The Design Observer Group

Posted 04.27.11

Timothy Mennel

Jane Jacobs, Andy Warhol, and the Kind of Problem a Community Is

Andy Warhol, January 1963. [Photo by Dennis Hopper, via Wikimedia Commons]. Jane Jacobs, circa 1961 [via AP]

Two Pennsylvanians 

Andy Warhol and Jane Jacobs both came to New York City from industrial cities in Pennsylvania —  Jacobs from Scranton, Warhol from Pittsburgh. Yet the kinds of people they found and the social values they cultivated in New York could not have been more different; and their divergent perspectives point to notions of community that still resonate — and still conflict. Warhol’s apparent ideas about urban life undercut some of the ideals that Jacobs's books popularized, and they begin to suggest why those ideals have not found — and perhaps cannot find — greater traction in the contemporary city.

Throughout 1961 — the year Random House published Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities — Warhol was experimenting with new styles of painting, a medium relatively new to him. Most of his earlier work had been drawings for advertising campaigns and fashion magazines, but in December of that year he began the series of paintings that was to redefine his career as an artist and that point to a different, cooler vision of urban life: the Campbell's Soup Can paintings. [1] Also in this period, he created seven paintings known as the Dance Diagrams — large-scale reproductions of images found in guidebooks that show people how to execute dance moves, e.g., which foot to move when and where to put it.

Warhol's "cool" sensibility stood in sharp contrast to the "hot" Abstract Expressionism that had dominated the New York art world in the 1950s. Overtly macho artists such as Jackson Pollock had created a style fueled by emotion, personality and energy, a style that seemed to embody the postwar American sensibility: robust, idiosyncratic, ultimately exclusionary. In the postwar years representational art had not so much fallen as been hurled out of style. So with the flatly representational soup-can paintings, Warhol was undercutting the cult of personality by creating works ostensibly devoid of emotion, point of view, or personality. They seemed to hide in plain sight; they depicted icons of lived American culture — cans, labels, Green Stamps, car crashes, movie stars, flowers — without appearing to have anything to say about them. Was the picture of a soup can a deadpan critique of American consumerism? Or a statement that American identity was better reckoned with through physical realities than through the emotional states of artists? The last person to ask was Warhol, who cultivated a distinctly cool and distanced affect. Nothing really meant anything, he would tell people; he just liked soup and ate it every day for lunch. Whether this was a knowing pose, or whether he actually saw himself as a kind of machine, is a question that has occupied countless art historians.

Andy Warhol at the first Factory, East 47 Street, New York City. [Photo by Ugo Mulas, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution]

Warhol's early works were not silk-screened (as were the later ones) but hand-painted, and he took pains to disguise the material labor involved in their creation. To make the Dance Diagrams, Warhol used an opaque projector to cast images of dance steps from two popularly available books — Lindy Made Easy and Charleston Made Easy — onto canvas, where he traced and then painted them. When they were exhibited, the paintings were installed on the floor, as if viewers might step onto and use them, rather than regard them as aesthetic objects.

The Dance Diagrams resonate in interesting ways with the contemporaneous vision of urban community that Jane Jacobs was then articulating in Death and Life — and not least because the Diagrams draw attention to the mechanisms of control that underlie all social engagement, even in situations as casual and seemingly spontaneous as what Jacobs so famously called the "ballet of the sidewalks." Unlike Warhol's paintings of objects from daily life or his later portraits of icons (Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, et al.), the Dance Diagrams show a socially conditioned process by which two people engage with each other — a ritual of participation, in other words, with the hint that social engagement is nothing but ritual. [2] Much as Jacobs sought to look at the city's streets with fresh eyes, to draw attention to their nuances and functions, Warhol seems to be asking viewers to consider the codes and gestures by which people move through social space. And while social rituals such as dance steps do provide a mechanism by which we might reach outside ourselves and join a community, they also point to the essentially constructed nature of that community. There is nothing intrinsic about a community of dancers save that its members have consented to observe the codes that make them a community.

This line of thought raises further, deeper questions: What does participating in a dance actually entail? Is there a categorical distinction between following a diagram of dance steps and dancing per se? Those who don't need a diagram are likely better and more fluid dancers, but knowledge of the codes and expectations is critical to successful participation in the "ballet." Here, then, lies an inherent judgment: At some point individual behavior will cross a line beyond which a person can be said to be “not dancing” — not functioning as a member of a certain kind of community. Yet this judgment is itself the product of social expectations and codes; and it is here that we start to see how Warhol's concepts of urban life and community diverge critically from those of Jacobs. Andy Warhol is, in effect, asking why society has created particular forms for physical and social interaction when there are so many other possibilities. Jane Jacobs seems never to have seriously questioned the validity or the socially constructed nature of the community life — the ballet of the sidewalks — that she celebrated. She posits it as an ideal, perhaps even a norm.

