19.1. The Life of a Vibrant Neighborhood

19.1. The Life of a Vibrant Neighborhood

Anyone who wants to pursue these matters should read Jane Jacobs' classic work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She makes vividly clear how to create a crime-ridden district: put barriers between people by any means available freeways, homogeneous business districts, and inadequate transportation systems; create urban canyons of concrete and steel that are uninhabited after business hours; discourage a continued mixing by people from different classes, ethnic backgrounds, trades, age groups, and so on; and, in general, minimize the routine, mutual exposure of people in conducting all of life's business.

Jacobs describes wonderful urban areas where safety is both taken for granted and well enforced. Interestingly, in such environments the fact that people are continually noticing each other and looking out for each other goes hand in hand with respect for privacy. Jacobs cites the anthropologist Elena Padilla regarding a "poor and squalid" Puerto Rican district of New York City. In this district people know a great deal about each other just as a matter of public record who can be trusted, who is defiant of the law, who is competent. "These things are known from the public life of the sidewalk and its associated enterprises." But at the same time only a highly select group is permitted to drop into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. "It is not considered dignified for everyone to know one's affairs."

Jacobs continues:

A good city street neighborhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people's determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around. This balance is largely made up of small, sensitively managed details, practiced and accepted so casually that they are normally taken for granted.

Perhaps I can best explain this subtle but all-important balance in terms of the stores where people leave keys for their friends, a common custom in New York. In our family, for example, when a friend wants to use our place while we are away for a week end or everyone happens to be out during the day, or a visitor for whom we do not wish to wait up is spending the night, we tell such a friend that he can pick up the key at the delicatessen across the street. Joe Cornacchia, who keeps the delicatessen, usually has a dozen or so keys at a time for handing out like this. He has a special drawer for them.

Now why do I, and many others, select Joe as a logical custodian for keys? Because we trust him, first, to be a responsible custodian, but equally important because we know that he combines a feeling of good will with a feeling of no personal responsibility about our private affairs. Joe considers it no concern of his whom we choose to permit in our places and why.

Then comes the zinger so far as today's privacy debates are concerned:

A service like this cannot be formalized. Identifications . . . questions . . . insurance against mishaps. The all-essential line between public service and privacy would be transgressed by [such forms of] institutionalization. Nobody in his right mind would leave his key in such a place. The service must be given as a favor by someone with an unshakable understanding of the difference between a person's key and a person's private life, or it cannot be given at all.

Lest you think that Jacobs is addressing the current, technology-centered debate, be aware that she wrote those words in 1961. But she is addressing some of the issues we must tackle. What she is saying is important enough to warrant further quotation:

Or consider the line drawn by Mr. Jaffe at the candy store around our corner a line so well understood by his customers and by other storekeepers too that they can spend their whole lives in its presence and never think about it consciously. One ordinary morning last winter, Mr. Jaffe, whose formal business name is Bernie, and his wife, whose formal business name is Ann, supervised the small children crossing at the corner on the way to P.S. 41, as Bernie always does because he sees the need; lent an umbrella to one customer and a dollar to another; took custody of two keys; took in some packages for people in the next building who were away; lectured two youngsters who asked for cigarettes; gave street directions; took custody of a watch to give the repairman across the street when he opened later; gave out information on the range of rents in the neighborhood to an apartment seeker; listened to a tale of domestic difficulty and offered reassurance; told some rowdies they could not come in unless they behaved, and defined (and got) good behavior; provided an incidental forum for half a dozen conversations among customers who dropped in for oddments; set aside certain newly arrived papers and magazines for regular customers who would depend on getting them; advised a mother who came for a birthday present not to get the ship-model kit because another child going to the same birthday party was giving that; and got a back copy (this was for me) of the previous day's newspaper out of the deliverer's surplus returns when he came by.

Jacobs once asked Mr. Jaffe, "Do you ever introduce your customers to each other?" "No," came the thoughtful reply. "That would just not be advisable." This, Jacobs observes, is the well-balanced line "between the city public world and the world of privacy."

This line can be maintained without awkwardness to anyone, because of the great plenty of opportunities for public contact in the enterprises along the sidewalks, or on the sidewalks themselves as people move to and fro or deliberately loiter when they feel like it, and also because of the presence of many public hosts, so to speak, proprietors of meeting places like Bernie's where one is free either to hang around or dash in and out, no strings attached.

Devices of the Soul. Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
ISBN: 0596526806
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2007
Pages: 122
Authors: Steve Talbott

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