Guest Columns

On Jane Jacobs


Phillip Lopate

The legend of Jane Jacobs centers on the writer who revolutionized our thinking about cities with her now-classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and the fearless activist who stood up to planning czar Robert Moses’s rampaging road construction, thereby saving Gotham. A recent, rather cartoonish film on the subject is even titled: Citizen Jane: The Battle for New York. It is an irresistible David vs. Goliath story with a feminist twist. Not surprisingly, she has become a secular saint in oppositional circles: “What would Jane Jacobs do?” was a graffiti at the Occupy Wall Street site. In retrospect Jacobs got many things right and many others half-right, but it may take some doing to separate one from the other, or to pry loose the contemptuous loner from the feisty, socially engaged persona.

“Jane Jacobs verges on a cult figure, with Death and Life a kind of gospel, like Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book in its time, or the Bible,” writes Robert Kanigel, in the first full-scale biography of her, Eyes on the Street (Alfred A. Knopf). The previous author of seven books (including The Man Who Knew Infinity, recently filmed), Kanigel is a skillful biographer, and his latest effort is thorough, well-researched and polished, if overly cautiously in probing his subject’s contradictions. It sits squarely within her own approving self- definition: if she says her childhood was untroubled, so be it. There are chummy reports of lobster-eating summer vacations. Her children, riding bikes, “never had an accident. They always had fun.” Kanigel occasionally alludes to Jacobs’ testy, insular side. But an opportunity is lost to account for the strange trajectory of her career: how she caught lightning in a bottle in one book and then went on to write eight more that failed to ignite.

Jane Butzner was born in 1916 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the third child to her doctor-father and nurse-mother. Her Presbyterian churchgoing parents were nurturing and encouraging: “‘I grew up with the idea that I could do anything,’ she’d say. ‘Nothing was going to be barred from me if I wanted.’” In the third grade she was expelled for refusing to promise she would brush her teeth every day. Thus began a pattern of resisting academic instruction and experts’ advice. “‘To tell you the truth,’ she’d tell an interviewer once, ‘I thought that most of my teachers were rather stupid. They believed a lot of nonsense. I was always trying to educate them….It came to me good and strong and fast that I was an outlaw.’”

Forgoing college, she enrolled in the Powell School of Business, learning stenography and working as a secretary. Her dream from the start, however, was to be a writer. In 1934, in the midst of the Depression, she moved to New York to advance that dream and fell in love with the city. She wrote four colorful pieces for Vogue about specialized New York neighborhoods, and took a few courses at Columbia University’s General Studies but did not pursue a degree. Meanwhile, she supported herself with editing and writing jobs: first for Iron Age, a trade magazine, then for the Office of War Information, and finally for Architectural Forum. By this time, she had married an architect specializing in hospitals, Robert Jacobs, and was the working mother of three children. Her boss at Architectural Forum encouraged her to write about ambitious new developments in American cities that were sponsored by urban renewal legislation.

These journalistic efforts, along with her speeches and articles, have been collected in Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs, edited and contextualized by Samuel Zipp and Nathan Stirring (Random House). The early pieces chart her initial enthusiastic embrace of the new construction projects, followed by a learning phase in which she began to question the planners’ premises. She was aided in this reversal by William Kirk, an East Harlem social worker who took her on walks through the neighborhood, pointing out the differences between streets teeming with life and those where new housing projects had vitiated a sense of community. Her changed perspective culminated in a 1956 speech she gave at Harvard before a meeting of distinguished urbanists, and a 1958 essay, “Downtown is for People,” that appeared in Fortune. Having attracted notice as a maverick thinker, she received a Rockefeller Foundation grant to write a book enunciating her ideas.

In 1961, at age forty-five, Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which began with a declaration of war: “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” It had an immediate impact and has remained a major influence on the way we regard cities today. Writing in the midst of the large-scale, Federally-funded urban renewal effort which laid waste many older neighborhoods and displaced thousands of poor or working-class residents and retail businesses in the name of “slum clearance,” replacing them with housing projects and expressways, she defended the traditional, messy, vital organic order against what she saw as the sterile and boring solutions of planners and developers.

