Jane Jacobs’s Tunnel Vision

Why our cities need less Jane Jacobs

My introduction to Jane Jacobs was completely ordinary. Like many, many architecture students since its publication in 1962, I read The Death and Life of Great American Cities for an introductory course in urbanism. Jacobs was a joy to read, whip-crack smart and caustically funny, and she wrote in impeccable, old-school sentences that convinced you with their unimpeded flow. She explained her ideas in utterly clear and simple language. Planners are “pavement pounding” or “Olympian.” There are “foot people and car people.”

Why were we reading her? I expect it was to encourage us to look harder at the city, and to imbibe some of her spirited advocacy for experience over expertise. It was a captivating message and delivered at the right time. Today it seems as though everybody interested in cities has read at least part of Death and Life and found personal affirmation in it. Michael Kimmelman wrote, “It said what I knew instinctively to be true.” For David Crombie, “she made it clear that the ideas that mattered were the ones which we understood intimately.”

This quality was important, and one of the reasons that Jacobs endures in our culture is the facility with which we can identify with her. She is one of “us,” whoever that is—not an expert, more like an aunt than a professor. Her speciality was the induction of rules from patterns discovered by individual observation, like a 19th-century gentleman scientist. Her work gave seriousness to reactions that might otherwise be dismissed as taste, ignorance or prejudice.

Yet for all that, the Village, the neighbourhood she loved so fiercely and immortalized in Death and Life, has died. It was not levelled by the planners; it was slowly strangled by the invisible hand. Of course, it does not look dead. If anything, it looks recently repainted. But the vitality is gone. Its rich new residents have closed in on themselves, and more businesses serve tourists than locals. Writing in Slate recently, Peter Moskowitz bemoaned its state: “The same neighborhood Jacobs lauded for its diversity in the 1960s and ’70s is today a nearly all-white, aesthetically suburban playground for the rich.” But if Jacobs won, how did her neighbourhood lose?

“The starting point must be the study of whatever is workable, whatever has charm in city life,” Jacobs wrote in 1956. She appealed to pragmatism and common sense based on a conviction that her discoveries on the street could be generalized. Part of her near-mythic status comes from the fact that, at a historical peak of institutional power guarded by men, she was a woman who dared to make people trust their own eyes. As Marshall Berman wrote, Jacobs gave us “a language to appropriate our own experience.”

Her inattention to racism, whether in the form of American housing markets or in official policies like redlining, is well known—at least within the academy, and it was noticed before Death and Life was published. In 1961 her editor, Jacob Epstein, wrote her that he was worried about the absence of any discussion of the race issue: “I don’t think that you can proceed as though the question didn’t exist.” Jacobs replied that she had her reasons but no time to explain them. Sociologist Nathan Glazer wrote her that he agreed with Epstein, then shrugged off the concerns they both had as unrealistic: “on the other hand, you can’t do everything.”

Unfortunately, there are a lot of things you do not see, especially if you are a middle-aged, middle-class white lady in 1950s New York. What you see depends on who you are, and many of Jacobs’s appealing dictums seem much less universal once you consider race, class, ethnicity or other less visible relationships of power. Tweak to those and step outside Jacobs’s crackling narrative, and suddenly all you can see is what she leaves out. It is unpleasant but it is necessary, for whoever today invokes her blindly invokes also her blindness.

Race is not a sideshow in the story of American cities in the 20th century. Following the collapse of Reconstruction and the tyranny of Jim Crow, racism pushed millions of blacks northwards in the Great Migration. Racism was the organizing principle for entire neighbourhoods—the suburbs became places where whites could escape from minorities. But since it was not something Jacobs had experienced, it was a footnote in her study. When it was published, she had a black woman, Glennie Lenear, coming to clean once a week. The fact is no more unusual at the time than her blindness to colour, but it is enough reason to question her relevance today.

It would not be necessary to hold Jacobs to a higher standard than any other white doctor’s daughter born in small-town Pennsylvania in 1916, except that we are regularly reminded of her timelessness. Her TED talk–quotable style has kept her in the public consciousness, and in her centenary, there are Jane’s Walks on the first weekend of May in more than 75 cities around the world; a new biopic just screened at TIFF; and the opera “A Marvelous Order,” which imagines New York master planner Robert Moses and his nemesis, Jacobs, as lovers, premiered last year. She is an actual saint in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood—a joke that reflects her status.

