Roberta Brandes Gratz on ‘Gradual money and cataclysmic money’

I used to think that the last chapter of Death & Life, “The Kind of Problem a City Is” was the most important in the book. I still think it is critical to a clear understanding of how cities work in contrast to so many erroneous theories on how they work. But given some of the hot button issues of today, the chapter, “Gradual Money and Cataclysmic Money” resonates in an equally critical way.

Such factually-challenged notions as ‘big development schemes are economic boosters and job creators,’ ‘skyscrapers make cities more affordable’ and ‘height is necessary for increased density’ can all be demystified by this chapter.

These ideas are not specifically addressed but the overall notion that gradual money (not cataclysmic money) is what regenerates places, is carefully laid out.

Jacobs makes clear that private and public investment in appropriate forms helps grow cities. “But it must be understood that it is not the mere availability of money, but how it is available, and for what, that is all important.”

Flooding in Minot, by Flickr user ‘DVIDSHUB’

In her typically accessible prose, Jacobs notes:

“Putting it figuratively, insofar as their effects on most city streets and districts are concerned, three kinds of money behave not like irrigation systems, bringing life-giving streams to feed steady, continual growth. Instead, they behave like manifestations of malevolent climates beyond the control of man – affording either searing droughts or torrential, eroding floods.”

Floods and droughts are a useful metaphor. Given today’s financial crisis, the former easy supply of mortgage money and now the absence of it, this becomes particularly relevant.

Jacobs defines the three kinds of money that can benefit or harm places. Money from “conventional, nongovernmental lending institutions” like mortgages can be devastating when withheld because of new agendas set by government planners and bankers, such as investing in suburban housing after World War II and blacklisting cities; generous government subsidies, land clearance or eminent domain policies, for big clearance projects; shadow money lent at usurious rates, creating slum rental housing “at exorbitant profits.” While this book was written 50 years ago, all of these have counterparts today.

The saddest truth she writes is “In sum, this money shapes cataclysmic changes in cities. Relatively little of it shapes gradual change.”

How true this still is. Big money, mega public-private partnerships, for hotels, shopping malls, stadiums or large-scale mixed-use projects (what Jacobs calls “forms of pseudo-city” that in fact “combat urban diversity”) is seemingly always available, even in a time of deep social service budget cuts. And then there is all that federal money for demolition of shrinking neighborhoods, often filled with salvageable pre-war houses restorable by sweat equity urban pioneers if only localities would auction or give them away. That quality will never get built again.

As Jacobs notes, there is “no inherent reason why tax funds and public credit cannot be used” on the kinds of gradual change she identifies as “unslumming” instead of “slum shifting” which is what happens when low-income populations are relocated into the next marginal neighborhood.

Vacant lot in Washington Heights, by Flickr user Susan Sermoneta

The underlying importance of this chapter goes to the heart of some of the current skepticism about Jacobs’ relevancy today. In two very descriptive stories, she relates how gradual money restored the North End of Boston and Back-of-the-Yards in Chicago, both dense, traditional urban neighborhoods. She also points out how gradual money was in the process of restoring the Lower East Side, Upper West Side and East Harlem in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia until cataclysmic money poured in in the form of big subsidized projects and wiped out the heart of these community’s physical, social and economic heart. Urban pioneers rescued the solid brownstone and apartment house stock in both the Upper West Side (not Lincoln Center as unknowing theorists like to say) and East Harlem. This has been happening now on the Lower East Side for the last decade but huge vacant sites remain from the false promise of demolition/rebuild days.

Since Jacobs’ book, Pittsburgh, Savannah, Brooklyn, San Antonio, Portland and many more cities witnessed this enduring process. We can now see it occurring in New Orleans, Buffalo, Syracuse and even in Detroit.

These and more like them are the genuine regeneration of declined cities. They contrast with the big projects that never deliver as promised and, she notes, are “inherently wasteful ways of rebuilding cities, and in comparison with their full costs make pathetic contributions to city values.” And then she adds the kicker: “Project building as a form of city transformation makes no more sense financially than it does socially.”

Little money was available then or now for what, she points out, really makes sense. “There is no appreciable money available today for nurturing city districts fit for city life, and this is a situation encouraged and often enforced by government. We have, therefore, no one to blame for this but ourselves.” Again, a truism then and today. The big politically-well-connected contracts, the big photo opportunities, the illusory quick-fix solutions are where the money is. It is that way because we let it be that way.

Fifty years have passed but the wisdom of her observations endure and have more relevancy than ever.

“If and when we think that lively, diversified city, capable of continual, close-grained improvement and change, is desirable, then we will adjust the financial machinery to get that.”

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