[URBANTH-L]NEWS: Remembering Jane Jacobs

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Tue May 2 21:49:05 EDT 2006

Remembering Jane Jacobs, an Influential Critic of Urban Renewal and a Potent 
Political Activist

Chronicle of Higher Education

Jane Jacobs, who died on Tuesday at the age of 89, never earned a college 
degree and never held a formal academic position. But her ideas, put forward 
in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House, 1961) and that 
book's many successors, left deep impressions on the fields of sociology, 
economics, and urban studies.

On Wednesday The Chronicle spoke about Ms. Jacobs's complicated legacies 
with Christopher Klemek, an assistant professor of history at Florida 
International University. (This fall, he will move to George Washington 

Mr. Klemek conducted several long interviews with Ms. Jacobs around 2001, 
when he was writing a dissertation on popular movements against "urban 
renewal" in Berlin, Boston, London, New York, Philadelphia, and Toronto. The 
University of Chicago Press will publish a revised version of that 
dissertation in 2007 or 2008. The book's working title is Urbanism as 
Reform: Modernism and the Crisis of Urban Liberalism in Europe and North 
America, 1945-1975.

Q. How do you believe Jane Jacobs will be remembered decades from now?

A. First, and most obviously, she was a critic of urban renewal, and really 
of urbanism, generally, in the mid-20th century. She was a critic of all the 
established trends in architecture, planning, zoning.

Second, she has a significance that is less well appreciated. This is 
something that can be seen in the whole body of her work, beginning with The 
Death and Life. And that is Jacobs as an 
economist-slash-sociologist-slash-philosopher of cities and also, by 
extension, of contemporary civic life. She was profoundly interested in how 
communities work. Cities were interesting to her because of the way that 
they take advantage of the best human attributes and simultaneously 
compensate for human shortcomings.

And in this area -- Jacobs as philosopher of community life -- she attacked 
shibboleths in a whole range of disciplines. And she often came to influence 
ideas in those fields very profoundly. Figures like Saskia Sassen in 
sociology, Robert Lucas in economics, Kenneth Jackson in history, will all 
testify that they were deeply influenced by her work.

She was very much an outsider intellectual. She had only a high-school 
diploma. So she was outside the traditional confines of academic 
disciplinarity, and yet -- or perhaps for that very reason -- she's exerted 
a very broad influence across a number of fields.

And then the final area, which I think is somewhat overlooked, is her 
importance as a neighborhood organizer and a potent political leader in her 
own right. She managed to exert leadership in both New York and Toronto. ... 
It's said that she was a stunning orator in council hearings. And she was 
also quite fiery -- on numerous occasions she had to be carried out, and 
once she was charged with incitement to riot.

And I think that that's important to put alongside Jacobs the intellectual 
because it sheds important light on her ideas and on the way those ideas 
cash out in specific political contexts. Which is, of course, something that 
she would care about because specific urban contexts were at the core of all 
of her inquiry.

Q. Ms. Jacobs's most famous victories as a political activist were the 
cancellation of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have sliced 
across what is now known as SoHo, and her defeat of a large-scale "urban 
renewal" program in her own neighborhood, the West Village. But you argue 
that those were in some sense hollow victories.

A. By some serendipity, her own neighborhood came under threat from urban 
renewal just a couple of months after her book came out. She saw it as the 
kind of test case that you couldn't have ordered. She was successful at 
bringing to a halt the juggernaut of urban renewal that the New York City 
Planning Commission had begun to undertake.

The long and the short of it was that Jacobs was very successful at fighting 
this kind of defensive battle -- at organizing her neighborhood, and at 
organizing them behind the banner of the ideas that she had articulated in 
her manifesto in The Death and Life.

But if you look at the subsequent history of that neighborhood, yes, within 
a few years, the historic-preservation movement would grow to include the 
entire Greenwich Village neighborhood, and that seemed to provide a kind of 
permanent insurance against the wrecking ball.

