Becoming Jane Jacobs

In Becoming Jane Jacobs, an intellectual biography of the great urbanist, Peter L. Laurence asserts that The Death and Life of Great American Cities was not the spontaneous epiphany of an amateur activist but the product of a professional writer with deep knowledge about the renewal and dynamics of American cities.

Becoming Jane Jacobs

Peter L. Laurence

2016 | 376 pages | Cloth $34.95 | Paper $26.50
American History / Public Policy
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Table of Contents

Introduction. The Unknown Jane Jacobs
Chapter 1. To the City
Chapter 2. The Education of a City Naturalist
Chapter 3. "We Inaugurate Architectural Criticism"
Chapter 4. Advocating the "City-Planner Approach"
Chapter 5. "Seeds of Self-Regeneration" for City Deserts
Chapter 6. Urban Sprawl, Urban Design, and Urban Renewal
Chapter 7. A New System of Thought
Conclusion. A Vita Activa and Contemplativa

Sources and Abbreviations

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

The Unknown Jane Jacobs

How my ideas developed. . . . Oh my God, who knows how their ideas developed?! The nearest I can pin it down is two things: First of all, I had a pervading uneasiness about the way the rebuilding of the city was going, augmented by some feeling of personal guilt, I suppose, or at least personal involvement. The reason for this was that in all sincerity I had been writing for Forum about how great various redevelopment plans were going to be. How delightful. How fine they would work. I believed this. Then I began to see some of these things built. They weren't delightful, they weren't fine, and they were obviously never going to work right. Harrison Plaza and Mill Creek in Philadelphia were great shocks to me. I began to get this very uneasy feeling that what sounded logical in planning theory and what looked splendid on paper was not logical in real life at all, or at least in city real life, and not splendid at all when in use.
—Jane Jacobs, 1959
Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities is considered one of the most important books written about cities. Since it appeared in 1961, it has been required reading for generations of city planners, architects, urban designers, landscape architects, sociologists, urban economists, geographers, and students from other disciplines who are interested in the physical design and social construction of cities. Combined with her legendary battles against New York master builder Robert Moses and other urban renewal plans and highway projects in New York and Toronto, Jacobs's books and activism made a heroic figure, but, like other heroes, one often stereotyped and mythologized.

Despite all that has been written about The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs (who was born Jane Isabel Butzner in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1916, and died in Toronto in 2006), and her activism, the notion that Jacobs was primarily a housewife with unusual abilities to observe and defend the domestic surroundings of her Greenwich Village home has persisted since the 1960s. While in the past this description of her observational capacities was often meant, consciously or unconsciously, to demean the scope of her observations and ideas, as Jacobs's ideas found wider validation, her status as a housewife without a formal education in city planning or urbanism became a symbol of her "genius," but no less problematic. The contemporary view has taken the form of deification, with the phrase "What Would Jacobs Do?" (a play on "What Would Jesus Do?") and descriptions of her as "Saint Jane," an "apostle," and a "goddess," suggesting that her divine wisdom and martial powers appeared spontaneously and fully formed, like Athena from Zeus's forehead. This contemporary view admirably celebrates the rejection of the sexism and critiques of her since proven wrong, and affirms the abilities and contributions of average citizens, but neither past nor present views take into account the years of experience, the larger history and context, and the local circumstances and influences that contributed to Jacobs's thinking and her writing of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Yet critics and commentators are not completely to blame for misunderstanding Jacobs or her work. Jacobs's early writing career and the formative years leading up to Death and Life remain largely unknown. As late as 1993, even her friend and colleague William H. Whyte, who played an important part in bringing her book into being, could describe Jacobs as someone who had "never written anything longer than several paragraphs" before the late 1950s. For someone who knew Jacobs so well to make such a mistake was remarkable, but little evidence was then available to refute Whyte's point. Almost nothing was known about the great amount of writing she had done prior to Death and Life. And although an anthology of papers from Jacobs's archives and other sources was published in 1997 with her assistance, it added little to our understanding of the twenty-five years of her career between 1935 and 1961. Not only were important early essays on the city and a large body of later writing missing, but Jacobs's first book, which was not Death and Life, was completely unknown.

There are a number of reasons why even someone as professionally close to Jacobs as Whyte was unaware of her early writing career. Like others, Whyte would have had no reason to know about her freelance work, starting in the mid-1930s, for various magazines or newspapers; her work for a trade magazine called The Iron Age in the early 1940s; or her work, in the mid-1940s and early 1950s, for the publication branches of the Office of War Information (OWI) and the State Department (some of it then classified), including her role as a senior editor of the magazine Amerika. As for her work at Architectural Forum, where she contributed to most of the seventy-seven issues published between her first assignment in 1952 and her departure to write Death and Life in 1958, much of her writing, following the editorial policy at the time, was not bylined.

