© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Words You'll Hear: Gentrification


Now it's time for Words You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand stories we'll be hearing more about by parsing some of the words associated with them. Today, our word is gentrification, which we think may be in the news this week because Wednesday marks what would have been the 100th birthday of one of the most critical figures in today's views of urban planning. We're talking about the activist Jane Jacobs.

In the 1950s, Jane Jacobs rallied supporters to stop her neighborhood of Greenwich Village from being bulldozed by the powerful architect Robert Moses, one of the most powerful forces in city planning before and since, a builder of bridges, expressways and monumental projects. Yet Jacob's book "The Death And Life Of Great American Cities" remains the bible of city lovers around the world. So we called urban critic Roberta Brandes Gratz, who wrote about Jane Jacobs in "The Battle For Gotham: New York In The Shadow Of Robert Moses And Jane Jacobs." We reached her in Toronto, where she is observing the Jane Jacobs centennial to hear more about Jane Jacobs's vision of cities. Thank you so much for joining us.

ROBERTA BRANDES GRATZ: I'm delighted to do this.

MARTIN: So for those who don't live in New York or haven't heard of Jane Jacobs, can you tell us just a little bit more about her and why she is such an important figure to modern planners?

GRATZ: Well, her first book, "Death And Life Of Great American Cities," basically changed the way the world views cities because in the '60s, it was still in the throes of the idea of urban renewal - clear out the old, build the new. And she turned around and said wait a minute. The existing cities have value. We have to respect the fabric and understand how cities work before we decide to replace them.

MARTIN: Did she use the word gentrification? I don't think that that was a common word...

GRATZ: Not at all.

MARTIN: How was this whole process that we now think of as gentrification talked about back then?

GRATZ: Well, first of all, let me say I think gentrification is highly overused. And for people who want to blame Jane for gentrification everywhere, including Greenwich Village, give me a break. Jane never expected any neighborhood or any city not to change. Her point was how you manage change and manage it in a way that doesn't destroy what is of value that exists. But add to it, strengthen it, help it grow. And we have to understand that Jane Jacobs was about observations, not prescriptions. She never said what should happen. She observed what works and what doesn't.

MARTIN: What would you say her vision was in contrast to Robert Moses, who's a name that a lot of people might know because of Robert Caro's book "The Power Broker" about him? I mean, you know, I'm from New York. So he's a figure who looms very large in my, you know, education. I mean, at a time - he was just a huge figure in the development of New York. And so was it that the big difference of opinion he had with Jane Jacobs - that his idea was you sweep away the old, and you start over.


MARTIN: And her vision was - what? - you work with what is, and you try to do what?

GRATZ: It's very important to understand Moses was a czar. And the difference between Moses and Jacobs was not just a vision of the city. It was about process. Jane believed in local involvement of the local people in the change in their neighborhood.

Moses couldn't give a damn about local voices. He wanted them gone. Only he knew what was best. So the major difference between them is not so much the vision, although that is clearly true. But it was about process.

MARTIN: How would you measure her influence in the way people think about cities today? And why is it that people are still drawn to her writings?

GRATZ: Because she was right. It's simple as that. And it's very interesting. We are redoing Moses projects all over the country, including taking down expressways and highways that tore through the genuine fabric of the cities. The point about Jane's durability is that Jane respected the real residents and business owners in a city. She understood because she observed what worked - that you have to listen to the local voices to understand what would help rejuvenate or build on a local place without replacing it.

MARTIN: Roberta Brandes Gratz is an urban critic. She's one of the founders of The Center for the Living City, which advances the work of Jane Jacobs. Roberta Brandes Gratz, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GRATZ: My pleasure, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.