Jane Jacobs’ Long Shadow

Review: Robert Kanigel, 'Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs;' Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring (eds.), 'Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs'

Jane Jacobs
Jane Jacobs / AP

The neocons did not come empty-handed. Long before fervid anti-Bush agitators in the 2000s warped the word "neoconservative" to mean something like "Jewish war-monger," the first generation of new conservatives had made its 1970s move from anti-communist Democrats to Reagan-supporting Republicans.

Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, Peter Berger and James Q. Wilson, Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus—the names are familiar enough. And, as I said, they did not want to arrive without claiming the previous writers who had influenced them. Like the spoils of Egypt, they tried to carry with them into the new conservatism such thinkers as George Orwell, Lionel Trilling, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Jane Jacobs.

Well, perhaps not so much Jane Jacobs. She was still alive in the 1970s and still productive, after all: proud of her loudly proclaimed liberalism till her death in 2006 at age 89. But her 1961 volume, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, had left an impact on much of a generation, including the ones who would later become conservatives.

Thus, for example, the thinkers who were young and active in the early 1960s—which the original neocons had been—were drawn to the book’s championing of democratic process and localism against the grand urban-planning schemes of powerful bureaucrats and their advisers who claimed the mantle of scientific analysis for what were essentially political decisions about roads and bridges and zoning. For that matter, city dwellers—which most of the neocons had been, as well—were fascinated by Jacobs’s insistence that we view cities through "eyes on the street," judging neighborhoods as though we lived in them and not as though we were gods gazing down on some model from above.

In other words, something in The Death and Life of Great American Cities endured beyond its author’s own politics, and we have never had as influential a book about city life in America. Ever since his important 1998 study, The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A., and the Fate of America’s Big Cities, New York’s Fred Siegel has been the urban theorist most often referenced by conservatives, and one of the things he showed in The Future Once Happened Here was that some of Jacobs’s ideas had been coopted by a new elitism among city leaders: "Their sense of moral superiority was so suffocating," he wrote, "as to make it impossible for them to either adapt to new conditions or learn from their critics."

But even Siegel didn’t fully reject Jacobs, and she remains an emblem, a surveyor’s mark driven into the rock, for all who want to think about the problem of the American city. Robert Kanigel’s new biography, Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, gives a good overview of her life and times, particularly when coupled with the recent Vital Little Plans, a collection of Jacobs’s shorter essays.

Interestingly, what emerges from these books is a way to understand Jacobs primarily as a writer—a stylist whose influence came as much from how she wrote as what she wrote. Jacobs was born in 1916, and her undistinguished high-school diploma in her native Scranton, Pennsylvania, led only to informal studies at Columbia and Barnard—studies she deserted before entering an official degree program.

She never much cared for academics in the years that followed, but what she did care about was writing. When she came to New York with her sister in the 1930s, she found a job as a secretary at a trade magazine before working her way up to an editorial position—all while writing freelance pieces for the Sunday Herald Tribune and Vogue. After a stint at Iron Age magazine, she took a position at a State Department publication before leaving for Henry Luce’s Architectural Forum in 1952, and it was there that she finally found the topic that would fit her prose, with its strange combination of dispassionate reporting and passionate argument.

Her 1954 essay about unsuccessful urban renewal in Philadelphia led to a 1955 meeting with William Kirk, a minister concerned about New York’s plans for East Harlem. And that, in turn, led to a lecture at Harvard in 1956—the moment at which, really, the snowball of her fame began to roll. By 1958 she had grants from the Rockefeller Foundation to research her ideas, with The Death and Life of Great American Cities as the result.

She would go on to do much more, from leading the fight for preservation of Greenwich Village to defending the neighborhoods of Toronto, to which she moved in 1968. She also continued to write books, from her well-regarded The Economy of Cities (1969) to her underappreciated The Nature of Economies (2000) and on to her peculiar final book, Dark Age Ahead (2004). Still, The Death and Life of Great American Cities remains her central work—and what are to make of it now, 55 years after its publication?

Recent criticisms of Jacobs from the left abound. She failed to understand the iniquitous impact of the wealthy on urban life, it is claimed, and she was never interested in race. She hated modernism even more than it deserves, and she imagined the New York City of her era was the universal condition of urban life. Her emphasis on the civility necessary for city life disparaged the righteous anger felt by the poor and oppressed.

Perhaps more to the point, however, is that she failed to predict the influence of her own writing—which is how the law of unintended consequences overtook her. Jacobs is hardly the sole reason for gentrification. But she certainly contributed to the great transformation of the way in which Americans perceive the urban landscape.

In the first twenty years after she moved to New York from Scranton in the 1930s, city neighborhoods of townhouses and low-rise buildings were generally perceived as outdated failures: the ethnic places from which the rising middle class fled off to the suburbs. Jacobs’s work helped revive such places as Greenwich Village, teaching Americans the charm of multi-use, high-density, low-rise areas with a range of social classes and historic architecture.

That would create its own problems. Unsurprisingly, as Americans came to value the old urban neighborhoods, those old neighborhoods became valuable. Housing prices skyrocketed. Jacobs’s mixed social classes would eventually be homogenized into the upper-middle class that could afford the charms she had helped teach people to appreciate.

Some of Jacobs’s epigoni—notably Richard Florida, in his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class—would celebrate the expensive cities that resulted. But the demands of the newly urbanized upper-middle class, when combined with the revival of racial politics, would contribute to the problems of urban governance that we face today.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities helped kill off the view of cities held by the likes of Robert Moses, who treated New York as a playground, knocking down old homes as though they were bowling pins and running highways through the middle of neighborhoods in the name of modern advancement. And the memory of that victory has kept the name of Jane Jacobs alive—a talisman even for conservatives. As well it ought. The old muscular city planners were the arrogant elites of their day, and they blotted the urban landscape of America for two generations.

But those old urbanists have been replaced with new urbanists, just as filled with pieties and self-righteousness, and Jane Jacobs contributed to their rise just as surely as she contributed to the fall of their predecessors. On much she was right, as when she insisted on trying to discern "social capital." And on much she was interesting, as when she claimed that cities, rather than nations, were the true engines of economics. But on much else she was wrong, and on still more she was right only for her moment.

In other words, a truly conservative account of cities would have to leave her behind—although, one needs to ask, given the political divides of the nation in 2016, what incentive do conservatives feel for any account of the once-great American cities? The geographical divisions of contemporary politics are a scandal and a shame, and however good The Death and Life of Great American Cities was back in 1961, it did its share in getting us to this point.