A Tale of Two Cities: The Year Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier Discovered New York City

In 1935 both Le Corbusier and a young Jane Jacobs discovered New York City for the first time.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

This excerpt from Becoming Jane Jacobs (Penn Press, 2016), by Peter L. Laurence, reflects on the varied experiences of Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier in New York City in 1935.

When Le Corbusier visited New York in 1935 to promote his ideas and an exhibition of his work, the architect-planner described the neighborhoods between the skyscrapers of Wall Street and Midtown where Jacobs worked as the ‘‘urban no-man’s land made up of miserable low buildings.’’ In Le Corbusier’s eyes, these low, congested, ‘‘ground-killing’’ neighborhoods were insalubrious and inefficient, while skyscrapers like Rockefeller Center offered evidence that all could see of the power of modern architecture, rational planning, and the city of the future. Jacobs marveled at the skyscrapers too. As captured in the iconic photographs of Lewis Hine, their construction bespoke the aspirations of the city, the nation, and humanity. As for Rockefeller Center, which was under construction during her first years in New York—and where, although she could hardly have dreamed it as a teen, Jacobs worked as a writer for Time, Incorporated in the 1950s— she came to see the complex as proof that a large and unified group of buildings could be strategically inserted into the city’s existing urban fabric without the destruction typical of urban renewal projects. However, Jacobs’s and Le Corbusier’s visions of the city, which would clash so dramatically in Death and Life, were diametrically opposed. Soon after moving to New York, she quickly recognized that the city’s unpretentious working districts and their old buildings were as significant as its ‘‘financial districts’’ and its skyscrapers, or more so in the wake of the financial collapse. These districts were the radiant energy of the city’s ‘‘metaphoric space-defining fires.’’

Although Jacobs had been to New York as a child, both she and Le Corbusier explored and encountered the city anew in 1935, and both recounted their impressions in November of that year. As reported in the New York Times, on November 3, the city excited Le Corbusier greatly; it was a ‘‘wilderness of experiment toward a new order,’’ whose contrasts elated and depressed him from moment to moment. From the deck of the ocean liner Normandie, the city appeared as a dream city, a vision of enchantment; up close, Le Corbusier was appalled by ‘‘the brutality of the great masses—the ‘sauvagerie’—the wild barbarity of the stupendous, disorderly accumulation of towers, tramping the living city under their heavy feet.’’ The precious ground was wasted, as was time better spent in work or leisure than trying to cross it by foot and car. Looking at the Empire State Building, the tallest in the world, from the top of the RCA Tower, he declared the skyscrapers too small, although, in experiencing them for the first time, he could now imagine skyscrapers not just as office buildings but as residences. Cast as ‘‘the exact opposite’’ of his revolutionary 1922 ‘‘Contemporary City’’ plan, New York exceeded his low expectations; it was his first real experience with the modern metropolis. He loved the democracy, the internationalism, and the ‘‘event’’ of New York, Grand Central Terminal, the George Washington Bridge, Louis Armstrong and the city’s music; the social and economic inequality, the racism, and the slums he found insufferable. From photographs, he presumed the visual cacophony of the city’s hodge-podge of buildings to be a social and aesthetic affront; seeing it in person, he admitted that its energy produced moments of sublime greatness. But caught in a series of traffic jams in the ‘‘no-man’s land’’ trying to get from uptown to downtown, he was all the more convinced in his ideas. Experience, the historian Mardges Bacon wrote, ‘‘rarely changed his preconceptions; reality rarely changed his myths.’’ It was the opposite with Jacobs.

Two weeks after the Times reported Le Corbusier’s impressions of New York, Jacobs published the first of a series of four essays on the city in Vogue. Anticipating ideas later expanded on in Death and Life, the essays bookend the decades between the start of Jacobs’s writing career and her first book on cities, while contrasting what was important to her with new ideas about the modern city.

