enchanting christopher street
April 9, 2010, 11:46 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , ,

Jane Jacobs, the writer and urbanist, describes in an interview how she stumbled on, and was enchanted by, Christopher Street in Greenwich Village in 1934 and rushed home to her Brooklyn flat to convince her sister that they were moving to Manhattan.

I’m not sure what academics think of her work today – she went on to write several very influential books about American culture and urban life, and to challenge many important orthodoxies along with their high priests.  I think some new practitioners of city design have appropriated her ideas to advance new formal propositions for American living, without really understanding her thought.

She doesn’t remind me of Chauncy Gardener in Being There, the simple innocent who takes a job gardening with a greedy and ambitious politician who, in a serendipitous, stumbling way, begins to see policy potential in the tortured and naive pronouncements of his new employee.  She’s not innocent nor naive, but she, like Gardener, approaches life relentlessly from the point of view of direct experience.  And she, also relentlessly, insists that life must be full and active and healthy, and that if our cities aren’t supporting that way of living, we need to go out into the street and stop anyone who is compromising that potential.

This excerpt from an interview –with someone you feel is trying to get her to believe what he believes –is like Walter Benjamin’s essays on Paris, full of delights and discoveries.  To be enchanted by a street in a city!  That’s someone I want to listen to.

Well she moved to Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights, to a house that is not there anymore. It was a six-story walk-up and we lived on the top floor. It was a nice neighborhood though. It was near the St. George Hotel. It was before the highways went in there. So I would go looking for a job every morning. I would look in the newspaper and see what seemed likely and which employment agencies were advertising. I would usually walk over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan because we were there near the Brooklyn Bridge. And then after I was turned down for all these jobs I would spend the rest of the day looking around where I had ended up. Or if I had ended up in a place where I had already looked around I would spend a nickel on the subway and go arbitrarily to some other stop and look around there. So I was roaming the city in the afternoons and applying for jobs in the morning. And one day I found myself in a neighborhood I just liked so much…it was one of those times I had put a nickel in and just invested something. And where did I get out? I just liked the sound of the name: Christopher Street — so I got out at Christopher Street, and I was enchanted with this neighborhood, and walked around it all afternoon and then I rushed back to Brooklyn. And I said, “Betty I found out where we have to live.” And she said, “Where is it?” And I said, “I don’t know, but you get in the subway and you get out at a place called Christopher Street.” So we went to look for a place where you got out of the subway at Christopher Street.

-Jane Jacobs, interview with James Howard Kunstler.

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