When writing about Jane Jacobs, it can be tempting to focus solely on her ideas, especially her criticisms of the received wisdom about urban planning of the 1940s and 1950s. Jacobs was the first to draw attention to the nakedness of urban-renewal emperors like New York’s Robert Moses, Philadelphia’s Edwin Bacon, and Boston’s Edward Logue. We still live with the bitter fruits of their work.
So-called urban renewal had the opposite effect on cities. Across the country, cityscapes remain littered with midcentury public-housing projects that are isolated, crime-ridden, and devoid of the street life and small stores that, as Jacobs was the first to understand, help keep cities safe and economically dynamic. We also still live with the massive anti-urban installations called “super blocks” that, like New York’s Lincoln Center, become frozen landscapes within the city, prevented from being used for new purposes and new visions. Who can doubt that the brownstones, row houses, and walk-up apartments that Jacobs defended against the planners’ wrecking balls would be more valuable today than their lifeless replacements? Property values in Brooklyn—as in Boston’s North and South Ends, Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, and San Francisco’s Tenderloin—make the case that they would.
Robert Kanigel’s Eyes on the Street is the first full-length biography of Jacobs, a woman without a college degree who became one of the most influential urban thinkers of the twentieth century. Kanigel deftly links Jacobs’s life experiences to the development of her original ideas. Born Jane Butzner in 1916 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Jacobs wrote for a living, and not always for glamorous New York publications. She began her journalism career as an intern at the ScrantonRepublican and then contributed to Iron Age, a trade publication at which she learned the nuts and bolts of the metals industry. She learned, for instance, that non-ferrous metals were vital to modern life and how the markets for them worked. She worked briefly as a financial writer for Hearst and wrote an extended feature about Manhattan’s fur district for Vogue and another forHarper’s Bazaar about the crabbing culture on Maryland’s Tangier Island. She was, in other words, soaking up the details of how business, culture, and the urban environment worked together when done right—the very combinations she’d go on to celebrate in her breakthrough masterpiece, 1961’s TheDeath and Life of Great American Cities.
Jacobs always remained what Kanigel calls “an uncredentialed woman.” Only gradually—and always through observation and writing—did she begin to gather the raw material for her famous criticism.