April 28, 2006


Jane Jacobs, 1916–2006: New York’s indispensable urban iconoclast (Howard Husock, 27 April 2006, City Journal)

In a way, Jane Jacobs, who died this week, did to urban renewal what Rachel Carson did to DDT and Ralph Nader did to the Corvair. The Death and Life of Great American Cities marked Jane Jacobs as one of the great protest authors of the early 1960s. Upon the release of her book in 1961, the idea of wholesale government clearance of poor urban neighborhoods, whether for housing or highways, almost immediately fell out of favor. It is not surprising that three decades after its release, Death and Life was included in the Modern Library series of classics.

Despite her prominence, Jacobs was almost universally misunderstood. Her role in the public life of New York in the 1960s may explain some of this misunderstanding. Her opposition, to the point of arrest, to plans for a highway through Washington Square Park and to a development scheme that would have destroyed hundreds of buildings in the West Village led her to be seen as the mother of all preservationists, pedestrians, and community activists. And because she moved to Toronto, in part because of opposition to the Vietnam War, it is assumed she was a woman of the Left.

That she was none of these is not superficially apparent from her work. Because Death and Life poetically describes the rhythms of neighborhood street life—its teeming sidewalks, local characters, and small merchants—Jacobs is frequently invoked as the patron saint of old neighborhoods, protecting them from rapacious developers who would supplant the last drugstore that still has a soda fountain. Because she wrote of the value of small blocks and smaller buildings, it is easy to infer that she was a Jeffersonian opponent of bigness per se, whether of new developments or firms—or even cities, if they got too large.

But Jane Jacobs had no more desire to buffer cities from change than Herman Melville had to save the whale. For Jacobs, change was the very essence of city life. One cannot seek through public policy to “freeze conditions and uses as they stand. That would be death,” she wrote in Death and Life. Indeed, her great trilogy of works on cities—The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), The Economy of Cities (1969) and Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984)—are a plea for us to understand the dynamism, crucial to human progress, that arises in cities relatively unfettered by government. “Most city diversity,” she wrote in Death and Life, “is the creation of incredible numbers of different people and different private organizations, with vastly differing ideas and purposes, planning and contriving outside the framework of public action. The main responsibility of city planning and design should be to develop—insofar as public policy and action can do so—cities that are congenial places for this great range of unofficial plans, ideas, and opportunities to flourish.”

The Jane Jacobs story is a remarkable one. [...]

The real Jane Jacobs not only enjoyed busy city blocks but deplored high levels of welfare spending that inhibit urban economies. The real Jane Jacobs not only enjoyed the great variety of small businesses which cities offer, but questioned the public operation of services such as transit that preempt the formation of private competitors.

To get Jane Jacobs right, start with her reasons for opposing urban renewal. Her opposition was not primarily based on aesthetic and planning concerns, though there is no doubt that the design of public housing deeply concerned and offended her. In her view, the quintessential housing-project design of the high-rise tower set in a plaza or park defied common sense. Plazas that people don’t regularly traverse for a wide range of reasons—some going to work, some to the library, some to their homes—are apt to become dangerous gauntlets, as are the long corridors in high-rises, where the neighborly eyes Jacobs found watching the street in old neighborhoods are absent. The wealthy might be able to afford doormen and security patrols, but, Jacobs made clear, the less affluent need the self-policing that older, unplanned neighborhoods can provide.

But the heart of Jacobs’s quarrel with the advocates of urban renewal and city planning involved much more than design considerations. In her view, urban renewal was simply one manifestation of a set of beliefs that threatened to smother the economic life of cities as well as to level old neighborhoods. Put another way, Jacobs actually saw herself as an apostle, not an opponent, of progress, but was convinced that policies pursued in the name of economic and aesthetic improvement were actually anti-modern and would deaden the city’s economy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 28, 2006 12:07 PM

A woman with common sense and foresight. In the age of statist conceits she saw arrogant stupidity. Viet Nam, btw, was a war run by 'planners' in Washington.

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct at April 28, 2006 12:28 PM

I can't believe OJ is quoting her, as she opposed government run/funded/subsidized mass transit. She sounds very libertarian.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at April 28, 2006 1:15 PM


Mass transit should be private, as should roads.

Posted by: oj at April 28, 2006 2:25 PM

And elves and pixies can help maintain them in our fluffy fantasy land where everyone is happy all the time! Wheeee!

Posted by: Bryan at April 28, 2006 2:30 PM

Even Richard Nixon has got soul.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 28, 2006 7:37 PM

As in so many other instances, the leftists failed understand who or what they were worshipping.

Posted by: ZF at April 28, 2006 10:44 PM

NYC mass transit was a private enterprise at one time and of course, relative costs were well below the current levels. Imperfections and 'progressive' hubris (the cult of the planner) socialized it. The natural course of politics and the confusion of interests created the current system. Economics can't compete with political interests whose attention span is the election cycle.

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct at April 29, 2006 11:38 AM