Jane Jacobs part II: urban anarchist or rampant freemarketeer?

Jane Jacobs was born in 1916 as Jane Butzner, in Scranton Pennsylvania (sidenote: yes, that is indeed the same birthtown as Joe Biden). Her parents were fairly bourgeoise protestants, in a town heavily dominated by Catholics of Irish and Italian provenance mostly. She explains in Death and Life that she moved to New York City in the era the Great Depression. There she became a freelance journalist, working first for women’s magazines and then writing in architectural and planning magazines about the working districts in the city. This really was the beginning of her interest in architecture and planning, and in some regards it was the full extent of her technical training. She did study at Columbia University for a couple of years, jumping between courses in political science, zoology, law, geology, and economics, although she dropped out before finishing her studies. While she certainly had a flexible mind and a broad generalist training, in Death and Life it becomes apparent that her lack of theoretical rigour does have its drawbacks.

During her time in New York, Jacobs became quite the activist. Her causes of choice seemed largely to oppose the projects peddled by Robert Moses, the New York public official du jour (he held a mass of titles throughout his career) responsible for driving a number of urban renewal projects and re-moulding New York City into its iconic contemporary skyline spanning his decades-long career from the late 1920s all the way through to the 1960s. To be fair to Jacobs, Moses did seem to get a multitude of things wrong. The more I read about him, the more he seems like an archetypal macho urban developer who just wanted to plough through and build big buildings and cars while marginalising the city for the people. There are too many of these types around today, but they seem largely faceless, ensconced behind multinationals and shadowy global real estate development companies.

The documentary Citizen Jane provides quite a good entry-route into the rosy world of Jane Jacobs. Based on historical footage, it captures her fight in the 1960s to oppose Moses’ planned Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX). The plans would connect Manhattan Bridge with Williamsburg, ploughing through dense neighbourhoods to make way for a busy expressway. Opposition to the plans grew, and the documentary shows how Jacobs worked with community groups such as the Italian diaspora in Little Italy to oppose to plans throughout the 1960s. She chaired the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway and was elevated to status of local hero for her tireless campaigning work.

The battle culminated with her arrest in 1968, where she was charged with disorderly conduct (quite a step down from the initial accusations of inciting riots, criminal damage, obstruction of public administration). Following this, Jane moved to Toronto to take distance from NYC, albeit commuting in to work in New York occasionally.

The documentary Citizen Jane provides a good context before reading Death and Life, and gives rise to the question: Was Death and Life little more than a polemic? She certainly takes to task Moses – everything he stands for, she invariably stands against.

She doesn’t like:

  • parks (Moses was New York City Parks Commissions for a stint in his long career);
  • centrality of cars (Moses was very much pro-automobile).

Her issues with parks I do not fully agree with – we will get to this later. Her stance on cars however has aged quite well and in my opinion time has proved her right.

The second character she condemns in Death and Life is Le Corbusier. This is perhaps a proxy for railing against Moses, since he seemed to draw most of his inspiration from Le Corb’s ideas. Big macho buildings, car-centric cities built for speed, prowess, efficiency and large-scale was the order of the day. I do indeed agree with Jacobs on this, and I am certainly not a particular fan of Le Corb’s thinking nor his design (both of which to me scream fragile masculinity).

Despite a strangely contradictory political outlook which often borders on naivety and a lack of technical detail, Death and Life is immensely readable and certainly Jacobs journalistic background comes through loud and clear. It is near impossible to read the book without hearing that unmistakable transatlantic newsreader accent that was popular in the US in the 1950s and 60s. It’s hard to say whether Jacobs was a proto-hipster or just a tenacious campaigner, a radical centrist or urban anarchist, an insightful observer or a good storyteller; or also all of these things rolled together. But it does have to be said: she was right about many things, albeit often for the wrong reasons.

EUR and the Fascist Colosseum

Palace of Italian Civilisation (c) Marianne Kell, 2022

A second and final entry on Rome before we move on to other things. I might squeeze one out at a later date on Italian urban planning more generally, but for now I think this is enough.

Hipster boyfriend long had a quest in mind to track down the abbey which produces the only Italian trappiste beer. He mentioned it a few years back, and we found it online, via a webshop called Holy Art selling among other things priest robes and statues of Mary. We dabbled with the idea of placing an order, but the shipping costs were extortionate, and we felt it would be overly decadent to have them ship from Italy a few bottles of beer since we can easily buy perfectly good Belgian or English trappistes within a 3 mile radius of our house.

