Jane Jacobs is celebrated for many things: her game-changing 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities; her shaking up of urban-development thinking and ideas about the functioning of city economies; her activism in opposition to urban highways and large-scale clearance of buildings; her advocacy of community-based plans rooted in local wisdom; her coining of such terms as “eyes on the street,” “human capital,” and “sidewalk ballet.”
But rarely is she recognized as a true original, ahead of her time, as she should be. As we mark the centennial of her birth this month, it is difficult to remember that as recently as the 1980s, America and much of the world was still wedded to the post-World War II paradigm of urban renewal, with highways slicing through the city. There was a fierce conviction that cities were anachronistic, a holdover from the “romanticized” past, places that had to be reshaped in a “modern” way. The future was in the suburbs, with spacious lawns and entrances through the garage instead of the front door, discouraging neighborly connections.
Jane was not just ahead of the curve in her writing about cities but also in her own life. She incorporated environmentally sustainable principles at home, long before they were part of the public discussion.
I first visited Jane at her Toronto house in 1978, introduced by her editor at Random House, Jason Epstein. I had been a newspaper reporter in New York for 15 years, covering communities that were fighting demolition projects and other big schemes coming down from the City Planning Commission that were destined to undermine the intricate fabric of existing neighborhoods. Jane and I made coffee from the beans we roasted that came in a huge burlap bag from Kenya. We ate tomatoes from her hydroponic roof garden, planted in pots of sawdust. There was a “phone booth” in the kitchen-dining area, designed and built by her architect husband, Bob Jacobs, for soundproof privacy for the family of five.
The Jacobses had departed Greenwich Village in New York in 1968, to avoid the military draft that could take their sons to fight in the Vietnam War, which the family opposed. In Greenwich Village, they had lived in a three-story house with a ground-floor store on a busy street. Jane often biked around the city. In the backyard, her son Ned recently recalled, an infestation of aphids killed off the ivy and flowers. At first Jane used DDT, as was common in the 1950s. All the birds disappeared. Then she read about the chemical’s ill effects, well before the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. She stopped immediately and used a spray made from Ivory soap flakes to kill the bugs. In due time, the birds came back.
Visiting Jane was an early education in aspects of ecology that emerged in a significant way with her sixth book, The Nature of Economies (2000). Conversations, even back in 1978, covered the parallels between economic and ecological systems—which were governed by similar principles, she believed, with lessons that could be applied to what she called Urban Ecology.
Her early 20th-century house in Toronto had a front porch and driveway to the side, and it was a block from a lively shopping street and subway, right out of Death and Life. The family planted samples of native species in the yard to see what would take root, and, each year, the Christmas tree was put in the backyard to decompose, along with leaves, to simulate a forest floor.
Jane was eager to show me Toronto to demonstrate examples of innovative, positive change—and lessons of unintended consequences. We looked at the new Mies van der Rohe office towers downtown that she thought appropriate for a commercial district, but the underground network of retail corridors, she noted, had drained life from the street above. She pointed out the vitality of her neighborhood shopping street, filled with small local businesses, many owned by a diverse group of immigrants. We explored the city on foot and by mass transit, looking at new infill housing side by side with restored historic gems. We visited the construction site of a new dense, mixed-use neighborhood, built on a street grid, with varied building types and income levels, in contradiction to the American suburban “pods,” with their hierarchies of “collector roads” and “arterials.”
At the time, I was writing my first book, The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way, and I shared with Jane my observation of small steps toward urban revitalization in New York and other American cities. I saw residents cleaning up and redesigning windswept parks with broken benches and play equipment. I saw local merchants refurbishing their storefronts and organizing Main Street events to bring out shoppers. I met local leaders who responded to the wise proposals of their constituents on how to reverse decay. Even in the notoriously burned-out South Bronx, determined locals helped revitalize Kelly Street rather than be pushed out of the way for urban renewal. Their motto—“Improve, Don’t Move”—was an early harbinger of positive change, evolving organically in many Bronx neighborhoods.
Before Jane, almost everyone I talked to about my hopeful observations had dismissed them as too ad hoc or too inconsequential. But Jane validated my assumptions. All that we talked about then, all the things experts dismissed as irrelevant or too small—reclaiming vacant buildings block by block, creating neighborhood parks, installing solar panels—all are now mainstream. This year, for the centennial of her birth, the justified and the unjustified will rush to claim Jane Jacobs. But I believe the greatest tribute possible would be to dispel three persistent myths that distract from the real wisdom of her thinking.
