Monday, July 07, 2008

New Urbanism: A Participant Observation Study

I returned from Philadelphia with a copy of the new urbanist bible, Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities in tow. I'm going to be talking a little bit about my experience living in a new urbanist community for a while--but perhaps I should begin with my experience with Jane Jacobs first. I read it in an urban history class that I took way back in the spring of 1985 (in some ways its hard for me to say way back, because my college years still seem so fresh--but, ah, a lot of water's gone under the bridge since then). And now I realize that my choice of a place for law school (New York) may have been heavily influenced by that book and its obvious love for New York.

Anyway, I filed it away in the memory banks, thought about it now and then. I graduated from law school and headed south, to Richmond, where I clerked for a judge on the fourth circuit (the beloved John Butzner, a most humane and kind man). And I chose an unusual apartment--in a renovated tobacco warehouse--again, perhaps, influenced by Jacobs. Judge Butzner joked a little bit about me as his scrappy, resourceful New York clerk and, in fact, his love for things and people of New York may have been why he hired me. Over the course of the year I learned that his brother-in-law was an architect in New York and that his sister was the author of a legal history book--Constitutional Chafe (about discarded constitutional provisions). That book was published by Jane Butnzer.

It wasn't until near the end of my clerkship that I was interviewing with a New York firm and one of the partners said, "oh, I know Judge Butzner's sister--you may know her too." All of which must have caused me to have a puzzled look on my face. And then he said, "Jane Jacobs." To which I responded something like, "oh, Death and Life of Great American Cities?! She's Judge Butzner's sister?" What a supremely modest man who didn't bother to mention who his sister was. ...

I think there's a great article to be written about Butzner's jurisprudence. If you're interested in what Jacobs' method looks like in the legal system, Butzer is the person to study--it's a jurisprudence that looks to the common law method. He took a very direct approach to precedent and followed it rigorously, though he also saw the considerations of humanity at stake in his decisions. And there was, every now and then, a small appearance of the moral indignation that so characterizes Jacobs' work when she identifies the bureaucracy's treading on the rights and humanity of people in a city.

But, to return to the subject of my post. I'm most interested by this new urbanist community I now live in. And so I've been taking notes as I wander around southern village and as I sit in the Weaver Street Market munching my lunches. Got a lot to say about this place, mostly about what works with it. A small preview: this is a really gendered space.

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