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February 07, 2006

Jane Jacobs

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

We Blowhards and many of our fine visitors make frequent reference to "the great Jane Jacobs." I really have nothing to add to the chorus of admiring hosannas but my own hosanna. Hey, I think she's great too! But there's always the chance that a few visitors might not be familiar with the great Jane Jacobs or with her work. So it occurred to me: Why not provide an EZ, if half-assed and scattershot, intro?


Jacobs, who turns 90 this year, is -- IMHO, but I ain't alone -- one of the most remarkable of the go-it-her-own-way critic-intellectuals of the past century, a proud amateur and generalist from an era that was moving ever more in the direction of professionalism and specialization.

Jacobs was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a doctor. Soon after high school, she moved to New York City. During the '30s and '40s, she lived a catch-as-catch-can Greenwich Village life: working at this and that, beginning to write, exploring the city, and taking occasional courses at Columbia University.

When the post-war years came along, America went into pave-the-country-over hyperdrive. Sorry to say this about the Greatest Generation -- all due honor paid to them, of course -- but: What in God's name were they thinking of? In short order, steel-and-glass towers were being thrown up all over the country; the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act was signed into law, leading to the biggest engineering feat in the country's history; and the atrocity known as "urban renewal" was set in train. Plow it under! Build it anew!

(Small sidebar: I'm forever tinkering with, and never quite finishing, a posting about urban renewal. Major themes: what a horror it was, and how underknown it is today. I'm not entirely sure of my judgment in the matter, but I suspect that urban renewal may have been a self-inflicted American disaster on a par with the Vietnam War. Before laughing at me, consider the tally. Thousands of communities were destroyed. Millions of people were forcibly relocated. So many of these people were black that black people joked about urban renewal, bitterly calling it "Negro removal." Tens of billions of dollars were spent in an almost entirely destructive fashion. We did this to ourselves -- can you imagine? Anyway, we're still living in the shadow of this gigantic mistake, just as we're still living in the shadow of Vietnam.)

Has anyone ever fully explained what was going on in people's minds during those Le Corbusier-besotted/big-project/top-down years? As far as I can tell, the country was high on its victory in World War II, was thrilled to be done with the Depression, was delighted by the new and the shiney, couldn't have liked automobiles better, and was feeling even more can-do than usual. Still, is that enough to explain how far things went?

What a crazy time. Planners and bureaucrats were determined to "rationalize" everything they could get their hands on. Where cities were concerned, this meant separating functions out from one another. Places where people lived were to be made distinct from the places where they worked. "Open space" -- open space in the abstract -- was considered to be everywhere and always a good thing. After all: sunlight, fresh air, etc. In practice many of the new "open space"-style parks simply didn't work. Not a surprise: Parks need to be crafted as carefully and respectfully as buildings do. Many of these new-style empty-space parks quickly turned into windswept blights: garbage-dumps and crime-nests.

These sad and horrifying developments brought out the best in Jane Jacobs. While the experts (and their propagandists) grew ever more drunk on their do-gooding, egomanical, sci-fi visions, Jacobs went out and looked at what was actually happening. The new towers, the freeways, and the slum-clearances were pitched as efficient and hygienic solutions to the chaos of urban life. But where clarity, order, and ease were promised, Jacobs saw monocultures going quickly to seed. Where new blocks of apartments were announcing that "we got it under control," Jacobs saw over-regimented, inhuman nightmares. The slums that were being plowed under for redevelopment struck her as anything as hopeless. They struck her, in fact, as functioning neighborhoods, even if poor ones. Where the planners saw mess and disorganization, Jane Jacobs saw life and vitality.

She pulled her thoughts, critiques, and observations together; the result was her masterpiece, the 1961 "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." It's to the country's credit that the book became an instant sensation; that it had a huge impact; and that it has remained popular. (Alas, it's much less revered among architects than it is among urbanists.) In the book, Jacobs took note of the roles that messiness, diversity, and invisible connections play in living communities.

An example: Unlike the planners, Jacobs observed everyday life on the street. Is it the cops and the politicians who keep streets safe?, she wondered. When she looked for answers, she concluded that "eyes on the street" -- mothers, shopkeepers, passersby, business owners -- play a far bigger, if informal, role in keeping a neighborhood vital.

In "Death and Life," she wrote:

Most city diversity 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.

Hayek, "Sim City," pattern-language, self-organization, complexity, and chaos-theory fans should all feel free to enjoy echoes and premonitions.

In Jacobs' view, cities and regions are organic entities. Sever the connections and segregate out the functions? You might as well dismember a living body. The results might well make for a handsome flow-chart. But the neighborhood the chart represents will die.

Jacobs was also a practical activist. She helped lead one notable fight against that maniac planner Robert Moses, for example. One of Moses' ambitions was to have an expressway built through Greenwich Village. Thousands of historic buildings in the West Village would have been destroyed so that cars could zoom a little more quickly from New Jersey through to Brooklyn. With her book and her activism, Jacobs helped turn the tide against this kind of insane and arrogant top-downism.