In this book, she boiled down her premise to four key ideas: mixed primary uses (don’t separate residential from commercial), short blocks, buildings of various ages (especially old ones) and dense concentrations of people. Many of her recommendations made a counter-intuitive common sense: bars and taverns, for instance, were good promoters of neighborhood safety because they were open late and provided a steady stream of “eyes on the street.” This well-known phrase of Jacobs has been aptly chosen by Kanigel for his biography, since it relates not only to her ideas about neighborhood safety but also her insistence that only by walking the streets and taking note of their actual functioning could decisions be made about what to revamp and what to leave well enough alone. Planners, she thought, began with bird’s-eye, abstract notions, wishing for a clean slate to tidy up the cityscape, rather than using patient observation.

Jacobs spoke for city lovers everywhere. In 1992, when the book was reissued in a Modern Library edition, Jacobs shrewdly summarized its reception in a foreword, saying “the book collaborated with foot people by giving legitimacy to what they already knew for themselves,” while leaving car people unmoved. Reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities when it first came out, I, a foot person, became a total convert. If you had cut open my brain at the urbanism lobe, you would have seen it saturated with Jacobs’ point of view. Death and Life, together with Robert A. Caro’s magisterial The Power Broker (1974), held the answers for me to all of my city’s mysteries.

One reason Jacobs’ book may have seemed so relevant, in retrospect, was that it tapped into a whole postwar aesthetic celebrating simultaneity and pedestrianism, the beautiful and the ugly happily conjoined in New York’s public spaces. You encountered it in Frank O'Hara’s poems (“Everything suddenly honks”), Edwin Denby’s essay “Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Street,” the walk-inspired choreography of Merce Cunningham and Yvonne Rainer, the street photography of Helen Levitt, films like John Cassavetes’ Shadows, De Kooning’s and Pollock’s paintings, Charlie Parker’s and Charlie Mingus’s mercurial jazz and the aleatory, everyday sounds of John Cage. Jane Jacobs never mentioned these artistic models, but she shared with them an appetite for serendipitous dissonances caught on the fly. Her celebrated “intricate sidewalk ballet” chapter in Death and Life took readers through a day in the life of Hudson Street, the Greenwich Village block where she lived: the shopkeepers opening their gates, the children on roller skates, the natives who hold each other’s keys for safekeeping, the benevolent stranger who applies a tourniquet to a bleeding local and then disappears, the eyes on the street assuring that “All is well.” She made urban life sound stimulatingly benign, revealing “a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city.”

Over the years, though, I have found myself having some second thoughts about Jacobs’ do’s and don'ts. The neighborhood pastoral she described seemed too precious and too specifically tied to anomalous Greenwich Village. Her assumption that a large metropolis could only function by ordinary citizens attending to little details, correct as it may be, did not take into sufficient consideration the enormous challenges cities faced, such as poverty, crime, racism, disease, de-industrialization, gentrification, homelessness and income disparity.

I also began to notice, using Jacobs’ own recommended empirical method, exceptions to her proscriptive rules. I liked her idea that short blocks create more opportunity for congregating, but I saw that many longer city blocks also worked extremely well. It wasn’t necessary to have plentiful retail or foot traffic for a street to be safe. A familiar, workable pattern in Manhattan was for short avenue blocks to contain commercial storefronts and lengthy cross-streets hold rows of houses. There was something too dichotomizing about Jacobs’ death-and-life schema, which divided streets into lively, dynamic thoroughfares and sterile, boring ones. Omitted were the many residential pockets to which people could retreat after their workday and enjoy a semblance of quiet family life: nothing wrong with that.

Jacobs opposed the monumental civic and cultural centers that were springing up as an option for urban renewal. Seeing them as bland white elephants interrupting the flow of street life, she took particular aim at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts: “It is planned entirely on the assumption that the logical neighbor of a hall is another hall. Nonsense. Who goes straight from the Metropolitan Opera to the Philharmonic concert and thence to the ballet?…The city’s unique stock-in-trade is destroyed for these halls in advance, and for keeps, as long as the Center lives. It is a piece of built-in rigor mortis.” Her antipathy made sense back then, but time has proven her wrong: over the decades a flourishing, day-night neighborhood has sprung up around the complex. The redesign of Alice Tully Hall and the streets adjoining it by the architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro has helped break down the fortress image of Lincoln Center. Curiously, Jacobs, who was right to insist that cities were always in flux, could not imagine how a new development she didn’t like might adjust and blend better into the cityscape in time: as far as she was concerned it was DOA “for keeps,” “rigor mortis.”

