The woman who saved old New York

A massive freeway would have destroyed Greenwich Village and altered much of Lower Manhattan if not for one woman’s efforts. Jane Jacobs can teach us about what makes cities feel alive, writes Jonathan Glancey.

In 1939, Moses had been very much the muscle behind that year’s spectacular New York World’s Fair. A celebration of things to come, one of its many highlights was the Futurama pavilion. Designed by Norman Bel Geddes, a theatre and industrial designer with a flair for imagining convincing futures, and sponsored by General Motors, Futurama gave millions of visitors a ride, in moving chairs, around an enticing, post-Depression model of how New York might look in the near future. With streamlined cars racing along elevated freeways passing through science-fiction skyscrapers, it was an exciting, and highly polished vision of a city visitors to the exhibition knew to be grubby, crowded and chaotic, if charismatic, too.

.. For Jacobs, cities were more about people than buildings and grand designs. She celebrated the messy vitality of life on the street, of lively neighbourhoods where small businesses thrived, children played on sidewalks and people of different backgrounds rubbed shoulders.

.. “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

.. And when Jacobs gathered women to protest actively against Moses’s plans to drive an expressway through Washington Square Park and out to new suburbs, the grand planner dismissed the opposition as interfering “housewives”.

.. The Death and Life of Great American cities had sold more than 250,000 copies by 2005 when it was translated into Chinese for the first time, and as vast tracts of venerable Chinese cities were being demolished to make way for 1950s-style concrete blocks and freeways.