In many ways, Jacobs was as much a functionalist as Le Corbusier and other modern architects—possibly more so, because she was not overly concerned with aesthetics. Indeed, while Jacobs first described her idea for the book that became Death and Life as a study of the relation of function to design in larger cities, it was in New York’s working districts that she first came to understand how ‘‘diverse city uses and users give each other close-grained and lively support,’’ as she later described the phenomenon. And as Le Corbusier charged architects to see again, Jacobs would do the same. She wrote in Death and Life, ‘‘To see complex systems of functional order as order, and not as chaos, takes understanding,’’ and she learned this early in her New York experience. Looking down from the roof of her apartment in Greenwich Village, she watched the garbage trucks on their rounds and thought ‘‘what a complicated, great place this is, and all these pieces of it that make it work.’’ Even garbage collection, no small task in the great city, made her think about how the city functioned at its most basic levels.

In writing about the no-man’s land between the skyscrapers of Wall Street and Rockefeller Center, Jacobs sought to reveal to her readers how the everyday, pedestrian city worked and evolved. Although the premise went unstated, her essays on Manhattan’s Fur, Leather, Diamond, and Flower districts—published between late 1935 and early 1937, when Jacobs was nineteen and twenty—were written to offer Vogue’s uptown readers some insight into the material histories of their prized possessions, the invisible processes and networks that preceded their consumption. In the first, ‘‘Where the Fur Flies,’’ published in November 1935, Jacobs described how furs followed a rough-and-tumble journey from trapper to fur farmer, auctioneer to dresser, dealer to manufacturer to retailer. In ‘‘Leather Shocking Tales,’’ published in March 1936, she explained that cowhide used for shoes went through a process that left nothing to waste: It first had the soles stamped and cut from it; from the remaining network of scraps, heels were cut; then shoe tips, and finally washers for plumbing and buttons were produced. What is left went off to fertilizer factories. ‘‘Diamonds in the Tough,’’ published in October 1936, revealed that most of the sparkling jewelry sold in the ‘‘tough’’ and squalid Diamond District was not new but sold by pawnbrokers after the thirteen months stipulated by law had elapsed from the time it was pawned. Lastly, in ‘‘Flowers Come to Town,’’ published in February 1937, Jacobs told the story of how flowers traveled by truck, boat, and plane to get to New York. Most, she explained, came by truck from Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey, but those from Florida, California, and Canada came by express train, and those from South America and Holland by ship. Occasionally, a shipment of gardenias was flown in from California by airplane, while other flowers left the city again by ocean liners and airships: ‘‘All the large passenger liners are supplied from the New York market, and, on her eastward trips, the Hindenburg, too, carries flowers from Twenty-Eighth Street.’’

Attentive to the networks of productivity and geography, Jacobs revealed the bouquet on the Vogue reader’s windowsill as more than a pretty arrangement: It was emblematic of the city’s station in international commerce. Though not native to the city, all of these goods—furs, leathers, diamonds, and flowers—were city products, products of the city’s networks of process and exchange. Having recently experienced living in a subsistence economy, Jacobs understood the significance of the city economies, the tremendous physical and social infrastructure that brought raw materials to market. Indeed, she already had some latent understanding about the relationship of city and rural economies. As she wrote years later in The Economy of Cities, ‘‘When we see a factory out in the country, we do not automatically assume that the kind of work being done in the factory originated and developed in the country.’’ Such observations were, intellectually speaking, not far out of reach of the young Jacobs; her interests in economic geography, explored in courses at Columbia University not long after writing these essays, were already well established within her first few years in New York.

Becoming Jane Jacobs (Penn Press, 2016)

Jacobs was not interested only in the productivity of the city’s working districts: Her vignettes of the city also described the complex interactions between people, places, and practices that defined the diverse and lively human ecology of New York and other great cities. The significance of history and context, temporal and spatial juxtaposition, and cultural and economic diversity were clear to the young writer. In her essays, Jacobs showed places that most New Yorkers did not understand, due to changes in space and time, and did not visit because they were located in the working-class districts of the Lower East and West Sides, where the uptown Fifth Avenue shoppers did not tread.

