Jane Jacobs, Social Critic Who Redefined and Championed Cities, Is Dead at 89
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Published: April 26, 2006
Jane Jacobs, the writer and thinker who brought penetrating eyes and ingenious insight to the sidewalk ballet of her own Greenwich Village street and came up with a book that challenged and changed the way people view cities, died yesterday in Toronto, where she moved in 1968. She was 89.
She died at a Toronto hospital, said a distant cousin, Lucia Jacobs, who gave no specific cause of death.
In her book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," written in 1961, Ms. Jacobs's enormous achievement was to transcend her own withering critique of 20th-century urban planning and propose radically new principles for rebuilding cities.
At a time when both common and inspired wisdom called for bulldozing slums and opening up city space, Ms. Jacobs's prescription was ever more diversity, density and dynamism Ñ in effect, to crowd people and activities together in a joyous urban jumble.
Her critique of the nation's cities is often grouped with the work of writers who in the 1960's shook the foundations of American society: Paul Goodman's attack on schooling; Michael Harrington's stark portrait of poverty; Ralph Nader's barrage against the auto industry; and Malcolm X's grim tour of America's racial divide, among others. And it continues to influence a third generation of students.
"Death and Life" made four basic recommendations for creating municipal diversity: 1. A street or district must serve several primary functions. 2. Blocks must be short. 3. Buildings must vary in age, condition and use. 4. Population must be dense.
Ms. Jacobs's thesis was enlarged by her deep, eclectic reading. But most compelling was her description of the everyday life she witnessed from her home above a candy store at 555 Hudson Street, near 11th Street.
In that description, she puts out her garbage, children go to school, the dry cleaner and the barber open their shops, women come out to chat, longshoremen visit the local bar, teenagers return from school and change to go out on dates, and another day is played out. Sometimes, odd things happen: a bagpiper shows up on a February night, and delighted listeners gather around. Whether neighbors or strangers, people are safer because they are almost never alone.
"People who know well such animated city streets will know how it is," Ms. Jacobs wrote. "I am afraid people who do not will always have it a little wrong in their heads, like the old prints of rhinoceroses made from travelers' descriptions of rhinoceroses."
Robert Caro, the historian, said in an interview yesterday that Ms. Jacobs was far from the first urban theorist to stress the importance of neighborhood and community. "But no one had ever said it so brilliantly before," he said. "She gave voice to something that needed a voice."
Some critics used adjectives like "triumphant" and "seminal" to describe "Death and Life." Others, not a few of whom with an ax to grind, were less kind. Lewis Mumford, the critic and social historian whom Ms. Jacobs eviscerated in the book, suggested in a review in The New Yorker that she had displayed "aesthetic philistinism with a vengeance."
The battles she ignited are still being fought, and the criticism was perhaps inevitable, given that such an ambitious work was produced by somebody who had not finished college, much less become an established professional in the field.
Indisputably, the book was as radically challenging to conventional thinking as Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," which helped engender the environmental movement, would be the next year, and Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," which deeply affected perceptions of relations between the sexes, would be in 1963.
Like those two writers, Ms. Jacobs was able to summon a freshness of perspective. Some dismissed it as amateurism, but to many others it was a point of view that made new ideas not only thinkable but suddenly and eminently reasonable.
"When an entire field is headed in the wrong direction, when the routine application of mainstream thinking has produced disastrous results as I think was true of planning and urban policy in the 1950's, then it probably took someone from outside to point out the obvious," Alan Ehrenhalt wrote in 2001 in Planning, the magazine of the American Planning Association.
"That is what Jane Jacobs did 40 years ago," he said.
Action, Not Just Words
Ms. Jacobs did not limit her impact to words. In 1961, she and other protestors were removed from a City Planning Commission hearing on an urban renewal plan for Greenwich Village that they opposed, after they leapt from their seats and rushed the podium.
In 1968, she was arrested on riot and criminal mischief charges for disrupting a public meeting on the construction of an expressway that would have sliced across Lower Manhattan and displaced hundreds of families and businesses. The police said she had tried to tear up the stenographer's transcript tape.
The battle against that highway pitted Ms. Jacobs in an uphill fight against Robert Moses, the autocratic and immensely powerful master builder of that era. The expressway's opponents won.
Ms. Jacobs moved to Toronto in 1968 out of opposition to the Vietnam War and to shield her two draft-age sons from military duty, and quickly enlisted in Toronto's urban battles. No sooner had she arrived than she led a battle to stop a freeway there.
She became a beloved intellectual pioneer characterized by a dumpling face, an impish smile, sneakers, bangs and owlish glasses. But Roger Starr, a former New York City housing administrator and sometime opponent of Ms. Jacobs, keenly noted the steel just beneath her folksiness.
