Ms. Jane – City Naturalist

This year of the Jane Jacobs centenary has brought us a documentary film and a few new books by and about the inimitable urban thinker.

Matt Tyrnauer tells of Jacobs’ showdown with Robert Moses in the new documentary: “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.” Owen Gleiberman, in his review of the film for Variety, puts the battle in a contemporary context, linking it to our recent election and referring to Moses as a Trumpian urban planner. You can read his review here.

In an article for The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik recollects his meeting with Jacobs toward the end of her life. He describes the aura of sainthood about her that comes from a radiant self-reliance and he talks about how she was able to hold two opposing thoughts at once, gaining admirers at polar opposite ends of the political and social spectrums. Gopnik gives a measured look at Jacobs’ influence, while providing a few things you may not have known about our favorite neighborhood watcher in: “Street Cred: What Jane Jacobs got so right about our cities—and what she got wrong,” The New Yorker, September 26, 2016.

Many of us are guilty of thinking of Jane Jacobs as an ordinary mom, who stumbled upon great insights into city life while fighting her neighborhood’s battles in New York City. But Jacobs was forty-five when she wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She had a whole life before that.

Fun facts about Jane Jacobs:

  • Her original name was Jane Butzner.
  • She staged a grade-school rebellion against pledging to brush her teeth. For this she was briefly expelled. She didn’t mind the brushing – it was the pledging.
  • She managed to avoid higher education.
  • She wrote propaganda for Amerika, a U.S. State Department publication distributed in the Soviet Union.
  • She was married to a nonconformist architect, Robert Jacobs.

While Gopnik has high praise for Death and Life, he finds fault with her later works. With Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jacobs may have bitten off more than anyone could hope to chew. When she moved away from the topic of city neighborhoods, she lost her expertise, he argues, but her confidence remained.

It would be interesting, if Jacobs were writing today, to hear her thoughts on the modern problems of many of our cities, based on overabundance rather than want. Gopnik makes the very good point, that if we are to provide affordable housing where it’s desperately needed, it probably wouldn’t look much like Jacob’s West Village. She may have been right about the natural order of cities and self-organizing systems, but self-organizing systems will not provide free streets and fair housing. That takes politics, and planning—more like a battle than a ballet.

Nathaniel Rich gives an expanded view on the legacy of Jane Jacobs in his essay for The Atlantic: “The Prophecies of Jane Jacobs,” November 2016.

Rich provides context for Jacobs’ theories of economics and democracy with a story of her early life experience in Higgins, North Carolina. Jacobs had written about Higgins in Cities and the Wealth of Nations and in Dark Age Ahead. What was once a thriving Appalachian hamlet, where residents prospered in a variety of businesses, had slid into a seemingly inescapable decline by the time Jacobs arrived. She carried the Higgins experience with her throughout her life and it drove her biggest fear—stagnation.

It seems obvious to us now that cities thrive on diversity, that public investment in transit reduces traffic, and that historic buildings should be preserved. But it wasn’t so obvious when Jacobs was writing in the 40’s and 50’s. Before then, these things were not even obvious to her. Her own thinking took years to evolve.

More fun facts about Jane Jacobs:

  • She wrote about New York’s fur, diamond, leather, and flower districts for Vogue.
  • Columbia University Press published her first book, Constitutional Chaff, when she was twenty-four. The book compiled the failed proposals from the Constitutional Convention of 1787, such as a third house of Congress.
  • In 1943, she wrote propaganda for the U.S. Office of War Information.
  • She was for slum-clearance, superblocks, and high-rise apartment towers before she was against them.
  • She was suspected (unfairly) by the federal government of un-American activities. J. Edgar Hover insisted on overseeing her investigation himself.
  • Before Death and Life, Jacobs had been writing about urban redevelopment for almost a decade for Architectural Forum, without a byline.
  • She was for city planners before she was against them: “the first-the most elementary lesson for downtown is simply the importance of planning.”
  • She was for shopping centers before she was against them, even calling for downtowns to model themselves after suburban malls.
  • Not surprisingly, she had never visited the cities she was writing about in those early days; she knew them from photos and blueprints.
  • She saw planners as “neurotic,” “destructive,” and “impossibly arrogant.” (She was, perhaps, not too far off the mark.)

Rich circles back to Higgins, North Carolina, in this article and relates its decline to our current political implosion: “One Higgins is dangerous enough for both its residents and the republic to which it belongs. But the nation’s Higginses have proliferated to the point that their residents have assumed control of a major political party.

Might be a good time to reread Dark Age Ahead while we’re at it.

Recent books by and about Jane Jacobs:

Becoming Jane Jacobs, Peter L. Laurence

Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, Robert Kanigel

Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations


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