For the 50th anniversary edition of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her publisher remembers the urban activist
I first heard of Jane Jacobs in 1956 when a friend suggested that I read her article “Downtown Is for People” in Fortune, in which she laid out the case against Le Corbusier’s Radiant City ideology, which had infected much postwar city planning including that of New York City’s master builder, Robert Moses. I was immediately sympathetic to Jane’s argument that cities are complex organisms that create their own logic but are in danger of being smothered by the arrogant fantasies of modernist planners with their sinuous interchanges, sterile towers, and depopulated vistas. I had lived for a while in Greenwich Village, not far from Jane, and shared her devotion to that eccentric section of New York City, with its streets and alleys of 19th-century town houses, its mixed commercial, residential, and industrial uses, and its cultural vitality, qualities distilled from the vigorous city itself, whose diverse economy of light industry, garment and shoe manufacturing, food processing, publishing, metalwork, electronics, graphics, and so on made New York with its conurbation the largest manufacturing employer in the United States at that time. Unlike Detroit or Pittsburgh, New York was not defined by a dominant industry. New York was a cornucopia of possibility and improvisation, an incubator of vital neighborhoods and local citizenship.
There were problems: segregation, slums, crime, redlining, a calcified school system, corruption great and small, but the city and its enlightened citizens, one felt, were strong enough to overcome these miseries. Moses’ high-rise slum clearance, however, was not a solution but a brutal intensification of the problems, as Jane Jacobs argued in “Downtown Is for People.”
I had been working for Doubleday at the time and offered Jane a contract for a book based on her Fortune article, which I had reprinted in a collection of essays called The Exploding Metropolis. Two years later I moved to Random House. Jane moved with me and in January 1961 delivered the manuscript of her masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which I read without interruption or emendation. There was little to edit. I would eventually publish all but the last of the several books that followed, many composed on her old Remington, for which she must have laid in a supply of ribbons before typewriters became obsolete.
Editors and their authors seldom form deep friendships for the same reason that psychiatrists and their patients keep their distance: The relationship requires candor that mixes poorly with intimacy. Perhaps because her manuscripts needed little editing and were usually delivered on time, Jane and I were an exception to this rule. We were kindred spirits. She did not use a literary agent. We negotiated directly, book by book, and formed a lifelong intellectual and professional friendship that survived her move to Toronto during the Vietnam War. Together we explored eastern Canada, from the great provincial parks to the mining towns along the permafrost above the tree line and still farther north to Moose Factory at the bottom of James Bay, a once flourishing entrepôt of the Hudson’s Bay Company, where we were surprised to find amid the ramshackle Cree dwellings two Chinese restaurants offering Mets Canadien et Chinois, a relic of the Chinese laborers who built in the 1920s the railroad that terminates there—an example, as Jane pointed out, of how one kind of work leads to another.
We seldom discussed our personal lives. I knew that Jane’s father had been a family physician and her mother a nurse and that she was fond of her brother, John, a federal judge; that she had been born and raised in Scranton, Pa., and had come to New York in 1943 hoping to become a journalist. I was not surprised to learn later from a biographer that she had been a defiant high-school student with a sense of humor and a sharp eye for cant, and a problem for her uninspiring teachers: a contrarian even then. She was rewarded for her candor with poor grades and planned to skip college. She took instead courses in the extension program at Columbia, where she could take only the courses she wanted and would write a book, Constitutional Chaff, that was published by the Columbia University Press, an impressive debut for a self-educated, nonmatriculated, and uncredentialed scholar at the age of 25. The book was a study of the rejected proposals for the United States Constitution. Jane, who was her own best critic, refused to show me a copy and chose not to discuss this first effort.
Like all of Jane’s work, Death and Life is about how human beings by their own devices instinctively create vital communities and how these communities and their economies are subject to corruption or obliteration by ambitious individuals in positions of power, whether well-meaning, vicious, or foolish. Death and Life, and especially her subsequent books, are thus about the dynamics of civilization, how vital economies and their societies are formed, elaborated, and sustained, and the forces that thwart and ruin them. This, rather more than her critique of city planning, I believe, accounts for the continued interest in her work. Her sympathies are with the slow accretion of custom and skills, of social norms and ingenious solutions to practical problems. She was fascinated by how new kinds of work evolve, in vital societies, from older forms, a process often stifled by its own success: for example, how Detroit’s early Great Lakes traders learned to build their own boats, then to make paint varnishes and brass fittings, and eventually master steam-engine technology and metallurgic skills, which led to engines for cars, so that the combination of Detroit’s skills made it the logical center of automobile manufacturing, whose dominance by the 20th century created an industrial monoculture that led to Detroit’s collapse and an irrational, environmentally pernicious national transportation system.
Agenda: Leni Riefenstahl screens in Manhattan, I.L. Peretz revived in L.A., caricatures by David Levine at the Met, and more