In later books, Jacobs has broadened her interests and worked on more general levels, discussing ethics, economics, and biology. But there are many continuities in her work. For example, she sees economies much as she sees cities -- as ecosystems. Since 1968, Jacobs has lived in Toronto. She'd married an architect and raised three kids; the family left America during the Vietnam War. She has steadfastly refused to accept nearly all the awards that people have tried to give her. Her husband died in the late '90s, but Jacobs continues to write.

In a way, she's a genius version of the little old lady in tennis shoes -- the cranky broad in the visor cap who hangs out at the library, and who shows up at every town meeting to let her views be known. As Robert Silvey wrote on his blog:

She's like a friendly next-door neighbor who likes to chat about the problems with traffic and parking on your block, and you agree politely—until you gradually notice that she has been laying out a far-reaching, cogent critique of the entire society, complete with systemic solutions to apparently unconnected problems. That's when you realize she may be the smartest person you know.

One thing I love about Jacobs is that her devotion has never been to theory or to concept. It has always been to what she has actually encountered and seen -- to how things actually are, and to how they actually happen. She takes life on a case-by-case basis. She's often asked to lay out general rules, for instance -- people really want some of her wisdom. It's hilarious to read her responses. "You have to be careful and not get abstract about this," she snaps at one interviewer.

I also love how hard it is to categorize her. She's a practical woman and nothing if not an empiricist. Yet she writes in a very personal, even impassioned and romantic way. She's a hero to the "Small is Beautiful" eco-hippie crowd, yet she extolls economic growth and the role played in it by entrepreneurs. Though she has generally been adopted by the left, Gene Callahan thinks that she's essentially an Austrian economist in her views of money, development, and economics. And, hey, have you noticed that Rod Dreher's book about the conservative-hippie thang, "Crunchy Cons," is about to come out?

An example of Jacobs' approach: She's a fan of mass transit -- but not in the conventional sense. She doesn't just like trains. What she'd like to see is all kinds of mass transit, including private jitneys. "I wish we didn't have the notion that you have to have monopoly franchise transit," she says. "I wish it were competitive -- in the kinds of vehicles that it uses, in the fares that it charges..." She's one of the intellectual godparents of the New Urbanism, yet she once said this about their projects:

"The New Urbanists want to have lively centers in the places that they develop, where people run into each other doing errands and that sort of thing. And yet, from what I've seen of their plans and the places they have built, they don't seem to have a sense of the anatomy of these hearts, these centers. They've planned them as if they were shopping centers. They don't connect."

If any one thing characterizes Jacobs' work -- and I'm not sure any one thing does, but I'm gonna try anyway -- it's her aversion to theory and dogmatism. Take it case-by-case; be skeptical of general rules. Government usually screws things up and makes life more of a burden then it needs to be, but some of what it does seems to help.

Her perpetual-amateur stance and her anything-but-systematic, anti-deterministic approach has opened her to criticism. Some portray her as naive, and god knows that her books about economics especially are very quirky. But I'm a sunny sort of guy, and I love her work. Why not appreciate her for her very real contributions? One of which is that, over and over again, she has raised the kinds of juicy questions that trained professionals are unlikely to bring up yet that often concern the rest of us most intensely.

What I love most about Jacobs, though, is her combo of gentleness, toughness, tart opinion, and respect. Here's an example. She was asked what it is she likes about Portland, Oregon. Her response: "People in Portland love Portland. That's the most important thing." Forgive me while I wipe away a tear of happiness. I love her language, which is direct yet skeptical, and full of personality without being showoffy. She has an impressive knack for turning a catchy phrase too. She coined, for example, not just "eyes on the street" but also "tower in a park" (to describe the disastrous fashion for building skyscrapers in the middle of empty plazas) and "social capital."

Here's a typically sweet/testy passage from an interview with Blake Harris:

Jacobs: I'm like most people. I have other things to do. I don't like getting in these fights. I hate the government making my life absurd. I don't want the government to set an agenda for what I have to be doing by it being so stupid that I have to devote myself to that. I have other things to do. And this is true of most people. It is really an outrage when you come to think of it. Here are all these people who get paid for government jobs, and we the taxpayers are paying them. And how are they spending their time? Making life miserable for us so we can hardly earn the money to pay their wages because we are so busy fighting them. That's what I mean by making our lives absurd.

Harris: When you start talking about the big role of government and that it messes around too much in people's lives sometimes, is there a danger that one can become too free-enterprise, that one is forgetting the social network that government can provide?

Jacobs: You are putting words in my mouth. I never said that government was messing around too much in our lives. I said it was doing stupid things. That's not the same thing at all. It may be doing too little in our lives and still be doing stupid things. It's not an ideological thing.

Harris: Ideological labels don't stick too well to you.

Jacobs: You try, if you can, to get people to look at the specific thing that is happening and not try to generalize it as an ideology. Ideologies, no matter what kind, are one of the greatest afflictions, because they blind us to seeing what is going on, or to what is being done.