Saint Jane has become shorthand for whatever is nice about living in cities. On the left, she is celebrated for saving neighbourhoods, and on the right for her hands-off approach. Academics have long criticized her overgeneralizations as irresponsible, but if they engage with her work deeply they can usually find something valuable to pick out, a new insight or fresh attitude. The public Jacobs is only beginning to have such a sober reassessment.

Robert Kanigel’s new biography Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs should nudge her popular image closer to reality. His book contextualizes each of her major works with contemporaneous praise and criticism, and later assessments of the influence or abandonment of her ideas, all the while feeding a lithe narrative. As a biographic subject, Jacobs is aloof. There are no diaries, so the personal is largely conjectural and small details seem revelatory: unbelieving Jacobs dutifully packed the family off to church, to feel part of some larger tradition, little more. She did not realize her youngest was illiterate until age nine and then immediately corrected the problem. On car trips she would invent stories for her three children and their guests about Peanut, who became Peanutina in her 1989 children’s book, The Girl on the Hat: “Thinking about a useful life for herself, Tina’s first idea was to make little Easter baskets, starting a long time ahead to have plenty to sell.”

Buying and selling are the fundamental activities of civilization as far as Jacobs was concerned. In Kanigel’s account, despite coming of age during the Great Depression, she never knew acute want. Her mother was a nurse and her father was a doctor, and her childhood and adolescence took place in Scranton, mostly in a suburban house on a pretty street. The family had a freethinking streak. There was Uncle Billy the one-eyed criminal defence lawyer and prohibitionist Aunt Hannah, who at age 45 set out for Alaska to “bring civilization” to the natives. As a child, Jacobs was unafraid to call out ignorance and known for standing up to teachers, but there are not any stories of her standing up for anyone else, or facing down injustice. At 85 she would admit, “Really, I’ve had a very easy life.”

Jacobs came to the writing life through journalism: an unpaid internship at the Scranton Republican followed by her first paid article in Vogue in 1936, after she joined her older sister in New York City; then a job at Iron Age, a metallurgy trade magazine where she got national attention for an article decrying Scranton’s lack of war work. (The former mining town had 30,000 unemployed.) By 1943 she was working for the U.S. Office of War Information as a propagandist, writing articles on “the magnitude of America’s war production, and vignettes illustrating the achievements, efforts and way of life of the American people.” McCarthyist investigations of her loyalty embittered her toward government, but she still shot up the civil service ranks.

Living in New York, she took courses at Columbia on subjects such as economics and zoology, and after seeing a cat skeleton at the Museum of Natural History with her sister, Jane decided to make one herself. So they caught a stray, drowned it in the river, and she skinned it at home. Eventually she took so many courses that the university decided she should matriculate, but her high school grades were too low. The experience soured her on credentials and she never accepted a single honorary degree.

At the end of the war, Jacobs was writing for Amerika, a magazine published by the State Department and distributed to Soviet citizens. It is the Soviets who can claim credit for pushing Jacobs onto the urban beat, since one of their most effective criticisms of the United States at the time was its large slum population. Jacobs was part of the government’s response; she wrote articles showing how America’s modern planners were solving the problem, until 1952 when she resigned rather than move to new offices in Washington.

By then, Jane Butzner had been married to architect Robert Jacobs for seven years, had three children, and was living in a three-story house that they owned in Manhattan. Adjusted for inflation, she was making around $100,000 a year. Jacobs had lived with her sister in Brooklyn until she discovered Greenwich Village by chance on one of her subway expeditions—she liked the name of Christopher Street station, got out and fell in love with the neighbourhood. Her curiosity was legendary, but she had to be invited before she visited East Harlem—by an episcopal priest named William Kirk, who offered to show her a slum-designated area up close.

With huge federal grants available for slum clearance and redevelopment, many major American cities were designating entire neighbourhoods as slums and connected developers were buying up prime land at discount rates. Although well intentioned, it was a tragic combination of what Jacobs would call “catastrophic money” and people with no love for the city. In 1955, a tour of new projects in Philadelphia with master planner Ed Bacon went memorably wrong for Jacobs. After three years of writing appreciative articles for Architectural Forum about redevelopment schemes, some of which she may not have visited and many of which were only plans on paper, she went to Philadelphia and saw that the “slum” streets waiting for bulldozers were spilling over with life, while in the modern housing projects she saw only a solitary boy kicking a tire. Bacon did not recognize the problem, but she did. “Not only did he and the people he directed not know how to make an interesting or humane street, but they didn’t even notice such things and didn’t care,” she would write. From then on her work would be tinged with righteousness—she had trusted architects and planners, and they were not telling the truth.

