Small Change

Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow. – Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs never disappoints. I’ve been reading from the 2016 book Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs, a gift from a colleague, and from The Nature of Economies. The latter is a facsimile copy of Jacobs’ original type-written manuscript with handwritten corrections. It was sent to me in 1999 ahead of publication by her editor, Jason Epstein, looking for my comments. I cherish it.

For me the genius of Jane Jacobs is that she applies a Goethean observation to the study of economics. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a nineteenth-century German poet, playwright, novelist, and statesman, as well as a notable scientist. He argued that it was misleading to define a living entity solely by what was observed at an isolated moment in time. Instead, he would have the scientist imagine the oak tree in the acorn, the blooming rose in the thorn bush, the ripe apple in the newly grafted scion. It was this imagination of the whole organism in the process of transformation that he hoped to cultivate in the scientist.

Similarly, Jane Jacobs recognized that city economies were best understood as living, ever-evolving systems. She abhorred modern urban planning that would fix a city in time and impose a particular vision of what it should be rather than reveling in the messy complexity of what it was.

In the foreword to the 1992 Modern Library edition of The Death and Life of Great American Cities included in Vital Little Plans, she writes:

At some point along the trail I realized I was engaged in studying the ecology of cities. . . .

A natural ecosystem is defined as “composed of physical-chemical-biological processes active within a space-time unit of any magnitude.” A city ecosystem is composed of physical-economic-ethical processes active at a given time within a city and its close dependencies.  I’ve made up this definition by analogy. . . .

The more niches of diversity of life and livelihoods in either kind of ecosystem,
the greater its capacity for life. . . .

In natural ecosystems, gene pools are fundamental treasures.  In city ecosystems, kinds of work are fundamental treasures; furthermore, forms of work not only reproduce themselves in newly created proliferating organizations, they also hybridize, and even mutate into unprecedented kinds of work. . . .

As a Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, observed long ago, everything in the natural world is in flux.  When we suppose we see static situations, we actually see processes of beginning and processes of ending occurring simultaneously.  Nothing is static.  It is the same with cities.  Thus to investigate either natural or city ecosystems demands the same kind of thinking.  It does not do to focus on “things” and expect them to explain much in themselves.  Processes are always of the essence; things have significances as participants in processes, for better or worse.

In her writings about city economies, Jane Jacobs consistently celebrates the “sidewalk ballet”, the “eyes on the street”, the random contacts that generate ideas for new import-replacement businesses and offer the social capital to implement those ideas.

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody. – from The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Nobody commands an economy that has vitality and potential. It springs surprise upon surprise instead of knuckling down and doing what’s expected of it, or wished for it.”  — from The Nature of Economies

The primary conflict, I think, is between people whose interests are with already well-established economic activities, and those whose interests are with the emergence of new economic activities. – from The Economy of Cities

Nations are political and military entities, and so are blocs of nations. But it doesn’t necessarily follow from this that they are also the basic, salient entities of economic life or that they are particularly useful for probing the mysteries of economic structure, the reasons for rise and decline of wealth. Indeed, the failure of national governments and blocs of nations to force economic life to do their bidding suggests some sort of essential irrelevance. – from Cities and the Wealth of Nations

Covid has created many challenges, not the least of which is the loss of daily connection with the small businesses that are the heart of our local economies.  It is this that concerns me.  As advocates for our local economies, we must be ever more vigilant observers of what we see in the shops and restaurants and offices and theaters and production spaces of our cities and towns.  We must be ready to report on these observations to friends and colleagues, and in public journals — sounding the alarm of closing storefronts and under-staffed venues; reminding all of the importance of the corner shop and neighborhood drop-in space; asking what is needed; organizing financial and volunteer support; sharing responsibility to see our local businesses through these times; creating ways of gathering out of shared concern for our communities when because of Covid protocols we cannot gather in the common-place of our Main Streets.
 The first fundamental of successful city life: People must take a modicum of responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other.
 from The Death and Life of Great American CitiesWhile you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger, and think about what you see.
from The Death and Life of Great American Cities
In these times of limited sidewalk contacts, the task before us is to find new ways to generate the “small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.”