Jane Jacobs, 1916-2006

Jane Jacobs at City College, May 6, 2004

There have been many days when I have traveled through the city, looked at bleak towers-in-the-park(ing lots), or too-wide streets, or empty or forlorn city spaces, and have thought, “Thank God for Jane Jacobs, who put a stop to all this.”

Jacobs, who died today at the age of 89, was so right about so much, and in the face of so much “conventional wisdom” of her age, that her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) has to stand as one of the most influential and corageous books of the 20th century. It’s author was one of the greatest and most independent thinkers of her time. I am hard pressed to think of another book that had as big an impact on the structure of the bedrock stage upon wich we go about our lives. Her book taught many of us to observe the streets and buildings that surround us in a more thoughtful way.

Her raw intellectual brilliance comes through on every page of The Death and Life, and which eloquently and vividly tore its way through the Robert Moses, slash-and-burn, overly simplistic style of city planning that prevailed in the 1950s and ’60s, which would thankfully never again recover. She introduced the conecpt of “eyes on the street” that placed ordinary citizens as the first defense against crime. In describing “the intricate sidewalk ballet” of daily street activity, she called attention to the most minute and seemingly inconsequential events raised awareness of their importance to a healthy city district. She brought to light many other things that nobody had ever bothered to think about, like the need for a mixture of uses in a building or a neighborhood, which is now the conventional wisdom in neighborhood revitalization, or density, or two-way streets, or short blocks. In the process, she made everything that was happening in urban planning appear as it was: utterly wrongheaded. With one forcefully worded but never strident book, she turned the urban planning’s conventional wisdom upside down and inside out.

The Death and Life is the kind of book where every time you turn the page you are turned on to something you had never thought of before, and think, “Wow, this matters, and she is so right.” Every city in America owes a great deal to Jane Jacobs, but especially New York, where she lived and wrote. The only way to do her book justice is to offer an extended quote. Here, the beginning:

This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding. It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding, different and even opposite from those now taught in everything from schools of architecture and planning to the Sunday supplements and women’s magazines. My attack is not based on quibbles about rebuilding methods or hair-splitting about fashions in design. It is an attack, rather, on the principles and aims that have shaped modern, orthodox city planning and rebuilding.

In setting forth different principles, I shall mainly be writing about common, ordinary things: for instance, what kinds of city streets are safe and what kinds are not; why some city parks are marvelous and others are vice traps and death traps; why some slums stay slums and other slums regenerate themselves even against financial and official opposition; what makes downtowns shift their centers; what if anything, is a city neighborhood, and what jobs, if any, neighborhoods in great cities do. In short, I shall be writing about how cities work in real life, because this is the only way to learn what principles of planning and what practices in rebuilding can promote social and economic vitality in cities, and what practices and principles will deaden these attributes.

There is a wistful myth that if only we had enough money to spend &#8212 the figure is usually put at a hundred billion dollars &#8212 we could wipe out all our slums in ten years, reverse decay in the great, dull, gray belts that were yesterday’s and day-before-yesterday’s suburbs, anchor the wandering middle class and its wandering tax money, and perhaps even solve the traffic problem.

But look what we have built with the first several billions: Low-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity. Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centers that are avoided by anyone but bums, who have fewer choices of loitering place than others. Commercial centers that are lack-luster imitations of standardized suburban chain-store shopping. Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.

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