Jane Jacobs on North Hollywood (and Napizaro)


Cities and the Wealth of Nations by Jane Jacobs, 1984

I’ve been reading Jane Jacobs book Cities and the Weath of Nations: Principles of Economic Life (1984.) I’m not quite finished yet, but, so far, it’s good but I can’t highly recommend it – at least not so very highly as I recommend Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961.) Death and Life is really one of the very best books for folks interested in cities – what makes them work and what screws them up. I really enjoyed Death and Life and it shaped some of my thinking about cities,  so I figured I’d pick up another book by Jacobs.

I am not through Cities and the Weath of Nations, but I just read and want to share this passage which felt very Los Angeles… the story of a Mexican bullring named “The North Hollywood.”

Consider […] a village named Napizaro in a poor region of central Mexico, several hundred miles to the northwest of Mexico City. For about forty years Napizaro has been heavily subsidized by migrant workers. Almost everyone in the region containing Napizaro used to live by farming, and many still do – mostly subsistence farming, although some practice a bit of cash cropping. The families who depend only on subsistence farming are known locally, for good reasons as the morosos, those without hope. Their lives are inconceivably grim. But a couple of generations ago a new factor entered the lives of some of these people: the pull of jobs in the United States, distant jobs that, as it happens, were illegal as well because it is hard to crack the American immigration barriers. Some took seasonal agricultural jobs but others found year-round work in such cities as Houston and Los Angeles. It is on jobs in Los Angeles that Napizaro has come to depend. 

Today Napizaro is as prosperous a settlement as can be found in the entire region. The village’s twelve hundred people live, for the most part, in comfortable brick houses with pretty patios and tv antennas. The community has street lights, a modern infirmary, and a new bull ring names The North Hollywood in honor of the industrial section of Los Angeles, some fifteen hundred miles away, from which this prosperity comes.

At any given time, more than three quarters of the men are away, working in North Hollywood. For all its amenities, Napizaro is described by an observer as a sad settlement where leave-takings are sorrowful and absences long, and where where women lead dreary, lonely lives. Because the men can seldom afford time off from the factories of North Hollywood and because trips home are expensive, they are often gone for years at a stretch. The money they send back home buys more than it would in Los Angeles. For example, a new brick house in Napizaro in 1980 cost only $6000, most of that accounted for by its imported components, because do-it-yourself construction, barter of labor and extremely low local wages keep the rest of the cost low. An equivalent house in Los Angeles would be many times as expensive, quite apart from the price of Los Angeles land. The street lighting, infirmary and other improvements were financed one at a time over the years by the men’s self-imposed taxes on their wages. After the bull ring was finished, the men put their money into a fund to buy imported pipes, pumps, and other equipment for a water-supply system.

When the young men of Napizaro reach working age they are given an orientation course in what lies in store for them in the factories. The teacher is an elderly man, retired after decades of work in North Hollywood. The men currently work at there arrange jobs for the newcomers. One of the enterprizes receiving them is a clothing factory founded by a Napizaro migrant himself who has run it successfully for many years.

Naturally, the men of Napizaro have considered founding a factory right at home, a plausible notion at first thought because, among them, they already have the skills and experience to set up a clothing factory, manage it, operate it, train new workers and find wholesale buyers. But reluctantly they have abandoned the idea. A factory in Napizaro could not pay a living wage if, indeed, it could be started at all. The skills and experience the men have acquired in Los Angeles are usable only in the context of a city economy with its symbiotic nests of suppliers and its markets, not in this economically barren region. One and the same lack – a vigorous city right in the region – forces the men to find work far away and also makes it impossible for them to start an industrial plant of their own, at home.

Mexico City is no help. Mexico is a big country and Napizaro lies far outside the region Mexico City embraces, so far outside that the economy of Mexico City hardly touches upon this region at all. For economic purposes, Mexico City is more remote than Los Angeles, which at least supplies steady work.

After forty years of remittances, then, remittances used responsibly, thriftily and cooperatively, the fact remains that if the remittances were to stop, Napizaro would swiftly sink back into the grim poverty it knew before the migrations and remittances began. Or more likely, its people would have to abandon the region entirely. For the fact is that despite the money sent back from Los Angeles and the television sets and other imports it buys, economic life in the region – was of making a living right there – remain […] unchanged.

I was curious, so I mapped Napizaro and North Hollywood:

Lastly, here’s a worthwhile Jane Jacobs video, which I first saw on Price Tags.

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