by Marion Marks
Shreveport’s focus on the interstate 49 corridor to join the long-delayed north-south highway is tearing apart our city as we claim we are concerned with the character, growth, assimilation, legacy and potential for a historic section of our city. Author and activist Jane Jacobs who would have been 100 years old today expressed thoughts on the soul of American cities in her 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities that is a rebuttal of much urban planning that remains too prevalent even now. In today’s quest for optimizing city transportation routes that promote economic development over saving the cultural character and neighborhoods in the city, we have lost our soul.
City planners too often come to the table with suitcases of study that are no more than expert witnesses who travel to pedal an economic posture to support one developer over another, greedily seeking to mine federal funds and local wallets. The soul of Shreveport, just as the soul of Garden City in Jacobs text, is a set of historically established neighborhoods that are defined by the relationships of the families there today. Displacing whole blocks to make way for a travel corridor or spaces for new convenience markets and gas stations does little to preserve the character of the community. Rather it speeds traffic out of the area that most non-residents would never spend any time stopping to experience.
Recognizing this 100th birthday of a dead activist whose approach to city growth is too often overlooked creates a time to reflect on why citizens don’t take the time to value other citizens with whom they share few values other than a residence in the same city. Shreveport, like so many other cities has had fits of introspection, doubt and rebirth, but generally the monied class drives ahead their plan of attack, regardless of what is best for the whole city. New strains on resources to rebuild water, sewer and drainage infrastructure, the school system and other basic city services may have brought us to the limit.
National frustrations are evident in the presidential primaries, as the top candidates have unfavorability ratings double-digits above their positive ratings. Never have the unpopularity issues been greater as voters generally say they have had enough of government officials who promise much and produce so little. The economy remains the number one issue with voters, but anger and frustration demonstrate little tolerance for failure to act.
Jane Jacobs was instrumental in keeping developers from demolishing Washington Square Park and saving Greenwich Village from destruction by developers who sought to transform the community in the name of urban renewal. Developer Robert Moses, who had already forced through the Cross Bronx Expressway and other roadways against neighborhood opposition – envisioned a freeway, referred to as the Lower Manhattan Expressway or “LOMEX”, directly through Washington Square Park. Moses plan, funded as “slum clearance” by Title I of the Housing Act of 1949, also called for multiple blocks to be razed and replaced with upscale high-rises. The plan forced 132 families out of their homes and displaced 1000 small businesses – the result was Washington Square Village.
Plans for Shreveport include the use of similar federal monies as well as “block grants” to transform neighborhoods, mostly for the economic benefit of developers rather than the community. Strangely we have not learned the lessons and history seeks to repeat itself.
Jane Jacobs chaired the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway (a.k.a. Joint Emergency Committee to Close Washington Square to Traffic, and other names), which recruited such members as Margaret Mead, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lewis Mumford, Charles Abrams, and William H. Whyte. Papers such as The New York Times were sympathetic to Moses, while the newly created Village Voice covered community rallies and advocated against the expressway. The Committee succeeded in blocking the project. On June 25, 1958, the city closed Washington Square Park to traffic, and the Joint Committee held a ribbon tying (not cutting) ceremony. Jacobs continued to fight the expressway when plans resurfaced in 1962, 1965, and 1968, and she became a local hero for her opposition to the project. She was arrested by a plainclothes police officer on April 10, 1968, at a public hearing, during which the crowd had charged the stage and destroyed the stenographer’s notes. She was accused of inciting a riot, criminal mischief, and obstructing public administration – after months of trials conducted in New York City, her charge was reduced to disorderly conduct.
In the months leading up to the November elections citizens will be dazzled by promises, overwhelmed by media that makes it difficult to sift the truths from the lies, and money will flow to sugar-coat the reality that the world is not as safe or as healthy as it once was. Cutting through the spin that the political magicians are attempting to sell will remain a difficult job. Jane Jacobs would be proud of those who try to slow the pace and make sense in this new world order.