When we decided that we must go to Rome, it dawned on us that we could visit the abbey, Tre Fontane, and buy the beer from their shop to bring home. Luckily for us, Tre Fontane is well-connected to Rome city and located close to the blue metro line (Linea B). To get there, we simply had to jump on the metro at Termini and then pass through the EUR district on foot.

We got off the metro at EUR Fermi, the third of the three EUR metro stops (EUR Palasport and EUR Magliana the other two). It was a fairly long walk around administrative buildings, post office and bank headquarters that seem to characterise EUR Fermi, around a somewhat creepy near-deserted funfair, uphill through a surprisingly luscious and verdant park (given it was wedged between dual carriageways) and then back down toward the road. We crossed the busy dual carriageway, and then noticed a brown sign directing us to Tre Fontane behind a high wall.  The moment we entered the gates, we found a long, tree-lined avenue leading to the abbey. Although the dual carriageway was right alongside us, the high stone wall and the trees prove surprisingly effective at blocking out traffic noise and it felt strangely still and quiet.

Tre Fontane abbey, Rome. (c) Marianne Kell, 2022

We entered the abbey grounds and the feeling of calm and tranquillity prevailed. The monastery consisted quite simply of a church and crypt, a chapel, and not one but two shops (clearly these monks have their house in order) arranged around a courtyard. Inside one of the shops was a room for chocolate tasting, as well as a small café-bakery and an impressively stocked bar. We succeeded in buying our trappistes, a eucalyptus-flavoured one and a selection of others. After debating whether or not to buy chocolate too (we decided against it as it was already hot outside and we didn’t fancy carrying a dripping bag of melted chocolate around), we boxed up our haul of trappistes and left the calm little oasis to head back up the hill to EUR.

What is EUR?

The architecture of EUR is quite striking, I have to say. It feels imposing, somewhat Orwellian (to use a stereotypically British adjective) and I would imagine it would be the perfect backdrop for a re-make of the film adaptation of 1984.

EUR itself is a rather odd suburb of Rome city. The acronymn EUR stands for Esposizione Universale Roma, and its construction was originally intended for a special Expo in 1940 (in the same vein as the World Expos still taking place now, such as Dubai Expo 2020 and Milan Expo 2015). Obviously, as Italy entered World War II in 1942, this did not turn out as planned and the exhibition never took place.

The concept of the suburb was concocted by Mussolini to celebrate 20 years of fascism. The suburb itself is the biggest example of urban planning and architecture from the fascist period in Italy ,and it is as austere and pompous as one might expect from a projection of fascist vision. The style is highly rationalist, all straight lines, colonnades, marble, and travertine cladding and the idea underpinning the design was to heavily draw upon classical Roman city planning.  Piazza Guglielmo Marconi for example is centred around an obelisk typical of the Roman ones you find dotted around the squares of Rome historical city centre. The chief architect and urban planner for EUR was Marcello Piacentini, the official architect of the fascist regime in the typical stripped-down neoclassical style which was also prevalent in Nazi Germany.

Palace of Italian Civilisation, (c) Marianne Kell, 2022

The Palace of Italian Civilisation (pictured above), or Squared Colosseum (or as L called it, the Fascist Colosseum) is the marble centrepiece of the district and looks like a mash-up of Roman temples and various administrative buildings from the Roman age. Designed by three architects of the fascist era, Giovanni Guerrini, Ernesto La Padula, and Mario Romano, it was supposed to represent Italian history from Roman times and, in true fascist style, connecting this with the superiority of the Italian race. L explained that the inscription at the top was taken from a speech by Mussolini, and referred to Italy as a nation of thinkers, poets, artists, scientists, heroes, and so on. The sculptures on podiums around the structure itself represent these qualities, cared from Carrara marble.

The actual Roman colosseum. (c) Marianne Kell, 2022

Knowing very little about the period of fascism in Italy beyond the basics, I was unsure whether Mussolini drew upon myths of origin as the Nazi Party used as the basis of their disgusting and scary race laws. L explained that there was a weird picking-and-choosing of elements drawn from Roman history, and weaving in elements of Roman culture to justify or strengthen their horrible fascist beliefs. The symbolism and iconography around EUR was in many ways a reflection of this.

The Palace of Civilisation itself I found horrifying and fascinating in equal measure. It was so unbelievably stark, placed atop a hill overlooking the entire district. The white marble juxtaposes sharply with the green treelined avenues and parks dotted around EUR, which despite the austere rationalist architecture, leaves a weirdly pleasant feeling of coolness and airiness in a city that gets extraordinarily hot and humid in summer.