Her public break with the establishment was the legendary speech she gave at Harvard University in 1956. Asked to replace her boss, Forum editor-in-chief Doug Haskell, at the last minute, Jacobs attacked public projects for creating “social poverty beyond anything the slums ever knew.” The speech was a sensation and the entire East Coast architecture establishment was in the room to hear it. It led to her famous 1958 Fortune magazine article “Downtown Is for People,” and the Rockefeller Foundation grant (actually two, worth around $200,000 today) that produced Death and Life.

It was around this time that Jacobs was immortalized as one of the “bunch of mothers” who stopped Moses’s plans to run a road through Washington Square Park. The campaign was led by a Village actress, Shirley Hayes, for three years before Jacobs joined, and the fight, as well as the one over the Lower Manhattan Expressway (Lomex) in the 1960s, is central to Jacobs legacy. She was also chair of the Committee to Save the West Village, one of the few times when a neighbourhood managed to reverse its slum designation (hint: not a black neighbourhood). There is not a lot about her activism in Kanigel’s book, so her methods and exact roles remain mysterious, but her organizational energy and professionalism are alluded to, as well as her image as a “clomping, sandaled stride and that straight gray hair flying every which way around a sharp, quizzical face.” Her baggy-sweater inelegance was a kind of accidental disguise, and it made her look as if she could not possibly be on the side of power. Later in life, when her image got fixed in Canadians’ minds, she looked like an old hippie.

In his telling, Jacobs was a reluctant activist. She always wanted to be writing, and she had to be asked to join the fight. And if she did, it was motivated by a NIMBY-ish concern for her square, her sidewalk and her neighbourhood. When Father Ferard La Mountain came to ask for help against Moses’s Lomex—in planning since the 1940s, it would have rammed right through the Village—Jacobs declined. “I wanted to work on my work.” And she did not get involved until years later. This revelation of her reticence is a welcome corrective to the Jacobs and Moses cartoon.

Jacobs arrived in Canada with maximum reputation and the sense that the mistakes made in the United States could still be averted here. The family fled to Toronto in 1968 with their draft-eligible sons preferring jail to induction, and Jacobs was quickly pulled into the fight against the Spadina Expressway. It had already been going on for two years, and although we are not told exactly what she did, she was a forceful and experienced addition, and she was welcomed by the community. Marshal McLuhan’s first friendly gesture was to loan her his Calabrian cleaning lady.

Jacobs praised Toronto as a relatively unscrewed-up city, and Toronto responded with an immodest enthusiasm that has yet to be explained. It is probably best that Kanigel, an American, did not try. One way that Jacobs returned the favour was by setting her fictionalized books in New York, saying that “talking to Canadians was like talking to a pillow.” Her engagement with our culture does not appear to have been very sophisticated, typified by the confused silence that greeted her 1980 argument for an amicable divorce with Quebec (although she did correctly predict trouble for another monetary union). She brushed aside a few hundred years of complex history as a “shotgun union” and, tellingly, her book The Question of Separatism was never published in French.

Jacobs influenced her adoptive city through ideas, and Kanigel quotes Alan Broadbent in pointing out that there were no “straight lines from her to any particular planning process.” Toronto’s St. Lawrence development was “inspired” and “influenced” by Jacobs who apparently neither assembled the council who began it, planned it nor even attended the meetings leading to its approval. But among the reminiscences of its architect Alan Littlewood is the story that when he was not sure how to begin, Jacobs told him to “get off my ass and get on with making a plan.” The next day, “Like a recalcitrant sinner, I knew exactly what to do. I didn’t even have to open the book.” The book had been internalized; its descriptions turned into prescriptions that could be reproduced without too much attention to process.

Jacobs had made the same mistake in assuming that her economistic reading of the streets accurately reflected how they had come to look that way. You can’t tell by looking at it if a bustling porch was built by a slumlord. And she later criticized the New Urbanists for exactly the same thing, although still on formal grounds: “They don’t seem to have a sense of the anatomy of these hearts, these centers. They’ve placed them as if they were shopping centers. They don’t connect.”

