It is a great honor to announce that Becoming Jane Jacobs is the winner of the 2016 Jane Jacobs Urban Communication Book Award, as announced at the Urban Communication Foundation's annual conference in Philadelphia last week. It is an honor for the book to be included among distinguished past winners of the award, and to be the recipient of an award named for the great urbanist! The reviewers said of the book:
Book award committee chairs and members included Timothy Gibson, Peter Haratonik, and Leo Jeffres. Gary Gumpert is president of The Urban Communication Foundation. Learn more about the UCF.
"Who Was Jane Jacobs? And Who is She Now?" A talk given at the Center for the Living City's Jane Jacobs Centennial Lecture Series, Eldridge Street Museum, NYC, October 6, 2016 (Transcript of talk with minor corrections)
Thank you, Roberta [Brandes Gratz], and thanks to all of you for joining us tonight. I am Peter Laurence and I am absolutely delighted to be here in this stunning building, at the end of what has already been a remarkable day. Earlier today I had a chance to speak with a group of architecture students at Cooper Union about Jane Jacobs, in the class of one of my scholar-heros, Joan Ockman. It was an amazing opportunity in part because my grandfather studied architecture at Cooper Union about a hundred years ago. And he almost certainly visited this beautiful building— all of which together makes for a particularly great day.
In my brief talk this evening, I’d like to reflect on Jane Jacobs’s legacy, in part by asking, How do we understand her now?— both after the passage of time and now that we have a new book or two about her. Is there a new Jane Jacobs now? And is there a Jane Jacobs yet to be discovered—and to be learned from in new ways?
I am certain that there is.
To explain why, I’d like to share with you some of my discoveries about her life and work, and some of my intentions in writing Becoming Jane Jacobs— discoveries and intentions that I believe offer some new understanding of not just her life and work, but her experiences and ideas, and, perhaps most importantly, the development of those ideas.
I’ve been a student of Jane Jacobs for the better part of twenty years. I first encountered her in the mid 1990s as an architecture student at Harvard Graduate School of Design—the place where she had made a historic speech forty years earlier. When I was there, there was no recollection of that event. In fact, the moment that I decided to study her thinking and influence—and The Death and Life of Great American Cities in particular— was when I realized that she hadn’t even been mentioned in my architectural history course covering the period, and the great transition from Modernism to so-called Postmodernism. This led me to write my first paper on Jacobs in a course concerned with Architecture and Democracy [with Hashim Sarkis]—and this evolved into my graduate thesis in 1999, the first of three drafts, or versions, of my book. You can say that I have been writing that same term paper for about two decades.
At the outset, my particular obsession was with Jacobs’s place in architectural and urban history and theory. In those years, the post-war, post-modern period was seen to have been launched in 1966 with treatise by the architect Robert Venturi titled Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture—a book, now celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, which was also especially concerned with cities and urbanism. In reading it, I became very interested in how Venturi’s central conception of complexity corresponded with Jacobs’s understanding of it. And a few things surprised and even shocked me.
First, although I discovered that Jacobs had immediately made some impact on architecture culture in the 1960s (even at Harvard, despite having criticized the school by name), contemporary scholarship had barely considered her influence—in part because so little was known about the sources and development of her ideas.
Second, in a much bigger context, as first discussed in my thesis and later in a 2006 publication, Jacobs’s pioneering application of the science of complexity to cities and urbanism was largely missing not only from the histories of cities, but from histories of science. Jacobs was one of the first people to take complexity science out of the sciences. It is a contribution that merits further consideration more than fifty years later, especially in our digital world, where we increasingly hear talk of technology-driven “smart cities.”
Jacobs invited me to her home in 1999. We spoke quite a bit about architecture and cities, and the then relatively new and provocative urban design approach called the New Urbanism. We didn’t talk much about the past, or her past. You see, Jacobs never wanted a biography and had instructed her longtime publisher to not cooperate with such efforts. And at the time I was more concerned with her late 20th century legacy and contemporary extensions of her ideas.
But at some point, as convinced as I was about the historical significance of The Death and Life of Great American Cities— I wanted to understand where the book, and its ideas, had come from.
I simply did not believe the myths and stereotypes. I did not believe that someone, a so-called “housewife with no college degree,” no matter how brilliant, could write one of the most important books ever written on cities, an enduring book that connected complexity science and cities for the first time, while taking care of three children, just by watching life go by on Hudson Street from her kitchen window. To me, it just didn’t add up.
In a very brief autobiography, published in 1962, soon after Death and Life was released in the fall of 1961, Jacobs mentioned freelance writing, two years at Columbia University, and something of her early writing career. She mentioned working for the Office of War Information and on a magazine published by the State Department called Amerika Illustrated, and then at a magazine called Architectural Forum, where she wrote about hospitals and schools. At some point, she wrote the widely read 1958 essay titled “Downtown is for People,” which gained the Rockefeller Foundation’s attention and grants, leading to her book.
Although this account did, more or less, add up, and was accepted for forty years as enough to explain where Death and Life had came from, it seemed to me that there must be more to the story. I mean, how often does a major foundation give major grants to people on the basis of one single magazine article? What were her sources? Any close reading of Death and Life shows it to be about much more than Hudson Street. How did she know so much? And what happened in the process of writing it? Jacobs said that she initially wanted to write a number of magazine articles, but that these became the first few chapters of a total of twenty-two. What experiences and knowledge were needed to make up another book’s worth of chapters? And what about such experiences, not mentioned in her short account, as giving lectures at places like Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania?
By 2006, I was able to offer a better explanation of Jacobs’s experiences before writing Death and Life. By that time, I had decided to go back to school to continue the research started in my thesis as a doctoral dissertation. I now had training as a historian and a much deeper knowledge of architectural and urban history; and I had spent a lot of time at the Rockefeller Foundation’s archives, the archives of Jacobs’s boss, Douglas Haskell and Architectural Forum, the New York City Housing archives, and the New-York Historical Society archives, among others.