In Death and Life, which preceded her celebrity as an activist, Jacobs offered few clues about her previous work. Although the original hardcover edition included a brief biographical sketch that mentioned her position at Architectural Forum, within the book itself Jacobs included few autobiographical references and did not describe the extent of her prior experience with the subject matter. Insofar as an attack on claims of expertise was at the heart of her criticism—and she had little in the way of credentials herself—Jacobs relied on the strength of her ideas and arguments to stand on their own. Moreover, while writing the book, she had been specifically instructed by her boss at Forum, editor Douglas Haskell, to be cautious that her views not be taken to reflect the editorial position of Forum or its parent company, Time, Incorporated. After she was quoted in the New York Times, in 1959, with an across-the-board attack on Robert Moses, the New York City Slum Clearance Committee, real estate developers, and the entire urban renewal "gravy train," Haskell told her that she "really should not have sounded off in the New York Times without making a check" because she was identified as "an editor of Forum and not as an individual." Although he was a great supporter of her work, and had readily accommodated her long leave from the magazine to write her book, Haskell was obliged to tell her to keep a low profile. "We don't see the urban renewal situation as black and white as you do," he said, speaking for Forum and Time Inc. Planning to return to her position at Forum when her book was finished, Jacobs didn't seek to jeopardize her job. Not knowing the turn her career would soon take, she therefore wrote Death and Life "as an individual," although in doing so she distanced herself from her work as a professional writer about cities prior to the book's publication.

After Death and Life was published, Jacobs remained quiet about her writing and work prior to its publication. Not the least of the reasons for this is that she eschewed celebrity, partly because of the attention she received as an activist, partly out of a desire to focus on her work and the pressing issues of the day, and partly out of modesty. Despite becoming a public figure, Jacobs was also painfully shy. Moreover, another reason is that, in her early work, Jacobs held ideas that she later attacked in Death and Life. As she wrote to her friend Grady Clay while writing the book in March 1959, she harbored feelings of personal guilt for some of her early writing on urban development. Indeed, as she indicated in her letter to Clay, Jacobs not only wrote favorably about a number of public housing projects in Philadelphia, but also wrote favorably about suburban development and urban redevelopment projects in much of her early writing, in her work for both Amerika and Architectural Forum. Having once idealized the field of city planning, in large part because of her hopes for cities, she had become angry with the planners and developers who were destroying cities, and she was angry with herself for having once believed in the experts and various theories of urban renewal.

When Jacobs became a well-known writer and activist, celebrity seems to have removed her further from her earlier career. Heroism likely made it difficult to admit the evolutionary development of her thinking, which had included—to use her own description of the process—trial and error and learning on the job. This seems particularly true when reviews of Death and Life and coverage of her activism sensationalized her attack on Moses, city planning, and urban renewal. Whether partaking of a widely felt hunger for cultural criticism at the dawn of the anti-establishment 1960s, or simply to generate controversy and buzz, early prerelease excerpts of her book emphasized the critical aspects of Jacobs's writing with explosive headlines such as "Speaking Out, the Voice of Dissent: How City Planners Hurt Cities" and "Violence in the City Streets: How Our 'Housing Experts' Unwittingly Encourage Crime." And not being one to negotiate when compromise would not serve cities or neighborhoods, Jacobs would have seen no sense in undermining her own arguments. At the time, urban redevelopment's damage to cities was more important than her biography.

Nevertheless, a consequence of the break between Jacobs's earlier work as a writer and Death and Life was that critics quickly stereotyped her as someone with little prior experience, let alone credentials, in her subject matter, and they dismissed her important contributions, in often gendered terms, as obvious or naïve. Describing Jacobs as a housewife watching the "sidewalk ballet" outside her Village home fit the sexism of the times and added to the improbable David versus Goliath story of her fight with Moses. Articles where the character was an "angry woman" made for better copy than describing Jacobs, for example, as the first person to apply complexity science—which few had heard of or understood in 1961—to cities.

Whatever the reasons, the lack of access to Jacobs's work before Death and Life has resulted in commentaries that start with her writing and activism in 1961, when the book was done and when Jacobs had already become a public figure alternately antagonized and lionized. However, for someone who spent most of her life as a writer, and who identified herself as a writer, Jacobs's activism has dominated much, and perhaps a disproportionate amount, of what has been written about her, especially when her activism was, for her, a politically fraught community effort and an unwelcome distraction from writing. As a result of the focus on Jacobs as an activist, the evolutionary nature of her thinking, the influences of her early experiences on Death and Life and her subsequent books, and the connections of her formative ideas to the larger world of urban history have remained overlooked and understudied. Indeed, as an influential and galvanizing figure in the histories of urban renewal, city planning, urban design, and public housing, Jacobs is closely bound up with these fields. Had we sooner understood, for example, that Jacobs herself also once believed in urban renewal and the redevelopment projects typical of the early 1950s, we might have realized that our understanding of urban renewal and its related histories of the design and planning of cities are also riddled with mythologies, stereotypes, and self-delusions. Had we understood her direct contributions to establishing the field of urban design, an important discipline might have had a greater number of students.

