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Eyes on the Street
by robert kanigel
knopf, 496 pages, $35

Becoming Jane Jacobs
by peter l. laurence
university of pennsylvania, 376 pages, $34.95

Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations
by jane jacobs
melville house, 128 pages, $15.95

Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs
by jane jacobs
edited by samuel zipp and nathan storring
random house, 544 pages, $28

Jane Jacobs’s celebrated attack on modern city planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, has a chapter bafflingly titled “The Need for Aged Buildings.” At least it baffled me when a college professor assigned us the book. Were not old buildings the expression of dilapidation and decay, in effect the necrotic tissue of the city? That they were beneficial, let alone a necessity, seemed patently absurd. I happened to be fond of old buildings, but I regarded this as sentimentality on my part, much like the sentimentality in which Edward Hopper indulged when painting forlorn mansions and defeated storefronts.

But there was not a dab of sentimentality in Jacobs’s analysis. Every business, she explained, is a frail and delicate thing. It cannot sustain the high overhead of new construction; only certain categories of businesses can do that. “Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings.” This is why neighborhoods with a wealth of these older buildings are invariably livelier than those consisting of all new construction. They provide the most hospitable conditions for experimentation and risk-taking; they are the petri dish of community.

The story does not end there, for cities are living things. It is possible that a neighborhood can become so vibrant and successful that it draws in new buyers and new developers, whose competition leads to higher rent that eventually drives out the marginal businesses. At this point a certain homogenization sets in, and a once dynamic neighborhood loses the vitality that drew people in the first place, and so it chokes on its own success. At any given moment a healthy city has neighborhoods on the rise and on the fall; this is the anabolism and catabolism of biology, the balance of creation and destruction that together comprise metabolism. This, in a nutshell, is the evil of large-scale urban renewal. By comprehensively eradicating existing neighborhoods and replacing them with new construction, city planners were creating whole districts utterly incapable of generating the diversity that makes for healthy cities, neighborhoods sterile at birth.

Certain arguments are so convincing on their face that they instantly change how you think about the world. So it was with The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which I now see was the single most important book I read in college and the only one, nearly forty years later, from which I can recall extensive passages. Some influential books fade as their ideas become conventional wisdom, but Jacobs’s book remains as startling as when it appeared in 1961. For she not only accomplished her goal of discrediting modern city planning—which she did, smilingly, pitilessly, definitively—but she also permanently changed how we look at cities, their character and behavior. And not only in the United States. A year after reading the book, while studying on a Fulbright, I was tickled at having it assigned once again, this time as Tod und Leben großer amerikanischer Städte.

Last year was the centenary of the birth of Jane Jacobs (1916–2006), which was marked by the publication of two ambitious biographies, an anthology of essays, and a book of interviews. They face a considerable burden: to explain how a woman with no training in economics or architecture—without even a college degree (though she had taken a course in stenography and shorthand at a business college in Scranton)—could have written the most important book on the city to appear in the last century.

Jane Butzner was born in Scranton, a coal-mining city in northeastern Pennsylvania, where her father was a doctor and her mother a nurse. They must have been lovers of words, for Jane was already publishing quite respectable poetry in newspapers and small magazines at the age of eleven. But for all her precocious intelligence, she was a mediocre student, and if her curiosity was not aroused, she became restless and mischievous. She annoyed her teachers with her brazen indifference toward authority in any form—a trait evident in all her writing. It is notable that, to the end of her life, she turned down all offers of honorary degrees.

In the byline to one of her early poems, she claimed that her ambition was “to be a writer: first to be a newspaper reporter and later to do writing of other kinds.” And this is precisely what she did. After graduating from high school at sixteen, she went to work as a reporter (unpaid) for the Scranton Republican while simultaneously attending the Powell School of Business. Her parents were reluctant to let her move to New York until she was eighteen, and in 1934 they sent her to Higgins, North Carolina, a morbidly impoverished corner of the state where her mother’s sister ran a Presbyterian mission. Her six months there seem to have inoculated her against any temptation to romanticize rural life.

Robert Kanigel’s Eyes on the Street is particularly good at making vivid Jane’s early years, the weak spot in most biographies. Instead of glossing over her hardscrabble years as a secretary in Depression-era New York (usually as a temp worker), he shows that they were the crucible of her mature thought about the city. Between 1934 and 1943, she worked in all sorts of positions, and in all parts of New York: typist to a candymaker in Hell’s Kitchen; executive secretary to a steel distributor in Lower Manhattan; associate editor to a trade magazine called Iron Age (“they hired me because I could spell molybdenum”).

