“The social structure of sidewalk life hangs partly on what can be called self appointed public characters. A public character is anyone who is in frequent enough contact with a wide circle of people and who is sufficiently interested to make himself a public character. A public character need have no special talents or wisdom to fulfill his function—although he often does.” (Pp 89, Death and Life of Great American Cities, On the uses of Sidewalks: Contact)
Larry Selman lives on Bedford Street in New York City’s West Village. He is a public character of the first order, a community activist and fundraiser, and suffers from severe developmental disabilities. He has raised tens of thousands of dollars for national and local charities though he lives in poverty himself. It is estimated that because of Larry’s efforts, his block association has given more than $300,000 over the decades of his making contact with his neighbors on Bedford Street.
Alice Elliot is one of Larry’s neighbors. She’s a documentary filmmaker, was an actress for 20 years, and is a great observer of people, places and the relationships born from those places. When Alice discovered Larry and his plight in their neighborhood, the two of them set off on a 5-year collaboration to tell Larry’s story. Set within the streets of the West Village, it seems only fitting that Bedford Street intersects with Hudson Street, the street where Jane Jacobs lived. Alice and Larry’s unlikely intersection elegantly illustrates contact on the street. Like a flipbook of Ben Shahn’s candid street photos stitched together with story, Alice’s documentary film titled The Collector of Bedford Street is a Jacobsian specimen seen through the lens of a camera-cum-microscope.
The social structure of the sidewalk is generative. Like leaf-cutter ants we clip away and transport the stuff of our lives, including our stories, emotions, needs and fears, and through this build a social economy. Larry Selman clipped dollars from the willing wallets of his sidewalk contacts, and transformed it into charity for groups such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association, AIDS Walk, The St. Vincent Pediatric AIDS Clinic and many more organizations. The social structure and functional social economy of Larry’s world has been a model of generativity. Those in his neighborhood invented new ways to support Larry, just as Larry worked to raise funds for people he did not even know.
As if out of the pages of Jacobs’ chapters on the uses of sidewalks, the story could also be used to illustrate some of Jacobs’ observations in Systems of Survival and The Economy of Cities. The sidewalk contact between Alice and Larry ultimately led to a trusting, emergent economic safety net that transformed Larry’s life. When his neighbors learned that after Larry’s expenses for rent, utilities and phone that he only had $10.00 per month to live on, they established a fund much like a neighborhood bank, to create an endowment specifically for Larry’s living expenses. This self-organizing system of neighborhood support for one public character, a character whose mental disability doesn’t interfere with his ability to support people for whom he feels empathy but does not know, is part of the ecology of our cities; creative, resilient, collaborative, and generative.
Erik Erikson defines generativity in part as “the psychosocial sense [referring] to the concern for establishing and guiding the next generation, and is said to stem from a sense of optimism about humanity.” If Erikson is correct, then public characters like Larry are beacons of optimism born on sidewalks.
Those who observe characters and places clearly, people like Alice Eliot whose focused lenses point us to both stories and justice, are the people who are truly advancing the observations of Jane Jacobs.
In Jacobs’ discussion about contact on sidewalks she also paves our way toward a deeper understanding of the nuances of public and private space. What Alice has documented shines light into the shadowy spaces in our lives where the intersection of the life of the street with our private world leaves us with the inescapable knowledge that everything is connected. For 40 years on the same sidewalks walked by Jane Jacobs, characters like Larry Selman pave the way to understanding the soul of a citizen, and our power to generate change.