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April 26, 2006

Jane Jacobs R.I.P.

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

You've probably noticed that the great Jane Jacobs has died at the age of 89. The web is full of intelligent and appreciative tributes: A Google News search on her name will turn up a lot of them. An obit by the LA Times' Mary Rourke is a good starting point. Martin Knelman writes a touching character sketch. Interesting to learn in Counterpunch that Jacobs, a Canadian resident since the 1970s, favored the separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada, and thought that the Euro was a dumb idea. Curbed is sweetly running a "the most Jane Jacobs block in New York City" contest. Gothamist supplies many links. I recently wrote a long intro to Jacobs and her work. Don't miss a couple of wonderful interviews: one from 2000 conducted by James Kunstler; and one from 2002, done by Blake Harris. A final question: Why on earth was she never awarded the Nobel Prize?



UPDATE: David Sucher has been blogging up a storm about Jane Jacobs. Mr. Tall brings Jane Jacobs-style thinking to bear on Hong Kong.

posted by Michael at April 26, 2006


I'm not sure there's a Nobel Prize for urbanism. Even so, the Literature and Peace Nobel awards have been getting stranger and stranger the last 20 years or so. Come to think of it, this year's crop of Pulitzers strikes me as questionable.

Jacobs just wouldn't fit the prize-establishment's worthiness profile: too independent, too apostate.

Although I disagree with her 60s opinions on foreign policy and business, I admire her ability to let facts rule over ideology and conventional wisdom.

She will probably be cited for decades to come, and I don't think the winning of this prize or that would change that very much. Not that she didn't deserve a prize.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 26, 2006 02:22 PM

I'm wondering if, in a dry year, she may have been able to sneak into the Nobels via the Economics door?

Michael, from the obit in todays NYT, it almost seemed that her name and her fame were more familiar to her adapted Canada then to the country (or the city) that her most famous works were concerned about. And that Quebec/Canada splitting book that she came up with? It's amazing she didn't get tossed out of the country for that. But then, the Canadians are a bit more thick-skinned (or polite) than we are about that kind of stuff.

Posted by: DarkoV on April 26, 2006 02:29 PM

I think one of the reasons that Jane Jacobs didn't get a lot of angry reaction from Canadians (like me) for her suggestion that Quebec split from Canada was her reason for saying it. She thought English Canada would be better off if Quebec split. So too would Quebec, but that province's welfare wasn't the reason she wanted separation. Indeed, she almost dismissed les Quebecois with the laconic sentence, "They just aren't my people, that's all." Or words to that effect. Her affection for (English) Canada was evident on every page of that book.

Posted by: PatrickH on April 26, 2006 05:33 PM

So far I've read four obituaries of Jane Jacobs (the "L.A. Times" one that Michael linked to, the "N.Y. Times" one and the AP and Reuters ones on the internet). Although none of them, generally speaking, are really bad (and in some ways are pretty good), all four seem somewhat off the mark to me.

To my way of thinking, all of them focus too heavily on Jacobs' first (and, admittedly, most famous) book and virtually ignore her subsequent books. Aside from the fact that Jacobs herself seemed proudest of her economic work, I think this is a big mistake because what Jacobs wrote in her subsequent books actually clarifies what she was really getting at in her first book. As a result, the obituary writers, and some of the people they quote (most especially Paul Goldberger!), seem to actually misunderstand her body of work, "Death and Life of Great American Cities" included.

For instance in the "N.Y. Times" obituary, Goldberger says something like Jacobs focused too much on architectural form and that sometimes a big, ugly apartment house is alright. Also, years ago, Goldberger (who seems to be a bigger fan of Jacobs' rival, Lewis Mumford) wrote that Jacobs couldn't see that the Stuyvesant Town development, despite its admitted negatives, basically worked well. Both statements seem to me to illustrate a basic misunderstanding of Jacobs' work (i.e., what she was really getting at), not only of "Death and Life . . ." but of books like "The Economy of Cities," "Cities and the Wealth of Nations," and "The Nature of Economies" as well.

Also in the "Los Angeles Times" obit, Goldberger says something like Jacobs didn't turn urban planning around 180 degrees, but that she just articulated what others were saying a bit more clearly and forcefully. This seems to me to be inaccurate. While it may have been true that a (very) few others were saying bits and pieces of what Jacobs herself was saying, it seems to me that Jacobs' great accomplishment was to examine such ideas (and many other related ones, too) in much, much greater depth and to organize them into a cohent system. As a result people actually UNDERSTOOD cities differently -- in a way they previously hadn't when a (very) few other people were just expressing a pet peave here and there. And then, years later, Jacobs applied and extended these thoughts into other fields like economics, ethics, sociology, social theory, etc.

Goldberger seems to hint that he disagrees with Jacobs' subsequent work but, unfortuately, he's never articulated his ideas on this topic in detail, as far as I know, for public discussion. So it's hard to evaluate his criticisms.

Although generally speaking I find much to admire in Goldberger's own work, when it comes to Jane Jacobs (and city planning, in general, actually) Goldberger strikes me as being startingly obtuse (and pompous -- fatuous?) -- almost not the same writer. Perhaps yet another example of his obtuseness, in my opinion, was contained in his review of a book that Jacobs edited, "A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska" (an edited version of the journal her aunt Hannah Breece wrote while teaching in Alaska). If I remember correctly, in his review he says something like Jacobs' aunt had a wonderfully exciting and interesting life in the wilds of Alaska and that this demonstrates that one doesn't need to live in a city to have such a life.

