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Jane Jacobs vs. Andy Warhol: Who Knew?

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The starting point for "Jane Jacobs, Andy Warhol, and the Kind of Problem a Community Is," an essay by book co-editor Timothy Mennel in Reconsidering Jane Jacobs, the book that I've already written two posts about, is an intriguing historical coincidence: that 1961 was the year when Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Andy Warhol began to experiment with painting.

Mennel uses this coincidence as the jumping-off-point for a provocative notion that in 1961 there were two revolutionary urbanisms in the air: Jacobs', of course, the one we all know about, but also an urbanism of and by Warhol that was never expressed in a text, but which Mennel believes was just as influential as that of Jacobs, and perhaps more perceptive.

It was in 1961 that Warhol, in Mennel's words, "began the series of paintings that was to redefine his career as an artist and also point to a different, cooler conception of urban life: the Campbell's soup-can paintings." These paintings not only redefined Warhol's career, but also marked a sharp break with the various forms of abstraction that then dominated the New York art world.

While Mennel sees in Warhol's work a questioning of socially "created particular forms for physical and social interaction," he also focuses on the kind of community that Warhol created around him and his "Factory." Mennel argues that Warhol created a social environment that was urban but not at all like the city that Jacobs described; nor did it have anything to do with what planners were creating then with either in the cities urban renewal or in the postwar suburbs.

According to Mennel, Warhol's people "formed a world that was profoundly influential on the American conception of the city -- in that it both celebrated impersonality and disengagement and created the basis for today's literally spectacular cities, where significant economies are based on the touristic gaze (what there is to see) and the culture of celebrity (whom you might see there)."

This Warholian urbanism was "cool" in contrast to the warmth of the communities Jacobs celebrated; in effect, Mennel is saying that where the Jacobsian city had "eyes on the street," the Warholian city had voyeurs. For reasons I will discuss in a moment I believe that Mennel's thesis about Warhol and urbanism is important, but it seems that he strains to create a conflict between Warhol and Jacobs.

Much of Mennel's argument is based upon what he sees as different conceptions of privacy between Jacobs' and Warhol's views of the city. Mennel attributes to Jacobs a favoring of small-town values in the city, where there was a "decided lack of privacy and anonymity." However, in a passage in Death and Life that is extraordinarily perceptive Jacobs writes (see page 59 of the Vintage paperback) how privacy is precious and indispensable in cities; and not only that, but obtainable in a city but not in a small town, precisely because city-dwellers are anonymous to each other.

While she celebrated the public ballet on the street, Jacobs made it clear that when people display themselves in an environment where they are not known, they are able to maintain their privacy. This seems consistent with Mennel's account of Warhol's conception of urbanism.

One might argue further that within the confines of Warhol's community, such as among the artists at the Factory, there was no privacy, because the denizens lived in a "small-town" environment of their own creation. Indeed, the shooting of Warhol by Valerie Solanas in 1968 reminds one more of small-town intrigue than urban crime (albeit with a dose of insanity that was not based on place).

However, Mennel is undoubtedly correct on the larger question, on the nature of cities, although again I'm not sure his complaint is fairly with Jacobs. But one of the unfortunate legacies not only of Death and Life, but also of all planning theories that focus on "quality of life," is that cities are ranked by how congenial they are, with congeniality often measured by means of physical form, without taking into account the value of a city's "outputs."

As someone who has lived in metropolitan Los Angeles for more than 30 years, it has always seemed odd to me that while Los Angeles gets no respect from urbanists for its form and "livability" (not that it isn't livable), it is nonetheless one of the most important cities in the world when it comes to culture (high, low and in between), innovation, industry, and everything else that makes a city "great."

Mennel understands this and it is important that he makes the point, but I am not convinced that Jacobs did not understand this as well. It is, of course, difficult not to confuse Jacobs the actual writer and thinker from "Jane Jacobs" the mutable construct, and to his credit, Mennel tries to separate one from the other, pointing out that in her work after Death and Life she explored "the dynamic relations of urban development and economic growth."

Still, Mennel argues that Jacobs' conception of a "warm" urbanism based on a "natural instinct toward cooperation" is in conflict with the "cold" Warholian concept of community based on self-interest, the concept that Mennel believes is more the driving force behind urban life. I'm unconvinced; I would argue that the cultural productivity Mennel properly celebrates is based equally on selfishness and cooperation, but neither could produce results without the relentless propinquity of city life.

Reconsidering Jane Jacobs, edited by Max Page and Timothy Mennel, published by American Planning Association/Planners Press.

Frank Gruber writes a weekly column on local politics, which often involve land use issues, for the Santa Monica Lookout News, a news website. His first book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, was published by City Image Press.