She also thought that Chelsea was moribund because of its long blocks; now it’s booming. Of course we can’t fault her for not anticipating that New York real estate would one day be traded as an international commodity, like gold or copper. Her hunches were either astute or highly suggestive. But they relied too much on street layout as the one determining factor. Sociologist Herbert Gans labeled this “the physical fallacy, and it leads [Jacobs] to ignore the social, cultural and economic factors that contribute to vitality or dullness.”

Daniel Burnham’s dictum, “Make no little plans: they have no magic to stir men’s blood,” which Jacobs scorned, nevertheless has some validity. Many of the great achievements in American city-building arose as ambitious projects, and planning infrastructure for water, energy, or transportation on a regional scale continues to be necessary. Jacobs insisted that large plans always led to cookie-cutter standardization, which brought her to oppose all Federally-supervised grants to cities. But her solution, simply turning the money over to local municipal governments, invites venality and corruption. Moreover, some efforts to further social justice can only start at a national level, due to local biases. States’ rights and opposition to federal involvement has often been a cover for limiting the rights of minorities, immigrants, gays and women. True, we may be entering a period when that process is reversed, and we must look to certain cities and states to provide sanctuary for these rights. The point is that, pace Jacobs, some tasks are better performed at the Federal level, some at the local. I tend to agree with Nicholas Lemann’s conclusion, in Promised Land, that “Any planned undertaking that would have a chance of affecting the ghettos substantially would have to be of enormous scope. For both practical and moral reasons, the institution by far best suited to the task is the federal government.”

Jacobs’ critique of public housing was certainly justifiable on urbanistic and aesthetic grounds, given the isolation, crime and anomie that many projects bred. But it must be said that, given the chronic shortage of affordable housing in New York City, one can only be grateful today for these thousands of units, which adequately house lower-income families and have long lines of applicants waiting for openings. In cities across America, housing projects have been demolished, most famously Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, but the ones in New York still stand—perhaps because the city already had a high-rise apartment house aesthetic and thus less stigma attached. In any case, Pruitt-Igoe may have failed not because it was so ill-designed but because Federal funds for maintenance and improvement disappeared.

Jacobs’ understandable hostility to Corbusian tower-in-the-park schemes extended to Stuyvesant Town, a private development for lower-middle-class and middle class occupants which she singled out for attack in her Harvard talk, but which has since grown into an accepted, useful, even cherished part of the Manhattan streetscape. A large city can support many different urban styles, even superblocks, not just the Greenwich Village street model. (In a sense, Jacobs’ metropolis of idealized neighborhoods is as utopian and rarefied a vision as Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse.)

Part of what made Death and Life so thrilling when it appeared—its aggressive, take-no-prisoners argumentativeness—inevitably invites later qualification because it is insufficiently nuanced. Kanigel shrewdly notes: “What it had going for it, in the first place, were good guys and, especially, bad guys. Among the intellectual villains were Ebenezer Howard of the Garden City movement; and Daniel Burnham of City Beautiful, which grew out of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago; and especially that towering evil genius of modernity, Le Corbusier, and his radiant city. Jane lumped their ideas together, emphasizing their kindred elements rather than their differences—Radiant Garden City Beautiful—as the product of thinkers who couldn’t think about a city without imposing neatness, order, and sterility.”