And yet, when you look at what the actual motivations of Jacobs and her 
neighbors were -- their view was that there were in fact two threats to the 
neighborhood. There was the urban-renewal threat from public authorities, 
but there was also the private market, which threatened to push out the 
social diversity, which is ultimately the thing that she really celebrated 
in The Death and Life.

It's not the sort of superficial aesthetic diversity that a 
historic-preservation district would protect. Instead, it was the social 
mix, the socioeconomic mix. Puerto Rican immigrants, older Irish-American 
longshoremen, upwardly mobile middle-class professionals like herself, and 
the old bohemian and counterculture figures.

That diverse complicated mix was every bit as much under threat as the 
physical buildings had been from the bulldozers and wrecking balls of urban 
renewal. Her organization had at best mixed success at bringing affordable 
housing into the neighborhood. ...

If you go to Jane Jacobs's street, Hudson Street, today, you'll see that 
it's very much a rich man's paradise. The kind of socioeconomic diversity 
that she was attempting to nurture has been destroyed every bit as 
thoroughly as if urban renewal had actually leveled the buildings. The 
buildings have been preserved, but the community that they contained has 
really just as thoroughly been lost.

Q. You argue that Ms. Jacobs was fundamentally more successful in Toronto --  
where she moved in 1968 -- in part because Canada's urban policies have 
retained more elements of government planning than those in the United 

A. In Toronto, the modernization of neighborhoods has been complemented by 
explicit policies that attempt to maintain or to stabilize the socioeconomic 
mix of a neighborhood. This idea of "neighborhood management" is integral 
with policies of reconstruction and upgrade. That's a basic policy idea that 
is largely absent in the United States -- it's absent here in a sense 
because the baby has gone out with the bath water in post-urban-renewal 
United States policy.

When Jacobs moved to Toronto, she became an adviser and inspiration to a 
grass-roots citizens-reform initiative that began with a defensive battle 
similar to the ones she had fought in New York: a battle to halt highway 
projects that were slicing through the city, and against the construction of 
"superblock" housing. But in the 1970s, unlike in New York, those efforts 
coalesced across the city, across socioeconomic lines. And they managed, by 
1972, to actually capture the mayor's office. ...

Jane Jacobs was very active in designing a development called the St. 
Lawrence neighborhood, which was a whole new neighborhood built from scratch 
along a railroad easement. It very much embodies her ideas about what makes 
neighborhoods function -- social diversity, functional diversity, even 
architectural diversity. I like to contrast that project, which opened in 
1978 or so, with the sort of stillborn West Village housing projects that 
she and her neighbors had fought for, in order to get at least a small 
amount of affordable housing in her New York neighborhood. Whereas, in 
Toronto, she was able to work on numerous such projects, on a vastly larger 

I don't think that either of these examples serves to completely discredit 
or exonerate her ideas, one way or the other. I think they simply show the 
variety of potential outcomes of the same ideas in different political 

Q. So you're arguing that Ms. Jacobs thrived in the relatively dirigiste 
atmosphere of Canada. How does that square with her interest in small-scale 
communities and self-organizing markets?

A. Jacobs's ideas have a kind of bivalence. They resonate equally well on 
the post-Goldwater libertarian right as they do on the Jerry Brown 
small-is-beautiful left. As early as the 1960s, a student journal at the 
University of Chicago, whose advisers included Friedrich Hayek and Richard 
Weaver and other leaders of the free-market right -- they were just enamored 
with The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But also, Jacobs is seen 
to this day as a figure who was very much in sympathy with the left.

Jacobs's later writings were increasingly concerned with markets, and the 
roles of markets in societies. Hers was not a Marxist concern -- it was an 
interest in the dynamism that markets can provide. ... She was suspicious of 
government, she was suspicious of concentrations of power, but she was also 
suspicious of markets.

Throughout all of her writing, I'm not sure that she ever gets control of 
this, conceptually. She knows that markets are very important sources of 
vitality and innovation, and yet -- as she could very clearly see in the 
West Village, or in the case of suburban sprawl -- that markets can also be 
a source of volatility, particularly in the absence of any strong government 
control, which is something that she also feared. So she was wrestling with 
those conundrums throughout all of her life. 

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