Friday, March 15, 2013

On Defining Modernity

On Defining Modernity: How does one define the term modernity? And when did it arrive? Many Western historians point to the Thirty Years' War (1618 - 1648), which resulted in a significant decline of the Catholic Church's influence over European political affairs, as the birth of modernity. But other intellectuals tend to emphasize certain technologies that emerged from industrialization. Perhaps the two most important ones were electricity and railroads. With electricity, the routines of daily life (which usually followed the Sun's rhythms), changed drastically. In fact, Edison's 1879 carbon filament light bulb, while providing over 1200 hours of light, helped people work through the night without the use of fire. Regarding railroads, Aldous Huxley wrote, "To us, the moment 8:17 AM means something - something very important, if it happens to be the starting time of our daily train. To our ancestors, such an odd eccentric instant was without significance - did not even exist. In inventing the locomotive, [James] Watt and [George] Stephenson were part inventors of time." And as steam locomotives approached speeds of 70 MPH by the end of the 1800s, people began to experience the sensation of speed for the first time in history. At bottom, modernity is all about the annihilation of time and space.

Friday, March 1, 2013

On Jane Jacobs and Urban Renewal

On Jane Jacobs and Urban Renewal: In 1961, urban theorist Jane Jacobs published her magnum opus, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Encouraged in part by urban historian Lewis Mumford, she attempted to define the role of planners in the city-building process. Having witnessed some of New York's major urban renewal projects like the United Nations complex and Stuyvesant Town, Jacobs saw urban renewal as hastening deindustrialization and eroding the city's tax base. She was the primary ideological foe of city planner Robert Moses, who developed the Cross-Bronx Expressway and Lincoln Center under the guise of "slum clearance." For Jacobs, Moses represented the "expert class," which many Americans in the 1950s had come to revere with a kind of blind trust. Until Moses became the city's official "construction coordinator" in 1946, New York's grid-like street pattern was sacrosanct. But Jacobs claimed that Moses' renewal projects were destroying the social fabric of many neighborhoods. In fact, she contended that instead of new highways and buildings, what city planners needed to emphasize was mixed-use zoning, pedestrian permeability (short blocks), and density. For Jacobs, these factors ultimately encouraged diversity while revitalizing older sections of the city.