In 1961, a woman without any training in architecture or municipal design — without, in fact, a college degree — changed the way the world thought about urban renewal. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs presented, as her opening sentence famously announces, “an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” Denouncing the high-handed practice of slum clearance while cogently exploring design problems with a measured indignation, the plainspoken book offered an affirmation of city living, especially of living in New York, that both rattled and impressed the establishment. “In another age,” the Wall Street Journal proclaimed, “the author’s enormous intellectual temerity would have ensured her destruction as a witch.”
In his just-released biography of Jacobs, Eyes on the Street, Robert Kanigel writes that, for some, Death and Life “was near to a religious experience… after they read it, they were different. That henceforth they saw differently. That their Chicago or New York or Boston had been reshaped before their eyes, with a new balance as to what was important and what was not.”
In Kanigel’s telling, Jacobs didn’t set out to change the world. She became a revered metropolitan sage and activist largely through happenstance. In 1956, twenty-two years after the teenage Jacobs had first moved to New York from Scranton “to seek my fortune,” the owlish forty-year-old staff writer for Architectural Forum reluctantly agreed to speak at a Harvard conference on urban design. (She took the spot given to the magazine’s editor, who had decided to vacation in Europe instead.) Though terrified of public speaking, Jacobs managed to deliver a talk on a subject close to her heart: the callous redevelopment of diverse neighborhoods into places of bland conformity. “We are greatly misled,” she said in her conclusion, “by talk about bringing the suburb into the city.”
For the crowd of attending luminaries, it was like the shout calling the emperor naked. In the stuffy academic setting, her sincere, straightforward style was a hit. She received congratulations even from the New Yorker‘s renowned architectural critic, Lewis Mumford, who would later recall his impression: “This able woman had used her eyes and, even more admirably, her heart to assay the human result of large-scale housing, and she was saying, in effect, that these toplofty barracks…were not fit for human habitation.” Her most famous work had its seed.
Over half a century after Death and Life‘s publication, in a year that’s been celebrated for the hundredth anniversary of Jacobs’s birth, is her book still relevant? Certainly, many of its specific references are very much outdated — statistics from the late 1950s, blocks that have since drastically changed, laissez-faire parenting in her chapter on children. And as Kanigel points out in his biography, later critics have objected to the book’s narrow focus, knocking Jacobs for pretty much ignoring public transportation, infrastructure costs, powerful developers, class distinctions, and, most pointedly, racial disparity. But for Kanigel, the book’s wisdom transcends its text.
“Most people have never heard of Frederick Taylor, but his ideas have become part of the air that we breathe,” he tells the Voice, referring to the nineteenth-century efficiency expert whose theories are the basis of mass production, and who was the subject of Kanigel’s previous biography. “Jane isn’t quite there yet, but she almost is. You don’t need to talk about Death and Life. You talk about mixed use, about density, about activity on the streets at all times of the day…. It’s quite possible to find all sorts of faults with [her book], but there’s a fundamental line of capital-T Truth that runs through it that is current and present in the minds of planners and architects.”
For a refresher, Jacobs’s four tenets of that Truth (summarized here) are all about creating diversity: 1) A neighborhood must serve more than one function: mixed use. 2) Blocks must be short, to maximize the experience of variety. 3) The neighborhood must include old buildings in addition to new ones, to keep affordability reasonable for small businesses and help keep change gradual. 4) There must be a sufficient density of people for a social scene.
Evidence of the philosophy in New York, Kanigel suggests, lies in the decades-long growth of Brooklyn, where he grew up in the 1950s. His father’s electroplating business, on the second floor of a loft in Williamsburg near the Navy Yard, is long gone, “but replacing it is a strong and vibrant neighborhood.” As for the recent sprouting of towers in Brooklyn Heights and Prospect Heights, he says, “That’s the other side of it. When things get to be too ‘good,’ they often turn bad, which Jane talked about herself in Death and Life.” Turn to chapter 13 of Jacobs’s book, its title a perfect prophecy of the glitz spreading into today’s Brooklyn: “The Self-Destruction of Diversity.”
But Jacobs, Kanigel adds, “was not specifically and always against high-rises.” He describes a visit she once made to Hong Kong, where she observed that some people who lived in the city’s numerous towers “would set up mini-hotels in a couple of rooms, or little manufacturing businesses…and they functioned in a street-like way. Apparently it was something of a revelation for Jane.”