Although the Leather District, for example, was under the escarpment of the Brooklyn Bridge, it had once been located outside of the city, a perfect case study of a rural satellite of city commerce. ‘‘When Wall Street really had a wall and was the northern boundary of the city,’’ Jacobs explained, ‘‘the Dutch citizens of New York asked the tanners and leather merchants to carry on their business beyond smelling distance. They obligingly moved out to a swamp in the wilderness just south of where the Brooklyn Bridge is now, and there they have remained for more than two hundred years, letting the city grow up about them.’’

By contrast, it was unclear to her why the Diamond District, ‘‘a glittering island in the most squalid section of New York City’’ located between Hester and Canal streets in the heart of the Lower East Side ghetto, grew up where it did. ‘‘No one seems to know why this location was chosen or why the district continues here,’’ she wrote. ‘‘Twenty-five years ago, the first of the merchants settled in this incongruous setting for no reason now remembered. It is adjacent to no allied centers; it exists by itself, across the street from the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge, surrounded by the almost legendary Bowery life.’’

What was already clear to Jacobs was that these districts did not develop in a vacuum isolated from history or social, economic, architectural, and geographical context. She took it for granted that the great city was a global metropolis, populated by people from all over the world. And unlike many other observers of the city at the time, there was no hint of condescension in her discussion of the ethnic, working-class districts, which others saw as the home of the unwashed masses. In ‘‘Flowers Come to Town,’’ the most poetic of the four essays, Jacobs drew a parallel between her description of the many varieties of flowers on display and the cultural diversity of immigrant shopkeepers, which implied that the great city’s diversity paralleled that of the natural world. Although originally centered around the ferry landing at 34th Street and the East River, a new Flower District grew up around 28th Street and 6th Avenue in the Middle West Side as Greek, Italian, and Asian immigrants set up shop behind the neighborhood’s nondescript brownstone fronts. Anticipating the chapter ‘‘The Need for Aged Buildings’’ in Death and Life, the young Jacobs seems to have already understood the importance of old buildings to city economies as business and culture incubators. As in a natural ecosystem, the city, and its old buildings, sheltered them in ways that modern skyscrapers, no matter how efficient and modern, could not.

Jacobs’s nascent understanding of context, interconnectivity and self-organization, history, and city dynamics was in notable contrast to the revolutionary, antihistorical, and utopian spirit of modernism that was taking hold around her. A child of the Machine Age and the suffrage movement, Jacobs was perhaps too young to experience modernity as a rupture with tradition and the dawn of a new epoch, ‘‘one of the great metamorphoses of history,’’ as Le Corbusier’s generation saw it. Her impressionable moment was the experience of New York City of the Great Depression, which she celebrated for its ability to continue to work. Despite the Depression, and the city’s congestion—or rather because of it—the city continued to tick like clockwork, as in the Fur District, where, from morning until the end of the day, ‘‘a steady flow of fur-heaped handcarts and racks runs north, and a stream of both empty and full ones runs south.’’ However, if others saw the need to re-plan and re-create the city in the image of the machine, it was, for her, more than a machine.

As Jacobs later explained with her bonfires metaphor, the city defied being reduced to a single and simple ‘‘design device’’ that could express its structures and functions. Her early essays anticipated her rejection of the promise that new architecture and a new city plan could ameliorate the city’s disharmonies and inequities. Just the opposite: Jacobs found the spirit of New York and its hope for the future in these working neighborhoods, where diverse city functions and people lent each other ‘‘close-grained and lively support.’’ Le Corbusier hated the congested inefficiencies of New York’s streets—‘‘the streets of the new city have nothing in common with those appalling nightmares, the downtown streets of New York,’’ he wrote in 1929—but Jacobs found the essence of the city in its vibrant street life. Le Corbusier saw his imagined Radiant City as the promise and expression of a productive and ennobled society, but Jacobs looked for this in the existing city, in how people and the city worked together and created one another.

Excerpted with permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press. Copyright © 2016 University of Pennsylvania Press. Purchase Becoming Jane Jacobs here.

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