I’ve just started reading Jane Jacobs’s 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and this passage (from chapter 21, “Governing and planning districts”) could not fail to remind me of last year’s epic all-night meetings.
A public hearing in a big city is apt to be a curious affair, simultaneously discouraging and heartening. The ones I know best are held in New York’s City Hall, alternate Thursdays, on measures that require decision by the city’s chief governing body, the Board of Estimate […] Sometimes the sessions are calm and speedy; but often they are tumultuous and last not only all day, but far into the night. Whole segments of city life, problems of neighbourhood upon neighborhood, district upon district, parades of remarkable personalities, all come alive in this room …
I became an addict of the Board of Estimate sessions as a fierce and rooted partisan at just such hearings, and I cannot lose my habit of involvement as some other district’s problems are cried out here or some other neighborhood’s cause is pled. In one sense, the whole affair is exasperating. So many of the problems need never have arisen. If only well-meaning officials in departments of the city government or in freewheeling authorities knew intimately, and cared about, the streets or districts which their schemes so vitally affect—or if they knew in the least what citizens of that place consider of value in their lives, and why. So many of the conflicts would never occur if planners and other supposed experts understood in the least how cities work and respected those workings […] In many cases too (not all), the hundreds of people who have lost a day’s pay, or have made arrangements for care of their children, or have bought their children along and sit hour upon hour with youngsters fidgeting in their laps, are being hoaxed; it has all been decided before they are heard.
Even more discouraging than all this is the sense one soon gets of problems which are out of the control of everyone. Their ramifications are too complex; too many different kinds of trouble, need and services are interlocked in a given place—too many to be understood, let alone helped or handled when they are attacked, one-sidedly and remotely, by the sprawling municipal government’s separate administrative empires […] Helplessness, and its partner futility, become almost palpable during these hearings.
On the other hand, though, the proceedings are heartening, because of the abounding vitality, earnestness and sense with which so many of the citizens rise to the occasion. Very plain people, including the poor, including the discriminated against, including the uneducated, reveal themselves momentarily as people with grains of greatness in them, and I do not speak sardonically. They tell with wisdom and often eloquence about things they know first-hand from life. They speak with passion about concerns that are local but far from narrow. To be sure, foolish things are said too, and untrue things, and things brazenly or suavely self-seeking; and it is good, too, to see the effects of these remarks. We listeners are seldom fooled, I think; it is clear from our responses that we understand and rate these sentiments for what they are. Thee is experience at living, responsibility and concern in abundance among the city’s people. There is cynicism but there is also faith, and this is, of course, what counts most.