These secretarial stints paid the rent, or didn’t, but Jane kept her eyes open for things to write about. Even as she worked at different day jobs, it was with the alert detachment of a journalist. One job interview with a furrier turned into “Where the Fur Flies,” an in-depth report on Manhattan’s fur district for Vogue. The magazine was so delighted that it commissioned three more pieces covering the city’s leather, diamond, and flower districts. When she later wrote about the lush and constantly churning diversity of the economy of a city, she knew whereof she spoke.

If Jane was born to write about the city, she did not yet know it. In 1938, she began taking courses at Columbia University’s extension program, in geology and paleontology—natural subjects for someone who grew up among the intriguingly laminated strata of the anthracite coal region; later, following her curiosity, she moved through zoology, constitutional law, and economic geography. These wide-ranging interests, and her uncommon gift for explaining things clearly, brought her a position in 1943 with the Office of Wartime Information. Her job was to present the American point of view as clearly as possible to a foreign audience (something about which Kanigel is unnecessarily squeamish), and she continued to do the same after the war with Amerika, a glossy periodical aimed at readers in the Soviet Union.

In 1952, Jane Jacobs—who married the architect Robert Jacobs during the war—went to work as an editor for the professional journal Architectural Forum. It was something of a whim (and until the last moment, she considered working instead for Natural History), for despite her architect husband, she had no more understanding of architecture than any good journalist. But her decade spent in the offices of New York’s manufacturers and vendors, and another as a propagandist of American life, stood her in better stead than any technical training. Like all good journalists, she knew how to generalize intelligently, but in her case her generalizations were invariably informed by intimate and detailed personal knowledge about a vast array of enterprises. Those who knew her well were not surprised when she emerged as an architecture critic of unexpected subtlety and virtuosity.

Kanigel recounts a characteristic anecdote about Jacobs in the third grade. One day her class was exhorted to promise they would brush their teeth every morning and night, for the rest of their lives. Jacobs instigated a revolt. She persuaded her classmates not to promise—not because she was against tooth-brushing but because she was against making promises that were impossible to keep. For this she was expelled. As she would demonstrate in her later life, her moral forthrightness could not be resisted when it aligned with her pronounced contrarianism.

This was the case with The Death and Life of Great American Cities, whose origins can be found in Jacobs’s first foray into activism. She began her stint at the Architectural Forum as an uncritical supporter of modern city planning, and it took some years for her upbeat boosterism to curdle into a bitter skepticism. In 1954, the U. S. Housing Act set in motion America’s experiment in urban renewal. Its principles were essentially those pioneered by Le Corbusier in his shocking Voisin Plan of 1925, which proposed to demolish a vast swath of central Paris and replace it with a grid of isolated freestanding towers. By concentrating the population in towers taking up only 15 percent of the land, the remaining 85 percent could be devoted to parks. It was an enormously alluring vision, especially when the pure prismatic clarity of these towers was juxtaposed with photographs of gritty slums.

Even as Jacobs was inspecting the latest urban redevelopment projects in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, she unexpectedly came to feel its effects closer to home, at Washington Square, near where she lived in Greenwich Village. Washington Square was in the path of what was to be a sunken four-lane highway, on the model of the Cross Bronx Expressway. In 1955, Jacobs joined the fight to save the square, and so began her prolonged battle with Robert Moses, New York’s imperious city planner, who had yearned to reshape the square for twenty years. He was then at the swaggering height of his power, and was not easily thwarted. It would take three years of intense activism, in which she was joined by Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Mead, for her to vanquish an incredulous Moses. Her account of his outrage at her temerity has passed into legend: “There is nobody against this—NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY but a bunch of . . . a bunch of MOTHERS!”

Even had she not been personally affected, it is likely that Jacobs would have come to dissent from orthodox city-planning ideology. She spent too much time scrutinizing the particulars of city life to be taken in by glib displays of photographs. Showing the evolution of her thinking is the strength of Peter Laurence’s Becoming Jane Jacobs, which is more an intellectual biography than anything else. He takes us step by step through her swiftly emerging critique of urban renewal. Already by 1956, when she watched the unfolding of a massive and massively disastrous plan for East Harlem, she had come to believe that so-called slums were generally healthier and more humane than the superblock towers that replaced them. Two years later she received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to develop her insights into a book.

The ideas that Jane Jacobs brought together in The Death and Life of Great American Cities were in the air. Modern city planning was already beginning to lose its authority and prestige, and even if she had not made her frontal assault, it would have eventually collapsed of its own weight. Its golden age was the product of specific historical circumstances: first, the sense of urgency but also limitless potential that followed in the wake of World War I; next, the Great Depression, which made European ideas about planning and social housing seem relevant to an America that had been indifferent to them in the 1920s; then, the large-scale involvement of the federal government, which had grown massively during the Depression and World War II, and which now turned its attention to the problem of the city. But as slum clearance proceeded apace, and as historic neighborhoods gave way to austere ranks of concrete superblocks, architects and planners were already having second thoughts. Even Lewis Mumford, the most prestigious American thinker about the city, began to voice his doubts in the mid-1950s.