It may also come as a surprise that Jacobs wasn’t necessarily opposed to gentrification. Before the word was actually coined (in 1964), she all but promoted the notion when she wrote about improving drab Battery Park, calling for the addition of restaurants, a marine museum, an aquarium, and “glamorous” embarkation points for “pleasure voyages.” Later in life, when she was focusing on economics, Kanigel explains, Jacobs’s view was that “gentrification implies that the demand for a certain breed of urban life is greater than the supply…and what we need are more places that have the possibility of becoming a lively district.”
The publication of Death and Life brought Jacobs celebrity status — she received endless invitations to speak on panels, tour new developments, and lecture everywhere — but for New Yorkers of the time, it was her activism that crowned her the people’s champion. When she learned that her own neighborhood, the West Village, a mix of businesses and homes, had been labeled a slum and slated by the city for redevelopment — i.e., demolition and replacement with a housing-only district — Jacobs led the furious residents in a raucous effort to thwart the plan. A year of what Kanigel calls “relentless pressure” — petitions, letters, rallies, confrontations with the planning commission — finally forced Mayor Robert Wagner to withdraw the proposal.
The victory was galvanizing and led the protesters (with Jacobs as a guiding force) to submit their own improvement project, West Village Houses, a series of moderately priced five-story walk-ups along Washington and Bank streets that didn’t require the area’s evisceration. After a decade of political and financial delays, the buildings were finally completed in 1974, in a plain-brick style stripped down from the original design, disappointing Jacobs. “Architecturally undistinguished,” Kanigel admits, “but socially they work quite well.” Now a non-eviction co-op, the buildings still manage, as Jacobs intended, to connect residents with one another and with the street. A few businesses in ground-floor units add the flavor of “mixed use.”
Jacobs notched her most famous success when she triumphed over the mighty Robert Moses, bullheaded shaper of New York, who with typical insensitivity wanted to build an eight-lane expressway across downtown Manhattan that would have wiped out Little Italy, among other neighborhoods. “If you try to imagine that highway going down Broome Street,” Kanigel says, “cutting off Lower Manhattan from the rest, it would have been awful. No Soho. Literally no Soho. The scale and noise and clamor ruining the city.”
Recruited by a young pastor to oppose the monstrosity, Jacobs helped lead the battle, which went on for years. In 1968, at what was meant to be a rubber-stamp public hearing, she had one of her finest anti-establishment moments when — as recounted by Kanigel in his book — she called for the storming of the stage, an act that ended up unraveling and ruining the stenographer’s lengthy paper record. “That tape,” Kanigel writes, “its stenotype symbols parading down its length like ancient hieroglyphics, was the only record of the hearing, or so it abruptly struck Jane.” She screamed to the crowd: “There is no record! There is no hearing! We are through with this phony, fink hearing!” At which point Jacobs was arrested, bringing more attention and opposition to the project, and helping pressure Mayor John Lindsay to declare his own opposition a year later.
Though her successes at preserving neighborhoods, in both New York and Toronto (where she and her husband moved in 1968 to keep their sons out of the Vietnam War), are historic, the grand legacy of Jane Jacobs is in the humanizing of urban planning. Her sensible ideas about city life have become so culturally embedded that we can now call them obvious, as Mayor Bill de Blasio did back in May for a piece in the Daily News marking her birthday.
Still, for all the centenary events that have celebrated her importance — lectures, walking tours, a documentary, an opera, and a musical — Jacobs is at risk, these days, of becoming little more than a brand name. Near the end of his book, Kanigel writes, “Walkability, street life, diversity, mixed-use, and other ideas and words associated with Death and Life now verge on catchphrases, sometimes so thoughtlessly invoked as to mean nothing.” Indeed, developers’ claims of “mixed use” typically mean another collection of the same familiar chain stores. Small businesses vanish, and diversity metamorphoses into homogeneity. The major theme of Death and Life, gradual change, has been largely forgotten, at least in New York, subsumed under what Jacobs called “cataclysmic money” — shiny complexes such as Atlantic Yards, Hudson Yards, and One Vanderbilt, the giant tower that will cast Grand Central Terminal into shadow. What New York needs now, it seems, is a successor to Jane Jacobs — someone who can shock the system, shake up the planners, scream about phonies and finks, remind us that ordinary neighborhoods like Corona in Queens are still valuable, and help prevent big cities from becoming playgrounds for the rich.