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Works of social criticism often do not wear well, and even the best of them tend to fade in interest by their fiftieth birthday. Either the tools of analysis change, or the conditions being analyzed, and very often both. Once-essential works become strictly historical documents, artifacts giving some insight into the world of their own time, but with little or nothing to say about ours.

William H. Whyte’s 1956 The Organization Man, for example, provides some insight into the corporations of its own time, but not into corporate environments it could never have anticipated, such as today’s flat organizational structures, with their fluid job descriptions, telecommuting, extensive outsourcing, and the like. Indeed, its enduring importance may lie less in its empirical accuracy than in the summum malum it was taken to describe, the horror of conformism—the silent justification for that diamond-stud piercing or subtle tattoo or pony-tail by which today’s businessman or professor tries to reassure himself that he is still a man born to be wild.

Likewise, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) was important and influential in its day, but today’s reader is more likely to notice such eccentricities as an astonishing chapter arguing that the postwar suburban home was “a comfortable concentration camp” that aimed at the “progressive dehumanization” of women. More generally, one is likely to be struck by the extent to which the book addresses itself to a world of male–female relations and childrearing that has been, for better or worse, consigned to the past, as vanished as the code of chivalry—although preserved in Freidan’s book as (like Whyte’s conformism) a summum malum ever to be guarded against.

The two books are more cited than read. The same cannot be said, however, of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a 1961 book that still enjoys a large and devoted following after fifty years, because its readers find it just as rich and stimulating now as when it was published, and because it addresses itself to problems that are still very much with us. Jacobs stuck an audacious thumb in the eyes of arrogant top-down planners, clueless modern architects, and ignorant bureaucrats, and offered a vote of confidence in the superior power of spontaneous order, which for her meant the ability of ordinary people to fashion a satisfying form of urban life without the “help” of the accredited experts.

Her book was refreshingly un-abstract and densely empirical, built upon an accumulation of lovingly rendered details about what works and doesn’t work in modern city life. Despite the withering contempt of experts and allies alike—even the architectural critic Lewis Mumford, letting his unfortunate susceptibility to vanity get the better of him, could not resist dismissing Death and Life as a “preposterous mass of historic misinformation and contemporary misinterpretation” assembled by “a sloppy novice”—this unaccredited journalist-mother, with no college education, no training in planning, and no institutional support, wrote a book that would change the way the world thinks about cities.

Vogue crowned her “Queen Jane,” but she was more of a populist and libertarian. Where others saw in a bustling lower Manhattan street only a welter of uncontrolled, uncoordinated, and therefore wasteful activity, she saw a miraculous “ballet of the sidewalks,” a complex and dynamic system of diverse and interacting human actions, wants, and needs being enacted and reenacted on a daily basis, without any direction or help from officious expert choreographers.

Even the humblest matters—the placement of sidewalks, the uses of front stoops, the virtues of old buildings and mixed uses, the presence of children, the need for short blocks and neighborhood parks, the protections of constant “eyes on the street”—attracted her attention. Death and Life is a compilation of odes to such things, and a persuasively detailed argument that their presence makes all the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful urban setting.

The density of the modern city, which urban visionaries such as Le Corbusier and Mumford saw as a problem to be solved through dispersion, she saw as an asset to be jealously guarded, one of the necessary conditions for urban flourishing. Urban concentration made for “a great and exuberant richness of differences and possibilities,” Jacobs asserted, adding that many of these differences were “unique and unpredictable and all the more valuable because they are.” The “celebration of diversity,” a phrase that has become one of the true wooden nickels of today’s American speech, was, for her, something vibrant and adventurous, an endless source of economic and social vitality, and she offered it as a counter to the dead hand of dehumanizing modernism that had come to dominate both architecture and the field of urban planning.

Her insights have become commonplace wisdom, particularly her disdain for the urban renewal movement of the postwar era, a well-intentioned but disastrous effort undertaken with all the arrogant blindness of which high-minded social engineers and visionaries are capable. Men like New York’s Robert Moses and Boston’s Edward J. Logue “knew” what was best for cities, including the urban poor, and in forcing it upon them, demolished countless acres of historically rooted neighborhoods in favor of ugly superhighways and grim, soulless housing projects surrounded by vacant, moonscape-like plazas, settings that ably reflected modernist design principles, but showed absolutely no understanding of the human preconditions for the urban ballet that Jacobs had described.

One does not romanticize the conditions of poor and marginal areas in acknowledging that they still sustained many elements of the ballet, and thereby the potential for eventual renewal, and did not deserve to be bulldozed in the name of something called “slum clearance.” Such wanton erasure of memory was arguably even worse than poverty, since it robbed the inhabitants of a relationship to their own past. But what made the displacement even worse was the abject failure of the megaprojects that were supposed to provide more habitable substitutes for the slums that had been bulldozed.

Jacobs drew freely on her own experiences of city life, and her famous description of the urban ballet was in fact a portrait of her own Greenwich Village street. It was fitting, then, that her ideas and convictions would be put to the test in her own neighborhood soon after the book’s publication, when a series of urban renewal projects, culminating in the proposed construction of the Moses-designed Lower Manhattan Expressway (Lomex), threatened to alter forever the face of her beloved Village. Journalist Anthony Flint relates the story of these clashes in an informative if somewhat breathless book, Wrestling with Moses, which shows what a fierce and effective activist Jacobs could be, and how seriously she took the tasks of citizenship. She led a grassroots citizens’ uprising against the projects, and won, setting a powerful example for future such expressions of resistance to developers.

