Last week, the Rockefeller Foundation handed out its Jane Jacobs Medal, now in its third year, at a fête at Thom Mayne’s sumptuous new Cooper Union building. Guests were initially relegated to a basement parlor for drinks before being ushered across the hall into the jaw-dropping Frederick P. Rose Auditorium, which is said to be the little sister of the famed 1858 Great Hall in the main building. Maybe—but only if she were wearing a gauzy, wrinkled sheath dress of aluminum lace. Could there be nicer acoustical baffling?
Cooper president George Campbell, Jr., introduced Judith Rodin, president of the foundation. Before beginning her remarks, Rodin gave a shout out to a trio of city commissioners who were equal parts guests of honor and comrades at arms: Planning’s Amanda Burden, Transportation’s Janette Sadik-Khan, and, newest of the pack, HPD’s Rafael Cestero.
Rodin noted that exactly 50 years ago this month, the foundation awarded its first two grants, one of which happened to go to a housewife from Manhattan. “It was to support her monograph, that single most import book on the rebuilding of the city,” Rodin said. “That kicked off 50 years of thinking about and working on urban issues.” It is in Jacobs’ honor that the awards were created in 2007, one for Lifetime Leadership, the other for New Ideas and Activism. This year’s honorees were Damaris Reyes, executive director of the Good Old Lower East Side, and Richard Kahan, founder and CEO of the Urban Assembly schools. (You can watch a nice video profile of the two shot by the Municipal Art Society, co-sponsor of the awards, below.)
First up after Rodin was New Yorker architecture critic and man about town Paul Goldberger to award Kahan his medal. He had many beautiful things to say, repeatedly comparing the former head of the Urban Development Corporation to Jacobs herself: “Like Jane Jacobs, Richard Kahan loves New York and sees it with a clarity that uncovers its humanism.” “He’s a skeptic, like Jane Jacobs, but like Jane, he’s never let his skepticism spill over into cynicism.” “He was in training to be Robert Moses, not Jane Jacobs, but fortunately for us, that’s not how it worked out.”
Kahan thanked Goldberger, and then admitted that while he was honored to be receiving the lifetime achievement, “not to be ungrateful, but I’d rather be getting the award for the up-and-comer.” Circling around to Goldberger’s point, Kahan said that Moses versus Jacobs “presents a false dichotomy.” Indeed, the genius of New York was both its intimate scale and its immense monumentality. He said you have to empower the community so it can be a part of big change.
Mary Schmidt Campbell, dean of the Tisch School for the Arts at NYU, invoked Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in her introduction for Reyes, and in many ways echoed Kahan saying that Reyes, too, was at the front ranks spending most of her adult life fighting for the rights of public housing residents and the disappearing culture and community of the Lower East Side.
In a stirring speech that at times brought her to tears—“I always cry, even though I told myself I wouldn’t tonight”—Reyes recounted her trials and travails in Manhattan’s most mixed neighborhood. “Today the benches are gone, and the street life with it. Mom and Pop shops are disappearing as people are evicted and rents continue to rise. We fight, and we continue to hold out.” Reyes received a standing ovation.
The other ovation goes to 41 Cooper. After the medal presentation, guests made their way to the Alumni Roof for some delectable drinks and treats, including a steak bar and make-your-own mash potatoes. Charlie Rose, accompanying Amanda, was ever so gracious to take a picture with our friend and big fan, Nancy. Meanwhile Commissioner Sadik-Khan was chatting it up for part of the night with Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives, no doubt cooking up new schemes to foil the city’s drivers.
At one point, we bumped into Charles Renfro, Giuseppe Lignano and Adda Tolla of LOT-EK, as well as about a dozen other spiffily dressed folks we took for designers but didn’t happen to know. Former MAS president Kent Barwick told us he would shortly be back in action at the advocacy group, “the resident crank in the attic.” “Whenever they need to know about the Peloponnesian War, they’ll come ask me,” he joked. And his successor, Vin Cipolla, confided in us that he has a soft spot for Solange Knowles though not Beyonce. Also, he promised big things from the MAS in the coming months, after some reorganizing and rethinking.
Ron Shiffman, the Pratt professor, community planning advocate, and former city planning commissioner, got a shout-out from Kahan during his speech for being an inspiration. On the roof, Shiffman told us that he was sorry they don’t make ‘em like Kahan anymore, who, after a period of butting heads, came around to plan such path-breaking projects as Battery Park City and the Bronx Center. “You can’t do planning like he did,” Shiffman said, a note of disappointment in his voice. “Not anymore.”