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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

Jason Epstein
September 12, 2011
Jane Jacobs in Washington Square Park, 1963.(Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)
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.

To use a much abused term, Jane was a conservative, indeed a radical conservative, mistrustful of abstraction, suspicious of large ideas and concentrations of political and economic power: a genius of common sense, as far from an ideologue as it is possible to be. Toward the end of her life Jane was fascinated by urban traffic tangles as evidence of bureaucratic idiocy resulting in perverse, even deadly, outcomes: the man-made difficulty of getting safely where one wanted to go when one wanted to go there. Jane herself used a bicycle. She thought of these tangles as fractal versions of Soviet five-year plans. But she preferred to expose such faults in her own country than indulge in anti-Soviet bombast. I never asked Jane if she admired Edmund Burke but I believe that Burke, were he alive, would admire her. Predictably Jane’s book was praised by the libertarian right and denounced by the social engineers of the left. Jane took little note of either group.

Jane thought of herself primarily as a writer and was happiest and most productive at her Remington. Events, however, made her an activist, a role she excelled in but that she resented as a distraction from her writing. Her adversary was Robert Moses, who had amassed what amounted to dictatorial power over the physical development of New York City and its environs by appointing himself, with the help of complacent politicians, to the chairmanship of various public authorities. From the 1930s to the ’60s these high positions provided him the money and the power to reshape the area according to his vision, in which the automobile and its infrastructure were the necessary engines of modernity. Ruthlessly he uprooted long-settled neighborhoods to build his expressways; erected high-rise slum clearance projects, which almost overnight became deracinated vertical slums; built bridges and parkways that shaped the city’s northern and eastern suburbs, creating traffic tangles that made access to and from the city at rush hour a nightmare to which suffering commuters, breathing carbon monoxide, are inured as if this planning disaster were a natural phenomenon and not a human error. Moses’ tools were raw political power, vast financial resources, and an exhausted, Radiant City ideology. By the 1950s his power to damage New York City appeared limitless.

His fatal error was to make Jane his enemy by proposing to extend Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park, at the center of Greenwich Village, as far south as Broome Street in what is now Soho, where it would join a projected multilane, elevated crosstown expressway linking New Jersey via the Holland Tunnel to the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges to Brooklyn. Since the proposed Broome Street Expressway qualified as an interstate highway it was eligible for 90 percent federal funding though Canal Street, the existing link between the Manhattan Bridge and the Holland Tunnel, was and is to this day adequate. Nevertheless, Moses knew that with his federal bonanza he could count on the complicity of politicians, developers, construction unions and their minions who had supported his previous depredations. The uprooted residents of these impoverished neighborhoods believed they were powerless. The residents of Greenwich Village suffered no such delusion.

Washington Square Park, two blocks wide by three blocks long, is an urban masterpiece with a long history and many cultural associations from Henry James to Bob Dylan, a place where children and dogs safely play and city dwellers catch their breath, a place, as one writer said, “to enjoy grass and trees in a city that could feel very paved and gray.” The Fifth Avenue extension would destroy the treasured park and devastate the thriving Village streets to the south as it bulldozed a two-mile swath to Broome Street and the projected expressway. Furious Village residents distributed circulars and posters, held meetings, and appealed to City Hall as Moses went ahead with his plans. Jane wrote to the mayor that she and her husband had restored their old house on Hudson Street, which she said had been a slum, and wondered why the city would now destroy the park where she took her children to play. “It is very discouraging,” she wrote, “to do our best to make the city more habitable and then to learn that the city itself is thinking up ways to make it uninhabitable.” The mayor didn’t answer and Jane joined the protesters who appealed for support to their local politicians.

Since their careers were in the hands of the Village voters and not in those of the City Hall politicians and upstate power brokers on whom Moses depended, the local politicians joined the struggle. So did the two Village newspapers until the fight for the park became a citywide issue. Moses, facing for the first time an articulate and politically sophisticated community, capitulated on the Fifth Avenue extension but retained the major, and undisclosed, part of his plan—the federally funded Broome Street Expressway. He also retaliated by declaring the West Village area where Jane and her family lived a slum eligible for clearance, “the cheerful hurly-burly” of whose street life Jane celebrated in Death and Life as the very essence of cityness. Her house at 555 Hudson Street was right in the cross hairs. This time Jane conceived an ingenious guerrilla strategy, and once again the villagers upended Moses, who was unprepared for opponents who could not be bullied. Jane returned to her Remington unaware of the great battle that lay ahead.

The successful struggle by the threatened communities, with Jane’s help, to defeat the monstrous Broome Street Expressway would last nine years, send Moses into retirement, and convince Jane that if she wanted to be a writer she had better pack her Remington and leave New York. She settled in Toronto, where her husband, a distinguished hospital architect, joined a local firm, and then their two sons joined them to escape the Vietnam War, the crowning absurdity of a political establishment as dangerously out of touch with reality as Moses. Later Jane said that “I just wasn’t cut out to be the citizen of an empire.”

The Broome Street Expressway would cut Manhattan in two just below the waist and with its ramps hollow out the entire nine-block area between Houston and Canal from river to river. The utter insanity of this scheme was breathtaking. Because Jane was now well-known for her previous encounters with Moses, the Broome Street neighbors asked her to help. For six years, until victory was assured and only the mopping up was left to do, Jane devoted herself to this last great battle, sensing that if Moses lost again the city would be rid of him.

With the expressway’s defeat, the area, with its handsome old cast-iron facades, came spontaneously to life as artists moved illegally into the vast lofts that had been abandoned by their industrial occupants, who had fled the area believing that the expressway would come and they would be evicted. With the artists there soon came the galleries, and with the galleries came the restaurants and trendy shops. Today the area known as Soho is perhaps the most vibrant of New York’s many vibrant neighborhoods. The artists have left, priced out of their lofts, but the cultural echo remains. Soho is New York’s Left Bank.

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.

Jason Epstein was a founder of The New York Review of Books and co-founder with the late Edmund Wilson of the Library of America.

Jason Epstein was a founder of The New York Review of Books and co-founder with the late Edmund Wilson of the Library of America.