I'm finally getting around to reading "Rats," by Robert Sullivan (last year's x-mas present) and in the chapter titled "Unrepresented Man," Sullivan writes about a guy named Jesse Gray. Gray organized rent strikes in New York, using the symbol of a rat to show what life was like in Harlem—in a word, squalid. I bring it up because Gray worked at a time, in the sixties, when the conceit of urban renewal was killing the city, "paving over old neighborhoods in New York in the name of progress." According to Sullivan and everyone else on the subject, the master schemer of this way of thinking was builder Robert Moses, who squashed opposition and smashed flat functioning neighborhoods, replacing them with high rises, isolating and alienated the very people who ended up living in them.
I bring this up because, while reading, it sparked a memory of a neighborhood in the West Village where I spent some time; a beautiful tree-lined street with an old Jewish cemetery and a plaque on an elegant 19th century townhouse, which proclaimed Charles Ives lived there.
The Second Cemetery
of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue
Shearith Israel, 1805-1829I hadn't realized at the time but this street, and further west, was saved by Jane Jacobs, an activist and writer, around the same time Gray was operating in Harlem.
Jacobs' activism was hatched when she tried to save her own West Village neighborhood from Moses, who wanted to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway through Washington Square Park. Jacobs and other residents organized and fought Moses and aligned city bureaucrats, and won! You might know her for her seminal book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," (1961), a treatise on what makes a city livable, still studied in colleges today. She may be the most influential thinker urban planning has ever had, yet she didn't have a college degree and never studied the subject.
But, okay, bear with me, I bring this up because, and this is really what i'm trying to get at, Jacobs used to go around as a child talking to her imaginary friend Benjamin Franklin, explaining how things in the modern world worked. He would ask questions, and she would answer and they'd have whole conversations, a regular talker that Franklin. What ties Jacobs, who ended up living in Toronto, to Boston (a city you cannot accuse of urban planning) is that Beantown is dominated by Franklin, who, like Jacobs, was an observer of life and a believer in good common sense. He's called the father of American pragmatism, for heaven's sake. Next time I gaze up at this statue I will think of Ben and Jane, and how much our urban spaces owe to both of them.
Benjamin Franklin at Old City Hall
And to our city rats!
Well, perhaps that's stretching it, but there must be a connection between Ben and Jane and rats and urban planning, don't you think? When we got back from the east coast, where we spent Thanksgiving, I looked anew at my rats. Do they make observations? use common sense? I don't know the answer to that, but I admire their tenacity for living. Here are my own rats most recent portraits: Blu and Lily.
(never noticed before, but Blu looks a little like Jane Jacobs, don't you think?)