Jacobs wrote that “word does not move around where public characters and sidewalk life are lacking.” Now it does. There are the people paused at the top of the subway stairs, occupying two spaces at once, one physical, one virtual. And in neighborhoods around the country—this one in particular—community online message boards and blogs are thriving, entirely in parallel with news passed stoop to stoop. The “in parallel” part is crucial. Outside.In, a website designed to gather and organize neighborhood news, published a list of “America’s Top 10 Bloggiest Neighborhoods.” What was striking (but perhaps not surprising) is that all were living examples of the kind of places Jacobs championed: Clinton Hill in Brooklyn, Portrero Hill in San Francisco, Shaw in Washington. If the physical form of a neighborhood is conducive to community, so is its virtual form. But the other striking thing about the list was that all the neighborhoods were in a state of change—gentrifying or recently gentrified. … These are incontrovertibly real-world neighborhoods, but their community is as virtual as it is physical. With each year, we get better at navigating between the two. … It’s easy to think of social networking in terms of Hudson Street, and easy to think of Hudson Street in terms of social networking. Both are at their best when they can successfully balance the public and the private.
My two cents: I don’t think Jacobs would be a fan – at all. On the one hand, she always brought us back to human beings. Technology would never, ever in her world be a substitute for human interaction. On the other, I don’t think she was a great fan of these neighborhoods or what they are becoming. She liked “messy urbanism” – the diverse mix of people, buildings, and uses – of the sort she found on Hudson Street and later in Toronto’s Annex and elsewhere around this city. When I asked her about gentrification she said essentially, “There are two kinds”. The homogeneous, everything is the same kind, that’s happening in many U.S. cities which, she thought, had gone way too far. Then there was “good gentrification.” She used Toronto as an example of this – with its diverse mix of people and incomes, where young people fix up old houses next to working class folks and new immigrants, where new shops co-mingle with older hardware stories, butchers, delis, flowers shops and pubs. To drive this point home, she added one my all time favorite zingers: “You know, Richard,” she said, “when a place gets boring even the rich people leave.” She saw many, many U.S. cities headed down that path. Sure, parts of Toronto are getting expensive but working people can still afford to live in huge swaths of the city. Can the same be said for Brooklyn, San Fran or DC?
If I’m writing this blog (something I love to do), I’m not mixing and mingling on the street, if I order my groceries from an on-line store, I’m less likely to go to the store. All of these things lessen and limit human interaction. Of course, they increase the efficient allocation of time. But they also limit real, human contact, and the chance of random happenstance interactions. Heck, my GPS makes it less likely I’ll ask for directions; my on-line catalogue and reviews give me little need to ask a shop-owner for advice. Technology makes me more house-bound (something I sort of like) and yes more efficient at work. I can go to the office less, the store less. I can “work” more, interacting with people and commerce on-line. My main source of human energy are my walks in the ravine. As beautiful as it is, it’s certainly not Hudson Street. The internet and the social media, for all the great things they bring, damp down human interaction and certainly limit the chances of random connections. I’m a big fan of all this, don’t get me wrong, but I think the effects on places, cities and communities cut several ways.
What do you think?