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City Girl

For the 50th anniversary edition of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her publisher remembers the urban activist

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Jane Jacobs in Washington Square Park, 1963. (Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)

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.

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Marvelous read. Thank you. I read Death and Life as a freshman in college more than 40 years ago; the book remains as vivid to me now as it did then.
We need people like Jane Jacobs more than ever!

I’m a big fan of her work. Jane Jacobs was not Jewish , I believe of German background, although she often mistakenly believed to be Jewish because of her name, according to a recent biography.

One of the pleasures of my life as a magazine editor in New York in the 50′s was meeting and knowing Jane. She was then an editor for Architectural Forum and I met her because of the focus our magazine, The School Executive, had on citizen involvement in planning the design of new schools. Schools were being built everywhere to accommodate the population surge of children of WW II veterans and everyone else who had waited for the war to end to begat. Of course, she supported our concept of citizen participation. I was not yet in my mid-20s, a recent journalism graduate, and in awe of this most knowledgeable, plain-speaking woman who treated me as a peer with respect for what we were doing. Then, later, when I had moved to California, I read of her embattlement and victory over Moses-ism and so glad I had had the chance to know her personally.
Returning to New York for a visit, not long after my move to California, I discovered what the Cross-Bronx Expressway had done to my most beautiful Van Courtland Park and bemoaned that I had not stayed behind to enlist a Jane to fight with me to save it.

Nanushka says:

Jane Jacob’s nemesis, Robert Moses, was also a member of the tribe. Of sorts. He was born to an assimilated German Jewish family in New Haven. Like many social climbers of that background, he was raised in Ethical Culture, and became Episcopalian later.

Moses was often accused of using architecture to create physical barriers, blocking access for Blacks an poorer people to the parks and public amenities that he planned.
While never elected, the planning and financial authorities that Moses headed, had almost absolute powers and independence to plow thru NY. Moses lost only one other major planning battle: He had planned a major bridge to connect the Battery to Brooklyn (The Battery is the park at the southern most tip of Manhattan, an the last tiny spot on the island, where the waterfront is not cordoned off by a highway) Building access ramps for a bridge would have required leveling much of the Wall St area, and the few remainders of the 18th cent. NYC. Almost everyone else wanted a tunnel which would be less disruptive, but would not serve as such a grand monument to its planner and carry less traffic.
The elected politicians did not have the power to stop his plan. That came from Washington: FDR declared that a bridge could easily be bombed, and block shipping access to the Brooklyn Naval Yards.

ROWLAND PINEDO-SUCRE says:

JUST LIKE DIANE M. COMMENTS, I ALSO READ “DEATH AND LIFE…” IN COLLEGE WHILE STUDYING ARCHITECTURE IN THE U.S.
IT WAS FASCINATING TO READ HOW NEW YORK CITY WORKED, AND WHY SO MANY OF LE CORBUSIERS, RADIANT CITY STYLE SUBURBS, DID NOT.
SADLY, I WOULD SAY THAT TODAY MOST NEW DEVELOPMENTS, ARE STILL DONE IN THAT “MODERNISTIC” FASHION, WHERE DIFFERENT ACTIVITIES DO NOT MIX.
THE POOR RESULTS ARE EVERYWHERE.
WE NEED A LOT MORE OF JANE JACOBS.

Benjamin Hemric says:

Thank you for this delightful remembrance of Jane Jacobs, especially the more personal side. I’m a longtime reader (of all seven of her major books — plus interviews, bios, etc.) and a would-be writer about Jacobs’ work; and I have always been somewhat curious about the behind-the-scenes aspects of her books, including the author / editor relationship.

I know this may sound absurd to many, but I think Jacobs has actually been under-praised so far. When you look at the totality of her body of work, I think she has shown us radically different ways of looking at not only cities, but economies, nation states, ethical systems, the supposed “nature/human” dichotomy, human cultural evolution and “systems” in general. So I believe in a hundred years or so, when her very different way of seeing things finally becomes truly mainstream, Jacobs will be seen as being way up there — close to Newton, Darwin, Einstein, etc.

As a learned professional editor, with your own well-earned beliefs, I suppose you may not have agreed with everything Jacobs wrote (and neither do I) but, still, I suspect it must have been quite startling and a joy to be a first reader (e.g., “cities were developed before agriculture”). Hope you someday get a chance to write about this aspect of your work with Jacobs too.

Since the word counter says I have 345 characters left, I hope fellow admirers will enjoy some tidbits / “questions” I’ve uncovered in my research so far:

1) Judging from her diploma in her archives, Jacobs seems to have graduated from high school a year and a half early. (Was she a restless, gifted child who had been skipped an early grade?)

2) The famed black author, Richard Wright, seems to have lived in the same apt house when she did. Did she know him?

3) Jacobs famed participation in demonstrations against the Expressway and the demo of Penn Station were the same week! (And in those days she wore very lady-like white gloves in the summer — at least to the Penn demo!)

Very true! Makes a chagne to see someone spell it out like that. :)

Good job making it aeppar easy.

Your article was excellent and erdiute.

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City Girl

For the 50th anniversary edition of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her publisher remembers the urban activist