The Neighborhood Activist as Prophet

New York World-Telegram & Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection/Library of Congress

Jane Jacobs at a 1961 press conference for the Committee to Save the West Village

Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs
By Robert Kangiel

This article appears in the Winter 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

We stand on the frumpy shoulders of a giant: “Jane,” as three generations of urbanists have known her, elevated into a pantheon of mono-names shared with Cher and Elvis. If not for Jane Jacobs, who died at the age of 89 in 2006, the postwar onslaught on cities as mere temporary pass-throughs for car-besotted, heavily subsidized white suburbanites would surely have proceeded at a brisker pace to greater completion. Others had railed against “modernist” planning too, of course, with its unadorned urban towers, small-town-enveloping suburban developments, and everywhere highways replacing public transit and functioning city neighborhoods. Urban historian and literary critic Lewis Mumford had been calling for a regionalist approach to urban settlements that preserved the virtues of both rural and city life since the 1920s. “Our national flower is the concrete cloverleaf,” he once observed. William H. Whyte had edited a 1958 collection, The Exploding Metropolis, criticizing what we now call suburban sprawl. But it was Jane who turned her native curiosity and formidable analytical powers to the city itself, to what was being lost to suburban investment, to “how cities work.” It is fair to ask, though, if cities still work the same way in the age of middle-class evisceration and digital disruption.

Jane’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, is a masterpiece of social criticism. It shook up the establishment and set in motion neighborhood activism and civic self-education the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the days of that other Jane: Addams. Jacobs not only explained what was of value in cities at a time when “slum clearance” was the order of the day, but just as important, she defied the mile-high experts with on-the-ground observation. She has not been called the “Genius of Common Sense” for nothing.

As planners bemoaned the crowded neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan where Jane raised her three children, the dangers of street play amid nefarious characters and filth, Jane shifted the conversation: Great cities like New York “worked” not in spite of density, she argued, but because of it. The close intermingling of cultures and classes doing all manner of work led to improvisation, new products, new work, new ideas. Where others saw chaos, Jane saw vitality, “organized complexity,” and safety, structured by four key elements: sidewalks and short street blocks, mixed principal uses, a variety of new and old buildings in various states of repair, and, of course, crowdedness. New projects—parks, playgrounds, additional housing—could be added, as long as they were “seamed” in and didn’t block off the flow of commerce and play, the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of strong urban neighborhoods and the many “eyes on the street” that kept crime at bay. Eyes on the Street, the title of Robert Kanigel’s engrossing new biography, was presumably chosen because that’s where Jane’s own careful attention was fixed—especially during the years that culminated in her paradigm-shifting book.

It wasn’t always so. Jane’s “eyes” were sharpened in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the small capital city of the anthracite coal region. Born in 1916 on the eve of the flourishing industrial city’s decline, Jane Butzner entered the world precocious and preternaturally confident. The third of four children, she was raised in solid middle-class security by two rural transplants eager to get into the city: a genial German Protestant general practice doctor and his wife, a teacher and nurse against whose pinched Victorian moralism and casual nativism young Jane often chafed.

What Jane “saw” in Scranton was a city at work in mining and manufacturing, veined with railroads and trolleys—the first to run continuously by electricity in the country—which elicited an early, lifelong curiosity about engineering and science, with “how things work.” She also brought a sense of mechanical precision to an early love of language, publishing poetry and editing a literary magazine through her high school years, having long before traded independent inquiry across disciplines for the dull transactions of the classroom. By the time she was 16, Jane Butzner knew her vocation: writer. Bypassing college for a brief unpaid stint at The Scranton Republican, she was soon off to New York, in 1934, eventually settling in the West Village, which would become her principal laboratory for some 35 years.