And from another exchange with Harris:

Harris: Whether it is economics [or other fields], how can energy overflow into other areas, whether it is in terms of neighborhood activities and the creative things that make a neighborhood, where will the core of change and innovation be in this new megacity? Will they be destroyed? Will they still be there?

Jacobs: You know, you can't predict these things. They are self-organizing. They are surprising. By cores, I take it you mean incubation modes and things like that -- they happen where they will. In hindsight, you can often see why. But it is quite futile to try to predict it. And it is also futile to attempt to control it. That is mostly suppressing. These things come out of human creativity. You can just rejoice at it and try not to stop it.

Harris: What do you do when you can't predict? Youi don't just sit there and wait for these wonderful things to start bubbling up?

Jacobs: Oh no, you are part of the bubble.

For those who would like to scratch a little deeper, let me suggest reading James Kunstler's interview with Jacobs, Blake Harris' interview with her, Bill Steigerwald's q&a with her, and Zompist's wiki essay about her economic views. Gert-Jan Hospers has written a good short biography of Jacobs. Here's a quick encounter with Jacobs' most recent thinking.



posted by Michael at February 7, 2006


Excellent article. So many of us grew up watching this demolition derby. And you're right...when it came to architecture, the Greatest Generation was the worst. In their defence, most of them were not very well educated and had not traveled very much, unless you consider their miliary tours. Many were still reacting to the Depression and WWII. But hubris cares not how it obtains its energy, and this generation's exuberance for doing acts of kindness has known no bounds. We're still suffering from those acts of kindness.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on February 7, 2006 09:59 AM

Wasn't Robert Moses' thwarted expressway to run through Soho rather than the West Village? If so, I'll point out that the idea was less shocking at the time than it would appear from today's perspective, as during the 1950's Soho was quite run-down and unattractive.

Posted by: Peter on February 7, 2006 10:17 AM

I think that a lot of the post-WW2 urban makeover is an extension of what was brewing in the 30s and before. Benjamin can hop in and supplement my weak memory here, but in the 30s an insurance company (the Prudential?) razed some blocks on the Lower East Side and built a number of high-rise units that got snapped up more by middle-class folks than the poorer people they were intended for. Okay, this was a limited, private effort.

Post-Depression, post-war, govenments propelled by architectural and urban theorists roared ahead doing what you described. My point is that the war simply delayed what was probably inevitable once government became Big Government under Roosevelt.

BTW, as a sociology grad student in the mid-60s where "theory" was everywhere, I was astonished to read Jacobs and taken aback by the fact that she actually observed stuff rather than theorizing. I'm still trying to wean myself from over-theorizing.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 7, 2006 11:43 AM

Donald -
You're thinking of Stuyvesant Town and the adjacent Peter Cooper Village. It was Metropolitan Life, not Prudential, and AFAIK the complexes were built in the immediate post-WWII years rather than in the 1930's. They indeed attracted an unexpectedly middle-class element and remain desirable today.

Posted by: Peter on February 7, 2006 12:22 PM

Marvelous! I've had "Death and Life" in my library e-queue so long I'd forgotten I'd put it there. Thanks for the primer on what seems like one great human being. Off to troll for used copies now.

Posted by: communicatrix on February 7, 2006 12:58 PM

As regards Ms. Jacobs line:

Here are all these people who get paid for government jobs, and we the taxpayers are paying them. And how are they spending their time? Making life miserable for us so we can hardly earn the money to pay their wages because we are so busy fighting them.

It reminds me of "A Night At the Opera" where Margaret Dumont, playing a nouveau-riche woman, confronts Groucho Marx, playing an unreliable P.R. man, Otis P. Driftwood:

Margaret Dumont: Mr. Driftwood, six months ago I hired you to get me into the highest New York society. Since then all you've done is collect a handsome salary.

Groucho: (shocked) You call that all?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 7, 2006 02:11 PM

Nice summary. I have yet to read Death and Life.

I'm sure Urban Renewal did SOMETHING good, but after seeing this documentary , the phrase only evokes a physical shutter.

Posted by: AF on February 7, 2006 07:00 PM

Nice summary. I have yet to read Death and Life.

I'm sure Urban Renewal did SOMETHING good, but after seeing this documentary , the phrase only evokes a physical shutter.

Posted by: AF on February 7, 2006 07:00 PM

Check out the new "Livable Streets" exhibtion at Muncipal Art Society--produced by Project for Public Spaces (David Sucher's friends) and inspired by Jane Jacobs and William (Holly) Whyte.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on February 7, 2006 07:08 PM

Politically, Jacobs really can be all things to all people. She appeals to conservative nostalgia, liberal concern for the underdog, greens, and Libertarians.

My pet theory is that American politics is about to reorient itself along 19th Century lines, and concern itself mostly with how America should be physically laid out. Jacobs is a good example of why I think it is so.

Posted by: Omri on February 7, 2006 08:31 PM

The first time I read Death & Life, I immediately put Jacobs in my Conservative Pantheon, right next to Adam Smith and Hayek and Friedman and the
rest of the "spontanous order/invisible hand" crowd. I had to go and sit by myself for a while the first time I heard her get claimed by the Left.

