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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 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.

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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.



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

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