Onward to the good old days

Written by Diana Nelson Jones on .

by Diana Nelson Jones/Dec 29

When people in deficient neighborhoods talk about the good old days, they talk about a main drag that was chock-a-block with whatever you wanted or needed, from shoes and groceries to dinner and a movie. They remember people on their stoops and porches, always ready to lend a hand, and kids playing in the streets.Women on porch. Photo by John Gates. From the University of Pittsburgh archives

Dense neighborhoods with a slew of goods and services are not just fodder for nostalgia. They're the basis of the New Urbanism, a movement intent on returning us to the good old days. New Urbanists walk in the footsteps of Jane Jacobs, the New York housewife who led a crusade against the developments that destroyed our cities in the 1950s and 1960s, when zoning was revised to serve the car, when we sold our trolleys, moved to the burbs and began sprawling with pavement and deplorable commercial aesthetics that wiped out miles and miles of farms, fields and wetlands.

People waiting for streetcar Downtown/photo by Clyde Hare 1951 from the University of Pittsburgh archivesThe car has arguably been the most destructive consumer item in its effect on both the environment and the health and well-being of cities. It was an ill-advised love affair America entered into, one that took off in the 1950s, when our "leaders" began establishing zoning laws and transportation policies that assured the car supremacy.

Jane Jacobs went on to write "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" in which she nearly excoriated Pittsburgh for being all wrong. Our neighborhood of Oakland made the grade, but her main focus was on our Downtown, which she described in grim terms.

John Morris, a respondent to Chris Briem's blog Nullspace
wrote that the Southside would be the only Jane neighborhood today, asserting that it would be the only one, though maybe Shadyside, Bloomfield and Lawrenceville might interest her.

In my Dec. 18 post, "Looking for Jane in the ‘burgh," I reprinted John's comment, an apt one: "Most neighborhoods here just don't cut it."

I would keep Oakland on the list and I would add Squirrel Hill as a Jane neighborhood. It is hands-down the most complete one in the city, even though long-timers there lament the loss of variety. Downtown is far from a grim shell, but even with the loft and condo developments, it is astonishingly deficient. Its most glaring lack is a bookstore. I was going to write "a decent bookstore," but I would settle for any.

Certainly these days, in most cities and neighborhoods, you have to get into a car for something. We are not moving toward mass transit over driving, and we don't have policy makers bold enough to force us to. Sprawl is not going away. But developers are no longer the pillagers they once were allowed and even encouraged to be. As often as not, they work within the parameters of community-driven plans.

When society honors its cities, developers have to. I think Jane would be pleased by the current trend, but she knew it takes vigilance. If we love a place for the way it has become over time, we must protect the pace and style of change within it.

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