Her methods have long reminded me of that other nonegenarian, the recently departed Peter Drucker, who described his attitude as that of a "bystander" - sit on the sidelines, take it all in, don't make up your mind until you know what you're looking at, and keep personal grudges out of it. Not surprisingly, they both repay endless rereading.

BTW - she appeals to conservatives for a lot more than "nostalgia", whatever that means. The big question is: should progress be planned, or should it happen on its own? Libs say plan it, in order to make it safe and socially just and sustainable and all the other excuses. Conservatives say laissez faire, which I'm sure you know translates as "leave us alone".

Posted by: Brian on February 7, 2006 08:48 PM

I lives in Portland OR for decades and I did love it. If it were somewhat bigger and had a first-rate university it would be a first-rank city. As it is, it's a great place to live.

Portland does have its own urban renewal scar though, in near-in NE. After 30 years or more it's only just starting to revive. There was a series of good mayors who put a stop to the razing before it got too far.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 7, 2006 10:46 PM

This is a brilliant introduction. It says so much so well. Thanks for posting it.

Posted by: Michael Bates on February 8, 2006 12:35 AM

Ever notice that many of the things that enrage young progressives these days are the work of old progressives?

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on February 8, 2006 03:41 AM

Peter is quite right. The plans drawn up in the 1940's for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (Lomex) had it connecting the Holland Tunnel with the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. It would have cut through Soho, at the time a most unattractive part of Manhattan.

Posted by: Greg Hlatky on February 8, 2006 07:35 AM

...and the plan for the expressway stayed on the books as a potential project until the 1960s or thereabouts. This threat kept property owners and developers from improving the area. Lord knows it was a dead-zone back in the early 60s when I sometimes walked through it on my way to lower Manhattan.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 8, 2006 10:03 AM

Charlton -- That's a really good point about the Greatest, I'd never thought about that. I wonder too if many were half-educated ... A few had been to college, a bunch of them got overseas ... And maybe that made them more vulnerable than they would have been otherwise to modernist dreams ... Hmm, provocative.

Peter -- Is that right? The accounts I've read referred to Moses' freeway going through the West Village and even through Washington Sq. Park. But I have no firsthand/research knowledge. Any chance there were two such proposed freeways? God knows Moses was ambitious...

Donald -- Yeah, there was a real "we can do it" mindset around, wasn't there? And a real confidence in government's intentions, will, and power. It's funny how much FDR is still a hero to many of the people I spend my days around. Once again I marvel at how certain people get all soft and gooey when it comes to politics, and political dreams. Government and politics never held any glamor for me, did they for you? The attraction escapes me entirely.

Communicatrix -- "Death and Life" really is great. On the other hand, if time is short, the q&a's I linked to are pretty great too. These days ... My own patience for book-length works seems to be shrinking. Says something about my shallowness, I'm sure, but are you as amazed as I am by how quickly the web allows you to satisfy your curiosity? I remember this one day I was at the computer, kind of wondering about where to surf next, and realizing that I was sated. There was nothing I wanted to know about that I hadn't investigated to my heart's content. What a weird sensation -- certainly nothing I'd ever felt before...

FvB -- That is a great line. Why don't philosophers stand in awe of such lines?

AF -- I'll have to catch up with that one, thanks for pointing it out. The impact of urban renewal on black Americans seems to have been pretty horrifying. As far as I can tell, the UrbRenewal process got started with good (if naive) intentions, but then got captured by ambitious pols, greedy speculators, and racists. They all suddently had a license to push a lot of poor people around and take advantage of 'em. Thank you, progressives, for making this all possible.

Winifer -- Tks for the tip.

Omri -- I think that's a really shrewd hunch. Plus it sounds like a nice development. I wonder how/if people will screw it up ...

Brian -- That's a funny line about how you reacted to discovering that lefties like Jacobs too. Is Drucker great, btw? I've only read one book, years ago, and come to think of it it was pretty terrific. But I'm ultra-weak on business -- don't have an intuitive feeling for it. I like Jacobs partly because you can take what she says metaphorically -- cities aren't just ecosystems, they're consciousness itself, etc ... Does Drucker's writing work similarly?

John -- The Wife and I used to get to the NW pretty regularly, and both of us liked Portland a lot too. Good lord: a mid-sized American city with a living downtown, good food and beer, a genuine (and shaggy) identity, and a real cultural life. What could be nicer than that? It's funny the way that some righties love dissing Portland. I'd find their arguments a lot easier to take if they'd at least begin their critiques with something like, "Well, it can be a nice place to live and visit" before they get around to the "but."

Michael -- Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read!

Reg -- That's a good and funny line. And one of those little life lessons that ought to be laid on all college freshman, don't you think?

