The Death or Life of a Sidewalk Ballet

Are Jane Jacobs’ lively streets disappearing for good?
by | August 2014

When I first lived in New York City in the late 1980s, I was struck by how the proprietors of the tiny grocery store below my apartment on upper Broadway would hold keys for the children/guests/friends of nearby residents, as well as packages, notes and so on.

The late Jane Jacobs put a lot of importance on the practice. In her masterful and influential 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs wrote it was an example of the “casual, public trust” that underlies the “casual, public contact” that constitutes a rich street realm. This is great -- except shopkeepers don’t do this much anymore in New York City, nor do people ask them to.

Curious about the death or at least decline of this practice, I reread Death and Life to see what else had changed from the world Jacobs described in the book. What immediately became clear is that the casual, but substantive, interplay among sidewalk denizens has declined overall, and not just with key-holding.

The saddest change for me, as a parent, is that fewer children are playing on sidewalks with non-parent adults watching over them.

Jacobs devoted a whole chapter to this. She wrote of how the watchful eyes of unrelated adults -- shopkeepers, housewives and the like -- not only helped keep children safe but also helped socialize the many children playing there.

These children were central players in the “intricate sidewalk ballet” that Jacobs so famously described near her home in Greenwich Village. “When I get home after work, the ballet is reaching its crescendo,” she wrote. “This is the time of roller skates and stilts and tricycles, and games in the lee of the stoop.” She continued later: “They slop in puddles, write with chalk, jump rope, roller skate, shoot marbles, trot out their possessions, converse, trade cards, play stoop ball, walk stilts, decorate soap-box scooters, dismember old baby carriages, climb on railings, run up and down.”

From this play, though, comes responsibility, as random adults hush overly noisy children or quash dangerous, rude or aggressive behavior. “In real life, only from the ordinary adults of the city sidewalks do children learn -- if they learn it at all -- the first fundamental of successful city life: People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other.”

Alas, kids don’t play much on the sidewalks anymore, certainly not in Greenwich Village, where Jacobs lived, or in Park Slope in Brooklyn, where I live, which is stuffed with kids. I sometimes let my 9-year-old son play on the sidewalk in front of our building. He’s by himself. His chums, potential or actual, are at piano lessons, soccer practice, with tutors, or on supervised “playdates.”

Kids and adults are holed up inside air-conditioned apartments, their faces lit by various electronic screens. There are fewer of Jacobs’ famous eyes on the street.

It’s troubling. New York City is safer, more prosperous and more populated than ever before. But many of the vital attributes we identify with it and city life in general have declined. And what’s true in New York City is true elsewhere, I suspect. So why the change?

Part of what’s happened to the city is the arrival of significant and widespread wealth. Jacobs identified, with clear disapproval, the emergence of small, high-priced “elevator apartments,” whose residents slip in, disappear and don’t participate in the life of the streets. Elevator apartments are simply a lot more common now. Another factor is that there are fewer corner delis, neighborhood candy stores, butcher shops, locksmiths, fruit vendors, cigar stores, tailors, bookstores and small, family-run drugstores -- all whose owners participated in Jacobs’ sidewalk ballet. New York City now has giant drugstores, giant grocery stores and few bookstores, just like the suburbs.

There’s nothing entirely “natural” about these changes. In the 1990s, Mayor David Dinkins and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani spearheaded changes in the zoning and other codes that made it easier to bring in big stores. These places are often cheaper, but they are less personal.

In one marvelous paragraph, Jacobs described how in one morning she watched “Mr. Jaffe,” a candy store proprietor, act as an impromptu crossing guard for children, take custody of two sets of keys and multiple packages, lecture youngsters who asked for cigarettes, hold on to a watch for repair for a nearby store, and perform numerous other tasks. I don’t see that much anymore.

Nor do I see that “modicum of public responsibility” Jacobs endorsed. Adults are less likely to discipline strangers’ children, lean out the window and comment on goings on, or do casual favors for each other without compensation or a contract.

This all makes me wonder if Jacobs’ rich sidewalk life will continue to decline. In reporting this column, though, I did find a ray of hope. The gourmet supermarket I often shop at had no opportunity for key-holding in its rows of cashiers. The manager at a modern supermarket a block from my apartment told me curtly, “We don’t do that.” But the clerk at a longstanding corner grocery store on a different block, with whom I often banter, told me people still leave him keys several times a week. Interestingly, he said the practice declined for years and almost disappeared, but has been coming back recently.

So perhaps the dancers in Jacobs’ ballet are coming onto the stage again, and reviving that “casual, public trust.” I certainly hope so.

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