It was not exactly fair of her to group Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, a truly urbicidic scheme, with the more meliorating Garden City plans, which posited a decentralizing model for urban development. Radburn, New Jersey, Sunnyside, Queens, the New Urbanism of Seaside, Florida or the new towns in England (Letchworth, Welwyn) offered an experimental alternative, without ever posing a threat to great cities. And the City Beautiful movement brought some lovely Beaux Arts grace notes to American streetscapes. Jacobs’ sarcastic dismissal of Ebenezer Howard’s and Patrick Geddes’ garden city ideas as lifeless irked Lewis Mumford into responding. Mumford was a vastly cultivated man, who wrote books about Herman Melville and American arts from 1865 to 1895, as well as some of the best architectural criticism this country has ever seen. He was esteemed for his large tomes, The Culture of Cities and The City in History: the latter work appeared in 1961, the same year as Death and Life, and won the National Book Award. Mumford shared Jacobs’ dislike of postwar anti-urban schemes, including expressways and public housing towers, and he supported her early on, helping her get the Rockefeller grant by writing a recommendation letter and joining forces with her against Robert Moses’s downtown expressway plans. But he had aligned himself earlier with Clarence Stein, Henry Wright and the Decentralists; he lived in Sunnyside Gardens, and had served on regional planning boards. Jacobs’ attack on garden cities and regional planning personally stung him, and he responded with a lengthy critique of Death and Life in The New Yorker. Much has been made about the title it appeared under in the magazine, “Ma Jacobs’ Home Remedies”: his own title had been “Home Remedies for Urban Cancer” but the “Ma Jacobs” headline tag seemed an unnecessary belittlement, and ever since, Mumford’s critique has been dismissed by Jacobsites as patronizing, sexist sour grapes and old fogeyism.

It is fascinating to re-examine the essay today, as it makes a number of valid points. He begins by praising her opposition to urban renewal, and her defense of neighborhoods:

“Here was a new kind of ‘expert,’ very refreshing in current planning circles, where minds unduly fascinated by computers carefully confine themselves to asking only the kinds of questions that computers can answer and are completely negligent of the human contents or the human results. This able woman had used her eyes and, even more admirably, her heart to assay the human result of large-scale housing…” But then Mumford offered his own experience, based on his having lived in virtually every New York neighborhood and housing type, “from a block of row houses with no shops on Hicks Street in Brooklyn Heights to a two-room flat over a lunchroom in the same general neighborhood, with the odor of stale fat filtering through the windows, and with a tailor, a laundry a florist, grocery stores, and restaurants—Mrs. Jacobs’ favorite constellation for ‘urban liveliness'—immediately at hand….I am still regenerate enough to prefer the quiet flat with a back garden and a handsome church behind it on Hicks Street….” He next zeroed in on her lack of interest in architectural excellence or in the city as a potential work of art: “What has happened is that Mrs. Jacobs has jumped from the quite defensible position that good physical structures and handsome design are not everything in city planning to the callow notion that they do not matter at all. That beauty, order, spaciousness, clarity of purpose may be worth having for their direct effect on the human spirit even if they do not promote dynamism, increase the turnover of goods, or reduce criminal violence seems not to occur to Mrs. Jacobs. This is aesthetic philistinism with a vengeance.”

Mumford was not half the polemicist Jacobs was, but he was a better historian, with greater range and a more flexible prose style, and a deeper thinker as well. What Jacobs so disliked about the older man’s urbanist writing was his pessimism; she viewed his versions of historical cities as a morbid suite of necropolises. His unfortunate allusion to “urban cancer” came, however, from a legitimate concern that cities were growing obscenely large. He and his Garden City proponents thought limits should be placed on population size: beyond a certain point, Mumford felt, cities became unbearable anthills. Jacobs found this point of view squeamish. One man’s congestion is another woman’s density, and Jacobs celebrated density: the more the merrier. In recent decades, professional opinion has swung in her favor: density and infill are seen as far more ecologically efficient and protective of the natural environment than suburban sprawl. Still, the question of optimal size remains unresolved, as megacities like Beijing and New Delhi, with twenty million-plus populations, reel from unhealthy pollution. Their age differential may also have been a factor: at the time Death and Life appeared, Jacobs was an optimist in her vigorous mid-forties and Mumford, twenty years older, an elderly pessimist who decried dehumanizing technology. Ironically, her own final book, Dark Age Ahead (2005), written at the age of eighty-nine, was equally pessimistic about the urban future.

