“The sacking of cities”

I can already see that it is going to take me a very long time to get through this and probably each one of Jacobs’ books.  I get through two pages and have to write about it.  Oh well, it’s better this way.

Jacobs makes the point that we tend to think that  we can spend our way out of troubles (slums, schools, wars, etc.).  But then she puts on display what the money had bought us in our cities: dead zones in the center, and suburbs that are perhaps just as lifeless.  The Jacobs quote of the day: “This is not the rebuilding of cities.  This is the sacking of cities.”

I began to think about not how much money we have spent or need to spend but where the money is going and how that has changed over time.  We used to spend money on the quality of our built environment.  Look at any structure built before the end of World War II.  It should not be surprising to us that a good portion of them still exist, and it should not shock us either that our eyes are drawn to them disproportionately more than newer structures.  Why?  Because we cared about our public environment when we designed and built them.  They interact with us in very different, more intimate ways than the soulless junk we have built ever since.  After the war, our focus switched to quantity, and quality was sacrificed.  What changed?  I don’t know.  Was it our hurry to build and move on?  Why weren’t the returning soldiers inspired by the beauty of what was left of Europe, thus demanding beauty in their built environment?  Was it simply that the economy’s focus on planned obsolescence took over every industry, including construction?

Whatever the reason, the funds we used to spend on the facades of our structures and streets moved inward and to the back.  As long as my house looks are large as possible from the outside (and there are many nifty design tricks to accomplish this), I don’t care how much of a monstrosity it is.  My focus is really on the inside and the backyard, my sanctuaries from the world.  I give myself as much luxury as I can afford and pack into my indoor and outdoor living space.  To the world, I give a couple of drab garage doors and awkwardly placed windows which I have no reason to look out of.  This is a nice microcosm of the American social sphere and economy.  We have each retreated into ourselves and our own clans, leaving very little for a dynamic people and economy to feed off of.

As Jacobs suggests in later writings, perhaps we are still living off the creativity and dynamism of the past.  Eventually, we’ll run out of string, and we won’t have much to fall back on.  Maybe necessity will be the mother of invention, but there are plenty of poor people in need in the world, and their inventions aren’t forthcoming.  Why?  Because they do not exist in the conditions that foster creativity and invention.  Perhaps we already live in similar circumstances and just haven’t had the sad occasion to realize it yet.  Is it too late?  Can we turn it around?

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