Harvard Square Observer: The U.S. That Was

Ernest Cassara

On the same day that the mail brought a copy of Jane Jacobs’ famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, my wife and I headed south of Boston and Cambridge to attend a conference in Attleboro.  As we left Interstate 95, and headed south on local roads, I thought of Jacobs, who died in April at the age of 89, in Canada.  She had migrated during the Vietnam War, to protect her sons from the draft.

Along the way, we observed houses that had been around for awhile, in that they had porches.  One does not see porches on many houses built today.  Take a typical housing development: houses with attached garages.  No place to sit and see, and greet, neighbors, and, possibly spend some time getting caught up on neighborhood news, and gossip.  The motor car is more important than our neighbors, as far was the designers of such abodes are concerned.

I read Jane Jacobs’ book when it first came out in 1961, and, I thought of her often when not long after we moved to a town in northern Virginia, where we saw the principles she set forth violated, as the town grew.  Long stretches of road saw office buildings, which, in the evening, being empty of workers, one had the eerie feeling in walking by at night.  No eyes to observe us, and, if need be, come to our aid were we to be hassled by a malefactor.

You recall that, early in her book, Jacobs tells of a man who was trying to persuade a young girl to come along.  She was resisting.  But, there were plenty of eyes trained on the scene, which, it transpired, was perfectly innocent, in that it was the girl’s father.  But, if it had not been, there were neighbors, who, if need be, could have intervened.  Something, as I say, is not true in neighborhoods where the design favors the automobile, and has banished the front porch.

Mixed neighborhoods, is what Jacobs wisely advised us to work for, where there are plenty to eyes to see what is going on.

I have a man sitting on the front steps of a house, as we made our way to Attleboro, to thank for reminding me how important what Jane Jacobs recommended still is.  I thought of the poem, which was inspired by a line in Homer.  It is worth repeating, as a tribute to the great Jane Jacobs.

The house by the side of the road

By Sam Walter Foss

       “He was a friend to man, and he lived
             In a house by the side of the road.”? Homer

There are hermit souls that live withdrawn
      In the place of their self-content;
There are souls like stars, that dwell apart,
      In a fellowless firmament;
There are pioneer souls that blaze their paths
      Where highways never ran?
But let me live by the side of the road
      And be a friend to man.

Let me live in a house by the side of the road,
      Where the race of men go by?
The men who are good and the men who are bad,
      As good and as bad as I.
I would not sit in the scorner’s seat,
      Or hurl the cynic’s ban ?
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
      And be a friend to man.

I see from my house by the side of the road,
      By the side of the highway of life,
The men who press with the ardor of hope,
      The men who are faint with the strife.
But I turn not away from their smiles nor their tears,
      Both parts of an infinite plan?
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
      And be a friend to man.

I know there are brook-gladdened meadows ahead
      And mountains of wearisome height;
That the road passes on through the long afternoon
      And stretches away to the night.
But still I rejoice when the travelers rejoice,
      And weep with the strangers that moan,
Nor live in my house by the side of the road
      Like a man who dwells alone.

Let  me live in my house by the side of the road?
      It’s here the race of men go by.
They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,
      Wise, foolish? p; so am I;
Then why should I sit in a scorner’s seat,
      Or hurl the cynic’s ban?
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
      And be a friend to man.

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Harvard Square Commentary, October 9, 2006