Saturday, May 8, 2010

Slumming and Unslumming: How To Naturally Rebuild Neighborhood and Community?

In Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs describes slum formation as a result of trying to fix a neighborhood immediately rather than gradually. City planning often tries to artificially design neighborhoods in ways that do not necessarily help a neighborhood prosper. One of the problems that faces cities is a lack of diversity of purpose within neighborhoods.

Government paternalism creates a difficult dynamic for communities stuck in the “vicious cycle” of slumming. As cities try to spread slums out, they spend public money that should be spent towards the needs of these communities. However, as the needs for neighborhoods grow greater, the flight of people from neighborhoods only takes away from the available tax revenues necessary to fund such developments. Jacobs says that governments need to realize that “slum dwellers” are “capable of understanding and acting upon their own self-interests.” Though governments believe their efforts to be in the best interest of individuals living in these neighborhoods, they need to understand that “a slum spontaneously unslums” through processes that cannot simply be solved by providing better housing (171).

In the past, zoning laws and bank lending practices have restricted neighborhoods in ways that have actually caused slums to form, creating neighborhoods where homes where people are overcrowded and overcharged. These problems only serve to make perception of neighborhoods worse as people leave when they can afford to no longer overcrowd or they stay and their dwellings “wear out with disproportionate swiftness” under higher stress of use (176). These constant departures cause the neighborhoods to lose a “continuity of people.” In addition, as new people enter neighborhoods with “little in common to begin with,” they begin their experience in a neighborhood with a tone that is “ruthless and bitter” (177). As neighborhoods lose reasons for attracting outsiders, they lose the revenue bases that can support local businesses and local residents. Though a neighborhood may be densely filled with people, if there is no way for those people to maintain a style of living they will leave the area. Perception plays a key role in this as the perception of a neighborhood determines who wants to live there, who wants to visit, and how long people will stay.

People moving out of a neighborhood only contributes more to the slumming of neighborhoods as they take their money that supports a local community out of the neighborhood instead of investing in renovating and improving the neighborhood. Their flight from the neighborhood only serves to worsen the problems and perceptions that the neighborhood has. Unslumming is a organic process by which a slum must become a “lively enough to be able to enjoy city public life and sidewalk safety” (179). However, these feelings of attachment have more to do with their “personal attachments to other people, with the regard in which they believe they are held in the neighborhood, and with their sense of values as to what is of greater and what is of lesser importance in their lives” (179). Without this attachment to neighborhood occurring naturally, a neighborhoods cannot retain people who do not wish to stay their by choice and government intervention is not going to change their minds.

Jacobs argues that a population drop in a neighborhood is not necessarily bad. It can show that homes inhabitants are becoming more “economically able to uncrowd” (180). Population drop is important because it indicates that the type of people who would desert the neighborhood are being replaced by people who decide to stay by choice. Jacobs explains that when people stay by choice, a community “gains competence and strength, partly from practice and growth of trust, and finally (this takes much longer) from becoming less provincial.” The community that decides to stay as a result becomes more diverse in terms of “financial and education advancement.” While city planners idealistically wish to bring back the middle class to a slum, their efforts to protect such artificial growth misses the point that a city's people are valuable “before they become middle class” (182).

Understanding this value allows for neighborhoods to gradually introduce new groups of people who enter neighborhoods by choice rather than flooding neighborhoods with people who arrive out of necessity or force. While few of the “most outstandingly successful residents” are not likely to stay, those who “make modest gains” stay in the area as their “personal attachments overshadow their individual achievement” (182). Jacobs argues that departure of these members actually helps to eliminate discrimination against an area as the possibility of success within the neighborhood becomes more apparent. This makes people more proud of the neighborhoods they live in and such attachment to the neighborhood alleviates many of the problems of slumming by creating a diverse neighborhood that improves the well being of all residents regardless of class, education, or race.