What I discovered absolutely amazed me. As I explained in a long article published a few weeks after her death, Jacobs’s grant to write The Death and Life of Great American Cities had been part of a much larger academic initiative to develop new knowledge about cities. This foundation research initiative not only put her in close contact with the most notable architects, city planners, and urban theorists of her time, the research program itself had no less an ambition than to help create the new field of urban design. This made Jacobs a pioneer of a whole new field of study— indeed a remarkable accomplishment for someone without a college degree.
I discovered not only that the Rockefeller Foundation regarded Jacobs as "the next Lewis Mumford," I came to understand why. I discovered that Jacobs had not had a minor role at Architectural Forum. Although I did not yet understand how someone could be hired in a senior editorial position based on what she had said of her prior career, I discovered that she had done a lot of writing for the magazine and had covered urban redevelopment and renewal in many cities. Not only was her intellectual geography much broader than Greenwich Village, or even New York, the depth of her experience with the subject was much greater.
In reading this previously unknown body of work, I came to realize two things.
One, when people said Jacobs had done little writing before Death and Life, they were wrong. Although much of her prior writing that I found had been published without a byline, I learned that she had made a name for herself as one of the best writers on cities in the country even before “Downtown is for People.” [Before she became known by the elite group of attendees at the 1956 Harvard Urban Design Conference, Douglas Haskell considered her the best writer on cities at Forum—which is why she attended the conference in his place.]
Two, I learned that not only had Jacobs’s ideas about urban redevelopment evolved, she had been directly influenced in her thinking about cities, positively and negatively, by a long list of notable people with whom her contact was previously unknown. I learned that Jacobs had once idealized the field of city planning and had supported urban renewal, and I could thereby trace the evolution of her thinking, before and through the writing of her great book.
Another series of discoveries allowed me to understand how Jacobs came to be hired into that senior editorial role at a major magazine. In Jacobs’s federal employment records and FBI files, which documented an extensive multi-year investigation of her during the McCarthy era (which I first wrote about in the book Reconsidering Jane Jacobs), I learned that Jacobs had been developing her writing career in a serious way all through the 1940s. I found articles that she had written for the magazine The Iron Age, freelance newspaper articles, and most importantly, that during her work for the Office of War Information and the State Department, she not only rose to the level of editor-in-chief of Amerika Illustrated, she had written about architecture, cities, and urban redevelopment for that magazine, already before Architectural Forum. In fact, I found that, in 1950, she wrote what seems to be one of the most comprehensive articles of the time about the history of US housing and urban redevelopment published anywhere.
So what I had discovered was an unknown Jane Jacobs. A Jane Jacobs whose first book was called Constitutional Chaff and published in 1941. A Jacobs whose career had developed over many years before Death and Life. A Jacobs who was in contact with some of the most notable figures in architecture, urbanism, and academia of her time, who influenced and in a number of important cases supported her work. A Jacobs whose ideas about cities evolved over time, even while writing Death and Life. A Jacobs who directly contributed to developing the fields of urban design and architectural criticism. A Jacobs whose writing and activism grew together. And a Jane Jacobs whose conscious ambitions and qualifications for her book were much greater than we have given her credit for.
I have sought, in other words, not only to explain where The Death and Life of Great American Cities came from and to provide a foundation for understanding the books that followed—but to try to explain how Jane Jacobs became Jane Jacobs.
As a synthesis of many years of work, in Becoming Jane Jacobs I presumed a very high level of intelligence of my subject, and also of my readers. I’ve sought to dispel a list of stereotypes and myths—some based on sexism and other prejudices, some emerging out of hero-worship, and some stemming from ideological biases. I have sought to show what was contextual and what was original in her thinking. I placed Jacobs’s story in the context of the story of American cities to show how her thinking related to larger changes in thinking over the course of the 20th century. And, by showing that even Jane Jacobs could be swayed by certain seemingly compelling ideas, I suggest that we can be more like Jane Jacobs by being rigorously critical of our own beliefs and biases.
In conclusion, I must say that neither Becoming Jane Jacobs nor Eyes on the Street will be the last books written about her. There are other books that need to be written. There needs to be a book written about Jacobs’s economic thinking—and probably by someone with deep knowledge of economics. There needs to be a book about the moral and political philosophy that she discussed in Systems of Survival—and by someone with deep literacy in philosophy and political science. And after those two books have been written, there needs to be another overarching analysis of her thinking.
In these efforts, my hope is that future writers will be guided by the words of the 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal, which have long guided me in my writing. As Pascal said:
“A good portrait can only be made by reconciling all of our contradictory features, and it is not enough to follow through a series of mutually compatible qualities without reconciling their opposites. To understand an author’s meaning, all of the contradictory passages must be reconciled.”
Thank you. I look forward to our discussion.
[Prior publications can be found at clemson.academia.edu/peterlaurence.]
A recently published biography has contributed to the myth that Jane Jacobs was inattentive to issues of race. A book reviewer in the Literature Review of Canada wrote, "Her inattention to racism, whether in the form of American housing markets or in official policies like redlining, is well known—at least within the academy, and it was noticed before Death and Life was published."
These confidently made assertions are wrong. Similarly, the source of the assertions, author Robert Kanigel's claim in Eyes on the Street that Jacobs believed that discrimination against "Negroes" was little different from those of other slum populations and "that was about it" is incorrect and misleading. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs wrote about segregation, discrimination, and racism, with special attention to African-Americans, on multiple occasions and in various ways. She called racism "our country's most serious social problem" (p. 71). She spoke of Americans' "tendencies toward master-race psychology" (p. 284). She wrote of housing discrimination, noting that "colored citizens are cruelly overcrowded in their shelter and cruelly overcharged for it" (p. 274). She wrote of credit "blacklisting" (aka redlining), the denial of mortgages and business loans (pp. 299–300). In fact, as early as 1945, in a short history of the United States written for foreign readers when she worked at the Office of War Information, she honestly observed, “The nation’s 13,000,000 Negro citizens do not yet have full economic equality and opportunity" (Becoming Jane Jacobs, p. 296). And in Death and Life itself, she explicitly rejected the "Physical Fallacy," when she wrote, "I do not mean to imply that a city’s planning and design, or its types of streets and street life, can automatically overcome segregation and discrimination. Too many other kinds of effort are also required to right these injustices" (pp. 71-72). Unfortunately, Eyes on the Street has an entire chapter dedicated to Jacobs's alleged belief in "The Physical Fallacy."
As can be seen in two newspaper articles below— in one Jacobs is reported testifying to a US Senate subcommittee against the discriminatory banking practice now known as redlining (then "blacklisting"); in another she is seen protesting public school segregation— Jacobs not only wrote about these issues, she took action.
By comparison, we can look at the writing about race and ethnicity by one of Jacobs's contemporaries, Nathan Glazer. In the first edition of Beyond the Melting Pot, published in 1963, Glazer optimistically believed that "Negroes" would assimilate into middle-class American life in time, and in ways similar to other ethnic groups, such as the Irish, Italians, and Jews had done. He had very little to say about racism, structural or otherwise. By 1970, faced with criticism, his views had changed. In the introduction to the second edition of Beyond the Melting Pot (1970), he admitted that he had not been attentive to all of the issues. The point here is not to criticize Glazer (he already answered such criticism with the second edition of his book), but to point out that insofar as Glazer allegedly witnesses Jacobs's race-blindness in Eyes on the Street, the source is not what it seems to be from today's vantage point. Rather, in comparison, we should respect Jacobs's contributions to the discussion of structural racism, such as redlining (a topic recently revealed anew here in studies by urban historian Nathan Connolly), and her little-discussed observations and criticisms of the social and economic segregation at large in American society.
Nb. Look for an extended discussion of these topics, which also involves debunking the related myth that Jacobs was a "libertarian," in Becoming Jane Jacobs and a forthcoming 2018 special issue of CITIES journal.
Jane Jacobs made grown men cry on a number of occasions. During the battle to Save Washington Square, she hammered so hard on a fellow Greenwich Village Study committee leader about how a press release should be written that the man was reduced to tears. He was a good man, but a compromiser. She wasn't. When it came to saving Washington Square, or the West Village, or stopping the Lower Manhattan Expressway, she didn't compromise. She didn't try to be a "nice lady."
In a similar way, when one reads The Death and Life of Great American Cities, it is not easy to see the influence of people who helped Jacobs to write the book. Yes, there are people named in the acknowledgments, but she harshly criticized some, including Lewis Mumford and her one-time friend Catherine Bauer, within it. When writing the book, cities and intellectual differences about cities superseded sentimentality. She took their ideas down, despite the fact that they, along with a list of others little recognized, had written enthusiastic letters to recommend her book project for foundation support, aid she was probably aware of.
While Jacobs was no saint as a human being, nor was she a saint in ways more commonly suggested, in terms of having an all-seeing, supernatural intellect. As one would expect, her ideas, and her understanding of cities, evolved over time. Yes, in her very first published essays on the city, written while she was in her late teens, we can see the interest in the intersection of geography, history, inhabitation, and economics that characterized her life's work. However, in the early 1950s, when the nation was deciding between suburbanizing or modernizing its cities, she not only backed urban renewal, she wrote favorably about it. She praised city planning and suburban and urban redevelopment in ways she would unequivocally recant in Death and Life. As she wrote to a confidant in 1959, while she was writing Death and Life, she regretted beliefs she had held and things she had written some years earlier, feeling guilt for her personal involvement in the impact on cities. Part of the anger in her book was anger at herself for having believed in bad ideas about cities and planning.
As for writing Death and Life, a project that transformed from a modest series of articles into a volume meant to offer nothing less than a new "system of thought about the great city," the book was a struggle. Her ideas continued to evolve and develop as she wrote it. However, this does not change the fact that she had been following and writing about American urban redevelopment from at least the passage of the US Housing Act of 1949, a defining historical moment for cities, for many years, first, as I wrote in a 2007 obituary, for the State Department's Amerika, and then for Time Inc.'s Architectural Forum. And during this decade of learning, when she became recognized as one of the nation's most notable writers on cities (already before Death and Life), she absorbed ideas from many sources including those, once again, she later criticized. For example, in Death and Life, her criticism of Catherine Bauer and her comment, "Fry Bacon!," a delicious recollection of public sentiment about Philadelphia planning chief Ed Bacon, belies the positive influence that Bauer (for her criticism of various planning ideas) and Bacon (for ideas about urban redevelopment very similar to those she is now associated with) had on her thinking. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine her writing Death and Life without the experience she gained; the cities and projects she visited; and the people—architects, city planners, housers, city commissioners, and academics— she met and learned from during her years at Forum and as a Rockefeller Foundation grantee. The nineteenth-century "Great Man" theory of history, the story of godlike genius changing the course of the world without substantial effort, error, and the assistance of others, is no more true for Jacobs than other "Great Men."
As for being an ordinary mom, as she was recently described, Jacobs was both unconventional and a career woman. She spent her days and two decades in various office buildings as a professional writer; she spent her evenings and weekends in a home and neighborhood that even Jacobs herself then considered a slum. When many women stayed at home and lived in new homes in the suburbs, if not new apartments like those at Stuyvesant Town, she was hardly an ordinary woman of the 1950s. Yes, she had three children, but she also had hired help for childcare, which allowed her full-time work outside of the home, something completely unremarkable among households with two parents today. So when it comes to talking about someone who wrote one of the most important and enduring books ever written on cities, does it make sense to define her as an "ordinary mom," not just today but as an adult of the 1950s? And when was the last time you heard someone notable called "an ordinary dad"?
This was unsurprisingly commonplace in the Mad Men era. In 1962, Lewis Mumford, upset by Jacobs's rather unkind treatment, titled his New Yorker book review of Death and Life "Mother Jacobs' Home Remedies for Urban Cancer." And the title really says it all: Jacobs was a woman and her book was obsessed with what Mumford regarded as the particularly feminine concern of personal safety. Her best ideas were small-scale and domestic, the view of the street from the kitchen window. Big ideas were for the big boys: "We'll handle cities and their 'Urban Cancer,' Ma'am," was Mumford's unsubtle, paternalistic, and condescending message.
This week we saw a remarkably similar essay in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik, who told us he would "pay her the compliment of taking her seriously" by attempting to figure out what "rattled around inside" her head. Like Mumford, he says Jacobs is "obsessed with crime." And as in Mumford's piece, Jacobs, "St. Joan of the small scale," is described as being at her best when making "micro-observations" and not "biting off more than she could chew." Her thinking is described as "very simple," and limited to "street smarts," ostensibly in comparison once again to what the big boys do.
As a review of The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Jane Jacobs's lifework at the time of her centennial, it was truly Gopnik who bit off more than he could chew.
With regard to the background description of Jacobs's career, the facts are outdated. It is said that Jacobs came to her subject "very late... Only in the mid-1950s did she begin writing about urban issues and architecture, for Fortune [magazine]...." In ignoring the fact that Jacobs's first essays about the city were published when she was still a teenager, and dismissing her subsequent professional writing career, the point seems to retread a decades-old image of her as an uncredentialed housewife. As such, the essay differs little from those written by the likes of Ed Logue, whom Gopnik defends with equally anachronistic arguments, decades ago.
With similar glibness, an epoch of American urban history is casually handled. Robert Moses and the Lower Manhattan Expressway project are described as not so bad because they were typical of the era when there were equally bad people and projects elsewhere. Actually, they weren't; even city planning chiefs in other cities spoke of the "Bob Moses Approach." But the trauma wreaked by the Urban Renewal Administration and other massive historical forces, such as segregation and redlining, that defined the time when Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities are glossed over.
With eminent domain's compulsory sales and urban renewal's bulldozers long forgotten, the enduring impact Jacobs's writing on cities has made her the target of some specious arguments and dogwhistle attacks. In Death and Life, Jacobs wrote, "our country’s most serious social problem [is] segregation and racial discrimination"— among other notable observations on race, segregation, and discrimination. But today, the simple observation that she was white is meant to suggest something about her character. (Gopnik says Jacobs celebrated "her own privilege" and asks, "Are there black folks on Hudson Street?") Also sure to draw attention, Jacobs is described as a gentrifier because her West Village home became very, very expensive a half century after she bought it in the late 1940s. (Expect to see a new clickbait headline every time 555 Hudson Street goes on the market.) Nevermind that Jacobs was a pioneering theorist about city dynamics and gentrification at a time when people were leaving the city and it was more difficult than today to observe, let alone be concerned about. (Gopnik's discussion of her ideas about gentrification is flawed at best; her idea of "unslumming" was not to make a neighborhood "appealing to new settlers," and he misses her "self-destruction of diversity" concept.)
In a similar way, Jacobs is repeatedly criticized for missing "the big picture." Earlier in the year she was accused of having had nothing to say about infrastructure, as if streets and sidewalks, for example, and the space in cities given over to cars, had nothing to do with infrastructure. In Gopnik's essay, Jacobs is treated similarly. He grants her two important ideas, recognizing her principle about city streets as a network, not just infrastructure, and some aspect of her more complex concepts about diversity. But this is followed by a list of "big picture" critiques that may seem compelling to those who haven't read The Death and Life of Great American Cities lately and those who don't know too much about postwar American urban history. We are told that those massive urban redevelopment projects that Jacobs didn't like were needed to create lots of housing. (This was obvious to all who lived through the postwar housing shortage, and of course to Jacobs, who was part of a team to improve a public housing project in East Harlem, who later developed West Village Houses, and who wasn't simply against housing.) We are told that capital and markets influence cities. (Having written a couple books about cities and economics, Jacobs didn't need Gopnik to explain to her that, "The butcher and the locksmith on Hudson Street were there because they could make a profit on meat and keys.") We are told that self-organization isn't enough, that we need some centralized planning in the form of government and policies, difficult though their maintenance may be. (Jacobs wasn't a libertarian or anacharist, discussed new ideas for rent control and zoning among other "top-down" policies, and she had much to say about governing cities in Death and Life, including concepts for reforming city governance.) We are reminded that the conflicting demands of liberty and equality can't be easily resolved, and that politics isn't a ballet. (One of the twentieth century's great activists, Jacobs knew this perhaps better than anyone.) Finally, we are told that cities change over time. (Gopnik would like to convince us that because Death and Life was written in a time when people were leaving the city that her ideas do not hold up for a time when people are returning to it.) There is a hint in Death and Life's title that Jacobs thought about how cities change over time, and only those who can find only two big ideas in Jacobs's writing on cities could believe that she didn't think a lot about "the tragedy of time and change."
Jacobs received more than a few harsh reviews and "corrections" in four decades of book publishing. But Jacobs's centennial year has been an especially good opportunity to write some very shallow things about her. Jacobs was no "saint" and no "Great Man," but she was no "ordinary mom" either. Her books, The Death and Life of Great American Cities in particular, will be read long after today's quick-takes are forgotten. Gopnik is unsure if Jacobs had "a rich, original mixture of ideas or merely a confusion of notions decorated with some lovely, observational details." Time will tell.
[This editorial was originally published in The Architect's Newspaper.]
May 4, the centennial of Jane Jacobs’s birth, was a big day for her fans. Thanks in part to a Google doodle, Jacobs trended hard against Star Wars Day (#Maythe4thBeWithYou) and gained some new fans and readers; to the benefit of all interested in cities and urban design, sales of her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities spiked on Amazon.
May 4 was also a field day for Jacobs scholars and students, because it was an opportunity to see how her reputation has changed over the past five or six decades and whether new scholarship in the decade following her death has made any impact on this. It has been an opportunity, in other words, to observe how Jane Jacobs is deified and demonized, and how the Gospel of Jane is now interpreted.
In at least one overarching respect, little has changed in fifty years: Jacobs, playing the biblical David, is still frequently defined in opposition to a Goliath. When her great book came out, Goliath took the form of an amorphous beast called City Planning, which was then synonymous with Urban Renewal. In the Postmodern decades, it was Le Corbusier as the embodiment of modern architecture. Today, the monster is Robert Moses.
This is not new. “Bob Moses’s block-busting method” was criticized years before Jacobs wrote about it; Moses was already notorious and she didn’t need to say much about him in Death and Life. However, Moses’s shadow continues to loom over her, despite the fact that her true adversary was a leviathan composed of city halls, city planning and redevelopment agencies, real estate developers profiting from urban renewal policies, highway authorities, suburbanism, and public inertia. Among her major battles in Manhattan, Moses wasn’t behind the scheme to redevelop the West Village; and the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which received support from picketers who saw short-term gains in construction jobs, among others, was bigger than Moses and outlasted him. Fueled in part by the anger that activism took away from writing her second book, The Economy of Cities (1969), Jacobs described LoMEx as a beast that had to be killed three times, in 1962, ’65, and ’68, by which time Moses’s political power had been also fatally wounded.
Today, the Urban Renewal Administration and its regime, which she helped to kill, are long dead, and the field of city planning, which she helped to change, is a very different field than it was a half century ago. However, we glory in the story of heros and villains. Like the forthcoming opera about Jacobs and Moses, these can be subtle and beautiful works of art that help us to remember the past and introduce its history to a new generation. But the passage of time has also distilled Moses into a mythological figure, symbolizing all top-down planning and the whole complex but largely forgotten history of postwar urban renewal itself, making it appear that urban renewal was the work of an evil individual, rather than public policy driven by market forces, racism, and widely shared desires to live in suburbs and commute into cities. (The same has been done with Le Corbusier, as if he singlehandedly invented Modernism.)
Once a dualism is constructed (e.g. Jacobs vs. City Planning/Modern Architecture/Robert Moses), certain conclusions must follow and, because this is the way dualist mythologies work, if Moses represents top-down planning, large-scale infrastructure, and urban change, then Jacobs must represent bottom-up forces, anti-development, anti-change and NIMBYism, preservation, the small scale, and the domestic. Moreover, because a dualism is necessarily reductionist, today, in an era experiencing an urban renaissance that neither city planning theorists of the 1930s nor city dwellers of the 1970s could have imagined, Moses’s villainy reflects not only the success of Jacobs’s ideas, she is blamed for the excessive accuracy of her ideas.
A great observer and theorist of urban dynamics, it was not Jacobs’s idea to use historic preservation laws to turn cities into museums; her argument for old buildings had historical and esthetic aspects, but it was primarily concerned with the low-profit and no-profit activities and affordable housing that could take place in them, and it did not exclude new construction. Jacobs opened Death and Life with something simple and “small scale” for her readers, the lyrical “sidewalk ballet,” primarily to illustrate the ways that urban design can enable non-authoritative self-policing and contribute to urban safety, the foundation for any city life; after systematically discussing sidewalks, streets, blocks, parks, neighborhoods, and urban form in increasing scales, she concluded it with something conceptually beyond even the “large scale”: a discussion of the relationship of the history of science with urban history and theory, to which she made the unprecedented contribution of applying the nascent science of complexity to the study of cities. This was decades before chaos theory and non-linear dynamics developed in scientific circles. And while today “self-organization” has become some kind of truism, Jacobs understood well enough that people also self-organize into the suburbs and into more insidious forms of social organization.
Because an analysis of Jacobs’s legacy would be incomplete without a criticism, this week we also saw Jacobs accused of being a pioneering gentrifier because her Greenwich Village home and neighborhood, which she identified as a good place to live, increased dramatically in value, most substantially after she moved away. Ironically, Jacobs was not only a pioneering theorist of the dynamics of gentrification, she was an activist against urban renewal projects specifically designed to replace ethnic, working-class “slums” with middle-class and upper-income housing in Greenwich Village and elsewhere. Although she was a harsh critic of middle-class values, she is considered by some to be too bourgeois (while, contradictorily, others cheer, “Less Marc Jacobs, More Jane Jacobs”).
Jacobs has been accused of not having enough to say about race in a treatise about urban and suburban diversity, in which she discussed discrimination, racial and economic segregation, redlining, and spoke of American society’s “tendencies toward master-race psychology.”
And she has been made out to be an advocate of deregulation and apologist for “so-called ‘urban sprawl’,” despite warning against it as early as the late 1950. But her fights with city hall did not mean she was an anarchist or libertarian; she believed in democratic government free from financial influences, well-applied regulations (including zoning) and taxes, support for mass transit and other public services, and public intervention to counteract free-market forces that threatened city diversity and vitality. She was interested in metropolitan government, but understood that great cities were already terribly difficult to govern. Speaking of a city council members’ struggle with “problems which are out of the control of everyone,” she wrote, “These are not boys sent on a man’s errand. These are men sent on a superman’s errand.”
When Jacobs finished writing Death and Life, someone observed that it was a long book and suggested that she cut it back substantially to make it easier for the public to absorb. She recoiled, stating, “My own view is that this country is full of digesters, reviewers, and summarizers, and those who do not care to read a book as long as this will get some of the drift of its ideas through those means anyhow.”
Jacobs was right about this. There are many Jacobites today, both fans and critics. However, how and why Jacobs is praised and criticized is important. This past week was often a celebration of not only of myths, but cartoons and intellectual shortcuts, among them well-worn ideological pathways to predetermined destinations. Not only do these lead to funhouse mirror portraits of Jacobs (e.g., she was a libertarian), they lead to such slogans as “More Moses, Less Jacobs,” an invitation to despotism that reflects a dangerous historical amnesia, among other forms of ignorance.
We have come a long way from the sexist condescension of Lewis Mumford’s 1962 review “Mother Jacobs’s Home Remedies.” She was right about the death and life of cities; her ideas have prevailed and endured. But rather than think that we have reached “peak Jacobs” and that the best way to advance is to circle around to the other side of a false dichotomy, her ideas should be criticized for not going far enough in practice and theory. Her activism to improve car-dominated urbanism and suburban thinking, for example, must continue; there is no sidewalk ballet when there are no sidewalks. Meanwhile, the questions and theoretical paradoxes in her writing must be explored: How do we reconcile Jacobs’s concerns for residential tenure and neighborhood stability in a highly mobile society? How do we manage gentrification and other “self-destructions of diversity” in a capitalist framework? How do we challenge still prevalent forms of racial and economic segregation? How do we reform the governance of great cities? How do we advance cities in an age where nineteenth-century nationalism is still a prevailing ethos? How do we create new forms of knowledge about cities with complexity science without falling into the trap of scientific positivism that ensnared early modernists?
There are many good ways to celebrate and criticize Jane Jacobs. Cartoons and slogans aren’t the best ways—unless perhaps these include “More Jacobs, fewer slogans” or “Fewer slogans, more questions.”
WHY JANE JACOBS MATTERS NOW
On May 4, people around the world will celebrate Jane Jacobs’s 100th birthday— with lectures, walks, and other events. More events will follow throughout a centennial year that has already seen the premier of an opera about her and a rock show where she has a cameo, and which will soon see a new documentary film. This is well and good, and I will be giving some talks and joining some walks, too, because Jacobs was not only a legendary and inspiring activist—leading public campaigns to stop the construction of highways and the destruction of neighborhoods around her homes in New York and Toronto—she is generally considered one of the most influential urban theorists. Her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities is considered one of the most important books ever written about cities.
However, while I have spent many years studying how Jacobs, who didn’t even hold a college degree, came to write Death and Life—and although I am now at work on a second volume about Death and Life itself—I often think that it is Dark Age Ahead, the last of Jacobs’s seven major books, that deserves the most attention today.
Dark Age Ahead, published in 2004, when Jacobs was 88, is not her “best” book. This would have to be Death and Life, which, a half century later, continues to inspire research, such as a recently published and widely circulated paper that uses mobile phone data to test her theories of urban vitality. Next on my list would be her fascinating book Systems of Survival, which, inspired by Plato’s Republic, investigates the moral systems that undergird well-functioning societies. Others might argue that The Economy of Cities or Cities and the Wealth of Nations must be recognized for their groundbreaking contributions to urban economics. By virtue of the impacts these books have had, it is hard for Dark Age Ahead to find a place of honor in her oeuvre. And, as I wrote in a review soon after its release, it was not as well written or edited as her other books. If not her “worst” book in this sense, it is probably among her least read.
But if Jacobs deserves all of these centennial celebrations, the slogans “What would Jane do?,” let alone “What would Jane say?,” and if her ideas have a strong track record of durability and validation, then it would behoove us to listen to her parting words.
Originally titled Caution: Dark Age Ahead, the book was a cautionary tale reframed almost as prophecy, without the modifier. In it, Jacobs argued how the increasing instability of five social pillars—families and communities; higher education; respect for science and scientific thinking; governance and taxation; and trust in various institutions—might lead to the eventual collapse of North American, if not Western, civilization.
Seeking to discover the roots of “racism, profligate environmental destruction, crime, voters’ distrust of politicians and thus low turnouts for elections, and the enlarging gulf between rich and poor along with attrition of the middle class,” Jacobs discussed, for example, the growing costs of housing, childcare, and transportation; social and cultural isolation due to car-dependency; corporate monopolies’ attacks on public transit and electric vehicles; attacks on public, liberal higher education and the rise of the corporatized university, including the simultaneous growth of administrators and non-tenured faculty; the self-destruction of civil rights and other casualties of fundamental social values as part of the War on Terror; the failure of the Bush administration to act on the Kyoto Accord and the “unmistakable” melting of the Arctic ice cap; attacks on the integrity and evidence of science in order to advance corporate profits, pseudoscientific dogmas, and “poisonous” ideologies; the disconnection between governing bodies and local city needs; neoconservative tax cuts predicated on the beliefs that each public amenity and service should produce enough revenue to support itself and that the rich will invest in civic-minded, job-creating enterprises; foreign aid failures that promote instability and terrorism; and, finally, while this is only a partial list, the proliferation and increased scale of private (i.e., corporate) and public (e.g., police brutality) corruption together with the increased scale and sophistication ofpublic relations spin-doctoring and image-making.
That is because in Dark Age Ahead Jacobs predicted the collapse of the housing market a few years after her book was published; the expansions of the prison-industrial complex and the War on Terror; the corporate and political attacks on climate science; the failures of police departments to police themselves; and the rise of neoconservative and neoliberal ideologies—among other things.
Jacobs certainly wasn’t the only person to observe or predict these social problems, any more than she was the only or first person to consider many of the individual ideas in Death and Life. For Dark Age Ahead, her sources were extensive, as they were for Death and Life. However, she was a skeptical and scientifically inclined thinker who sought to find patterns and understand underlying systems—a motivation that drew her, as I have written in my new book, to the nascent science of complexity decades before the butterfly effect or chaos theory became familiar terms. Just as she understood urban vitality in Death and Life as being composed of a relationship of key factors—including social and economic diversity; mixed functions; walkability; old, as well as new and rehabilitated, buildings; and concentrations of people and activities—in her last book she cautioned us to study the “dark age patterns” that beset previous civilizations and empires, and those that now threaten our own.
As a historian who has written extensively on the 1950s, the postwar decade leading to Jacobs writing Death and Life, it is still shocking for me to think that she lived to see the Twin Towers fall. But Jacobs was deeply affected during her life by the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the early environmental movement, and other notable social, political, and economic events of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Jacobs, famous for her keen eyes, observed a great deal in her lifetime.
Yes, Jane Jacobs fought Robert Moses and the Urban Renewal regime. Although these battles have become the stuff of legend, insofar as historical amnesia is a threat to civilizations (a theme in Dark Age Ahead), it is good we remember this history. But Moses and the Urban Renewal Administration are long dead. In order to become more like Jane Jacobs and help save our cities, if not our civilization, we should heed her warnings and fight our present-day enemies—which, as much as top-down forces, may include our own lack of vision, lack of action, and habits of behavior and thought.
I'm grateful for early interest in Becoming Jane Jacobs and for the opportunity to talk about the book. Here are some recent and upcoming talks. I will update the list from time to time.
NYC: Thurs. Jan. 28, 6:30pm. NYC Department of Records, "Creating a History of LoMEx," a conversation with Karrie Jacobs, Judd Greenstein and Joshua Frankel (composer and director of A Marvelous Order: An Opera about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs), and Jack Tchen (New York University A/P/A Institute founder and co-curator of the exhibition on display, "In the Shadow of the Highway: Robert Moses's Expressway and the Battle for Downtown") • I missed this event due to a death in the family, and thank all who attended. I was able to chat with Bob Hennelly from WNYC the following week at the Archives.
Asheville: Sat. Feb. 27, 7pm. Malaprop's Bookstore & Cafe.
Charlotte: Tues. Mar. 8, 5:30. Civic by Design Forum, at the Levine Museum of the New South.
NYC: Wed. May 4, 6:30. "Jane Jacobs's 100th" at The Skyscraper Museum.
Asheville: Thurs. Sept. 15. "Jane Jacobs Life and Work," a conversation with Annie Butzner (Jane Jacobs's niece), and Linda Giltz, at the American Planning Association North Carolina chapter annual conference.
San Francisco: Tue. Sept. 27. "Jane Jacobs and the Digital City," a conversation with Jennifer Light (MIT), Jennifer Pahlka (Code for America), Nicholas de Monchaux (Berkeley Center for New Media), and Allison Arieff (SPUR), at SPUR.
New Orleans: Fri. Sept. 30. "Jane Jacobs's Attack on Suburbanism," Southeast chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians annual conference.
NYC: Thurs. Oct. 6, 6:30pm Jane Jacobs Centennial Lecture, Museum at Eldridge Street with author Robert Kanigel
Chicago: Sat. Oct. 15 "How the City Works: Jane Jacobs and the Functional City," from a panel with Sandy Zipp, Glenna Lang, Jennifer Hock, and Tim Mennel, "The Working Urban," Urban History Association annual conference
Boston: Thurs. Nov. 17, 5pm. Boston College, co-hosted by the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics and the Corcoran Center for Real Estate and Urban Action, Carroll School of Management
Charlottesville: Sat. Nov. 19 "The Possibility of Work and Place," from a panel on Cities and New Work: Local Economies and their Limits, "The Modernity of Work and Place: Jane Jacobs and the Design of the 21st Century City," University of Virginia, Nov. 18–19, 2016
Stockholm: Wed. Nov. 23 "Becoming Jane Jacobs" at "From Sidewalks to Systems of Survival, Jane Jacobs at 100," KTH Stockholm
Jane Jacobs's ambitions for The Death and Life of Great American Cities were substantially greater than has been commonly understood. While writing the book, she described her goal as nothing less than creating a new "system of thought" about the great city. Elsewhere she explained that, "What I would like to do is to create for the reader another image of the city, not drawn from mine or anyone else's imagination or wishes but, so far as this is possible, from real life; an image more compelling to the reader than the abstractions, because he is convinced it is truer."
Jacobs contrasted her "image of the city" to then commonplace images of the old, inhuman city and the modern, rational city meant to rebuild it from the ground up. She was also aware, even before she started to write Death and Life, of Kevin Lynch's studies of the image of the city; an early draft of Lynch's book was in circulation in 1958 and Jacobs made reference to this in her blockbuster article "Downtown is for People," in April of that year. Not long after that, the Rockefeller Foundation, which supported Lynch's book project, granted Jacobs support for hers. In 1960, while still at work on Death and Life, Lynch's Image of the City was published and Jacobs remarked that his book was "reassuring to me, and I have learned from it too."
I will be speaking today about Jacobs and the image of the city at SACRPH2015, the 16th national conference on planning history, hosted by the Society for American City and Regional Planning History.
Last night I had the pleasure of attending the preview of A Marvelous Order, the opera about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. For good reasons people have been spreading the word—"There's an opera coming about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs! There's an opera coming..." The drama of two larger-than-life, mythic, much debated figures with operatic lives. The Hudson Street Ballet. New York City. The eternal struggle between individuals, with their capacities for collective action and emergent decision-making, and the power brokers, with their capacities to affect change without consensus. There are many dramas here—including one as fundamental as the different natures and attractions of the city and the country—that transcend a tale of Jacobs versus Moses.
The preview event opened with a screening of director and animator Joshua Frankel's Plan of the City, which is an excellent introduction to the team, including composer Judd Greenstein and the NOW Ensemble, and their visual, musical, and conceptual sensibilities. Plan of the City is driven by its playful animation and music with a surrealistic narrative that can be interpreted in various ways. However, the ode to The City (NYC), and cities at large, is unmistakable. In the film, the protagonists take (or follow) the city into the deepest wilderness. With echoes of Madelon Vriesendorps' paintings for Delirious New York, Plan of the City is a love story. A Marvelous Order is a similar story: "a love triangle in which Moses and Jacobs vie for the affections of the City."
Add to The Plan of the City a libretto by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Tracy K. Smith and you have the potential for something marvelous. In the preview's first scene, Smith brings the Hudson Street ballet to life in song. There is Jacobs, player and audience member of the street's daily, informally staged production, and then Mr. Lofaro, the fruit seller, makes his appearance, followed by Mr. Koochagian, the tailor, and the spontaneously choreographed cast of other characters. We have been waiting a half century for Smith and A Marvelous Order's team to animate Jacobs's lyrical description of city life. The title appropriately comes from Jacobs's description of the ballet, which, although she was careful about her use artful, metaphorical language in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (lest precise and practical observations be obscured), Jacobs clearly relished writing, and would no doubt have been delighted to see performed. Her stage notes were detailed: "Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order... This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance—not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole." Of course, Jacobs's lyricism was not art for art's sake, but, like the rest of Death and Life, a calculated attack on ideologies of control and panoptical renderings of the city seen from above, where people, if present at all in these images of the city, were blurred out along with the surfaces, textures, and rituals of daily life.
Scene two was a surprise. Here is a young Robert Moses discovering the land that he will shape into Jones Beach, a public place for people, children, families, and mothers (an emphasis on mothers, anticipating something to come). Brilliantly sung and performed (one of my companions, a long-time Glimmerglass diehard, wholeheartedly agreed), the scene has a haunting beauty compared to the brightness of scene one, but Moses's relationship to the land and the public is portrayed with a deep sensuality that enriches the story and the drama tremendously. Resisting the urge to make Moses a cartoon villain is honest in various ways. Although now inefficiently overwhelmed by cars, the bridges and highways that he built are still necessary for the city, and used by millions. Moreover, insofar as Jones Beach stands in for our connection to nature in the form of greenery, the expanse of sky and sea, and the great outdoors, it represents the suburban impulse that drew so many away from cities over the past half century, and where so many choose to dwell. Jacobs's greatest contribution could be described as her attack on suburbanism's invasion of the city and most minds (even the urban-minded). But she liked to cultivate a garden too, and the street tree in front of her house, which she and her son planted, was practically a member of the family. As Tracy Smith reminds us, Jacobs took pleasure in admiring Mr. Koochagian's plants. "This place is an oasis," Jacobs sings.
Did I mention that Bjarke Ingels was there? He has described his "Dryline" plan to protect Manhattan from storm surges and perhaps sea level rise as "the love-child of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs." It is a description eliciting misdirected cringes. Until we can significantly improve our patterns of transportation and development—and active streets with ample sidewalks and street trees are part of that—we are all Moses's and Jacobs's children, and more often take after the father more than the mother.
When I teach architectural history and theory of the premodern period, I begin with the Middle Ages. One could start with the Renaissance and the early modernism of Alberti, but this would be to omit the revolutionary significance of the Gothic and its long-running contest with classicism, which, despite Alberti's attempt to supplant the Gothic with the Classical, lasted well into the 20th century (before both were eclipsed by modern architecture as we know it, or think of it). To start with the early modern period would also be to omit the rebirth of European cities following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the rise of European city-states, the co-developments of globalization, capitalism, and the merchant middle class, and, according to Henri Pirenne (an author of particular interest to Jane Jacobs), the development of Western democracy, not to mention the pre-Renaissance social foundations of Renaissance humanism.
With all that in mind, the proliferation of supertall and superslim skyscrapers in New York and London makes me think of this image of medieval Lucca. In the walled cities of the time, growth was also vertical, pushed skyward by capital, and towers sprang up in great numbers. In The Florentine Magnates, Carol Lansing writes that "Most Italian communes by the late twelfth century were forests of narrow stone towers: Benjamin of Tudela, visiting Pisa in the 1160s, estimated the number of towers there at a dramatically improbable 10,000. In 1100, Florence probably contained only a handful of towers; by 1200 the city's skyline was jammed with more than 150, some ranging as high as 250 feet." Lansing explains that there were residential towers and military towers, some owned by families and some by corporation-like federations of shareholders. Military towers were for family and clan defense in the medieval cities' internecine urban warfare, where neighborhoods and, as in Lucca, quarters battled for control of the city. As today, the towers were symbols of wealth and power. In this case, however, height meant might: "The height of a tower was critical," write Lansing. "If your tower was higher than that of your neighbor, you could rain things down on his head."
Fast forward to the early 20th century. In 1929, the authors of the Regional Plan of New York wanted to see the city transcend its "medieval" qualities with more skyscrapers and land use regulations that would provide more space for them. "In spite of the great changes that have come over cities in connection with the development of vehicular transportation and steel construction, and of the imminence of new changes as a result of the development of the airplane, much of what may be called ‘medievalism’ persists in the modern city," they wrote. "Skyscrapers are as modern as the motor car. Their influence has been great but has really only begun to be felt."
Heading to DC and the Society for US Intellectual History annual conference on Thursday to talk about (Becoming) Jane Jacobs and the intersection of ideas and esthetics in the mid 20th century. Historian Casey N. Blake (son of Jacobs's colleague, the architect and author Peter Blake) is session chair.