Jane Jacobs at a 1961 press conference of the Committee to Save the West Village held at the Lions Head Restaurant on Hudson near Charles Street. [Photo from the New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress]

Jacobs's challenges to the dominant planning mentality embodied in the postwar urban-renewal programs has become part of planning history; but the mid-century conversation about the nature of urban community had more than two sides. [3] Different conceptualizations of the city abounded, in policy circles and in popular media, with greater nuance than retrospective views have tended to suggest. Some depictions fueled fears that the city was intrinsically dangerous — an idea Jacobs worked hard to oppose — while others underscored the reality that the city was, for better or worse, not just a small town on a big scale. [4]

Jacobs’s work is characterized by belief in a certain kind of community — a community with a mix of classes, in which citizens have clearly defined roles, and in which there is constant activity in the streets that is often being observed by what she called "eyes on the street." Jacobs depicts this kind of “warm” community as lively and engaged, with positive social benefits arising from the free association of people who might have different functions and beliefs but who all exist within a circumscribed social environment called the neighborhood. In Death and Life Jacobs contrasted this environment — exemplified by her own Greenwich Village neighborhood — with others being created in the postwar city, places that she saw as defined by coldness in both building materials and social qualities. The communities being formed in the new housing enclaves were not, by her lights, real communities: They were not only transparently artificial but also reductive — residential zones devoid of retail and commercial activity, bedroom communities where people lived but didn't work. For Jacobs, what people did for a living was intrinsic to defining who they were and what their neighborhoods were like.

It does not diminish the value of the Jacobsian social environment to point out that it posits a healthy neighborhood as a kind of panopticon, with a decided lack of privacy and anonymity. Yet more important, it seems to exclude significant dimensions of actual urban experience. [5] Where, in these idealized neighborhoods, do sad and angry men stew in bars and get into fights? Where are the lonely, the unhappy, the unwell? And where are those who reject social conformity, who choose to be defined not by their jobs but by something else, such as personality or infirmity? Where are the people on the margins — criminals, artists or those who are both? Where are the dropouts, the beatniks, the inept, the clueless and the lost? Jane Jacobs dreamed a society, but it was a society of a certain conservative cast, based on function and ultimately on order. It was a society of productive, social, mutually supporting individuals. It was a society composed largely of well-adjusted libertarians who prospered within the dominant economic framework and who would unite to pursue their common self-interest — specifically, the preservation and continuation of their shared social environment, their neighborhood. It was a society without an internal life beyond Jacobs’s own delight in it.

Two Libertarians
As his career and personality took new shape in the early '60s, Warhol generated and represented a kind of social environment dramatically at odds with Jacobs’s — and also not much in tune with the thinking of today’s planners as they try to create vibrant public realms. But ultimately it is Warhol's notion of community — which requires reckoning with people’s complexity and potential unruliness — that seems more realistic today. As Richard Sennett has observed, many traditional ideals of community are rooted in the fear (and avoidance) of traditional participation, even as they claim otherwise. [6]

Warhol’s crowd was a self-consciously aloof set of artists, photographers, musicians, actors, show-offs, talentless cretins, fools and geniuses. Few held traditional jobs; many lusted for fame. Collectively they formed a world that became profoundly influential on the American city: a world that celebrated impersonality and disengagement and laid the groundwork for today’s literally spectacular cities, where significant economies revolve around the touristic gaze (what there is to see) and the culture of celebrity (whom you might see there). Countless people come to New York every year hoping to see something spectacular or someone famous. Andy Warhol helped create this new city: a city based on nobody caring who the hell you are, until you become a star. Warhol was famously nonjudgmental, blandly pronouncing whatever people were up to as "great," but nonetheless he sought to provoke — which in the early 1960s could mean creating flat, detached paintings of soup cans and dance steps that befuddled prevailing norms. Like-minded spirits might find one another in Warhol’s city, but overall it was a cold place, where you had to make your own meanings, find your own friends, create your own style. And even if you could do that — and there was no reason to think you could — you might still get shot by someone who couldn’t handle the cattiness, the rejection and the lack of social support that typified the lives of those who hadn’t yet found the way in. [7]

Andy Warhol's Factory, Midtown Manhattan, circa mid-1960s.

Warhol's world might not be the model for what planners today consider a vibrant and lasting and productive community; but it has been a significant influence on New York's visual and financial economies, and understanding this world is important to understanding the nature of urban community today. Indeed, given the influence of New York, the power of this concept extends beyond the framework of what defines an urban community to include the more general question of what we now mean by community at all.

