Magazine article The American Prospect

The Neighborhood Activist as Prophet: How Jane Jacobs Took on the Planners-And How Her Legacy Is at Risk

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Neighborhood Activist as Prophet: How Jane Jacobs Took on the Planners-And How Her Legacy Is at Risk

Article excerpt





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. …

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