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Prospectus - Issue No. 3 - Winter 2017-18 / Jane Jacob's The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Isaac Myers III

Issue No. 3 - Winter 2017-18

On the last Saturday afternoon of March I left my office on Jay Street between Water and Front, and walked over to my car, which was parked on Plymouth Street, between Gold and Bridge. It was only about a ten minute walk. I knew I’d drive up to Marble Hill, leave my car up there, take the train back to Brooklyn that evening, then walk all the way back up to the Bronx the next morning. I didn’t have an exact route in mind, though I knew I would walk through Washington Square Park, that I’d drop by Jane Jacobs’ old house on Hudson Street, and that I’d move north along the Upper West Side. Jane Jacobs, in spirit, would walk with me. I had read her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), watched Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary Citizen Jane (2017), and had revisited Episode 7 of Ric Burns’ New York: A Documentary Film (1999) in which Burns describes her battle royal with Robert Moses over the building of the Lower Manhattan Expressway (she won). 

I had first watched Burns’ documentary in 2012, and remember with clarity how Episode 7, “The City and the World (1945-2000),” portrays Moses as the villain who wants to build an expressway across Canal Street connecting the Holland Tunnel to the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. Jacobs is the hero who steps in and stops him. I remember watching Burns’ nine part documentary on the history of New York City the week of Super Storm Sandy. During Episode 7, a narrator reads from a passage that, six years later, I would read again in Jacobs’ book: 

Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed to movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance ––– not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.

When I first heard, and then years later, read, this passage, my mind drifted toward the way that a city dances, and the way individuals on a street dance ––– how people find their way around the city, and each other. Episode 1 of Burns’ documentary, “The Country and the City (1609-1825),” focuses in on this idea of people moving about and around the city, and among each other. It begins with a shot of the streets of Manhattan in the late 1990s as E.L. Doctorow speaks:

If you imagine an ordinary moment at an intersection in New York City. And there’s a pause because there’s a streetlight, and some people and others are in motion. Some cars stopped, and others in motion. If you were to put that in a freeze frame and hold everything for a second, you would realize that there’s a universe there of totally disparate intentions. Everybody going about his or her business in the silence of their own mind with everybody else and the street and the time of day and the architecture and the quality of the light and the nature of the weather as a kind of background or field for the individual consciousness and the drama that it is making of itself at that moment. And you think about that ––– that’s what happens in a city, and somehow the city can embrace and accept and accommodate all that disparate intention at one and the same time, not only in that corner, but in thousands of corners.

“Thank god the Lower Manhattan Expressway isn’t a thing,” I remember thinking after watching Burns’ documentary, then switching back to Sandy coverage, and then a few days later when the subways were up and running again, returning to work. 

I was working at a civil rights law firm at the time. It was my first job out of law school. It was myself and three partners. I was the only associate, so I was making court appearances and drafting complaints and discovery demands and assisting with motions early on, and as a result, learning a lot, and quickly. I had moved to New York to begin an MFA in poetry at the New School and to also look for work as an attorney in August of 2011, around the same time that Occupy Wall Street had its first general assembly meeting in Zuccotti Park. I attended class at the New School on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, and worked for the law firm during the day. 

We were bringing excessive force and unlawful arrest civil suits against the New York City Police Department, by way of filing claims against the City of New York under the Federal Statute numbered 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, which codifies the Civil Rights Act of 1871. Half of our clients were people who had been arrested or assaulted or both while participating in Occupy Wall Street. The other half were mostly young African-American men who had been roped into the misery that was the former NYPD Commissioner, Raymond Kelly’s illegal answer to reducing crime, the so-called “stop and frisk” policy.

So one half of the complaints that I wrote, in essence, would state, “You can’t stop people just because they’re black,” and the other half would state, “You can’t arrest people just because you don’t like what they’re saying about the country and the government, or how they’re saying it.” A few months before I left the firm, we settled a lawsuit for one of the largest amounts arising out of Occupy Wall Street related litigation. The suit concerned the unlawful arrest of fourteen individuals who were participating in an Occupy event on New Year’s Eve of 2011. 

Continue Reading - Issue No. 3 - Winter 2017-18.

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