For the 50th anniversary edition of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her publisher remembers the urban activist
I now live in the handsome old beaux-arts police headquarters building on the corner of Broome and Centre streets, once scheduled by Moses for demolition and now a landmark. It is widely assumed that it was to this building that Jane was taken to be booked when she was arrested for breaking up a meeting of the New York State Transportation Authority scheduled without adequate notice to approve an essential stage of the expressway project. In fact she was taken to the nearby Seventh Precinct Station, but the impact was the same. Jane’s arrest made headlines. The issue was no longer the expressway but the struggle between the widely praised author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities and the tyrannical Robert Moses, now seen as killer of cities, a battle that Moses and the politicians could not win.
With advance word from a friendly insider Jane had packed the meeting with local citizens. As the Transportation Authority was about to approve the motion to proceed she rose to demand her First Amendment right to assemble on the stage, which she then mounted followed by her neighborhood entourage, who exercised their right to free expression by destroying the stenotypist’s tape in the hope that without a record the hearing could not be said to have occurred. With a scrap of tape still in her hand Jane was led away by the police, who apologized for what they had to do amid the cheers of her followers. Two days later she was charged with three felonies, which were eventually reduced to lesser charges and a fine, but by this time the absurdity of the expressway was obvious and the political price to City Hall was more than the mayor and his fellow politicians wanted to pay. Today a scrawny tree planted on Broome Street before the church that served as protest headquarters commemorates the victory.
Jane had hoped to preserve the neighborhood for its working-class inhabitants, some of whom still manage to live here in their rent-controlled tenement apartments, but lofts in the handsome old cast-iron buildings where the artists once squatted are now beyond the reach of all but the very rich. That wildly expensive gentrification should have been the fate not only of Soho but of Jane’s West Village has led some critics to question Jane’s determination to rescue these old neighborhoods from urban renewal. The question is tendentious. Had Jane not intervened, the crooked streets and human scale of the West Village, with its active street life and diverse economy, would have been replaced by cookie-cutter condos that blight much of the outer boroughs, while what is now Soho would be a wasteland in the shadow of an elevated highway.
When I think of Jane and what she taught me I think of her exuberance, her chuckle that seemed to engage her whole body, her vast curiosity, her kindness, the clarity of her vision, and of the irrepressible schoolgirl whose uncomprehending teachers instilled in her at an early age the joy and necessity of thinking for oneself. That her great book has survived for half a century seems to me not so much remarkable as inevitable.
When Robert Moses received a copy of Death and Life from Bennett Cerf, the publisher of Random House, he replied, “Dear Bennett: I am returning the book that you sent me. Aside from the fact that it is intemperate it is also libelous. …
Sell this junk to someone else.
Cordially, Robert Moses.”
From the introduction to the 50th Anniversary Edition of The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. Copyright © 2011 by Jason Epstein. Published by the Modern Library, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
Agenda: Leni Riefenstahl screens in Manhattan, I.L. Peretz revived in L.A., caricatures by David Levine at the Met, and more