The End of Eyes on the Street


Jane Jacobs talked about the “sidewalk ballet” of her neighborhood and the importance of eyes on the street. But her conception of that, one where shopkeepers policed the sidewalks in front of their stores and kept an eye out for neighborhood kids, is far away from what we have today.

My latest post looking at this is over at City Journal and is called “The End of Eyes on the Street“:

“The bedrock attribute of a successful city district is that a person must feel personally safe and secure on the street among all these strangers,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs is revered as an urban prophet, but key facets of her prescription for how to keep streets safe and maintain thriving urban neighborhoods are increasingly being ignored in New York today.

Key to safe and thriving sidewalks is what Jacobs called “eyes on the street”: people taking an active interest in what’s happening around them. Citizen vigilance, she believed, was even more important than the police. Public peace, she wrote, was “kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.” Some eyes on the street were more important than others–especially those belonging to local business owners. “Storekeepers and other small businessmen are typically strong proponents of peace and order themselves,” Jacobs observed. “They hate broken windows and holdups; they hate having customers made nervous about safety.”

Click through to read the whole thing.

What’s amazing to me is that at the same time we’re told we can’t do anything about things like a panhandler following my wife a block down the street cursing at her because she refused to give him money (which happened recently), or when we can’t stop mentally ill people from pushing people in front of subway trains and killing them (as happened yesterday at Times Square), we have immense effort being put into farcical items like stopping “microaggressions.” It certainly belies a lot of the rhetoric around what we can and can’t do in society.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

Photo: Andy C (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons