"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.
[This edited talk was the basis of a further edited, expanded, and less biographical essay in a forthcoming publication.]