Lots of strivers and misfits, self-styled and otherwise, arrive in the big city every year, and not all of them are searching for what Jane Jacobs wanted to find or to create there — not all are hoping to find what amount to small-town values in the big city. Andy Warhol went to New York to get out of the social backwater of Pittsburgh and to re-create himself by his own lights and by the lights of fame. Andy Warhol became a modern urban creature — a mirror and a product of the speculative capitalism that fuels the art and finance worlds that have thrived in New York as nowhere else in America — in a way that Jane Jacobs never did.

Warhol and Jacobs were different species of libertarians. In the early years of his famous Factory, Warhol created a space where people could — thanks to his largesse and to his professed disinterest in actual personalities — do whatever they wanted, whether brilliant, useful or stupid. He disclaimed responsibility for what his cohort did, and he also forswore control. Yet this environment provided a productive kind of community and support and social and intellectual ferment. [8] The first Factory was in midtown Manhattan, surrounded mostly by offices —suggesting that Warhol's ideal community at the time was neither humanistic (being, after all, a factory) nor street oriented, and not even residential. (The Factory was Warhol's workplace — he lived with his mother on the Upper East Side.) Whatever the Factory's idiosyncrasies, the community that gathered there, and the art, films and music that emanated from it, profoundly transformed the culture of New York and beyond. It isn't difficult to see Warhol's influence beyond art, in punk music and rock and roll, in celebrity journalism and affectless fiction, in the spread of irony as a cultural weapon and pose, in the rise of loft living as lifestyle and aesthetic, in the blurring of boundaries between public and private personas, in the art world's casual and frank commodity fetishism, and in the cultural dominance of hipsters and kidults. Some of these developments might be lamentable, but their cultural weight cannot be discounted. More important, the idea that the city is where young people go to cultivate identities gained great force from the example of Warhol's Factory.

Jacobs, in contrast, sought to free individuals not from cultural constraints or norms but from what she saw as the blind or arbitrary dictates of government. She believed that people, on their own and free from the nonsense of bureaucracies, would work toward productive and beneficial social ends, simply by living their lives, albeit within the dominant economic and social system. Warhol cared about that system only to the extent that his material success within it enabled him — and those around him — to live as they chose. Warhol himself was apparently not as wild as some of his groupies, but he seems to have valued people who used their freedom to push society's boundaries more than he sought out those who contributed to a Jacobsian web of mixed uses — and I suspect he would have considered her "eyes on the street" to be invasive and pointless surveillance. The Warholian performative life needs to be seen, but it doesn't need to be observed.

Jane Jacobs, center, at the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village, 1961. [Photo by Cervin Robinson]

Jacobs praised those who joined forces to stop highways, build housing or develop economic capacity. She even wrote admiringly of those who united under the banner of nationalism. But it seems unlikely that she would have had the same degree of praise for those who came together to escape the dominant culture or to pursue fame for its own sake, or who were united in disdain for the gemütlichkeit values that Jacobs found in Greenwich Village. Jacobs failed to see the value of impersonality in the city, whereas Warhol (perhaps partly on account of his homosexuality, which he often masked as asexuality) engaged that impersonality — both in the concrete of the city and through his impenetrable social mask — and as a result he helped create an urbanism that itself engages with and reflects the complex and large-scale economy and society we actually live in.

Interestingly, one of Warhol's few political stances in the 1960s was against Robert Moses, whom many have styled as Jacobs's ideological opposite. But unlike Jacobs, Warhol made no statement against the highways or housing projects associated with Moses, as Jacobs and her allies did; rather, he was protesting the censorship of his work at the time of the opening of the 1964 World’s Fair. [9] Warhol's engagement with Moses was over art, not politics or land use or community values. Most tellingly, Warhol did not particularly publicize the bout and largely backed down from Moses.

Community and Complexity
Jane Jacobs's legacy is complex; she helped to fuel the movement through which urban planners were weaned from the conviction that they held some special key to understanding human behavior and shaping human environments. Yet it is easy to feel today as if the mid-century official hubris that Jacobs battled gave way to an equally monolithic professional framework — one that idealizes a sentimental picture of urban community while too often neglecting economic and especially social complexity.

But the idea that Jacobs favored idyllic or steady-state solutions is itself a common misunderstanding, which has led allies and enemies alike to caricature her analysis and influence. Jacobs certainly enabled the interpretation of her work that still predominates within new urbanism and other derivative movements — namely, that certain bourgeois aspects of urban life are consonant with what amounts to a deep and largely unquestioned belief in small-town values. The true flaw in Jacob's concept of the city, however, is not that she envisions a big-city neighborhood as a small town but that her libertarianism supports the fantasy that urban dwellers will self-interestedly choose that communitarian world over any other; her faith in instinctive cooperation and socially sustaining behavior in contemporary American cities verges on the starry-eyed. This unrealistic expectation of human behavior might in part underlie the partial or complete failure of so many attempts to build communities based on her ideals.

