The stretch of Hudson Street where I live is each day the scene of an intricate sidewalk ballet. I make my own first entrance into it a little after eight when I put out the garbage can, surely a prosaic occupation, but I enjoy my part, my little clang, as the droves of junior high school students walk by the center of the stage dropping candy wrappers. (How do they eat so much candy so early in the morning?)
While I sweep up the wrappers I watch the other rituals of morning: Mr. Halpert unlocking the laundry’s handcart from its mooring to a cellar door, Joe Cornacchia’s son-in-law stacking out the empty crates from the delicatessen, the barber bringing out his sidewalk folding chair, Mr. Goldstein arranging the coils of wire which proclaim the hardware store is open, the wife of the tenement’s superintendent depositing her chunky three-year-old with a toy mandolin on the stoop, the vantage point from which he is learning the English his mother cannot speak.
Now the primary children, heading for St. Luke’s, dribble through to the south; the children for St. Veronica’s cross, heading to the west, and the children for P.S. 41, heading toward the east.
Two new entrances are being made from the wings: well-dressed and even elegant women and men with brief cases emerge from doorways and side streets. Most of these are heading for the bus and subways, but some hover on the curbs, stopping taxis. . . . Simultaneously, numbers of women in housedresses have merged and as they crisscross with one another they pause for quick conversations that sound with either laughter or joint indignation, never, it seems, anything between.
It is time for me to hurry to work too, and I exchange my ritual farewell with Mr. Lofaro, the short, thick-bodied, white-aproned fruit man who stands outside his doorway a little up the street, his arms folded, his feet planted, looking as solid as the earth itself. We nod; we each glance quickly up and down the street, then look back to each other and smile. We have done this many a morning for more than ten years, and we both know what it means: All is well.
from The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961
In this lyrical passage, author/urban advocate/community activist Jacobs describes her New York neighborhood street, circa 1960. The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a critique of 1950s urban planning policy, including the neighborhood-razing freeway-crazy policies of Robert Moses. Jacobs’ book begin with a clear statement of purpose: “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” This famous passage, the Sidewalk Ballet, was described in a 2016 piece in The New Yorker: “The book rises to an unforgettable climax in a passage on the [Walt] Whitmanesque “sidewalk ballet,” one of the most inspired, and consciousness-changing, passages in American prose.”