Mary Rourke of the "Los Angeles Times" obit also makes a mistake that seems to me to exemplify the kind of mistakes that people often make when they write about Jacobs. While in some ways it is a minor mistake, it seems to me to contribute to an incorrect impression that is likely to get magnified and solidified as "fact" as the mistake is repeated and repeated.

Rourke wrote the following:

"Jacobs first staked her claim as the bane of the establishement in 1961 when she led the opposition against a tear-down plan for her West Village neighborhood in lower Manhattan. Redevelopers intended to take out the brownstones and small apartment complexes in the area and replace them with a housing project that covered several blocks.

She argued against demoliton and offered her own proposal which perserved existing housing and added a middle-income apartment complex built to scale."

As I understand it, this is inaccurate in a number of ways.

Much of the intended urban renewal site (maybe most?) was also occupied by small working businesses, with row houses and a number of empty lots thrown in. (A number of the empty lots were located, I believe, along what had been a discontinued railroad right-of-way -- the southern extension of the High Line.) So not only were people disturbed that usable housing would be torn down and replaced with a housing project (with only a small net gain in housing units anyway -- since much of the land was to be "used" as parkland/open space!) BUT they were also disturbed that so many functional businesses would also be displaced and that the whole, wonderful, mixed-use "ecology" of the West Village would be "simplified" and destroyed.

Jacobs and her fellow citizens realized that one could actually experience a bigger net gain of housing units (and extend the wonderful mixed-use ecology of the West Village further to the west) if one just left most of the existing structures alone and built samll-scaled housing on the empty lots.

- - - - - - - -

I wonder how much news coverage, etc., Jacobs' death is getting in Toronoto/Canada?

In NYC/America, aside from the obituaries and some internet postings, it doesn't seem to the subject of that much discussion.

By the way, I just walked by (at about 5:30 p.m.) the West Village house that Jacobs used to live in. There is now a store on the ground floor, and they very sweetly posted the "New York Times" obituary in the window.

Aside from two older couples who were exiting the store and discussing urban planning, no one else seemed to be around, at least at that time of day. One of the web pages that Michael linked to mentions a possible gathering outside the house, so perhaps there will be one in the near future, though.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 26, 2006 07:59 PM

Actually, Benjamin, there seems to me to be quite a bit of least to the extent that anything to do with the physical environment is noticed. But I agree, few have so far seemed to focus on what I think is the essential simplicty of her rap.

I'm keeping (until I get tired) a running list of bloggers who post on her. So I'd appreciate hearing about interesting (and especially obscure) ones.

Posted by: David Sucher on April 26, 2006 08:26 PM

Does anyone know if she ever mentioned how wonderful neighborhoods got created in the first place?

I have read "Death and Life..." and remember her insightful words on sidewalks and such, but I dont remember if she ever mentioned how they got their in the first place.

What is it that the Renaissance villages of Italy and old towns of New York have in common? How did they get like that? Why are they not ugly?

Posted by: Ian Lewis on April 26, 2006 09:19 PM

"What is it that the Renaissance villages of Italy and old towns of New York have in common? How did they get like that? Why are they not ugly?"

No, Ian, to my limited knowledge she never did. Very few people want to grapple with that issue for political reasons.

But you ask an extremely, a seminal, question. It is a question which shoujld be asked constantly as it goes to the heart of urban planning: how to replicate the past in a manner consistent with today's technology (i.e. still mostly cars) and tastes (i.e. expectation of privacy.)

There a lot of theories floating around which answer your question; I have my own ideas which are too long to offer here, though Michael Blowhard's own thinking is so parallel to mine on thee issues that he's probably offered what I believe is the "right answer" here in the not-too-distant past.

Posted by: David Sucher on April 27, 2006 10:22 AM

Thanks David.

One subject that might shed some light on current neighborhood development is "How do roads actually get financed, planned and built?"

I often wonder "If people and developers had to build and maintain the streets, w/o any gov't help or assistance, what would those neighborhoods look like?"

I happen to know that in Baltimore, up until about 1910 or so, developers had to do just this. And believe me, those neighborhoods that were built (Bolton Hill, Federal Hill, Canton, Fells Point, etc.) are wonderful.

And Baltimore, at least relative to NY/Philly/Boston, was not a wealthy place.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on April 27, 2006 10:37 AM

Another good question.

Very often developers do get the opportunity to pay for the streets -- but it is to local government standards so you still can get a lot of over-building in width and design speed.

Posted by: David Sucher on April 27, 2006 11:28 AM

Here is Fred Kent's tribute to her from PPS:

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 29, 2006 01:15 AM

For those who will be in the NYC area on this upcoming Tuesday, May 2nd (a week after Jane Jacobs' death), blogger Lisa Chamberlain has organized a gathering to honor Jane Jacobs. The plan is to meet at the White Horse tavern at 6:00 p.m.

Here's a copy of the e-mail she sent me in reply to my e-mail to her asking about the event.

- - - - - - - -

Here's a link to my blog with specifics for the gathering. Pass it along. And see you there.


- - - - - - - - -

I get the feeling from her blog posting that a fair number, but not an overwhelming number, of people responded to tell her that they planned to attend. But this was before others (people like myself) began passing this info along to others. So it might be a good idea for those planning to attend to e-mail her, so we won't overwhelm the White Horse tavern, in case too many people show up unexpectedly.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 29, 2006 10:19 PM

I wish I could be there.

Posted by: David Sucher on April 29, 2006 11:39 PM

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Thank you!
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Great work!
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Posted by: Quentin on May 18, 2006 09:18 AM

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