"What a dear, sweet character she isn't," he said.
After she was removed from the Planning Commission hearing in 1961, her own words underlined her feistiness. "We had been ladies and gentlemen and only got pushed around," she said.
But fighting with government, even being arrested with Susan Sontag and Allen Ginsberg in an antidraft protest, was something she said she had repeatedly been forced into by "outrageous" governmental actions.
What she hated most about those actions was that they took time away from her writing, which she said was her way of thinking. And in at least five fields of inquiry, she thought deeply and innovatively: urban design, urban history, regional economics, the morality of the economy and the nature of economic growth.
Each of her major books led naturally to the next. From writing about how people functioned within cities, she analyzed how cities function within nations, how nations function with one another, how everyone functions in a world of conflicting moral principles and, finally, how economies grow like biological organisms.
A small book in 1980 arguing for Quebec separatism created a stir in Canada, while a 1996 memoir of her great-aunt's experience as a schoolteacher in rural Alaska, which she edited, impressed reviewers with its homespun wisdom.
But it is "Death and Life," published by Random House, that rocked the planning and architectural establishment.
On one level, it represented the first liberal attack on the liberal idea of urban renewal. At the same time, the New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson saw an old-fashioned vision of community that he compared to Thornton Wilder's fictional Grover's Corners. Ms. Jacobs herself thought the book's continuing appeal was that it plumbed the depths of human nature like a good novel.
In 2003, Herbert Muschamp, the Times's chief architecture critic, wrote that Ms. Jacobs's book was "one of 20th-century architecture's most traumatic events," in part because Ms. Jacobs was dismissive about the importance of design.
In recent years, she became an inspiration to architects and planners who espouse what they call the New Urbanism, an effort to promote social interaction by incorporating such Jacobean features as ground-floor stores in suburban developments.
Patrick Pinnell, an architect associated with this school, said "Death and Life" represented almost the last expression of optimism about American cities. As early as 1974, John E. Zuccotti, then chairman of the New York City Planning Commission, called Ms. Jacobs a prophet and himself a "neo-Jacobean" when he announced a smaller-scale, more sensitive urban planning approach. Ms. Jacobs was born Jane Butzner on May 4, 1916, in Scranton, Pa. Her father was a physician and her mother a schoolteacher. She remembered being something of a troublemaker in school, engaging in pranks like exploding inflated paper bags in the lunchroom. She preferred reading books surreptitiously to listening to the teacher.
In an interview in Azure magazine in 1997, Ms. Jacobs recounted her habit of carrying on imaginary conversations with Thomas Jefferson while running errands. When she could think of nothing more to tell Jefferson, she replaced him with Benjamin Franklin.
"Like Jefferson, he was interested in lofty things, but also in nitty-gritty, down-to-earth details," she said, "such as why the alley we were walking through wasn't paved, and who would pave it if it were paved. He was interested in everything, so he was a very satisfying companion."
Years later, she realized that she had developed her talent of working through difficult ideas in simple terms by practicing them on her imaginary Franklin. She also acquired another inner companion through Alfred Duggan, an English historical novelist. He was Cerdic, a Saxon chieftain. Years later, she continued to chat with him while doing housework.
"There were only two things in the entire house that were familiar to him," she wrote; "the fire (although he didn't understand the chimney) and the sword," a Civil War souvenir. "Everything else had to be explained to him."
Not wanting to go to college, she took an unpaid position as assistant to the women's editor at The Scranton Tribune. In 1934, she moved to New York to join her sister, who was six years older and had a job in the home furnishings department of Abraham & Straus, the Brooklyn department store. The sisters lived on the top floor of a six-story walkup in Brooklyn Heights.
Subways Lead to Jobs
Each day, Ms. Jacobs got on the subway and arbitrarily chose a stop at which to get off and look for a job. Because she liked the sound of Christopher Street, she got off there and found an apartment in Greenwich Village and soon after, a job as a secretary in a candy manufacturing company.
She worked as a secretary for five years. The sisters did not have much money and sometimes lived on Pablum and bananas, Ms. Jacobs said in an interview with Metropolis Magazine in 2001.
She began writing articles then, first for a metals-trade paper. She sold a series of articles about different areas of the city, like the fur district, to Vogue, earning $40 for each at a time when she was making $12 a week as a secretary. She wrote Sunday features for The New York Herald Tribune and articles for Q Magazine on manhole covers, among other things.
