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Jane Jacobs — the woman who stopped the bulldozing of Washington Square Park

Jacobs’ view of street religion

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Just out!

In 1960 Jane Jacobs’s book The Death and Life of Great American Cities sent shockwaves through the architecture and planning worlds, with its exploration of the consequences of modern planners’ and architects’ reconfiguration of cities. Jacobs was also an activist, who was involved in many fights in mid-century New York, to stop “master builder” Robert Moses from running roughshod over the city. This film retraces the battles for the city as personified by Jacobs and Moses, as urbanization moves to the very front of the global agenda. Many of the clues for formulating solutions to the dizzying array of urban issues can be found in Jacobs’s prescient text, and a close second look at her thinking and writing about cities is very much in order. This film sets out to examine the city of today though the lens of one of its greatest champions. Take a look at her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities or The Economy of the Cities.



Street Religion

Jane Jacobs paid special attention how the best neighborhoods have lively street life. In The Death and Life of the Great American Cities she wrote, "Streets in cities serve many purposes besides carrying vehicles, and city sidewalks—the pedestrian parts of the streets—serve many purposes besides carrying pedestrians. Streets and and their sidewalks, the main public places of a city, are its most vital organs.

Think of a city and what comes to mind? Its streets. If a city’s streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull… If a city’s streets are safe from barbarianism and fear, the city is tolerable safe from barbarism and fear. Sidewalks, their bordering uses, and their users are active participants in the drama civilization versus barbarism in the cities. The trust of a city street if formed over time, from many, many, many little public sidewalk contacts." (pages p. 2, 29-30, 56)

Jacobs was fascinated how lively neighborhoods brought people from all over the world and almost instantly could live and connect with each other. This great crossing of boundaries quality of the great American cities is rooted in the missionary democratic idea that all people are brothers and sisters descended from Adam and Eve. Jacobs herself says that the person whom she admired the most was her grandmother, who was a missionary to the native Americans in Alaska.

From ancient times to today, religion in the streets has been an important feature of vital cities.



“Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corners she cries out; at the entrance to the city gates she speaks.

Proverbs 1:20-21



Cathedral of the Open Air

The "Cathedral of the Open Air" was more than a metaphor for the Salvation Army in 1895. When Salvationists knelt and prayed in the city's streets, they believed that a heavenly church hovered above. For them, God's presence was a palpable presence that defined the meaning of city streets.


Diane Winston, “’The Cathedral of the Open Air’: The Salvation Army’s Sacralization of Secular Space, New York City, 1880-1910,” in Robert Orsi, ed., Gods of the City.Religion and the American urban landscape (1999), 373.



City observer William H. Whyte carefully appreciated one of the most notable social rituals on the streets -- schmoozing. "’Schmoozing’ is a Yiddish term for which there is no precise definition. But basically it means ‘nothing talk.’

Another great place for schmoozing is the diamond district, the single block on 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. Here Hasidic Jews play a large role. You see a rich vocabulary of gestures rooted in the culture of Orthodox Jews.

The Jew employs his arm as a pointer to link one proposition to another, or to trace the itinerary of a logical journey, or else as a baton to beat the tempo of his mental locomotion. David Efron found it to be especially characteristic of the Yeshiva type of Jew who was accustomed to argumentation and syllogistic reasoning. It is the exercise of logic by reasonable, fair-minded men. The gestures sometimes indicates a dismay at the weak argument of the other, but generally thee exchanges end up on an obviously friendly, or at least resolving, note...

Soapboxers display cooperative antagonism in heightened form.

About 1 pm they gather at Broad and Wall streets. Most are regulars; some are Henry George single-tax people, some specialize in world affairs, many concentrate on religion, interpretation of the Bible in particular.

The classic form of their encounters is thrust and counter-thrust. With a jabbing finger punctuating each point, one man advances on his adversary, who gives way at the same pace.

After a climactic flourish, the first man stops, and his hands go limp. What more could possibly be said? The other man jabs out his finer. How could that be squared with Genesis? He advances on the other man, who gives way.

The whole preceding scene is now acted out in reverse. Other soapboxers may egg them on. A man who is known as the Logician, a man with a spade beard and an incongruous tweed hat, may top off the session. Both men have missed the point." (In his City, 1988, p. 11, 14-17.)



Streets make people good neighbors

Public spaces requires us to share with one another, they allow us to truly dwell among our neighbors, and they provide a context for a healthy exchange of ideas among a free citizenry. (Eugene O. Jacobson, Sidewalks in the Kingdom. 2003. p. 4, 8.)



What is "Street" to church people?

"In neighborhoods like Four Corners [Boston], where most congregations worship in storefronts along busy thoroughfares, church and street, sacred space and public space, religious space and vacant space, form a tight patchwork with one kind of space directly abutting and affecting the other.

On Sundays, a sonic battle ensues between church and street. In the street, I heard the sound of tambourines, singing, preaching, and clapping---the sound of vigorous, ecstatic praise—pouring out of the churches.

Inside church I noticed the sounds of the street: the rumbling bass of car stereos pumping out hip-hop and Dominican merengue, the scree of car tires, the piercing screams of fire engines, ambulances, and police cars, and the occasional shouted curse from an agitated passerby. In Four Corners, worshipers did not have the luxury of considering their churches as places physically set apart.

Four Corners churches conceived of the street in three ways: as an evil other to be avoided at all cost, as a recruitment ground to be trod and sacralized, and as a point of contact with persons at risk who are to be served...

The meanings that church people, especially clergy, assigned to the street, in turn, helped them define what it meant to be religious in that particular church. Members of the Azusa Christian Community saw the street as the place where Jesus tested the commitment of the faithful to those poor and vulnerable. (Omar M. McRoberts, Streets of Glory. Church and Community in a Black Urban Neighborhood. 2003. p. 81-82, 91.)


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