By John Buntin
Jane Jacobs’s 1961 masterpiece, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” put a stake in the heart of 1950s-style urban “renewal” and changed the way that citizens see their cities. What urban planners at the time viewed as “slums”—Boston’s North End, Jacobs’s own beloved West Village—she saw as vibrant, “mixed-use” urban neighborhoods. Her work during the 1950s to save Washington Square Park from Robert Moses (who wanted to run a sunken roadway through the middle) inspired generations of activists.
Jacobs argued that mixed-use neighborhoods should be encouraged; that density made cities safer by putting more “eyes on the street”; that old buildings should be seen not as blight but as incubators for new enterprises. Today even critics of her work debate development on her terms. “It’s only a slight exaggeration,” the urban historian Alan Ehrenhalt has written, “to say that contemporary urban thought is a series of footnotes to Jane Jacobs.”
Jacobs died in 2006 at the age of 89, but her legacy is claimed by many disparate thinkers. Progressives see her as a kindred spirit, a pioneering writer who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Betty Friedan and Rachel Carson. Conservatives have claimed her too. William F. Buckley named “Death and Life” as one of his Conservative Book Club’s top 100 selections. Libertarians cite her criticism of top-down government planning.
So who was Jane Jacobs? That’s the question that Robert Kanigel addresses in “Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs.” Mr. Kanigel grew up in the New York City Jacobs knew. His description of her childhood in Scranton, Pa., captures the creation of what he calls an “independent mind in conflict with received wisdom.” Young Jane Butzner was an indifferent student, he tells us, alternatively inattentive and rebellious. She barely graduated from high school. Ultimately she took classes at Columbia, but her poor high school grades prevented her from proceeding with a degree at Barnard. She was very much a self-taught intellectual, but Mr. Kanigel makes short work of the idea that her work was in any way amateurish.
Thinking about the city was the core of her intellectual career practically from the moment she moved from Scranton to New York City in 1934, at age 18. The very next year she began contributing pieces about areas such as the leather, flower and diamond districts to Vogue (these and other works are collected in the forthcoming book “Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs”). By 1955, she was a full-time writer at Architectural Forum, where she established herself as a leading voice in the new field of urban planning.
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