Public Characters

Upon reading Jane Jacobs’ book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, I was struck by the idea of self-appointed public characters and their importance in enhancing the “social structure of sidewalk life” (68). As Jacobs describes, public characters are usually storekeepers that are in frequent contact with various people and serve the purpose of circulating news about the neighborhood. If not storekeepers, then all other public characters depend on these small local businesses to gather news about the neighborhood. They do not need to have any specialties, they just need to be, as Jacobs puts it, present and public.

Jane Jacobs became a public character herself for Greenwich Village, where she lived, when the neighborhood was battling to save Washington Square Park from being bisected by the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Although Jane Jacobs had a more prominent role in stopping the Lower Manhattan Expressway project, she describes how her role as a public character contributed in spreading the news to protect their park. She would deposit petition cards protesting the proposed project to local stores and costumers would sign them and as a result spreading the news about the protest.

Reading about her work as a public character to preserve Washington Square Park reminded me of a brochure titled “Cross Manhattan Arterials and Related Improvements” I saw at the Museum of the City of New York as part of a Seminar II project. It was a brochure of Robert Moses’ plan to build numerous expressways and bridges throughout Manhattan, projects that would completely change the shape of Manhattan by destroying important buildings and parks, one of them being Washington Square Park. With his plan, thousands of families would have been displaced along with hundreds of local businesses.

This twelve-page brochure contains Robert Moses’ last projects towards changing the city of New York. These expressways would perfectly connect all the other roads and bridges, which would decrease city traffic and promote economic growth. However, local residents along with activists such as Jane Jacobs were not convinced by Moses’ reasoning to finish his projects. In the end, all of the above projects were stopped due to the increasing opposition, lack of funds, and Moses’ loss of power at the end of his career.

Moses’ unrealized projects and loss of power show the effects of lively sidewalks and public characters that work together to spread the news and create a connected neighborhood. “Word does not move around where public characters and sidewalk life are lacking. … Not only do public characters spread the news and learn the news at retail, so to speak. They connect with each other and thus spread word wholesale, in effect” (69-70). However, looking at our city today, few to no public characters exist to represent a neighborhood. This really makes you think about the Death of Great American Cities that Jane Jacobs is talking about in her book.

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