Saturday, April 11, 2009

Intersection: Sidewalks and Public Life

On April 2, the Philadelphia Alumni Writer's House at Franklin and Marshall College held a panel on the publication of Intersection: Sidewalks and Public Life, edited by F&M professor Marci Nelligan. Intersection collects six essays on the political contestation of public space, inspired by Jane Jacobs' classic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). Nelligan and Nicole Mauro have assembled a collection of vibrant essays that reanimate Jane Jacobs' urban criticism. The panel included performance artist William Pope L., sociologist and historian Claire Potter (the celebrated blogger Tenured Radical), and sociologist Jerome Hodos. The room was packed with faculty and students.

The event was magical for someone like me, raised on Jane Jacobs. Most incredible was to see a liberal arts college conducting a workshop at such a level of critical engagement. Having passed through many small colleges (Swarthmore, Vassar, Conn College, Wesleyan), I've become sensitized to the role that they can play in American intellectual life. As Claire Potter pointed out (from her experiences at Wesleyan), elite liberal arts colleges have changed dramatically. Competition for admission has become so fierce, that the student body is now dominated by successful test-takers. Colleges with radical traditions have a new problem. Their students have been admitted because they have done everything right (and hence taken no risks); they are the cream of the crop of no-child-left-behind policies. Liberal arts colleges have become conventional places of higher education. Paradoxically, the administrations heavily market the liberal arts brand as a places of experimentation, diversity, individualism and overall funkiness. Potter's essay "Chalking the Borders" discusses this very confrontation between critical student practices and the administration, when Wesleyan banned chalking on its campus in 2003-2003. In this case, Jane Jacobs' sidewalk (private? public?) was contested through ephemeral graffiti written overnight by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer voices.

My copy of
Intersection just arrived and its contents look great. I will post comments about each individual essay, as I read them one by one. I encourage EVERY reader of this blog to order the book. It's published by Chain Links, an independent venue, and it's worth every penny of the $16.

And here are a few additional notes on Jane Jacobs. Debates over the fate of the American city, walkable environments, creative classes, etc., have brought fresh attention to Jane Jacobs, see earlier posting, When a Place Gets Boring, Even the Rich People Leave (July 23, 2008). Jacobs is newly relevant in issues of civility in the virtual community of the internet. By reading this blog, you are participating in democratic space. Wikipedia is another key example of this space. This month, the first book on Wikipedia was published, where we read the following, "Ms. Jacobs argued that sidewalks provided three important things: safety, contact and the assimilation of children.” She may as well have been talking about wikis: “A wiki has all its activities happening in the open for inspection, as on Jacobs’ sidewalk. Trust is built by observing the actions of others in the community and discovering people with like or complementary interests.” These words could have come straight out of
Intersection. They are from Andrew Lih's, The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World's Greatest Encyclopedia (2009), just reviewed in Noam Cohen, "Wikipedia: Exploring Fact City," New York Times (March 29, 2009).

Finally, back to urbanism. Peter Laurence, my colleague at Clemson University, is perhaps the single greatest force in Jane Jacobs studies today. Once published, Laurence's dissertation will be the authoritative intellectual biography; for the time being, see "Jane Jacobs (1915-2006): Before
Death and Life," JSAH 66 (2007) pp. 5-15. Last November, Laurence organized a conference, Re-Imagining Cities: Urban Design after the Age of Oil. The event marked the 50th anniversary of another conference held at the University of Pennsylvania, The Conference on Urban Design Criticism, where Jane Jacobs, Louis Kahn, Kevin Lynch, Ian McHarg, Lewis Mumford, and I.M. Pei first introduced their new urban visions. Both 1958 and 2008 conferences were sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, see Laurence, "The Death and Life of Urban Design: Jane Jacobs, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the New Research in Urbanism, 1955-65," Journal of Urban Design 11 (2006), pp. 147-172.

Colleagues like Laurence made Clemson a place of intellectual debate (making my decision to leave even harder). For instance, I had the great pleasure to participate in Critical Practice for the Next Generation, a workshop on contemporary theory and practice organized by Laurence. It is there that I first learned the new term "post-critical," describing the architectural sell-out we are experiencing today (e.g. Rem Koolhaas, The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping). Intersection generates exactly the same intensity that I had last experienced in the Critical Practice seminars. And it reassures us that post-criticism has thankfully not won the day.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States