Hudson Street, between West 11th Street and Perry Street, named in honor of Jane Jacobs, 2009. 

The creation of a genuine and effective community — if we admit the possibility — requires not only work and sacrifice but also, in critical dimensions, a shared sense of purpose. But in truly complex cities shaped by myriad agendas and diverse populations, such shared purposes tend to arise only among communities of narrowly like-minded individuals — or, on a larger scale, among those motivated by nationalism (for which Jacobs expressed a qualified admiration in Dark Age Ahead). Mobilizing people with shared stakes and beliefs can be difficult enough, but urban complexity inherently diminishes the homogeneity that encourages such solidarity.

Andy Warhol's Factory was for some an unstable and upsetting environment. Excesses of all sorts happened within its walls, and for every white-hot innovation there were hours of tedium and artworks that seem cheap or under-baked. But the messy vitality of the place, and its implicit urbanism, demonstrate one way a mass of individuals can come together — all the while pursuing their own agendas — and generate a transformative community. This raises the possibility that a "cold" community — based on self-interest and disengaged from the issues and mentalities and prejudices that tend to inform "warm" Jacobsian communities — can have more impact, more resonance, in the contemporary city precisely because it recognizes and incorporates the essential driving selfishness of urban individuality.

Accommodating antisocial or even irrational qualities is a persistent challenge in planning practice. Doing so without condescension is an even greater one. Recognizing that an urban community needs to accommodate those who value impersonality and those who thrive in modernist landscapes and those who do not wish to have any eyes on their street is critical to developing urban planning practices that will have value and enjoy broad support. But when planners instead follow what is seen as the Jacobsian path and promote a narrow spectrum of essentially middle-class and nonurban values, it should not surprise us when the community or city they hope to shape fails to respond as expected. The city is essentially heterodox, beyond the effective control of even the best-intentioned ideology.

Political resistance to the imposition of ideology seems particularly vibrant today: we are in the midst of a significant contest over the nature of the state and its power. For some, the need for self-determination outweighs the need to contribute to or share responsibility for the larger society. The related belief in the essential virtue of untutored wisdom threads through Jacobs’s work, and we can draw a line from the kind of community empowerment that Jacobs promoted in Death and Life to the present overvaluing of individual perception evident in so many public discussions of community planning. In 1961, it was unquestionably the case that planners and other professionals were not listening to individual community members; today, it is too often the case that planners and others do not insist upon the value of their education, training and analytical abilities. This over-privileging of the individual perspective is, of course, part of a larger shift in Western mentalities.

The Andy Monument, project by Rob Pruitt and the Public Art Fund, located in Union Square near the site of Warhol's second Factory, 2011. [Photo by James Ewing, via Public Art Fund]

Contemporary rhetoric arguing for less government control over daily life is arising from many sources. Yet this rhetoric and Jacobs's work exist on a continuum, at one end of which is today's violently proud know-nothingism. There are distinct echoes of Jacobs's libertarianism in both American anti-government rhetoric and, even more vividly, in the movement under way at this writing in Britain toward a "Big Society" under the leadership of David Cameron. In this scheme, the central government will end or scale back many of its traditional activities in the belief or hope that individuals or small groups will pick up the slack. It seems clear that any political program requiring the governed to embrace responsibilities previously handled by government will meet with success only to the degree that the people in question define themselves as a "community" — that is, if they believe they are pushing away the paternalistic hand of government, rather than being denied basic privileges. In a strange convergence, the British appear to be betting — much as Jane Jacobs did — that promoting the notion of community might produce community itself. There is something perverse in the use of the concept of community empowerment to eliminate or cripple programs once seen as critical to the shared pursuit of well being in a democratic society.

This is not to suggest that Jane Jacobs consciously promoted an ideal that may well diminish the strength of communities. But the implications of her work — and the uses to which it has been and is being put — require moving beyond the platitudes and engaging fully with the complexity of urban experience. The contemporary city is in many ways more Warhol's than Jacobs's — and that's not a bad thing. Warhol did not promote the idea of community, yet he helped create the actual thing, even if his wasn't the kind of community that Jacobs or most contemporary planners might endorse. Whether or not the results are aesthetically or politically pleasing, our cities must make room for the misfits, the self-defined, the antisocial, the anti-communitarian and the spectacular, as much as they do for tight-knit neighborhoods and engaged citizen-activists. The dance among these different interests and complex forces is a difficult one, and there is no simple guide to how to perform its steps. [10]