Lessons from Jane

Burlington, VT is a beautiful place to live. No matter where I walk or run there are historic houses, bustling streets, vibrant parks, lake views and mountain views.  Some blocks are lined with elegant historic homes, all unique in shingles, dormers, porches, turrets, and landscaping. On other blocks, much smaller homes stand in a line. These homes are very similar in style, but additions and handiwork have given them character over the years. People live above business, in apartments, in duplexes, on the lake, and everywhere else.

House fronts, yards, and elevation seem to reveal a lot about the social class of neighborhood inhabitants. As a general rule it is easy to identify where the undergraduate students lives, where the upper class families live, and where those in between might live (young professionals, middle class families, etc.) The houses sit in various states of repair, some meticulously maintained and other crying for a paint job at the very least.

As a young professional/graduate student, I love that undergraduates and young working adults can live in these historic homes and are not banished to the suburbs or some apartment complex sitting next to the interstate. It keeps the community alive and diversity alive downtown and on the streets. People live on different schedules, so there is always something interesting happening.

However, I often catch myself wishing that these poor houses could all be given some good TLC and patched up. A paint job at least, random trash off the porch, how hard could that be? But, as we all know, when the place shapes up, rent goes up, and then property managers will not rent to undergraduates because of the stigma associated with them as tenants.  And although someone cleaning up a house’s appearance doesn’t necessarily equal gentrification, it still holds true that the nicer neighborhoods have higher property values and rents (at least here in Burlington – judging from all of the apartment searching I have done recently).

Thankfully, we all have Jane Jacobs to give us a few lessons in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Jacobs discusses how diversity in buildings is necessary to keep a block or a neighborhood strong.  Not every “old” building needs to be kept in tip-top shape, because it allows for a variety of businesses to move in and convert the building to fit its requirements. Older buildings are cheaper than modern construction, but when combined they attract diverse tenants (think of retail businesses that typically inhabit old buildings vs. ones that occupy new buildings). In the same fashion, people will live in houses and apartments of varying age. Owner investments into a house will be a long term investment whereas renters will make the place livable and pleasant for their time there. Community pride will take care of the neighborhood.

While the extremes of the above discussion are gentrification and the decay of a neighborhood, maintaining the mixture creates a safe, good environment for its residents. And I try to think of this as I explore my new surroundings. After all, I have seen the most activity on streets in the supposed “bad” neighborhood here, but then again downtown is always full of people, and in the “upper class” neighborhood people stroll and talk to their neighbors on the porches. And together they make combine to make a great city and a very entertaining running route. So, every building does not have to be restored to its historic grandeur, just maintained. Thanks for the lessons, Jane.