Many readers of Kanigel’s definitive biography will be familiar with the arc of Jane’s achievements: her rise from stenographer to respected editor and writer through various posts in the New York publishing world, all without a college degree; her last-minute bravura performance before a Harvard gathering of urban-planning mandarins that led to Rockefeller Foundation support for her groundbreaking book; her participation in successful fights against self-described master builder Robert Moses and his ilk, most notably for halting his plans to open Washington Square Park to through traffic and to drive a monstrosity called the Lower Manhattan Expressway through the heart of SoHo; her family’s flight to Toronto, in 1968, to protect her sons from the Vietnam War draft, where she spent her remaining days; her later books The Economy of Cities (1969) and Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1985), arguing that “great cities,” with their concentrated diversity of skill, lead to the “knowledge spillovers” and “import replacement” of exports that drive economic development. Kanigel tells many other lesser-known stories of accomplishment, too, that will enlighten even the most devoted student of Jane.

He excels in capturing the tone of Jane Jacobs’s life, how her straight-forward impatience with anything “stagnant” and “dull” ran like a thread throughout. Her warmth comes through too, in her relations with co-workers and fellow activists plotting away in a Village church basement, and in the laissez-faire approach she and her husband, architect Bob Jacobs, brought to their shambling household, raising children who, like their mother, also took circuitous routes to adulthood. But she could also be combative in argument and oblivious to nonverbal cues. Said a young relative who stayed with the Jacobs family in Toronto for a spell, “It was like living with Zeus.” The same sense of principled outlawry that got her suspended from school in the third grade (for convincing her classmates that, no, they could not promise to brush their teeth every day) showed up to the end in her refusal to accept honorary doctorates on grounds that they were false credentials. And as readers of her books know, Jane had a fine wit sharpened by her ear for poetry. After feeling stymied while writing her 1992 book Systems of Survival, a “dialogue” among five fictional characters, she decided to replace the group of polite Canadians in her mind’s eye with argumentative New Yorkers, explaining, “Talking with Canadians is like talking to a pillow.”

It is a moving irony, and an irritating one, that at the very moment when walkable urbanism and the “great inversion” from suburban to city life has taken hold, Jane’s “intricate sidewalk ballet” has given way to the sidewalk chaos of eyes on the device. More darkly, she did not foresee that today’s wealth inequality would make great cities unaffordable for the evaporating middle classes. Always critical of both ideology and excessive reliance on abstract data to explain how things work, Jane’s common-sense empiricism relied on the persistence of sociability—Downtown is for people!—which bred ingenuity from urban tumult and new technologies that replaced old forms of work. Some of what she argued, including her criticism of one-size-fits-all government planning and labor unions, is in accord with libertarian and neoliberal opposition to measures that might compromise the march of global innovation. So too is her view that large prosperous cities must grow unimpeded by excessive regulation as both national economic engines and bulwarks of civilization. “[W]e can be absolutely sure of a few things about future cities,” she wrote in 1969. “[T]hey will be more intricate, comprehensive, diversified, and larger than today’s, and will have even more complicated jumbles of old and new things than ours do.” With decades-long assists from free-market urban economists and a host of others who forged today’s consensus that the United States should replace low-return manufacturing with high-value knowledge products, particularly in the digital sector, “great cities” have certainly grown, but digital technology, income inequality, and soaring housing prices have edged out many of the old “jumbles” that once made them truly diverse.

Since Jane’s death ten years ago, that consensus has come under mounting, if fragmented, fire, as evidenced by the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Across the political spectrum, growing “knowledge-based” elite coastal cities face heartland resentment, while those still ensconced in manufacturing and agricultural economies, grounded by Jane’s “dull” little cities, adhere ever more fervently to local cultures of production. Meanwhile, social media—the product of today’s economic innovations—has had the effect of disrupting the cross-class sociability that Jane took for granted, from the pedestrians passing each other while staring at smartphone screens to the echo-chamber quality of separate bubbles of news consumption.

All of which raises the question, How do cities work now? Or rather, Can countries across the world thrive without tempering the new ideas generated by great cities with the steadfast productive ethos of the hinterland? In her final book, Dark Age Ahead (2004), Jane brooded over the possibility that North America had entered a period of long-term cultural stagnation and coarsening, as a variety of “stabilizing forces,” from family and community to professional integrity and government attentiveness to local conditions, seemed to be disintegrating. Were Jane’s attention fixed on her hometown of Scranton today, in view of recent disruptions both digital and economic, she might well have seen its potential through new eyes.

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