The ideas in Death and Life are based on two assumptions: that human behaviour is shaped by the physical environment, and that capitalism is the natural order of things. The first was immediately attacked and the implications of the second still seldom come under scrutiny. Kanigel points to Herb Gans’s review in Commentary that named Jacobs’s mistake “the physical fallacy.” It lets her “ignore the social, cultural, and economic factors that contribute to vitality or dullness.” Ignoring them allows Jacobs to identify the characteristics of healthy neighbourhoods in formal terms: 1) mixed residential, commercial and industrial buildings; 2) short, pedestrian blocks; 3) mixed old and new buildings at various rents; and 4) enough density to create self-sustaining local businesses.

Jacobs’s reading of the opposition was similarly formalist, and Kanigel follows her in treating modernism as an aesthetic movement, a bunch of deluded artists hell-bent on abstract tenets of light, space and air. Although modernism developed into a formal style, it emerged out of principally social concerns, and its physical obsessions were quite reasonable reactions to the urban problems created by 19th-century industrialization and 20th-century war. Le Corbusier’s famous choice of “architecture or revolution” was a provocation to recognize the fact that the longer suffering is ignored, the more violent is its inevitable expression. The conception of modern architecture was overscaled in response to the overwhelming size of the problem. Western cities suffered from overcrowding, basic services were not being provided (introducing them into 18th- and 19th-century city fabric seemed impossible), and decades of laissez-faire governance had left people living next to smokestacks and cesspools. New York still had hellish 19th-century–style tenements into the 1940s, because private developers found the returns too low to invest in building low-cost housing. (They still do.) And the new Soviet Union was scrambling to house millions. It would have been rather surprising if such conditions produced a theory of architecture and planning that was anything other than mass-produced, standardized and industrialized.

You do not have to like the form of public housing projects to empathize with the effort they represented, or want to live in suburbia to appreciate the seductiveness of early suburbs with their healthy green lawns and clear skies. Jacobs’s criticisms ignored the disease and suffering caused by a century of industrialized cities because she hated the solutions being imposed on the city she loved. She found Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City schemes ridiculous, and we might agree, but would a Beijinger? At least superblocks came with indoor plumbing, and the suburbs had real appeal to people being slowly killed by poisoned air and unsanitary crowding. But Jacobs showed little compassion for those people, probably because she never experienced such conditions herself. She considered the suburbs a character flaw: “really nice small towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life among others with no plans of their own.” She seems to have never really accepted that the suburban myth was part of American culture, and they kept being built for her whole life, with real social, economic and ecological implications.

Jacobs was profoundly self-critical about the form and logical development of her writing, endlessly revising and agonizing over her “confused” texts, but she seems not to have doubted the objectivity of her observations. In 1994 she laid out her method to Steward Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalogue. She wrote that there were three kinds of evidence: “solid statistical evidence,” “random, highly suspect anecdotal evidence,” and “specifically illuminating cases.” If you agree with the conclusions then the anecdote is illuminating, and if you do not, it is just random. When confronted with the obvious problems of this kind of cherry-picking, her famous retort was, “Darwin didn’t have data either.”

The data have worked out better for Darwin. Although her formal theories have largely held up on their own terms—they make nice-looking streets—their implementation has not kept neighbourhoods alive. Form is only a container for various and even opposite ideas. As architect Rem Koolhaas wrote, Jacobs identified “the ingredients by which shopping could stand in for urbanity.” That is what happened to the Village.

Jacobs was right to attack the dreadful conformity of some post-war modernism, and the brilliance of her writing undoubtedly helped to spare many people from forced relocations and the destruction of their livelihoods. But only for a while. The same people, largely working-class minorities, have been displaced farther away from downtown by rising rents, which are much harder to mobilize against than a master planner in a dark suit. Jacobs has little to offer here; her public-­private partnerships were too wimpy a solution. She never dared to question whether we must necessarily make money by providing housing.

The displaced now spend more and more of their time commuting, replicating the behaviours of the white folks who made the trip when it was desirable. There was no public housing built for them, a consequences of the damage Jacobs—and others, and the miserable underfunding of its maintenance­—did to the idea of public housing both as a concept, as something cities ought to provide, and as a process, as something that cities can provide well. You can open Death and Life on a random page to find an example of her witty and dismissive bile for city planning: “although city planning lacks tactics for building cities that can work like cities, it does possess plenty of tactics. They are aimed at carrying out strategic lunacies.” Instead of good planners and bad planners, no planners; instead of good developers and bad ones, silence.

