exact opposite was considered de rigueur city planning. Whether we implement the concept or not is another matter entirely, but the concept itself is considered valid to the point of gospel. Thus, to explain Eyes on the Street nowadays seems utterly redundant; like a blog post for our readers explaining what the internet is.
You’re already here. You know what Eyes on the Street is. (If you don’t, check out Streetswiki for a quick explanation.)
I’m not, therefore, going to discuss the finer details of Eyes on the Street as there’s enough quality understanding of the topic already. Instead I’d like to turn my attention to the following passage (as I think there’s some interesting things in it to reflect upon):
Orthodox planning is much imbued with puritanical and Utopian conceptions of how people should spend their free time, and in planning, these moralisms on people’s private lives are deeply confused with concepts about the workings of cities … The preferences of Utopians, and of other compulsive managers of other people’s leisure, for one kind of legal enterprise over others is worse than irrelevant for cities. It is harmful. The greater and more plentiful the range of all legitimate interests (in the strictly legal sense) that city streets and their enterprises can satisfy, the better for the streets and for the safety and civilization of the city.
There’s a fascinating conflict in this passage. In one sentence Jacobs rails against the idea of Utopian planners puritanically dictating how people should live their private lives. She advocates for a plentiful range of activities and interests – but qualifies the comment; limiting those interests to “legitimate” and “strictly legal” ones.
But do we really think Jacobs believed that only “legitimate interests (in the strictly legal sense)” contributed positively to a the safety of city streets? I don’t, because it is so against her typically contrarian position. Surely Jacobs knows that there are dozens of illegitimate interests and strictly illegal activities that also – and paradoxically – help maintain the order and safety of city streets.
Take my Toronto neighborhood of Cabbagetown, for example. In Cabbagetown there are a slew of illegitimate and illegal activities going on in the area at any given time. And these activities bump up against the legal, legitimate and morally sanctioned in such a way that the two reinforce one another. I think this is perhaps the most curious aspect of Cabbagetown and similar regions of older North American cities. Leaving all questions of morality aside, there are lots of illegitimate and illegal uses of a neighborhood that occur right beneath our noses – constantly. And just like the legitimate and legal uses, they protect and animate the street just fine.
In Cabbagetown there are marijuana dealers – known by the neighborhood on a first name basis; illegal gambling pools run out of bars; money laundering operations posing as restaurants; vendors selling bootleg DVDs and fake brand name electronics; and packs of domino players competing for money while drinking in the park. There’s a swingers club across the street from a public school; pubs and bars that either explicitly or covertly shun the various and arcane liquor licensing laws of Ontario; and downtrodden individuals stealing empty liquor bottles from homes and restaurants in order to collect illicitly-gained deposit fees.
(There’s also a Starbucks – which may or may not be classed as an illegitimate enterprise depending upon your socio-political and cultural leanings.)
The list goes on and on. And contrary to common logic, these do not make the neighbourhood less safe. Quite the opposite in fact.
The most perfect (and hilarious) example of this is a particular Italian restaurant in Cabbagetown; well known in the neighbourhood for being a front for organized crime.
At least once every month or so, the owners of the resto conduct extensive renovations on the establishment. Trucks pull up; pipe, lumber, furniture and tools are brought in; workmen work; carpenters cut wood on the street; and hours later used pipes, used lumber and used furniture are brought out.
One potted palm tree goes in; one potted palm tree comes out.
Sometimes the name of the restaurant changes, sometimes it stays the same. More often than not the restaurant looks strikingly identical to the way it looked prior to the renovations – begging the question what exactly was renovated? The answer, of course, is that nothing was renovated and the renovations are never going to cause an increase in customers (because there aren’t any); but then again that’s not the point of the renovations in the first place.
This happens so constantly it’s become a form of absurdist, accidental street theatre. No one in Cabbagetown actually believes they’re renovating the restaurant, but we’re willing to go along with the make-believe part of it. We know it’s an act, but find the act itself so absurdly bemusing, we let it continue. We understand the farce of it all and, because the comings-and-goings harm no one and serve to animate a stretch of street that would otherwise be somewhat barren, we play along.
Oh, there they go again, renovating the restaurant. Look at that palm tree! Maybe this time they’ll drum up some customers!
To an outsider, Cabbagetown (and similar neighborhoods) might appear to be an open-air zoo – but nothing bad ever really happens. This is a neighborhood that isn’t just the den of iniquity I’ve described above. It’s a charming, diverse and wealthy enclave of small business and independent thinkers – strangely balanced against an underbelly of illegitimate activity. It’s not a neighbourhood for everyone, but to those that live there, the illegitimate activities are (ironically) as much a part of what makes the neighbourhood safe and livable.
That’s the thing about shady, questionable or outright criminal enterprises – whatever your moral opinion of their activities, they’re still enterprises. And an enterprise – no matter how modest, mercurial or morally suspect – implies a livelihood. And people act in ways to protect their livelihood. Cabbagetown is not a neighborhood of illegitimates – it’s a neighborhood of entrepreneurs. Like the shopkeepers and bar owners described by Jacobs, these elements too have a vested financial interest in “mak(ing) a person feel personally safe and secure on the street.”
One could even make the not illogical argument that these illegitimate enterprises have even more of an interest in keeping the peace so as to prevent the police from choosing to establish a presence in the area. Take Jacobs’ comment about civilized streets not being “kept primarily by the police” to its logical conclusion, and we see that activities such as these are most likely to appear in such civilized neighborhoods as the lack of police presence allows these activities to operate without fear of reprisal. After all, the easiest way to get away with doing bad things is to do them in the presence of good people.
So long as they don’t actively threaten and hurt individuals or their communities, we tend to turn a blind eye.
My gut says Jacobs understood this reality but was from a time and a place where to say mafia fronts, swingers clubs and drug dealers can contribute positively to a neighborhood would be a complete non-starter. This isn’t to say a neighbourhood composed entirely of illegitimate and illegal activities will thrive. It’s to say that legitimate and legal activities don’t necessarily hold a monopoly over protecting our streets.
- Before anyone jumps all over me for portraying Cabbagetown in a less-than-flattering light, please understand that I’ve lived in the neighborhood for more than seven years now and I adore it. Cabbagetown has the charming Wellesley Cottages, Riverdale Farm, the Conservation District, the House on Parliament, the Necropolis, and dozens of other wonderful elements. The neighborhood is also packed with historic million dollar homes. I’ve often said there’s a strange balance in Cabbagetown whereby the millionaires keep the crackheads in check and, perversely, the crackheads keep the millionaires in check.
- I suspect the vast majority of people who’ve tried to read D&L stop after chapter 2 because they’ve gotten through the most famous part. It’s like leaving the Louvre after having seen only the Mona Lisa. Try to stick with it; it’s worth it.
- How many of you have tried reading D&L before and stopped after chapter 2? Me too.
- Based upon my own personal experience, I cannot agree with Jacobs when she says that “Great cities are not like towns, only larger.” Great cities and great towns function in very much the same way. In my experience a great city is nothing more than a fractal arrangement of great villages and towns that happen to sit next to one another. I really hope I have a chance to discuss this issue sometime in the future. If you wish to discuss it in the comments, please do.
- Regarding having my liquor bottles stolen: I actually never return my liquor store bottles to get the refund. Instead I leave them on the curb for someone else to pick up so that they may claim the refund. I can leave my bottles on the curb and they’ll be gone within minutes – it’s a far more efficient waste management system than the one we currently have. I would encourage everyone to try it one day.