Greg, Donald -- I wonder how the legend began that the Moses freeway was intended to go through the West Village and Washington Square ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 8, 2006 11:29 AM

There's an enormous cultural problem in the U.S. that Jacobs and other urbanists are up against. The most energetic, brightest types, for the most part, want to move away from city centers and into their own freestanding homes with some acreage around them, as they move up the economic ladder.
This is not the case in Europe. In fact center city living is the most desireable living of all for most European elites (possible exception: England -- and we are England's heir, culturally speaking).
It follows, that with rare exceptions, center cities in the U.S. will continue to trail as desireable places to live; all the tinkering in the world not withstanding.
Whether one likes this situation or not is not the point. The culture's bias against urban living is just too great to overcome.

Posted by: ricpic on February 8, 2006 12:10 PM

I want to live in a Jane Jacobs' city! I would love to walk my neighborhood streets and shop in my neighborhood stores and chat with those around me. Please tell me where I can afford to live the Jacobs' dream?

Posted by: Cheryl on February 8, 2006 12:23 PM

ricpic: it could be because of the pathetic state the cities are in. It's still prestigious and desirable to live in some downtowns are real estate prices reflect this.

Posted by: DigitalDjigit on February 8, 2006 03:19 PM

I second the statement by digitaldigit. (above)

The $$$ values in close-in Seattle neighborhoods meet or exceed those in near-by suburbs. Enough people here like urban living to make housing within a mile or two of Seattle's CBD among the most expensive in the nation. Certainly there is antipathy to urbanism in certain circles but a lot of it is because many of our cities are simply not that pleasant.

Posted by: David Sucher on February 8, 2006 09:13 PM

I was born and raised in Portland, OR, and as a child lived through the Vanport Flood, which was our version of the New Orleans catastrophe except no lives were lost. It was 1948 and the original version of Portland State University was out along the Columbia (remember Portland is at the confluence of the C. and the Willamette) on the flood plain with a lot of veteran housing when the levees collapsed. Many people were displaced from their houses, including many blacks imported by Kaiser to work in the shipyards during the war. They moved up into the cheaper housing in N and NE Portland, most of it built by Euro immigrants between WWI and WWII. Eventually, the black population grew and mixed with drug culture so that the house where I grew up was engulfed. My mother stubbornly hung on there in the house she came to as a bride in 1938. This is the area that urban renewal could hardly keep their hands off. The Blazer stadium went in there and simply sterilized it all. Some of it gets gentrified from time to time, then slips back.

There was a cathedral church, St. Andrews in NE on Alberta. (Named for Queen Victoria's daughter, same as the Canadian province north of Montana.) Their priest stood in solidarity with poor people -- when he came he sold all the communion platens and chalices with their elaborately jeweled gold and used the money to install a free phone for people to use to search for jobs and network family. (He gave communion from an ordinary wineglass and china saucer.) There was a short block with small lots that was a regular termite hill of deterioration and slum landlordism. The church had property somewhere else and when the city wanted to demolish these small houses, the church bought them and moved them to the new lots, on new foundations, and rehabbed them for low-income people. A murdered woman turned up in a garbage bag under one of the houses jacked up to be moved. That's pretty typical of the contradictions of Portland.

The biggest urban renewal fiascoes in Portland were the high-rise apartments that replaced a lot of crumbling old houses in a neighborhood packed with hippies, communards, and Vietnam vets. One man refused to use electricity: heated with wood and illuminated with kerosene. Another told of a man who brought out from his bedroom a paper sack of Vietnamese ears and poured them out on the table. They said the ears looked like dried apricots. The place was a hotbed of civil disobedience and fought hard, so not too much damage was done.

The Civic Auditorium was rebuilt and a long avenue of high-rise apartments was installed leading south from it. The apartments fell flat -- high vacancy rates. No place to buy groceries. The Auditorium had a huge fountain in front of it, like a waterfall, and though I'm sure the city fathers envisioned people in evening dress drifting by on the way to the opera, it became a hangout for kids. Same with the big brick plaza right downtown. The paving bricks have names on them to raise money. I bought one for my mother.

Across the street from the plaza is a shopping mall as glitzy as any you could imagine -- a giant glass atrium with fancy shops and a escalator hanging out there in space in such a scary manner that it was two years before I could get up the courage to use it.

I'm not sure how much of all this Jane Jacobs could have seen firsthand. There were parts of town so bad that the cops would only go in two squad cars at a time. There were parks that flipped -- in daytime they were full of innocent people, at night they were impossibly dangerous. Forest Park, which is enormous and really pretty forest-like, was a favorite place to discard the bodies of murdered prostitutes. At sundown you can see the homeless people slowly walking up to the forest to bed down for the night in the trees. Some won't wake up. When I was working animal control in the Sixties, there was a black woman who lived up the street from my mother who ran 350 pigs in that park. She just unloaded them in there in the spring and rounded them up in the fall. They did a LOT of damage. But on the other side of the park there is a high tension power line that runs west to the Pacific coast and there's a herd of elk who live in that corridor, going back and forth between the city and the ocean.

