Urban planning, a discipline structured in the last hundred years, has offered a few voices well known to its students. Burnham, L’Enfant, Costa, CIAM, mention these names and anyone in the field knows what page you’re on and where you’re headed. Perhaps that’s why when I saw What Would Jane Say? a newly published book by Janice Metzger, my mind went immediately to urban planning’s “Jane,” Jane Jacobs, the community organizer and urban planning writer who not only saved New York City’s Greenwich Village from Robert Moses’s mid-century bulldozer, but began a new discussion about the importance of history, localism, and complexity in neighborhoods. Jane Jacobs looked at urban neighborhoods not as a set of monuments and buildings, but rather as spaces for people, where self-organized physical expressions in signage, street facades, and daily life had as much or more value as hierarchically planned infrastructure. She literally confronted modernity (in its biggest proponent) and won; her legacy was not only in New York, but in communities across the country.
The Jane in Metzger’s book, however, is a new Jane to be introduced into the legacy of urban planning, Jane Addams. Well-known for her humanitarian and social work in Chicago, our lens on urban planning has widened and many of her innovations could now be seen through it. Ms. Addams is a fascinating figure to understand, and the book documents and discusses her work in great detail. If you want to learn more about Chicago, this is the book for you; it’s a great compliment to the fiction / non-fiction Devil in the White City and puts a focus on another set of conversations, ones less documented in history.
The book, however, strikes a larger question for me. Books about how woman see things differently than men give me unease. Partially this because I have a hard time generalizing the sexes—what men do and what women do—but it is partially also because supposing interests and agendas make me suspicious. Especially looking back into history– lots of things influence what we think and not all of these are recorded for others to review later.
There could be arguments about global and generic female and male ideals, but these tend to create boxes that we’re then expected to fit into, ironically something women have spent a long time trying to get out of. Why are we helping to make more of them? I’m certainly in the MJK Jr. camp that says judge those on what they do, not on in what form they were born. Society and biology shape tendencies in both genders (nationalities and cultures too), but let’s see those as always evolving. I believe women in the 19th century were quite different from woman now. How could they not be? Their exterior and interior relationships were framed completely differently. Everything we experience changes our view of the world. I’m very interested in what Jane did and said, but perhaps not in what she would have thought about someone else’s work (and doesn’t that frame her in terms of the work of men?).
So let’s talk about what I would call City Fathers and Neighborhood Mothers which I believe is the essence of the difference between Daniel Burnham and Jane Addam’s parallel efforts to shape Chicago, and has nothing to do with him being a man and her being a woman. Here “father” and “mother” are defined outside of gender, but instead by type and logic—I use them only as an device: father meaning the important figure in the origin of something (e.g. founding father) and mother as the origin itself (e.g. mother ship).
City Fathers are interested in leadership through structure, politics, discipline and rigor. In the unfolding chaos that is urban growth, they have pushed for clean lines and order, efficiency, and function. Urban modernism began way before Daniel Burnham’s Chicago business first plan. Hausmann, Sixtus V, and L’Enfant right up to Robert Moses were long striving to cut through chaos, control the masses and expand infrastructure. In contrast, Neighborhood Mothers are interested in people through supporting localism, character, preventing social and physical illness, and maintaining continuity and quality of life. I have seen this no more overtly than at the Mayor’s Summit, a silly annual play in Pawtucket which the Mayor is flanked by 15 or so city officials (virtually all male, white and over the age of 50), heads of their respective departments, at a long table where they sit and listen in clear dedication to passionate reports from neighborhood leaders (virtually all female, many Hispanic, and under the age of 50). His response to each is something thoughtful and respectful. Then, the next person rises to speak and the information dissipates never to be considered again. These neighborhood leaders work every day in their communities for incremental social change; the political ones work every day from their elevated viewpoints to keep their spots.
Where City Fathers support big business, Neighborhood Mothers support entrepreneurship. Big business comes with political power, influence, and big money to spend on big things. Entrepreneurs push for local efforts to turn capital into jobs, develop new economies, and cultural progress. Entrepreneurs aren’t interested in political power, they are interested in social good will, being a community partner, and making money with their workers, not in spite of them. (Making unions these days more damaging than useful.) Environmentalists who want to partner with business are Neighborhood Mothers– they are the clean energy, green business people. Bill Clinton is a Neighborhood Mother.
Most of America’s Founding Fathers were City Fathers who framed and structured systems that regulate people, goods, capital, and resources over time. Alexander Hamilton was perhaps the most overt, an industrialist, who believed that wealth trickles down, that strong and wealthy leaders translated into better living for everyone– that if money was water, it would seep from a tightly controlled pool into a main line, then to sublines and eventually a carefully spun stream would end up in each household tap. Neighborhood Mothers see a healthy society as one in which wealth is like open water on an even surface– distributed horizontally and finding its way into every crack and crevasse.
When Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor described herself as “a wise Latina” who would perhaps make better choices than a white man in the same circumstance, she was articulating that she is a Neighborhood Mother not a City Father. Every judge uses his or her experience in evaluating the law; a Neighborhood Mother simply sets him or herself within the pool of all human experiences, where a City Father believes that his or her experience is the default one and thus simply frames him or herself from the center. What she said wasn’t racist or sexist, it was positionist.
What is beautiful to consider in the legacy of Jane Addams, as a Neighborhood Mother, is Chicago’s most brilliant recent offspring, President Barack Obama. Hull House and the community organizing legacy of the city gave opportunities for the young idealist to engage, not with traditional City Father-big-business-to-power means, but rather across the surface of the city into every crack, and eventually, into the hearts and minds of so many in the country and world. Being President, while one of the highest positions of hierarchical authority, really isn’t. It requires deftness in networks, consensus, and partnership building. President Obama may be in the biggest role of world power, but he frames his view from the outside—in desiring the first woman in office in Hilary Clinton, she is more a City Father and really, in a broader sense we women got what we so desire, a neighborhood mother representing for all.