EURPalas was also architecturally intriguing. The Palasport is a stadium that was completed later, in 1960 for the Rome Olympics. It has a pleasingly 1960s style aesthetic, spaceship-like and a bit Buckminster Fuller-esque. Although it underwent major renovations in the early 2000s and is nowadays still used as a basketball arena and concert venue, it still retains the typical 1960s form. The artificial lake, also constructed for the 1960 Olympics, is still intact.

In general, the EUR district was a surprising contrast to the historical city centre of Rome. We went there on a Thursday morning, and the area was extremely quiet so we had plenty of time and space to wander around the district. Definitely worth doing, if only to enjoy the contrast with the rest of the city which is absolutely stuffed full of ancient Roman ruins.

Rome: MAXXI and Archiboobs

Photo by Pepe Nero at Unsplash

Spring in Rome. A city for which I already had high expectations, and still it managed to surpass every single one of them. After having had Covid for a couple of weeks right before we flew and receiving the all clear just 48 hours before our flight was due to take off, it was not a certainty that we would make it. But, Covid clear albeit with tight lungs (both) and a mild cough (me), we landed in Roma Ciampino as planned.

We packed it in high, we did. L, that super smart Italian communist who also happens to be my lover, put together an incredible and stimulating itinerary planned out and for seven days straight we walked, and walked and walked around this mesmerising city. Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s Basilica, EUR, Tre Fontana Monastery, Pyramide of Cestius, Gramsci’s grave, the Forii and Colosseum, Campidoglio, Piazza del Popolo, the Jewish quarter and main Synagogue of Rome and attached fascinating museum Tempio Maggiore (I knew very little about the ancient and sizeable Jewish community of Rome), exploring Tiber island, the belvedere at Gianicolo and Piazzale di Garibaldi, San Lorenzo and a walk around Roma La Sapienza (the biggest university campus I’ve ever seen, and it took us almost half a day to walk around its perimeter as we got off at the wrong metro stop), evening strolls around Travestere neighbourhood, and a very pleasant evening with a comrade of L in the formerly working-class (historically housing mostly factory workers by the look of it) Pigneto neighbourhood, popping into feminist bookshops and super chill café-bars for aperitivo.

Not to mention stuffing our faces with the most delicious Roman food, which was entirely thanks to L’s meticulous research in his Gambero Rosso guide and recommendations from his friends with Roman connections. We did not manage to eat the classic Lazio carbonara or amatriciana, but we did eat lots of both Roman and Romano-Jewish artichoke dishes (including a pasta with lamb and artichoke that I could happily eat every day for the rest of my life), fried courgette flowers, cheese from Lazio region, bona fide porchetta, and a beautifully simple but mindblowing pasta with cherry tomato and toasted almonds which L has since been trying to crack at home. And it goes without saying, incredible street food including Roman pizza by the slice mile and suppli (both al telefono and romano). L almost cried with delight about being in his homeland of filled croissant for breakfast (impossible to find in the UK generally which is an ongoing source of disappointment and frustration for him – although we recently discovered their ubiquity in Glasgow which incidentally has a huge and dynamic Italian diaspora going back several generations), so naturally he insisted that we eat cornetti alla crema every morning from the Sicilian bakery next door to our accommodation.

Overall it was a good thing we covered over 20km on foot each day, otherwise I would have definitely turned into a cornetto alla crema myself.

Anyway. This is not intended to be a travel blog nor a food blog, and I am not particularly skilled about writing about either of these things. So, back to the point: MAXXI, Rome’s museum of contemporary art. We saw GOOD NEWS: Women in Architecture – the fascinating and extremely well-curated exhibition tracing the trajectory of women in architecture throughout the ages, key achievements and their struggle in a (still) highly male dominated profession. Certainly, the recent Guardian exposé about the culture of misogyny, sexism, racism, sexual misconduct, bullying and an overall toxic culture at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture going back decades paints a depressing picture of this world. I would highly doubt that Bartlett is the exception.

While, as L pointed out, the GOOD NEWS: Women In Architecture exhibition did begin with an introductory atrium filled with the photographs and display models of Italian male architects which was a bit of an odd choice given that the whole point was celebrating 85 greatly overshadowed female designers, urban planners, academics, and architects, the exhibition itself was brilliantly curated.

Important to note though: while I’ve referred to the exhibition centred on female architects to highlight what the exhibition is about, a central question posed by the exhibition is why do we collectively still feel the need to attach “female-“ to architect / design etc? We would never refer to a “male architect” in such a way: “MAXXI was designed by female architect Zara Hadid but the Reichstag was designed by the architect Norman Foster.” As the Danish architect Dorte Mandrup was quoted in the exhibition: “I am not a female architect, I am an architect.”


