What Happens When We Destroy Poor Neighborhoods?

Today, gentrification has ripped through two-thirds of New York City’s low-income neighborhoods. Rents climb. Low-income folks struggle to afford housing. Better-off people move in. People of color leave.

But this issue is far from new. In the 1950s and ’60s, two public figures warred for their philosophy on city planning to prevail.

City planner Robert Moses wanted to transform New York into an idyllic “city of tomorrow,” as NPR‘s Bob Mondello puts it, with superhighways and towering skyscrapers. Writer and activist Jane Jacobs looked more closely at how public spaces supported those who lived there.

For her, city planning was about people.

The new documentary “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” highlights this struggle of ideas, which persists today.

While Moses saw slums as a “cancer” to bulldoze and rebuild, Jacobs saw them as dynamic places to manage. The shops, grocery stores and sidewalks all had a symbiotic relationship.

Streets were safest at their busiest. People in the buildings would watch people on the streets, and people on the streets would watch each other.

In “Citizen Jane,” you get to watch a lot of buildings explode, as urban renewal efforts gutted thousands of tenement buildings and extracted residents. More importantly, the film explores the root of what cities are.

Are poor neighborhoods problems that should be eliminated — turned into public parks, highways and beaches? Or should we see the streets as vibrant places that only seem chaotic but actually have their own balance?

Urbanization is more than a 100-year-old issue. We can learn from Jacobs’ people-centric perspective on urban planning, rather than a godlike bird’s-eye view.

After all, Jacobs emphasized that some of the most creative solutions come from activists who live there.

As she writes, ”It is so easy to blame the decay on traffic, or immigrants, or the whimsies of the middle class. But the decay of cities is deeper and more complicated. It goes right down to what we want, and our ignorance to how cities work.”

While “Citizen Jane” unfortunately avoids the topic of race – people of color have always been the biggest losers in gentrification — the film is an essential watch for all interested in how we arrived at our present understanding of cities. 

As Jacobs said, cities have a “complex order,” like a “dance,” “an intricate ballet,” where everyone has a distinctive part that supports one another.

Photo Credit: Zach Miles/Unsplash

61 comments

Telica R
Telica R1 years ago

Thanks for sharing

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Marie W
Marie W1 years ago

Thanks for posting.

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Carl R
Carl R1 years ago

Thanks!!!

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Carl R
Carl R1 years ago

Thanks!!!

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william Miller
william Miller1 years ago

thanks

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Mary B
Mary B1 years ago

I remember when D Trump was a young man , a real estate developer who bought out all the old houses generations of poor people had lived in, to build what was first called Trumps Towers, and later The Twin Towers World Trade Center. Remember 911? Those people fraught it, but ultimately lost, sold out and I never heard what happened to them. So now a segment of the voting population have elected that man to be our president. I mention this because usually repubs are not activists, and they don't pay attention to 'on the ground' bigger pictures, only expensive visions that don't include people, or Nature.

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rosario p
rosario p.1 years ago

Gentrification process or the art of destroying life in the neighborhoods: abandonment, stigma, regeneration, mercantilization and resistance. A call of attention to all those who live in gentrified neighborhoods. We must be aware of the processes in which we are participating and understand how we can contribute in one direction or another. It is about understanding that before us there were other people and that their problems, they are also our problems at the moment in which we began to reside in the same place

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David Y
David Youmans1 years ago

When did we throw away compassion as a nation?
When did we turn our eyes away from the poor?
How can you stand there, and say, "do not feed them"?
When all the while you're asking, for more?

You take away their blankets in the cold, so they freeze to death,
and make laws that they must not be fed.
The fact that they're homeless, isn't bad enough for you.
You won't be satisfied until they're dead.

We're supposed to be a nation of people
A nation of, and by, and for us all.
but if they won't listen, to the needs of the people,
You know pride always goes before the fall.
You know pride always goes before the fall.

This is the first verse and chorus of a song I wrote a couple weeks ago. Somehow it seemed appropriate...

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Steven L Jones
Steven L J1 years ago

real estate is the new gold. It's not housing it's an investment.

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Lisa M
Lisa M1 years ago

Noted.

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