But Jacobs brought a personal perspective matched by no other critic. It was precisely because she was a generalist and not a design professional, and because she was immersed in the city, that she could grasp the invisible patterns and rhythms that are far more consequential than schematic diagrams of highways and housing blocks. Of course, this was the era of the organization man and of the cult of the expert, the professional with specialized knowledge. That knowledge was deep, but it was also narrow. And it was precisely Jacobs’s wide experience as a generalist, and her instinct for the kinetic interconnectedness of things, that made her such an effective critic of urban renewal. To write her book required no extensive technical expertise. Truth be told, anyone might have written it. Millions had passed through the financial district of Lower Manhattan and might have noticed its curious ebb and flow, the frenetic crowds at noon and five, and then “the deathlike stillness that settles on the district after five-thirty and all day Saturday and Sunday.” Or observed the difference in public safety on sidewalks that are monitored from countless windows and storefronts, and those that are not. Or they might have noticed that neighborhoods tend to decay from barriers and edges, such as railroad lines or highways, which inhibit pedestrian flow. But they did not, at least not consciously and certainly not systematically. To read Jacobs is to realize with a shock of recognition that I have seen these things; they were right there before my eyes, but I did not understand them.

It was precisely her status as an outsider, armed only with her eyes, that most outraged her enemies, and even her friends. Mumford, who had been an ally of Jacobs during her early years, was now irate at being displaced at one throw as America’s sage of all things urban. He spent a long time crafting a vengeful review, sneeringly titled “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies.” Robert Moses did not strain to be clever. “Sell this junk to someone else,” he wrote Bennett Cerf of Random House, returning his free copy. He also wrote that page 131—where Jacobs wrote “Robert Moses . . . has made an art of using control of public money to get his way with those whom the voters elect”—was “libelous.”

All this was to no avail. Seldom has a book ever achieved so thoroughly and swiftly its goal. “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding,” Jacobs wrote in the first sentence, and that attack was immediately successful. Within a year or two it became the conventional wisdom that city planners, heavy with Utopian hubris, had fundamentally misunderstood the city, mistaking a complexly functioning system of order for chaos, which they would replace with the schematic abstractions of the Radiant City.

Not all of the consequences of her success were happy, and the most unfortunate is one that Jacobs had not foreseen. Although she was hostile to the Utopian mission of urban renewal, she was by no means hostile to the idea of social responsibility on the part of architects. Indeed, the whole burden of her writing was that planners and architects must be motivated by an even greater sense of responsibility, tempered by respect for the largely invisible structures of human behavior that are the essence of a functioning city. Her message was first, do no harm; it was not do nothing at all. And yet this is the distorted lesson that architects and planners drew.

The development is traced by the sociologist Nathan Glazer, a friend of Jacobs who read early drafts of Death and Life and then spent the next half-century observing its consequences. In From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture’s Encounter with the American City (2007), he points out how the first generation of modern architects—that of Wright, Le Corbusier, and the Bauhaus—aspired to create normative types. Their designs for buildings and cities were intended as humane models of living, which were to be perfected and then replicated. But during the 1960s, as their successors came to see that the ambitious social engineering of urban renewal had backfired badly, architects extricated themselves not only from the messy business of creating Utopia but from any sense of social duty whatsoever.

The result is the architectural landscape of the present, where a cohort of celebrity architects achieves international recognition by cultivating instantly recognizable “signature” styles. Their goal is not the normative form but the individualistic. This is nothing more than the marketing operation that advertisers know as product differentiation and branding. From making Utopia to marketing is a mighty fall, which surely explains the sheepish way that architects have wrapped themselves in the language of theory, an unsatisfying surrogate for the language of civic virtue.

Death and Life secured Jacobs’s fame. Like Edward Gibbon, she did not need to write a second book. But like many writers who achieve success with one great book, she tried to repeat her success. She followed it up with Economy of Cities (1969), her ambitious and highly idiosyncratic meditation on the origin of cities. The commonly understood model is that agriculture came first, which for the first time gave hunter-gatherers a reliable food surplus, which in turn freed the population to specialize and to produce the rich culture that is the product of urban life. Jacobs, with characteristic contrarianism, inverted the model. She pointed out that crops cannot be cultivated by a mobile society of hunter-gathers. Only a sedentary population can observe the mutations in plants necessary for turning a wild plant into a cultivar.

Jacobs pointed to the newly discovered ten-thousand-year-old Anatolian town of Çatalhöyük, whose economy seems to have been created by control of nearby deposits of obsidian, a prehistoric necessity for making sharp, durable blades. From this she devised the imaginary story of the world’s first city, which she called New Obsidian. It began as a mercantile entrepôt where a roving population settled and discovered that they could trade its mineral wealth for food and other goods brought by nomadic tribes in need of obsidian. From this single good there ramified a series of supporting trades and industries, and then a market in luxury goods, a Paleolithic version of the fur, diamond, and leather districts she had profiled for Vogue in the 1930s.