Myth No. 1
The biggest myth is that she wrote one great book. But if you read all seven, you will get a more layered understanding of her thinking. Jane felt that her second book, The Economy of Cities, was her most important. Ideas introduced in it about “import replacement” instead of “import substitution” are still with us today—just look at the return of small manufacturing and the emergence of startups in cities.
Myth No. 2
The most outrageous myth is the description of Jane as “the untrained housewife.” It is pure sexism, still visible in references today. What could she know without a “planning” or “architecture” degree, her critics asked—or at least a college diploma? From childhood, Jane disdained formal education. She read books about Benjamin Franklin under her desk in grade school instead of paying attention to the teacher. When she arrived in New York in 1934, she started taking courses at Columbia—“on things I was curious about,” she said: geography, geology, chemistry, zoology, biology, philosophy, patent and constitutional law, economic geography, and more. She declined to pursue a degree because the requirements were of no interest to her. In her final book, Dark Age Ahead, Jane argued that “credentialism” now substitutes for education.
In fact, Jane was an experienced journalist and architecture critic. From her talented husband, she learned not only how to read drawings but to observe the distinction of a design’s promise as compared to the constructed result. Her long career included nine years as a writer at Architectural Forum—though rarely with a byline—before writing Death and Life. Her credentials were no different from her male editors’, Douglas Haskell, at Forum, and Fortune editor William H. Whyte, who borrowed her from Forum to write the seminal piece “Sidewalks Are For People” in his collection The Exploding Metropolis.
Myth No. 3
Because of the excessive focus on her so-called battles with building czar Robert Moses, she is depicted as the David who slew Goliath. This is not true. Moses’s rapid descent, and the exposure of his “public-be-damned” tyrannical ways, was triggered earlier, by a fight in the mid-1950s over a beloved Central Park playground, which he bulldozed in the middle of the night despite the protests by neighborhood mothers with baby carriages—a very photogenic effort that damned him.
And the opposition to Moses’s planned road through Washington Square, that would have morphed into an off-ramp for the planned Lower Manhattan Expressway, was started by two neighborhood women long before Jane got involved. She did become an attention-getting leader, but this was a community-wide campaign. For this effort a recently arrived Village resident, Bob Dylan, collaborated with Jane on a protest song, according to her son Ned. The song starts like this:
Listen, Robert Moses, listen if you can
It’s all about our neighborhood that you’re trying to condemn
We aren’t going to sit back and see our homes torn down
So take your superhighway and keep it out of town.
The expressway fight, after the hard-won Washington Square effort, had been launched by a local priest while Jane was writing Death and Life, and she only got involved after she finished the book. The expressway was to go through Chinatown, the south Village, and the manufacturing district that is now SoHo. By 1960, Moses had been compelled to give up his key city positions to run the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Other local politicians were leading the effort then—but Jane knew the value for the community-based movement of keeping Moses as the supposed villain.
Moses was truly gone when the later Greenwich Village urban renewal fight began. While weekly evening strategy meetings took place in the Jacobs home, it was a broad-based group of local opponents. The final victory was the community-designed infill project for the West Village Houses, but that solution was fiercely resisted and undermined by officials and developers for more than a decade before the low-rise complex of now-coveted apartments could be built.
Jane, who died in 2006, was never pleased by the exaggerated celebrity she gained in local fights. She knew success stemmed from the involvement of the whole community, and she believed it was harmful to any cause to be identified with one leader.
But local activists learned from Jane that they could initiate improvements that regenerate authentic places rather than replaced them. A host of advocates, planners, designers, and not-for-profit groups—the true descendants of Jane’s thinking—have risen to foster the rebirth efforts in cities.
Still, this is not a time to be complacent. The incremental process that Jane advocated and that took root in earlier battles is disappearing. Once again, official “experts” who pay lip service to the ideas of Jane Jacobs are gaining control. They ignore what has made old, historic neighborhoods desirable places to live. They convene neighborhood meetings to present plans without involving local stakeholders in the beginning of the process. They tinker at the edges in response to community critiques, label local protestors NIMBYs, and claim they follow a public process. Instead, they are facilitating developer initiatives in which the bottom line drives everything. They are the ones who do Jane’s memory an injustice.