Economies

While I was parsing findings from the research quiz, my readings transitioned from a deep dive into Jane Jacobs’s work to a harder look at the work of her critics.

To that end, I came across the work of Sharon Zukin, who wrote a book called Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Spaces, in which she pushes back against rampant landmarking as a magical panacea to all of New York’s problems.

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While Jane Jacobs viewed cities as self-regulating, Zukin argues that without aggressive government regulation of rents and zoning, neighborhoods will keep getting more stratified. Taking the New York Times on a tour of Jacobs’s old Greenwich Village haunts, Zukin explained the slide from preservation to gentrification:

“Jacobs’s values — the small blocks, the cobblestone streets, the sense of local identity in old neighborhoods — became the gentrifiers’ ideal. But Jacobs’s social goals, the preservation of classes, have been lost.”

The criticism, then, isn’t of Jacobs. It’s of modern-day city planners who ignore the plights of local residential and commercial tenants, more than happy when Duane Reade or Chase opens up a new branch in a cozy, landmarked building. But the consequences of this type of unfettered development, which brings with it higher rents and pushes out local businesses, is a loss of local mom-and-pop shops that are a strong bulwark against gentrification. These are the business owners who may allow shoppers to start a tab, letting lower-income residents defer payment until their next paycheck comes in. In Jacobs’s terms, they’re the ones providing the “eyes on the street,” helping to build and maintain a community fabric.

Around the time I was coming to terms with Zukin’s assessment of the Jacobsification of New York, I came across an article in The Atlantic about the dystopian nature of online food delivery services. In “Why I Quit Ordering From Uber-for-Food Start-Ups”, Robin Sloan outlines the contrast between the seamlessness (no pun intended) of Sprig and the seams of Josephine, a small, local meal-preparation network in Berkeley.

“Meals from Josephine are not available for delivery.

On the day of your order, a text message arrives bearing a street address. You ride over on your bicycle and spot a Josephine sign taped to the front door, which is ajar. You step inside; the feeling is both clandestine and transgressive. In the kitchen, the cook—your neighbor—is working. Maybe another customer—also your neighbor—is lingering. You announce yourself, say hello, receive your meal. Chat a bit, if you like. Carry it home in a bag dangling from your handlebars.

It definitely takes more than twenty minutes.

But I will tell you that my Josephine pickups have been utterly reliable generators of smiles and warm feelings. I look forward to them, not just because ‘gotta eat,’ but because they unlock my neighborhood, fill in the blank spaces on my mental map. And of course, it’s always fun to see the insides of other people’s houses.”

As Sloan describes it, Josephine fosters a real connection between cook and eater, almost like host and guest. And unlike the disturbing anonymity of Sprig, Seamless, Uber, or any number of other human-powered, convenience-based startups in which the human is almost abstracted out of the picture entirely.

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In Sloan’s view, “it’s our responsibility as we make choices both commercial and civic” to think through the futures we want and the infrastructures we will support with our dollars.

Intersections | Broad Strokes