While working full time, she attended Columbia University's School of General Studies for two years and took courses in geology, zoology, law, political science and economics. In 1944, Ms. Jacobs, who was then working for the Office of War Information, and her two roommates had a party in their apartment. One guest was Robert Hyde Jacobs Jr., an architect who specialized in hospital design. They met in April and married in May.
Ms. Jacobs told Azure that she would not have written any books without her husband's encouragement. It was he who decided that the family should move to Toronto in 1968 after their sons said they would go to jail rather than serve in Vietnam. Mr. Jacobs died in 1996. Ms. Jacobs is survived by her sons, James, of Toronto, and Ned, of Vancouver; her daughter, Burgin Jacobs, of New Denver, British Columbia, and one granddaughter.
In 1952, Ms. Jacobs got a job as an editor at Architectural Forum, where she stayed for 10 years. That gave her a perch from which to observe urban renewal projects. On a visit to Philadelphia, she noticed that the streets of a project were deserted while an older, nearby street was crowded.
"So, I got very suspicious of this whole thing," she told The Toronto Star in 1997. "I pointed that out to the designer, but it was absolutely uninteresting to him. How things worked didn't interest him.
"He wasn't concerned about its attractiveness to people. His notion was totally aesthetic, divorced from everything else."
Her doubts increased after William Kirk, the director of the Union Settlement in East Harlem, taught her new ways of seeing neighborhoods. She came to see the prevalent planning notions, which involved bulldozing low-rise housing in poor neighborhoods and replacing it with tall apartment buildings surrounded by open space, as a superstition akin to early 19th-century physicians' belief in bloodletting.
"There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder," she wrote in "Death and Life," "and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served."
William H. Whyte, the editor of Fortune magazine and the author of books about urban life as well as his celebrated "Organization Man," asked Ms. Jacobs to write an article for Fortune on urban downtowns in 1958. Her essay, which was reprinted in "The Exploding Metropolis" (Doubleday, 1958), turned out to be a trial run for her book.
"Designing a dream city is easy," she concluded. "Rebuilding a living one takes imagination."
The Fortune article caught the attention of the Rockefeller Foundation, which offered her a grant in 1958 to write about cities. Two grants and three years later, she produced her manuscript for "Death and Life" on the Remington typewriter that she used until her death.
Her seemingly simple prescriptions for neighborhood diversity, short blocks, dense populations and a mix of buildings represented a major rethinking of modern planning. They were coupled with fierce condemnations of the writings of the planners Sir Patrick Geddes and Ebenezer Howard, as well as those of the architect Le Corbusier and Lewis Mumford, who championed the ideal of graceful towers rising over exquisite open spaces. Mr. Mumford held his fire for a year before replying in a New Yorker article, sardonically titled "Home Remedies for Urban Cancer."
"Like a construction gang bulldozing a site clean of all habitations, good or bad," Mr. Mumford wrote, "she bulldozes out of existence every desirable innovation in urban planning during the last century, and every competing idea, without even a pretense of critical evaluation."
Form Over Substance?
Even the architecture critic Paul Goldberger, while expressing profound admiration for Ms. Jacobs in a New York Times article in 1996, suggested that she may have overstated the importance of the physical form of cities.
"Sometimes big, ugly high-rise towers work just fine," he wrote.
Ms. Jacobs next book, "The Economy of Cities" (Random House, 1969), challenged the ideas that cities were established on a rural economic base; rather, she suggested, rural economies have been built directly through city economies. After that came "The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle for Sovereignty" (Random House, 1980). It argued that Canada and Quebec would be better off without each other, on the general grounds that smaller is better.
She delved more deeply into economics and cities with "Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life" (Random House, 1984), in which she contended that national governments undermine the economy of cities, which she saw as the natural engines of economic growth.
Her "Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics" (Vintage, 1994) looks at the moral underpinnings of work by examining different value systems. "The Nature of Economies" (Modern Library, 2000) likens economic activity to an ecosystem. Her last book, "Dark Age Ahead" (Random House, 2004), argues that North American culture is collapsing, then suggests ways to reverse the trend.
During her last years, Canadians held conferences to honor Ms. Jacobs. For New Yorkers, she lived on in the famous photo of her with a beer and a cigarette in the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, as well as memories of her plotting municipal mischief at another Village hangout. To generations of planners, architects and students of cities, Ms. Jacobs remains a seminal influence.
She perhaps perceived herself as an intellectual adventurer ready and able to follow her quixotic, often brilliant instincts into ever more fascinating terrain.
In "Systems of Survival," one of her characters worried that he was not qualified.
"Why not us?" replied the man who had invited the group together. "If more qualified people are up to the same thing, more power to them. But we don't know that, do we?"