South Street 1

Corner of 4th & South, 1963 and 2011.

In 1968, the same year Jane Jacobs was arrested during a protest against the Lower Manhattan Expressway, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi took up the fight against the Philadelphia City Planning Commission's scheme to replace South Street with a cross-town highway. Hanging in the balance was the premise that cities can be shaped and formed to meet the needs of their residents.

After the plans for the 'Crosstown Expressway' were made public, the Citizens’ Committee to Preserve and Develop the Crosstown Community (CCPDCC) formed to unite the communities of the South Street corridor against the highway and to create an alternative vision.[1] A driving factor behind the opposition was the idea that communities have a right to self-determination. This concept grew as a response to the power of planners in shaping urban environments, which arguably hadn't changed since the sweeping plans of Fredrick Law Olmstead and the City Beautiful movement transformed cities earlier in the century. However, the seeming absolute power that figures like Robert Moses engendered in treating populated neighborhoods as blank slates contrasted starkly with democratic principles.

Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi entered the debate on the side of the CCPDCC, proposing an alternative that built upon what already existed on South Street: a mixed use corridor of unique vernacular structures with small low-budget shops serving the local and wider communities.[2] This celebration of the vernacular is a staple of Scott Brown & Venturi's work but became useful in promoting the idea of self-determination.

Jane Jacobs lurks in the background in the debate over South Street. While nominally railing against the reductionist approach of urban planners to the complexity of cities in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, there is an underlying populism that empowers city-dwellers to advocate for their needs. The outcome moved urban planning in a positive direction towards greater cooperation with public interests and tempered the power of planners, but to what end?

Venturi and Scott Brown's involvement in defeating the Crosstown Expressway plans was instrumental and led to an immediate renaissance along South Street. Seeking to tap into the aura of authenticity and self-determination that South Street represented, new shops offered consumer forms of counter-culture to a younger crowd.[3] The nature of the street began to change and the tenuous 'community' that formed to save the corridor dissolved in lieu of its newfound success.

In short, the self-determination of residents to create a better place opened South Street to the forces of gentrification. In the longer term the empowerment of communities tempered the power of planners but also undermined their authority and expertise, reducing planners to the role of facilitators.[4] This does not necessarily mean that residents become the de-facto planners of the city. In practice it places a bulk of that power in the hands of private interests—developers—an idea I will explore further.

This twist leads back to the neighborhood and home that Jane Jacobs fought to protect from Robert Moses. 555 Hudson Street, the home where Jacobs wrote The Death and Life…, recently sold for $3.5 million. She purchased it in 1947 for $7,000.[5] Nearby Bleeker Street has become a haut-fashion shopping mall-replete with the only retail establishments able to afford the sky-high leases: global fashion brands.[6] The West Village is fortunately not a highway interchange, but neither is it a neighborhood that Jacobs would live in. She can be credited for saving the city from more brutal forms of planning but could not arrest market-driven change. The darker side of self-determination, NIMBY-ism (not in my back yard), has prevented greater densities that could alleviate spiraling land values. The success of Jane Jacobs' ideas proved to be their unraveling.

Continued here.


1. Sebastian Haumann, "Vernacular Architecture as Self-Determination: Venturi, Scott Brown and the Controversy over Philadelphia’s Crosstown Expressway, 1967-1973," Footprint, issue 4 (Spring 2009), pg. 40.
Available here.

2. Ibid, pg. 42.

3. Ibid, pg. 43.

4. Thomas Campanella, "Jane Jacobs and the Death and Life of American Planning," The Design Observer Group, 25 Apr 2011, Accessed 27 Oct 2011. <http://places.designobserver.com/feature/jane-jacobs-and-the-death-and-life-of-american-planning/25188/>, paragraph 10.

5. Christopher Turner, "Mother Courage," The Guardian, 11 Sept 2009, Accessed 27 Oct 2011. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/sep/12/jane-jacobs-new-york-history>, paragraph 11.

6. Bonnie Kavoussi, "Jane Jacobs’ Old Hudson Street Townhouse for Sale in West Village Jane Jacobs Probably Wouldn’t Have Wanted to Live In," The New York Observer, 8 June 2009, Accessed 27 Oct 2011. <http://www.observer.com/2009/real-estate/jane-jacobs-old-hudson-street-townhouse-sale-west-village-jane-jacobs-probably-woul>, paragraphs 9-11.

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