But her vision had its limits. By basing Death and Life so heavily on her own Village neighborhood, the block of Hudson Street between Perry and West 11th Streets, she was not only composing a kind of love poem to her home, but putting forward the Village as the exemplar for modern urban life. And that went too far. Whatever its virtues, the Village was hardly a typical American urban neighborhood whose origins and inhabitants could easily be duplicated elsewhere. Indeed, the factors making Jane Jacobs’s neighborhood what it was could not have been more unique.

To begin with, the Village had long enjoyed the peculiar good fortune of being cut off from the rest of the city by its physiognomy, as a motley but charming collection of narrow, diagonally oriented streets that resisted assimilation into the strict north–south grid dominating the rest of Manhattan. This fact made it easier for the Village to maintain a settled and residential character and a balance of ethnic and socioeconomic groups through most of the nineteenth century, a quietly stable and set-apart quality that more accessible neighborhoods, such as the Lower East Side, could not match. By the time sizable numbers of Italian immigrants began moving into the neighborhood in the 1890s, drawn by tenements erected on its western and southern boundaries, its character had been fairly well set, and it managed in subsequent years to retain its easygoing pace and old-style appearance.

Yet the same influx of immigrants would also lead to a steady outflow of middle-class residents, and hence to a sharp decline in rents. This golden conjunction of circumstances made the picturesque Village inexpensive enough, for a time, to became a home for artists, musicians, writers, and all manner of impecunious but ambitious people who migrated to New York from all over America and the world in search of a liberated, high-powered life.

The Village soon became celebrated everywhere as a magnet for the talented and the bohemian, an American Left Bank that would become an endless source of literary and artistic lore: “We are free who live in Washington Square,” proclaimed the pseudo-revolutionary John Reed in a 1913 poem; “We dare to think as Uptown wouldn’t dare.”

The neighborhood had lost none of this ebullient and artsy quality five decades later, in Jacobs’s time, when it became known as the habitat of Beat poets and scruffy folksingers like Dave van Ronk, of Off-Off-Broadway and the Village Voice and the Village Vanguard and the Café Au Go Go and countless smoky coffeehouses. In fighting Lomex, Jacobs had the benefit of a protest song that had been composed for the occasion by her fellow Villager and van Ronk protégé, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. One might just as easily claim that this is a typical neighborhood as one might claim that this year’s entering freshman class at Harvard College represents a typical cross-section of American youth.

It need hardly be added, too, that the Village is a very different place now from the hospitable but inexpensive retreat from morally pinched Middle America that beckoned to John Reed and other Greenwich Village intellectuals, free spirits, and wannabes a hundred years ago, or from the fabled place, with streets named Bleecker and MacDougal, where young would-be musicians and artists came to make it big in the fifties and sixties. In 2009, Jane Jacobs’s beloved home at 555 Hudson Street went on the market for $3.5 million, prompting the following headline in the New York Observer: “Jane Jacobs’ Old Hudson Street Townhouse for Sale in West Village Jane Jacobs Probably Wouldn’t Have Wanted to Live In.”

The accompanying article went on to quote residents who tell sad tales of displacement, failed businesses, and astronomically high rents. “Bleecker Street is a mall now,” sighed one of the few remaining independent businessmen, an antiques-shop owner. “They’ve ruined the Village, as far as I’m concerned.” Today’s Village is often held up as a poster child for the dreaded ravages of “gentrification,” but it is more than anything a victim of its own success, meaning its own lore and notoriety, and the unique desirability of the very features Jane Jacobs worked so hard to preserve.

But one must also insist that the appeal of the Village as a place to live, even as it was in Jacobs’s time, is far from universal. Not everyone wants to live that way, nor enjoys stepping out their door into an urban ballet every morning. The suburbs, for all of the relentlessly bad press they have received for the past fifty years, seem to have lost none of their appeal for the great majority of Americans, particularly those trying to raise families on middle-class incomes. The New Urbanists and others inspired by Jacobs’s work have enjoyed little success so far in creating environments that meet their high aesthetic standards while remaining affordable for ordinary people. That does not mean they never will.

But the immense value of Jacobs’s broader vision should not be confined to the particulars in which she expressed it. Her understanding of the goods of natural human communities, and her insights into the importance of freedom and choice in the making of decent human habitations, should not be tied down to particular configurations of narrow streets, short blocks, and high density. One should acknowledge the obvious truth that the good life can be lived in a variety of settings.

The larger lesson to be taken from Jane Jacobs and her The Death and Life of Great American Cities is that the trick of intelligent and effective planning is not in prescribing and regulating everything in sight, nor in imposing new structures designed to remake human desires and aspirations, and pry Americans out of their automobiles. Instead, it is in the far more modest goal of creating sturdy and adaptable basic structures that respect and enable, rather than nudge and nanny, the free and spontaneous exercise of our human endowment, and our natural gifts of free association. It doesn’t necessarily take a Village to do that.

Wilfred M. McClay is the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a member of First Things ’ advisory council.

Photo by Jean-Christophe BENOIST via Creative Commons. Image cropped.