Overall, the exhibition, which also lightly touched on intersectionality as well and highlighted the work of Norma Merrick Sklarek, the first Black woman to be officially commissioned as an architect by New York City, had an positive and optimistic tone. However, to me it shows that while we have come a long way in terms of gender equality in the urbanism field, we still have a hell of a way to go.

So yes, while it is maybe a depressing reflection of how the world around us is configured still requires such an exhibition to highlight the important contribution of women in the field, at the same time I suppose somehow the profile needs to be raised and the point needs to be made that we should really go beyond treating the contribution of women as a parallel, and inferred lesser, than that of male counterparts.

And, as L pointed out, the English translations were actually a lot better than the Italian original. To avoid making architect in the female form, which to an immature mind reads “architette” i.e. “archiboob,” they had translated it in weird and long ways, something like architectrice. All the more reason just to use one common form, right?

Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing (review, part 1)

Given the centrality of housing as the centrepiece of British socio-political reality, Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing is far more than a simple audit and historical account of the trajectory of social housing spanning over a century. Viewed through the lens of social housing, John Boughton provides a detailed and nuanced analysis of housing as a response to the changing social and political conditions of Britain. The big questions of the day are often reflected in the government’s responses to the challenge of housing its people. The Municipal Dreams journey departs from the early Victorian-era disease-ridden slums where life, for most, was, to quote Hobbes’ Leviathan “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” through to the golden age of socialist thought rising from the ashes of two brutal world wars, to the late 20th century project of “rolling back the state,” privatisation of state assets, financial deregulation and push to the free market and its somewhat tragic consequences, the embodiment of which are reflected in the charred remains of Grenfell Tower.

This fascinating project to trace the noble origins and development of social housing in Britain stemmed from four years of blogging, which is in fact still very much alive and well at Municipal Dreams. Much of the material in the book derives from ethnographic sources, which affords Boughton a level of intimacy not seen (to my limited knowledge) in any other literature spanning such a broad range of council estates. It also allows Boughton to encompass an insider’s perspective and avoids the lack of objectivity that befalls many accounts of working-class culture using a more distant, participatory observation approach.

The book is organised chronologically, with three discernible phases:

1. Philanthropy, morality and Victorian values: Britain’s first council estate, the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch which was completed in 1900, was constructed as a direct response from the appalling conditions of the slum quarter in London’s East End. Multiple accounts, from novels such as Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago referenced in the first chapter of Municipal Dreams, Charles’ Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, to historical accounts and ethnographies including Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, also referred to in Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, and Friedrich Engels’ The Great Towns offered stark descriptions of the criminality, abject poverty, death, and disease in these miserable human rookeries. This misery was the downside of the first ever Industrial Revolution. The work of empiricists such as Engels, and later Thomas Carlyle, informed embryonic ideas for developing the welfare state. These ideas were brought forward by philanthropic individuals and loosely bound “corporations” which would later crystallise and formalise into local councils embedded within the institutional architecture of the British state.

2. The impact of war: The first world war gave rise, both directly and indirectly, to the world’s first mass council housing building programme. In 1919, Lloyd George promised “homes for heroes” and following the 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act, over the next two decades, 1.1 million council homes were built (pg 31). This gained support from both left and right wing of the political spectrum, albeit on differing grounds. The right, especially, feared the revolutions and Bolshevism sweeping across mainland Europe and believed that providing council housing would sweeten and disarm would-be revolutionaries. Following the war, it was tacitly agreed that a fit, healthy, and strong population was desirable and providing good-quality housing seemed one logical way to do this. The interwar period and the Great Depression saw large-scale slum clearances, where for the first time the poorer working class were brought into council housing.

From 1945, under Clement Attlee there was a concerted effort to rebuild and rebirth the nation following a catastrophic first half of the twentieth century. The welfare state was born, and housing was a large part of this. At this time, socialist thought defined post-war Britain. The NHS was created, access to education expanded, and the dominant ideology gave rise to the idea that council housing was for a prosperous, economically active, and aspirational working class (pg 256).

3. Demonisation and privatisation: From 1979 onwards, Britain was remodelled once again. The post-1945 consensus was replaced with free market ideals of shrinking the state and selling off state-owned assets. This included council housing. While national companies were being sold off at an alarming rate, council housing stock was transferred from state ownership to private hands or to third-party public-private entities and housing associations for ideological reasons. This included the expanded Right to Buy introduced in 1980. Meanwhile, rhetoric and discourse peddled by government, the national press and free-market think tanks such as Institute for Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute ensured that council estates and their inhabitants were stigmatised. Social housing is today the preferred term for those working in the housing sector, due not in small part to the negative connotations attached to the term “council housing” and “council estate.” Municipal dreams is not party political work, but it certainly seeks to bring to the fore the social origins of council housing and the critical role the Labour movement played in ensuring access to decent and affordable housing. These principles have been very much eroded in recent decades, but not all hope is lost. We may reach a turning point once again. Or then, things might become ever more entrenched.

