Depending on whom you ask, Jane Jacobs is either a patron saint of the city or a relic of a time before the city’s housing crunch. She’s known for her battles with Robert Moses and "urban renewal" and for The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which defended big, messy, complicated cities from the urban-planning-by-bulldozer school of thought and is now required reading in every urban studies class. Moses's legacy has been reappraised in recent years, with some even cautiously suggesting that he wasn’t pure evil, so it’s about time, in the year of what would have been her 100th birthday, that Jacobs got a new treatment.
The new biography of Jacobs by Robert Kanigel is called Eyes On The Street, after the term she coined for the idea that just by spending time out on the block, ordinary citizens create safe and vibrant neighborhoods. Kanigel’s book is more narrative than analytic—it doesn’t get in the weeds about how well her ideas hold up. But he has a keen ear for the details of Jacobs's formative years and her later life, telling the story of how she turned her eyes to the street and where her glance took her.
Death and Life was not published until Jacobs was nearly 50, and this, along with patronizing, sexist coverage that cast her as a "housewife," has left it less than clear how she wound up in the position to write this book. Kanigel’s book, along with a more academic study by Peter Laurence published earlier this year, does an admirable job depicting her trajectory.
Eyes On The Street has a three-part structure—Jacobs's formative experiences, the origins of Death and Life and her Village activism, and her decades in Canada.
Jane Butzner Finds Her Eye
Growing up in the coal town of Scranton, Jane Butzner was known as a clever child who had trouble with authority. Later in life, she’d comment on the difference between what urban planners thought people were supposed to do and what they actually did, and she too, Kanigel says, had trouble doing what she was told. After struggling in high school, she took unpaid work doing women’s-pages reporting for the local paper, including writing letters to the editor on subjects such as "against dogs" to rile people up.
Jacobs moved to New York when she was 18 and took a job as a secretary. In her spare time, she explored the city and wrote freelance stories for Vogue on first the fur and then the leather, diamond, and flower districts. She was already thinking about the infrastructure that makes everyday commerce work.
Over the next two decades, she took some classes at Columbia, published an obscure collection of rejected proposals from the Constitutional Convention, and did stints at a metal industry trade magazine—where she agitated for women to get equal pay for equal work during the war and caught flak from her boss for smoking a pipe—and wrote propaganda for the Office of War Information and the State Department.
In 1944, she married Bob Jacobs, a hospital architect. The young couple shared a love for cycling, going on a bike trip for their honeymoon. Throughout her career, Jacobs would ride up to Midtown from Greenwich Village, in an era long before bike lanes. Bob influenced Jane on architecture and activism, and built quirky features in their houses, like a phone booth in the living room.
Neighborhood Battles and Death and Life
Jacobs got her big break in 1952, when she landed a job at the journal Architectural Forum. At Forum, she quickly became a resident expert on hospitals, schools, and shopping mall design. She wrote in favor of major urban renewal projects, but soon soured on the philosophy behind them.
Meanwhile, neighborhood activism against the misguided plan to extend Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park brought the problem to her doorstop. Jacobs struck up a friendship with the director of Union Settlement in East Harlem, who showed her how urban renewal had uprooted the little establishments necessary to the neighborhood. Her writing in Forum brought her to a wider audience in the late 1950s, and she was offered a deal for a book, which would become Death and Life (1961).
Yes, Robert Moses really wanted to extend Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park (Ephemeral New York)
After the book came out, Jacobs spent much of the '60s active against attempts to bring urban renewal to the West Village and the permutations of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. As part of the Committee to Save the West Village, she helped fight off planned "slum clearance" and win approval for the West Village Houses, a middle-income development around Christopher Street toward the water. Designed as five-story walk-ups, rather than hulking elevator-equipped towers isolated in grassy grounds, the houses embodied Jacobs’s vision of neighborhood change. (The development remains affordable-ish).
Accounts of Jacobs’s life focus on the 1960s and a strength of Kanigel’s book is that it tells the story of what came after. The Jacobs strongly opposed the Vietnam War and in 1968, their son of age to be drafted, the family left for Toronto. Over the next decades, Jacobs wrote several more books and continued her activism.