The Economy of Cities met with intense disapproval on the part of archaeologists who read her account in an excessively literal way. In a sense, it was a polemic, a defense of the idea of the city as a place of exchange—both of goods and of information. By the time it appeared, Jacobs was no longer living in the United States. In 1968, she startled her friends when she moved without warning to Canada, in order to protect her teenage sons from the draft during the Vietnam War. She lived there for the rest of her life, an international star who continued to live modestly, dress frumpily, and write acerbically. Toward the end, she turned pessimistic. Her last book, published in 2004, was a sweeping and mournful survey of modern society that she called Dark Age Ahead.

The looming dark age was heralded by the collapse of five pillars of society. First came the nuclear family, the building block of community, which teetered as the divorce rate rose and the birth rate declined and the median-income American family suddenly found itself unable to purchase the median-price house. Second and third were the collapse of higher education (into mere credentialism) and the abandonment of science. Fourth was the collapse of an accountable tax structure, which she traced throughout history as a portent of social collapse. Where the tax power was once concentrated in the city-state, it was now largely vested in a remote federal government, which was essentially inaccessible; local authorities collected only negligible taxes. Here Jacobs unexpectedly declared herself a champion of subsidiarity, that principle of Catholic social thought that holds that activities should be performed at the most local and decentralized level possible. Jacobs’s fifth pillar was the professions—architecture, law, medicine—which had lost any interest or ability in policing themselves.

It was a quintessential Jacobs performance, leaping briskly from personal observation to ancient history, from the dark ages that followed the Roman Empire to the localized dark ages she had seen in Higgins. Her supporters were disconcerted by this unwonted foray into cultural pessimism, which seem to move her toward a conservative position. It was only natural that the New York Times called her final book “haphazard” and “extremely sloppy.”

Over the years, Jacobs has lost something of her iconic status. Critics like to point out that city dwellers no longer monitor the life of the sidewalk through their windows; the diversity of urban life that she celebrated has given way in many places—including much of Greenwich Village—to an unaffordable homogeneity. But even this was predicted in Death and Life, which devotes a chapter to “The Self Destruction of Diversity.” The new spate of publications on the centenary of her death shows that there is still extraordinary interest in Jacobs. The new biographies are satisfying, although they need to be read in tandem. (Kanigel is essential for the story of the early and later years, but Laurence does a better job with the development of Jacobs’s architectural thought.) But they leave nagging gaps. Neither author is sufficiently curious about her politics. They take for granted that she was a free-thinking liberal who was too maverick to align herself with any political faction larger than a group of neighborhood activists. This won’t do.

Neither make quite enough of Jacobs’s investigation by the State Department in 1952, which was triggered by her application to travel with her husband to Siberia on a writing assignment. Her visa application was sponsored by Alger Hiss, later revealed to be a Soviet agent, and a man whom Jacobs named on another occasion as a personal reference. The incident is especially odd in light of Jacobs’s friendship with the radical Saul Alinsky, which both authors mention without comment. One expects more curiosity here on the part of the authors, who give the Jacobs investigation short shrift and write it off as mere McCarthyite persecution.

These books also might have done more to capture the elusive quality that makes Jacobs such an enthralling writer. Someone else might have performed the same analysis, cited the same examples, extracted the same lessons—but without the reader taking those lessons to heart. Her persuasiveness is not a matter of style. Her prose is generally dry and matter of fact, rarely flashing with wit or swelling to a crescendo. But there is throughout her writing a distinctive note of moral authority, wielded with quiet certainty. One can guess that this moralizing fiber of her character came from her mother, a prim and prudish Presbyterian who took the bottles of homemade wine that her husband’s poor patients gave in payment during the Depression and poured them down the drain, and who brooked no racy language. Jacobs shed the prudishness while imbibing the lesson that there is a moral order to the world. In this she resembles her aunt, who devoted her entire adult life trying to make hardscrabble Higgins, North Carolina, a well-run and orderly Presbyterian community.

It is an unfortunate fact that modern writers say far too little about the early influence of religion in shaping the tone and texture of intellectual life. There is more than a little Calvinism in how Jacobs understood the covenant of the neighborhood, sidewalk, and street. Laurence does not even mention Jacobs’s Presbyterian upbringing, or her deliberate decision to raise her children as Presbyterians despite her own publicly confessed lack of belief. As much as these new studies tell us, they also reveal that there is yet more to be learned about this woman in horn-rimmed glasses, who set out to transform the world with nothing more than a typewriter and a pair of eyes.

Michael J. Lewis is Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of Art History at Williams College.