I will elaborate further on these musings a bit later.

Putin is not a Marxist-Leninist; Russia is not the Soviet Union.

I need to steer the topic a little off course here as, since February 2022, it would be remiss to overlook a pretty major global event. So, it is here I express unwavering solidarity with the Ukrainian people, and of course condemn the sheer terror inflicted on the Ukrainian people by Russian soldiers under the orders of Vladimir Putin.

Separate to this, I also condemn the actions of the disgusting British media and our rotten establishment. Britain has been a laundry for Putin’s unhinged, turbo-capitalism and harboured his thieving, criminal gang of crimelords. There has been a thoroughly sanctioned revolving door between the Kremlin and Westminster since the days of Yeltsin, and nobody is more complicit than the Tory party. After 1991, oligarchs essentially stole Russia, the ashes of the Soviet Union off the Russian people and these people pass their dirty money through London to hide their ill-gotten gains offshore.

Cosmetically there have been sanctions on Russians, but this rotten and corrupt system of propping up oligarchs (from all around the world, not only Russia and including our own) is unlikely to change anytime soon. Whether Russian-owned media being allowed to publish propaganda (Lebdev brothers and PM’s insistence of Evgeny’s lordship), to property, energy, financial sectors and massive donations to the Tory party from Russian and satellite states.

And yet, still somehow our crazed media have managed to blame the Left for this and smear Corbyn (?). Thanks guys, that’s flattering and all, but this is problem that by far overshadows the sorry state of socialism in the UK currently.

Oliver Bullough, the investigative journalist and author of Dirty Money has written extensively about how Russian money is embedded within the UK. The UK, and to an extend as the birthplace of capitalism has always had a role in this, has become noting but a hollow vessel for rich people to come to hide their wealth. There is always a British role in money laundering and hiding money – whether Russian, Ukrainian, (Panama and Pandora Papers, Paradise Papers), or Angolan oil money and beyond. Nicholas Shaxon’s excellent Treasure Islands traces oil money in tax havens from Gabon and through the oil and petrochemical industry and beyond.

This sordid little island has become a nice and convenient regulation free space in heart of Europe, and undermined entire global financial system which is draining money from economies, leaving behind derelict public services and people literally starving, relying on foodbanks in the world’s richest economics. Successive governments and mayors of London, especially since 2008, are responsible for destroying democratic control over finance. London created offshore capital, and now look what a sorry state we are in.

Bullough makes an excellent point that Britain used to be one of a few global oligarchs, that was what our role in the world was as a colonial power. When our empire crumbled and especially after WWII we couldn’t afford to be an oligarch, so we become a footsoldier to oligarchs from elsewhere, including Russia. Our political class not only turned a blind eye to the dirty money passing through the City of London, but they actively encouraged it.

An entire class in London have flourished doing bad things in London. Politicians, property lobbyists, people working in finance, real estate vendors – all of these have blood on their hands (sometimes, actually, literally) sale of the city to the wealthy and encourage flows of finance into the city. These are all responsible for dirty money. This is what helped create Putin and the oligarchic class. Not Corbyn, not Marx, not Lenin.

What next?
Our shambolic excuse for a government have announced some tiny measures regarding transparency to our banking and property sectors. However, the UK economy suckles off dirty money and especially this current government is unlikely to have any political will to give that up.

The PM announced laws regarding money laundering. Problem is  we already have had laws in place for that for a while it’s just they were never enforced (at least, not for the superrich). In Tory Britain today, with a billionaire Chancellor and his non-dom wife, there seems to be little political appetite to enforce then. Any measures we will see regarding sanctions against Russian oligarchs are likely to be tokenistic and to save face on the global stage.

This is not just about the Tories by the way, but Starmer’s Labour will be the same too possibly with a bit more lip service to getting the rich and superrich to pay their fair share, but it is important to note that an entire political class are wedded to this. Blair was not shy of being seen with Putin in the same way as Cameron or Johnson. This is really what the whole burning Corbyn at the stake amounts to really.

Corbyn called for a much overdue an entire restructuring and re-arranging of the British economy. Dissolve the infected pustule that is the City of London in acid. Until that happens, we will continue to face an erosion of democracy, instability, and perpetually sinking standards of living not only on the domestic sphere but globally as well. Unfortunately, I don’t see this changing anytime soon as we lost our chance of a generation (or two) with Corbyn. I fear that much, much worse is yet to come.