I guess the place is more complex than most cities and most people ony see bits -- you know, start at Powells, hit the rose garden and maybe the zoo, eat somewhere on NW 23rd, then maybe on SE Hawthorne, and sort of notice in passing that there's a downtown university. If it ain't fancy and highbrow enough for you, there's always Reed.

There used to be two black housing inspectors who sort of hung out together and who generally stopped by my desk in the morning to use my hand lotion and stall going into the field. I called them Heckle and Jeckle one day and then worried that I was being racist, but they said not. One was a graduate of the high school that was the rival of mine -- not far from mine. He was Muslim. A low key but very smart guy. A pessimist. Black wife and a passel of kids. Lived not far from where he grew up. The other one was lighter in color, married to a white woman, moved to Portland from a very high status Washington DC community. He kept telling me that his father couldn't move to Portland because there was no apartment spacious and well-appointed enough for him to live in.

So I started out to talk up Portland's dark side, and now I've got myself convinced that Jane Jacobs would have liked the joint! Or at least been intrigued. But was she ever there?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 8, 2006 09:51 PM

There is a nice link to this piece and further praise for the great Ms. Jacobs over at Crooked Timber:

It is interesting to read the Crooked Timber comments though -- while all the libertarian conservatives here believe she is a libertarian conservative who detests FDR and so forth, the general consensus among we liberals over at Crooked Timber is that she is a liberal. The mark of a truly excellent thinker: no one can bear the thought that she is not from their camp. She may transcend camps, though.

Posted by: MQ on February 9, 2006 07:26 PM

Nice tribute, MB! I especially like the links you've provided. Although I've only had time to skim them, I think you have one or two really interesting ones that I hadn't seen.

I agree that Jacobs is hard to "pin down" (what precisely is her point?) or "pigeon-hole" (conservative or liberal?).

Here's a brief version of my "take" on Jacobs:

1) I love the fact that she is a "true outsider" (someone whose life just happened not to follow a standard trajectory) who has been seeking the truth, and not just a "poseur outsider" (e.g., an insider, or would-be insider, of the anti-establishment "establishment" -- the kind of person lampooned by my other favorite writer, Tom Wolfe). I think this has allowed her to really see things in a fresh way.

Plus, she hasn't been content to just skim the surface, but has been constantly asking herself, "Why? Why? Why?" or "Is there something I am taking for granted here that I shouldn't be?"

This seems to me to "account" for her startingly original (especially for their time) theories (some of which seem to parallel theories/approaches of more academically established theorists).

2) I love her committment to empiricism -- really going out and studying the world as it is (which is another thing that she and Tom Wolfe seem to me to have in common).

She also seems to be the rare "public intellectual" who actually reads about what's happening in various scientific fields, believes in science and has thought carefully about the how science most appropriately applies to her field of study.

It seems to me that this may be in part due to the fact she seems to be from a "scientific" family: her father was a physician and, I believe, she has a brother (or maybe brothers?) who's a scientest of some sort. Plus I think her late husband, the architect, wasn't a "design" architect, but focused on the design of hospitals. (Also, I think one of her children, her daughter?, is also a scientest.) (The possible info about her brother and her daughter is guesswork on my part, gleaned from the dedications and acknowledgements of her books.)

3) I love her committment to plain language and her apparent abhorence of elitist jargon. It seems to me that when she uses an unusual word or coins an expression it's because there is no other simpler, more expressive, way to say the same thing.

(By the way, I've heard -- but do not know if this is true -- that she also coined the expression, "social capital.")

4) If there is an over-riding theme/theory, "product" of her somewhat diverse and amorphous body of work (i.e., the way Darwin means evolution; Marx means Marxism; Adam Smith means the market economy, etc.) it seems to me to be something like, "small is beautiful" (I think she's on the board of directors of that Schumacher institute), diversity is good, and it's important to remember to think in terms of "processes" and "systems." These thoughts seem to apply to her work on cities, economies, etc. (I think her book, "The Nature of Economies" really puts the body of her work into clearer perspective.)

5) Is her work conservative or liberal? I think she sees her work as not fitting neatly into either camp. But, in rough terms, I see her work as as being basically economically conservative (government is the legitimate sphere of politicians; the economy is the legitimate sphere of businessmen [preferably small businessmen]) and socially liberal (skepticism toward war, a belief that government should preserve upward mobility, etc.) (My guesses here are based in large part upon her book, "Systems of Survival.")

I mention both "Systems of Survial" and "The Nature of Economies" here because so few of her fans seem to have read these books and they are really very thought provoking and seem to me to put her work into clearer perspective -- and they are both short and (in my opinion) very entertaining (like novellas [sp?]).

- - - - - - - - - - -

The highway that Jacobs help stop is the Lower Manhattan Expressway that would have cut through what is now called SoHo.

There was also another part of the plan, to enlarge the part of Fifth Ave. that goes through Washington Sq. Park and to also widen West Broadway -- which is the southern extension of Fifth Ave. -- in order to, I believe, hook up with the planned Lower Manhattan Expressway. But I don't get the impression that Jacobs was as active in this fight -- although she does write about it in "Death and Life of Great American Cities."