Jacobs claimed Mumford’s critique did not upset her. “I laughed at a lot of it. I have a fairly thick skin,” she said, adding that she knew her book “would make people angry, perhaps especially Mumford.” Considering the fact that Mumford had been her sponsor, this shows a certain cavalier cruelty on her part. Though Kanigel accuses the “aloof, respected, proud” Mumford of condescending to Jacobs, in the end he may have shown more respect for her than she did him. Years later, asked to give the Lewis Mumford Lecture in 2004, she dismissed him in her speech as “a kind paternalist,” without revisiting whether his criticisms had any merit. As it was Jacobs’ style to attack vigorously, she was not given to thinking against herself, nor seeing validity in another’s contrary point of view, especially after identifying that other as a bad egg or a stuffed shirt.

Having trashed the planning profession, Jacobs next took on the economists. In The Economy of Cities, she upended the customary notion that agricultural areas had led to cities’ growth by insisting the reverse was true: first came cities, then agriculture. Not that this assertion was ever substantiated by archaeologists, nor that it particularly mattered; her point was to champion the urban idea by arguing that the key to a nation’s prosperity was its ability to generate import-reducing cities, through proliferation of small enterprises. She gave as an example the women who invented the Maidenform bra, starting in a small local workshop and growing it into a national business. Conversely, she thought it pointless to locate factories or military bases in rural areas. Whatever validity her economic theories may have (I am unequipped to assess them), she complained that economists for the most part ignored them. Perhaps it was her do-it-yourself style, which failed to pay deference to the leaders of the field; if anything, she expressed amazement that they had not figured any of this out before her. In her best provocative mode, she wrote: “It would be rash to suppose that macro-economics, as it stands today, has useful guidance for us. Several centuries of hard, ingenious thought about supply and demand chasing each other around, tails in their mouths, have told us almost nothing about the rise and decline of wealth.”

She also dismissed sociologists as a whole: “They just do busy work.” The way her admiring biographer Kanigel summarizes it is that hers was “the independent mind in conflict with received wisdom.” The upside of this approach is that it challenges guild pieties with fresh, sometimes brilliant insights; the downside is that, in sidestepping the traditional knowledge a profession has amassed, an autodidact may be condemned to sounding touchily defensive, like an amateur. It was a term with which Jacobs was not infrequently saddled. Kanigel imaginatively links her to the Victorian “gentleman amateur” type such as Charles Darwin—a stretch, in my opinion. But Jacobs herself “‘identified with Darwin.’ When people complained about the absence of hard data in her work, Jane would reply, ‘Darwin didn’t have data either.’”

She liked to figure things out by herself. An admirable, courageous trait, it accompanied a general disdain for professors and academia. In a telling vignette, her husband’s niece Lucia “was embarked on a conventional academic trajectory—today she is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley—and Jane ‘was a little dismissive of the path I was taking: If you had any guts you wouldn’t need that.’”

In 1968, tired of battling New York planners, disenchanted with America’s Vietnam War and eager to protect her sons from the draft, she moved her family to Toronto, which she regarded as “the most healthy and hopeful city in North America.” There she continued to fight against highways or large developments, and to write her other books, approaching urban ecology from different angles.

Her customary approach was to weave some statistics and facts with telling anecdotes, which she called “systematically illuminating cases,” into a theoretical mesh. But increasingly there was a thinness to her examples: for someone who advocated empiricism, she never actually put in that much onsite observation of world cities. As her biographer acknowledges, she was well on her way to summarizing Los Angeles and San Francisco before ever having gone there, and at the time of Death and Life’s publication, “Of vast tracts of Brooklyn and the Bronx and the other outer boroughs, she was ignorant.” She might have rebutted that she had seen enough to generalize.

The slashing, journalistic prose style that had worked so well for Death and Life did not serve her as well in subsequent books. She tried varying her approach by writing two books in dialogue form, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics and The Nature of Economies. Jacobs admitted afterward that she had made the characters in these dialogues sound too much alike, had insufficiently differentiated their voices. I suspect she had trouble inhabiting other characters easily because she heard her own voice so strongly. “At least in her later years—though there’s reason to think it went all the way back to grade school—she invariably dominated the conversation,” her biographer writes. At a dinner with a potentially adversarial modernist architect, she “took charge of the conversation and never let it get on the subject of planning for more than 30 seconds,” telling “‘funny stories….I get a bang out of my own stories, fortunately.’”