Although the move is not generally widely noted by her progressive fans, Jacobs energetically participated in the cultural turn from government interventionism toward laissez-faire policy. She participated in celebrated victories against irresponsible government, personified by Moses (Robert Caro’s 1974 biography of the unelected and arrogant Moses did wonders for Jacobs’s reputation since, if he was so bad, his nemesis must be as good) but Jacobs never, to my knowledge, fought private developers. If she did, it is not a part of her popular legacy. Why did Jacobs respond to the danger from urban planners but not from developers and banks?

Jacobs claimed to be beyond ideology, which should have been a clue. “I am no ideologist. I am an old fashioned pragmatist,” she said, and we keep taking her at her word. For a thinker whose defining quality was a posture of rejecting all received cant, this is a curious state of grace. A new volume of 40 less-publicized writings may help to dispel the aura. Combining early articles, hard-to-find speeches, and a previously unpublished draft into a sampling of her life’s work from 1936 to 2004, Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring’s upcoming compilation, Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs, allows for a quick immersion into her thinking that reveals trends. The editorial introductions are more contextual than critical (unless “there’s no doubt that this is just the right time for more Jane Jacobs,” means an easy book deal), yet reading her over many decades lets the material speak its own strengths and weaknesses. It also rebalances her life’s work, which has been dominated by Death and Life. Jacobs wrote six other serious books in a four-decade-long attempt to write a natural history of ­economics.

A credo of sorts can be heard in the voice of Hiram from The Nature of Economies in 2001 (he replaces the gloomy ecologist Ben from Systems of Survival; Jacobs’s style at this point had become Socratic) “Economic life is ruled by processes and principles we didn’t invent and can’t transcend whether we like that or not.” Naturalization, of course, is a favourite tactic for powerful people trying to stay that way. “Science” has also been employed to show that one race or another was “objectively” inferior, putting relations with them beyond the realm of the political and into another category, something like the empirical management of a natural problem. Jacobs was against similar logic when it condemned “unsalvageable” slums to demolition, and it is echoed today by businesspeople that claim that if their business model is illegal, then it is the “outdated” law that must change.

In a way, Jacobs is part of this tradition too, and Zipp and Storring have made it easier to trace how, and to find precedents in case we think she came to “radical centrism” late in her life. Kanigel helps by reminding us of her agitation to privatize Ontario Hydro, and her co-founding the Consumer Policy Institute to privatize the postal service and transportation networks as well.

In a 1967 speech in London, Jacobs asked the question that guided her work on The Economy of Cities: “Why are some cities creative only for a time, and then halt? … Perhaps the best way to get a little light on the problem was to read the histories of successful business.” This is how easily profit comes to embody creativity, and commerce to stand as the measure of a culture. She continued: “most of what we call the spread of civilization amounts to slippages from internal economies of cities into their export economies.” This is an impoverished view, but it is one that plays well to the egos of executives.

Jacobs tracks thinking that sees the ideal state not as a redistributive mechanism for social well-being but as a police officer of market-appropriate behaviour. She gathers material ahistorically and delights in upsetting the cart for the sake of it (infamously claiming that cities predate agriculture—she was a poor armchair archaeologist.)

A wide-ranging interview with David Warren in 1993 published in Vital Little Plans has Jacobs talking about her two moral “syndromes”—according to her, all people in the world are either “guardians” and “traders.” The latter were originally going to be called raiders, but presumably that sounded too moralistic. Later on she admitted that perhaps artists were a third category, and mused: “How extraordinary that people would exchange goods instead of grabbing things from each other.” Not really, unless gift economies, or cultures where goods and lands are stewarded collectively have never occurred to you. After 30 years of living in Canada, she had missed the Indigenous third of our culture.

At one point, in a 1994 speech to a group of women entrepreneurs, Jacobs made the startling claim that, “when the ceiling does dissolve it does not do so because legislation says it must.” Certainly she had had to fight for herself, but such acknowledgements of complexity also disguise a knee-jerk animosity to government, a fundamentalist Americanism that is the last thing we need more of today. These two books help us to understand why, and they depict a thinker not of our time but completely of hers, as modernistic and rigid as the planner theoreticians she so skillfully demolished. They believed in statistics as facts, and they were wrong. She believed in observations as facts, and she was wrong too.

Today the market has sorted everything out; the age of the master planner is long past, and the danger for some time has not been the imaginary opposition to Jane Jacobs, but the image of Jane Jacobs smiling from construction hoardings for new condos. In a perfectly pitched message for our age of capitalist triumphalism, she assumed the markets’ innocence.  Jane Jacobs, crypto-libertarian, offers nothing that would upset the capitalists, and we should not be surprised that she continues to be relevant.