I think it is "inaccurate" (at least to a certain degree) to imply that SoHo was chosen as a route for the Lower Manhattan Expressway because it was run down and unattractive, although there is a certain amount of truth to it -- and it is certainly an understatment to say that SoHo is less run down and unattractive now. But I think it's also important to remember that people's idea of "beauty" has changed a great deal from the 1950s. In basic respects, SoHo today -- even in it's glamorous state -- actually looks surprisingly very much like it did in the 1950s. But take a 1950s person in a time machine to present day SoHo, and that person would still probably say that it is "ugly" (by the unenlightened standards of the 1950s).

But there was also a plan for a Mid-Manhattan Expressway -- which would have cut through an area where the buildings were a lot more modern and expensive. So it's important to remember that a large part of the movitivation was really highway building rather than urban "renewal" (i.e., getting rid of run down and unattractive buildings -- although run down and unattractive buildings certainly made it an easier "sell").

If I remember correctly, the Lower Manhattan Expressway wasn't TRULY AND FINALLY defeated until the early 1970s(!) -- after Jacobs had moved to Toronto. The story of it's defeat is a real roller coaster ride -- the project kept on being defeated and revived, defeated and revived, and so on. A really terrific account of the story is in the (amazing) book, "New York, 1960" by Robert A.M. Stern, et al.

- - - - - - - - -

Regarding Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village.

My understanding is that they were always intended to be middle-class housing. So the people who wound up living in them were basically the people they were intended to serve. They were built by Metropolitan Life to be lucrative investments, and I believe they turned out to be just that. (They just look like they were built for poor people.) There are similar developments elsewhere in NYC, like Parkchester in the Bronx, Fresh Meadows in Queens, etc., that were also built for investment purposes by Metropolitan Life or other insurance companies.

- - - - - - - - - -

Ricpic wrote:

There's an enormous cultural problem in the U.S. that Jacobs and other urbanists are up against. The most energetic, brightest types, for the most part, want to move away from city centers and into their own freestanding homes with some acreage around them, as they move up the economic ladder.

Benjamin writes:

While there is undoubted SOME truth to this, it is also, in some ways, very inaccurate. While it's true that suburbs are very popular in the U.S., so are city centers (and this has "always" been true to a certain extent).

The true "problem areas" of American cities are typically the areas that lie between the center of a city and its suburbs -- the "outer boroughs" in New York City -- which Jacbos (and the geographer, Peter Hall) call the "grey belt." (The South Bronx, Bed-Stuy and, to a lesser extent, Harlem are all in the "grey belt.") Of course, not many American cities have centers as large as NYC, so the popular downtown locations may be quite small -- miniscule -- while the surrounding grey belts are quite large, and this obscures the phenomenon.

- - - - - - - -

MB wrote:

Has anyone ever fully explained what was going on in people's minds during those Le Corbusier-besotted/big-project/top-down years? As far as I can tell, the country was high on its victory in World War II, was thrilled to be done with the Depression, was delighted by the new and the shiney, couldn't have liked automobiles better, and was feeling even more can-do than usual. Still, is that enough to explain how far things went?

Benjamin writes:

I first read Jacobs as a teenager in the summer of 1967 (to do my book review for freshman English) because I had read an excerpt of "Death and Life . . . " in "Reader's Digest"). When I read the table of contents and skimmed the book I just COULDN'T BELIEVE that she was saying what she was saying (e.g., cities need old buildings)!!! I kept on thinking to myself, "She's never ever going to pull this off. How can she be saying this?!" So "everyone," including even kids and teenagers, had been "brainwashed" by various Sunday supplements, deceptively beautiful architecturally renderings and the conventional wisdom of the time.

First you had to actually experience the reality before you saw how wrong the drawings and plans were. (As a kid I used to be entranced by the pedestrian walkways over the Long Island Expressway -- they looked so modern and "cool" -- until I rode my bike to one one hot, smoggy summer day, and actually used it to get to the other side.)

And, of course, professional self-interest, top-down government and buckets of money further propelled and institutionalized the juggernaut.

But what troubles me is the realization that 1950s style urban renewal thinking hasn't really died -- it has mutated. Just look at today's supposedly more sophisticated urban "revitalization" programs. Despite the mindless nods to Jacobs, they are essentially 1950s urban renewal schemes with curvy/angular buildings, a bit less open space and a few more stores and "community rooms" (cultural spaces).

Just look at the plans for Lower Manhattan (Libeskind's plan for the WTC site, Calatrava's two planned buildings) -- la vielle radieuse on acid!

People still think primarily in terms of drawings and don't use there common sense -- and a very superficial reading of maybe three or four chapters of ONE of Jane Jacobs" books ("Death and Life. . . ")

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on February 9, 2006 09:35 PM

P.S. --

I made a number of cut and paste type errors in my post, but one of them seemed to be expecially "bad" (confusing). So here's a better version (I hope) of what I meant:

"People generally still seem to think primarily in terms of 'beautiful' pictures/drawings (sometimes adding a very superficial understanding of three or four chapters of ONE of Jane Jacobs' books, "Death and Life . . . ") and don't really use their common sense."