From time to time, Kanigel lets drop an observation about Jacobs’ rigid character, usually quoting someone else though not connecting the dots to show how her strength of conviction also cut her off from other points of view. She had a tendency, noted a colleague, to be “‘needlessly abrasive’” and had “‘a streak of dark, toxic anger.’” “‘Feelings were not something Jane was inclined to discuss or explore….And her own social antennae were not finely attuned…. I never heard her reflecting upon herself.’”

In Toronto, she was treated like a sage. People all over the world made pilgrimages to her, or invited her to speak at conferences, to deliver opinions on every subject, and she obliged. Her positions hardened along with the language conveying them, which is why so many of her later articles and speeches sound like boilerplate.

Still, her appetite for new challenges never abated. At age eighty-seven, she planned to write A Brief Biography of the Human Race. (!) Kanigel acknowledges that she fell at times into “clumsy language…that was fuzzy or embarrassingly awkward,” but he explains it thus: “[I]n the years after Death and Life, lauded as an important thinker, she might be excused for slipping back from the rough-and-tumble of the world and into the cosseted realm of ideas: Economics. Morals. Ecology. As age and physical frailty kept her more at home, retreat to the abstract and theoretical probably became easier, even inevitable. She became less the maker of vivid images and scenes, more the intrepid explorer of ideas. Of course, the two were always in her, locked in creative tension; Death and Life is stocked with ideas. But as the years passed and the public intellectual in her blossomed, Jane did find it harder, or maybe less important, to rid her prose of generalization and abstraction—leaving more of it behind to sometimes thwart or entangle her readers.”

History may judge Jacobs’ greatest accomplishment to have been her discrediting of the misguided arrogance of urban renewal, which destroyed healthy neighborhoods in the guise of slum clearance. We all know the stirring story of Jane Jacobs organizing to stop the highway through Washington Square Park, and the Lower Manhattan expressway (LOMEX) with which Robert Moses threatened to wipe out Soho. This is the foundational myth of postmodern New York: the white-haired lady with dark-rimmed glasses defeating the snarling planner, while scholarly Lewis Mumford tut-tuts in the background.

In addition to the recent documentary, Citizen Jane, an opera, we are told, is in the offing. This soothing, self-congratulatory narrative of the People Triumphant absolves New Yorkers from accepting the enormous changes the city has since undergone, wrought by the forces of global capital and technology. The old, homey city Jacobs defended is mostly gone. The tenement buildings she had insisted remain have mostly been preserved, but gutted inside and turned into elegant lofts. Her beloved Greenwich Village is now one of the priciest neighborhoods in the country. Not that New York has lost its soul, by any means: only that that soul has always been tinged with mercantilism, and is now playing out its destiny with a different cast.

As for Robert Moses, no one can deny that LOMEX would have been as big a disaster for the city as his Cross-Bronx Expressway. However, The Power Broker accomplished much good for New York, not only in the first half of his reign, as is generally accepted, but in the second as well, with his promotion of parks, beaches, public housing, hospitals, universities, the United Nations and Lincoln Center. As for his abominated highways, though we now seem to agree that cars are unfriendly to cities, we might also concur that their ubiquity and ascendency in the twentieth century required an accommodation: some highways Moses built were necessary for the city not to choke on inadequate ingress. A nit to pick with Robert A. Caro’s otherwise brilliant analysis in The Power Broker is contained in its subtitle, Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, which was predicated prematurely on decline. If you think New York City, for all its problems such as persistent homelessness, has survived its own predicted fall and is doing reasonably well, then a little credit should go to the man who did most to reshape it. This revisionist position has been put forth elsewhere, such as in Robert Moses and the Modern City, edited by Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson, though it may take fifty more years for New Yorkers to relinquish the delicious simplifications of their Goldilocks and the Wolf fairy tale.

In short, metropolises are too complicated and their fates too dialectically enmeshed to fit any one vision. In considering future courses for our cities, we could afford to learn from all three innovative urban thinkers: Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford and (even) Robert Moses.