In the 1990s, Toronto’s mayor asked Jacobs for advice on what to do with two former industrial areas near downtown. The resulting plan called for re-zoning the area for multiple uses, increasing residential density while curbing parking requirements.
The plan is an important counterexample to critics who label Jacobs as reflexively opposed to development. There’s a popular conception that Jacobs simply didn’t believe in planning—too autocratic, too inorganic—but really, she argued for a different sort of planning. She recognized the folly of towers in the park and single-use zoning and advocated "zoning for diversity"—varied architecture, mixed-use streets, and mixed-income neighborhoods—allowing flexible land use without destroying the urban fabric.
The red house is 555 Hudson Street, where Jacobs lived during her West Village years. Eric Chase/Flickr
Jacobs did not hand down Death and Life on stone tablets, and it’s neither useful nor particularly fair to her to treat her as if she did. Kanigel falls a bit into that trap, and the biggest weakness of the book is Kanigel’s failure to address the debates over her work in depth. For instance:
Jane did sometimes bother to answer charges leveled at Death and Life. Gentrification? It attested to how much people really wanted diverse and vibrant neighborhoods. Unfortunately, she said in 2005, with the growth of the automobile ‘we stopped building places worth gentrifying,’ so demand ‘increasingly outstrips supply,’ forcing up prices in the few neighborhoods that were worth gentrifying. So-o-o, make more such places!
Easier said than done. A New York Times report this past spring found that 40 percent of buildings in Manhattan would be in violation of zoning codes if built today, many because they are too tall or pack too many units into too small a space. And that’s Manhattan—imagine how much harder it is to build a dense Jacobsian neighborhood anywhere else.
This reality undergirds the most serious charge against Jacobs: that she was a handmaiden of gentrification, preaching a small-scale urbanism destined to destroy itself. She coined the term "mixed-use" to refer to specific socioeconomic phenomena; now it’s slogan for developers. Her West Village is a cautionary tale. Jacobs mentions her butcher and the hardware store owner and the fruit man by name. At 555 Hudson Street today, we find a realty firm that promises a "fun, seamless, one-day apartment hunt" for recent college graduates. (Previously, the space was occupied by a purveyor of hand-blown collectible glass votive tealight candle holders.)
Jacobs did advocate what she called "unslumming": the idea that instead of bulldozing alleged slums, a mix of people could move in and restore them, causing gradual "self-diversification." But she also recognized the potential for the "self-destruction of diversity," for success to beget failure. Her description of a central Philadelphia intersection where bank branches opened one by one on each corner until the street life deadened will sound familiar to present-day New Yorkers.
She wrote for the long term, and her views on the deeper dynamics of urban change remind us that the surface level can be misleading. Obsessive focus on change in a handful of Brooklyn neighborhoods in a short time leads critics to overstate the extent and perhaps misdiagnose the problems. There are more poor urban areas now than in 1970, and concentrated poverty has worsened. Strategies change too: those were different times, and what made sense against the LOMEX does not mean she’d advocate leaving things alone now.
The plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (Library of Congress)
While Jacobs was not a NIMBY, plenty of NIMBYs have appropriated her rhetoric. The mantle of preserving community, the historic, and the local have served as mechanisms of exclusion, and blind opposition to development imperils affordable housing. And when urban history is reduced to a Moses v. Jacobs battle royale, the Jacobs side can end up sounding like the old fogey who keeps complaining about construction.
Jacobs has been called inattentive to race, though Death and Life discusses residential segregation, redlining, and the effects of urban renewal on marginalized groups, and she characteristically relates little things like how people share sidewalks to larger social problems. She did have blind spots, like arguing over the architecture and design of Stuy Town without mentioning that black New Yorkers were barred from living there, and there’s a lesson in that for contemporary readers and urbanists.
Beyond how well Jacobs’s prescriptions hold up, her sensibility, the way she portrayed the excitement of simply being in a city, has been a gift to generations of urbanites. Reading her prose, one feels that she’d be the best companion with whom to wander the city—her keen eye spotting every detail—and to wonder with why things are the way they are. She "helped you see your city, and maybe yourself, in a new and liberating way," Kanigel writes. No glittering luxury condo can get in the way of that.
Zack Friedman's writing has appeared in The New Inquiry, BKLYNR, and BOMB. He lives in Brooklyn.