By Midge Pierce
Portland’s future may spin on whose interpretation of urban activist/journalist Jane Jacobs prevails. In a recent showing of Citizen Jane: The Battle for the City two Janes emerged, each separately embraced by groups with divergent growth perspectives.
Early Jane, a devotee of 20th Century urban modernist Robert Moses’ vertical city concepts, was pro-densification, a position that still appeals to many urban planners. Later Jane transformed into a preservation warrior after observing the displacement of thousands of families, often immigrants and minorities, from vibrant neighborhoods that Moses labeled slums and subsequently demolished.
Post-catharsis, Jacobs railed against the destruction of street-friendly neighborhoods that danced with vitality and life. In her book The Life and Death of Great American Cities, she blamed mid-Century urban policies on the decline of neighborhoods in cities across the country.
The film depicts how Jacobs single-mindedly stopped Moses’ plan to ram an expressway through lower Manhattan. The project would have uprooted thousands on top of lives he had already displaced with highrise housing that replaced human-scale neighborhoods.
By the early 2000s, Moses’ housing projects had become so riddled with crime and desolation that cities from Philadelphia to Chicago tore them down in favor of more livable options.
This reporter was one of four panelists at the post film forum, and the lessons for Portland seemed clear: all residents impacted by growth and change need a voice in planning decisions that affect their neighborhood.
Alarmed that some Portland voices are being disregarded in an age of top-down city management, Northwest Examiner editor Allan Classen initiated the westside event. He has been particularly watchful of the Office of Community and Civic Life, recently rebranded without emphasis on neighborhood involvement.
Architectural theorist, educator and think tank director Michael Mehaffy opened the forum with a warning of Moses-style strategies that are doomed to failure, hitting those without wealth or power hardest. He said “destructive city-making” damages our heritage and is not ecologically sustainable.
Preservation architect, author Rick Michaelson drew on his experience serving on both the Planning Commission and Historic Landmarks Commission to advocate for historic resources. His skills at adaptive re-use have saved fifty historic structures to date.
SE Urban Designer Heather Flint Chatto, who developed the Division Design Initiative for managing development and growth, spoke of the importance of continuity along Main Street-style corridors. She believes collaboration between the public and policy makers is essential.
This writer hammered down on how demolition and displacement rip apart community social fabric and the need for the two Jane’s “camps” to find commonality to solve growth problems and avoid past mistakes.
Classen hopes to continue the forum, perhaps on the Eastside, with the goal of reclaiming the “grassroots democracy role of Portland neighborhood associations.”