When Duncan Murrell relocated to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he was partly inspired by writer and urban theorist Jane Jacobs, who prevented Robert Moses from turning lower Manhattan into an expressway, and who died yesterday. Murrell remembers Jacobs below. (Photo swiped from the Boston Globe obituary).
Jacobs’s books are on the table next to me. I’ve seen some of the things Jacobs wrote about with disdain in 1961 repeated here, after the flood. I’ve listened to planners ignore the examples of successful city neighborhoods in favor of their own pointy-headed notions of how people ought to live. I’ve seen the lower 9th Ward depicted as a failed neighborhood by planners who had never seen it, certainly had never lived there before the storm, and did not realize that, despite some street crime, in large part it was not a failed neighborhood, but a successful one built house after house by the working class and middle class people who actually lived there. (Jacobs famously described the same misdiagnosis of the North End in Boston.)
Perhaps most importantly for me, Jacobs’s example demands that a writer remain aware always, noticing the little connections between people, watching the streets evolve during the day. And so I’ve come to understand and feel the dreamy, unstable vibe that dominates the city now, different than before. Everything is just a little bit off, not quite right, twisted or broken in some unexpected way. And I mean everything from the street signs to the crap in the gutters to the people I thought I knew. There’s not a single moment I’m outside my roooms here in the Bywater when I’m not having to negotiate some new oddity (“Well, of course there are three squashed cars on the sidewalk in front of my house today! Why wouldn’t there be?”) or someone who finally decided to let go and freak out. Yesterday it was my friend M, who came into the corner cafe in the morning, drunk and apparently mute. She would only communicate by raising her eyebrows, winking, and chewing on her hair furiously.
It can be very beautiful down here, too, but you have to force yourself to look up at it and notice. Jacobs would have noticed.