Awhile back I led a bus tour of 40 urban planning students from Toronto on a tour of Baltimore. When we got to Charles Village, someone asked me why I chose to live here. Without time for a detailed and analytical answer as the bus lumbered down St. Paul street, I said, “Where would Jane Jacobs live if she were to live in Baltimore? She would live in Charles Village”. Looking out the window at the neighborhood's physical and social attributes, everyone on the bus knew exactly what I meant.
It seemed macabre in a way that Jacobs, the great iconoclastic urban thinker of our time, died in April 2007 during the national conference of the American Planning Association. Jacobs was the bane of traditional planners throughout North America, and had been ever since she penned the seminal “Death and Life of Great American Cities” in 1961. In it, she threw out such conventional thinking as slum clearance, inward looking 'superblocks', massive urban highway projects and the general destruction of our fine grained urban neighborhoods in the name of 'progress' then being promulgated in her adopted New York and in cities across the country. Lewis Mumford dismissed her as an untrained pest.
But her observations, in language we could understand, gave us a whole new way to understand our urban environment, and why things are the way they are, and why we should be suspicious of planners' sweeping notions of change. Her influence helped to derail more than a few expressway plans, including Baltimore's own waterfront highway that would have destroyed Fells Point and Federal Hill. The APA, perhaps still licking old wounds from her slash and burn rejection of the contemporary planning profession, made no particular effort to mourn her death.
I find it somewhat ironic that the same American Planning Association named Charles Village one of America's 10 Best Neighborhoods. Jane would have loved Charles Village. I know this because the neighborhood where she chose to live in Toronto in 1968 is a lot like this one. Called simply The Annex, it must have reminded her a lot of Greenwich Village. Both places were regarded as slums by planners, but they contained the fine grained attributes that we value today: Diversity of buildings and people, short blocks, concentration, and a plethora of primary mixed uses that people can walk to or use transit. Near a great university and an art college, The Annex is a hub of Toronto's 'creative class'. It is about as ideal as a neighborhood can be.
Charles Village has many of the attributes of the types of places she liked, but that planners derided. She wrote about the need for sidewalks, not just as places to walk, but for establishing and maintaining contact with others, for safety and for assimilating children. The wide sidewalks on Guilford Avenue are great for kids to play on, without the danger of curb cuts. A continuous line of parked cars acts as a buffer guarding the space. Jane was among the first to point out that kids play here, on the sidewalk, not in the backyard or in the park. There are 'eyes on the street' to keep them safe, a term she coined.
She cited the need for old buildings, the need for small blocks, the need for concentration, and the need for primary mixed uses. Buildings of different size and age, particularly regarding commercial property and housing, affords a greater diversity of people the economic ability to live and work in a place. We have that in Charles Village, and some pretty decent architecture to boot. In my 14 years here, I have witnessed the incremental rebirth of a fully functional urban neighborhood, just as Jane did in the old Annex.
Fortunately, the planning profession is slowly coming around to her way of thinking. If being chosen one of America's 10 best neighborhoods is any indication, it means that planners are beginning to value the best of the 'old urbanism' that we already have in our older cities, and the sunk costs and spent resources we already have in our existing neighborhoods and buildings. Except for the absence of good mass transit, I think Charles Village is a manifestation of all of the elements that makes Baltimore the best place to live, earn, play and learn in the state. I think Jane would have agreed. Well, maybe.
Jane read my senior year thesis, which was a bunch of drivel about the potential for housing in downtown Pittsburgh. She hated it. Top down planning never works, she said. She was absolutely right, of course.
Steve Allan is a planner with the Maryland Department of Planning and a native of Toronto. He has lived on Guilford Avenue since 1995.
This article originally appeared in "The Charles Villager" 2009.