- - - - - -

I just read on the "TradArch" archives (a website that is a repository of posts from an internet mailing list devoted to modern traditional architecture) about "A9" which is apparently a map site that also shows photos of buildings located on the streets shown on the map.

There are some nice photos of the house that Jane Jacobs used to live in -- plus photos of the White Horse tavern up the block AND the apartment houses, literally across the street from her house, that she used to illustrate her concept of "eyes on the street."

Here's the link:

If the link doesn't work, I suppose one can find the site using a search engine. I believe the site is called "A9".

Once you get to the site, type in 555 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014.

There will be a two stips of photos on the lower right hand side of the screen. One strip is for the western side of Hudson St. (the side Jacobs lived on) and one is for the eastern side of Hudson St. (the side that had the two sets of apartment houses).

You have to fiddle with the buttons to move up and down the street.

While you can't see in the house number of Jacobs' old house (even when you enlarge the photo), you can see the house number for the building next door (when you enlarge that photo). It's 557, and is to the right of the Jacobs house.

A few more frames to the right and you can see the White Horse tavern.

(The White Horse tavern has expanded one, or maybe even two or three, storefronts since Jacobs mentioned it in the early 1960s. Plus, I believe Jacobs' house was painted a very dark grey and had a glass-brick "picture window" on the ground floor, where the storefront [antique store?] is today.)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on February 9, 2006 10:44 PM

Michael: "Is Drucker great, btw? I've only read one book, years ago, and come to think of it it was pretty terrific. But I'm ultra-weak on business -- don't have an intuitive feeling for it."

What reminds me of Jacobs is his methods, and his open-mindedness. Back when everyone was saying the future belonged to the holy trinity of Big Business, Big Labor, and Big Government, Drucker was telling all who'd listen about the new knowledge economy as early as the 1950s, simply because he noticed what everyone else was too busy to see.

For someone who doesn't get business, a good place to start is his autobiography, Adventures of a Bystander, which gives recollections of the most interesting people he met. From his grandmother to Alfred Sloan, Karl Polyani, Sigmund Freud, and on and on.

One of my favorites is his book Innovation and Entrepreneurship. It's meant for business, but it's first class sociology too. He gives seven sources of innovation, most of them based on the nature of social trends.

For instance, under the heading "Changes In Perception", he points out that people become most dissatisfied about their situation after a long streak of progress. Twenty-five years of civil rights victories, and blacks in the '80s were more alienated than ever, which Jackson and Sharpton exploited. Thirty years of medical advances, from sulfa drugs and polio vaccines onward, and people started up the alternate health craze of the '70s because they'd never had less faith in medicine.

Another great book is The Effective Executive, which is about the fine art of getting things done.

Posted by: Brian on February 9, 2006 10:59 PM

A fine post. Thanks for it. I pulled some other quotes I particularly liked, and made some fleeting comments, with link to you, here.

Thanks again.

Posted by: Gary Farber on February 10, 2006 03:50 PM

I can't wait untill she dies so that Toronto can finaly finish the Spadina highway to downtown. In her honnor, I propose we rename it the Jane Jacobs Expressway.

Next time you're stuck in traffic, on a Sunday, in New York or Toronto, think of her.

Posted by: Erik on February 21, 2006 02:14 AM

I wouldn't say that JJ is a-theoretical. As the famed social psychologist Kurt Lewin said (although I've also seen this attributed to Einstein) "there is nothing so practical as a good theory."

Density, mixed-primary use, small blocks, and a large stock of old buildings are essentials to "Great American Cities" seems like a sound theory to me (theory--"an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena").

The point made about architects not liking the book, and the inference that planners do, well my take is that the average planning and government official still militantly tries to ignore the points of the book. Most planners are part of the dominant automobile-centric suburban styled paradigm of segregated use, still, and that includes many of the students in today's graduate planning programs.

Conservative vs. liberal is a stupid dichotomy. It's about working or not working cities. I consider myself a progressive politically, I vote left, but I would be lying and a fool to say that my work in urban revitalization doesn't benefit by reading the _City Journal_ or books, especially _The Future Once Happened Here_, by Fred Siegel. That being said, I joke that the more I learn about development and land use, the more I am becoming an intellectual Marxist (cf. _Urban Fortunes: A Political Economy of Place_ by Logan and Molotch).

Posted by: Richard Layman on February 24, 2006 08:30 PM

Jane Jacob's last book, Dark Age Ahead, is not her best, but it certainly is her cheapest book! Hard cover is available for 8 or 9 US dollars ($C9.99)! The first few chapters are quite good. They summarize her work and her general philosophy regarding cities.

She is quite pessimistic towards the end. Business Week didn't like it. But considering this is probably her last book (and she did get a couple of awards for it), you probably should add it to your collection.

Her entire collection can be found by clicking below.


Posted by: Dark Age Ahead C$9.99 (new!) on March 5, 2006 12:04 AM

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