In telling the story of the "first half" of Jacobs's career and revealing a previously underestimated intellect, Becoming Jane Jacobs seeks to offer a new foundation for understanding Jacobs's work—not only Death and Life but also The Economy of Cities (1969), The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle over Sovereignty (1980), Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life (1984), Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics (1992), The Nature of Economies (2000), and Dark Age Ahead (2004). By shedding light on experiences that led to Jacobs becoming one of the most important American writers on cities already before Death and Life, I seek to dispel the stereotype that Jacobs was an amateur when it came to understanding cities and their redevelopment. In contrast to the dilettante whose "home remedies," as the great writer Lewis Mumford called them in anger, were limited to a woman's view of a local, domestic urban routine, I show that Jacobs, who was anything but a stereotypical 1950s housewife and no more of an amateur than Mumford, was a professional writer who, in the years leading up to the book, spent most of her time not in the Village but in three midtown Manhattan office buildings: the Chilton Publishing Company's office on Park Avenue at 42nd Street, the offices of the State Department's Magazine Branch just below Columbus Circle, and Rockefeller Center, where Time and Architectural Forum had their offices. Indeed, as Jacobs was careful to explain in Death and Life, she witnessed the now-famous Hudson Street "ballet" on her way to work and on her days off. "The heart-of-the-day ballet I seldom see, because part of the nature of it is that working people who live there, like me, are mostly gone, filling the role of strangers on other sidewalks," she wrote. Becoming Jane Jacobs accordingly describes Jacobs's knowledge of and writing about neighborhoods other than Greenwich Village and cities other than New York, and it shows that she was as interested in the sciences of the city as her city's "ballet." Neither accidental nor modest in ambition, a depth of experience was the foundation of Jacobs's desire to offer a wholly new vision of cities, not some shortsighted "remedies."

When the evolution of Jacobs's thinking is considered, the historical context takes on a new significance in understanding and interpreting her work. The New York City of the 1930s, where Jacobs's adult life and writing began, certainly influenced her ideas about cities and their economies. Her early writing shows that she already saw the city in ways different than city planners and reformers of the day, but she also understood their ambitions within the context of the widely shared impulse to be modern, live in a modern city, and improve living conditions for the growing masses of city dwellers. Jacobs lived in a changing New York, and she witnessed the evolution of modern urban redevelopment and public housing in the city early on in their histories. As such, Jacobs's critiques of urban renewal were situated within an awareness—influenced by her architect husband, Bob Jacobs, and by her work for Architectural Forum—of the history of modern architecture and city planning theory and practice. In her passionate introduction to Death and Life, her attacks on the Garden Cities movement founder Ebenezer Howard and the Modernist architect-planner Le Corbusier were certainly memorable. However, in the dispassionate concluding chapter, she sought to understand Howard's and Le Corbusier's thinking in the context of the "history of modern thought." She admitted that their ideas about cities were the product of their times, particularly the epistemologies of their times. Thus, although some have mistakenly seen Jacobs as an antimodernist, her criticisms of modern architecture, planning, and housing were directed more at Modernism's followers than its pioneers. Although Jacobs's fights with Robert Moses have been similarly sensationalized, she sought to understand even Moses's way of thinking when she wrote that, "it is understandable that men who were young in the 1920s were captivated by the vision of the freeway Radiant City, with the specious promise that it would be appropriate to an automobile age. At least it was then a new idea; to men of the generation of New York's Robert Moses, for example, it was radical and exciting in the days when their minds were growing and their ideas forming." However, she was unforgiving of arrested mental development in the younger generation of planners and designers. Anticipating a theme found in her subsequent books, she wrote, "It is disturbing to think that men who are young today, men who are being trained now for their careers, should accept on the grounds that they must be 'modern' in their thinking, conceptions about cities and traffic which are not only unworkable, but also to which nothing new of any significance has been added since their fathers were children." Always an advocate of thoughtful experimentation and productive innovation, Jacobs held contempt for superficial modernity.

In the 1940s and early 1950s, Jacobs's experiences as a writer for both the OWI and the State Department also significantly affected her thinking about epistemologies and "systems of thought." As part of the war effort, she had firsthand experience with what she described in Systems of Survival as the "guardian" moral system, only to become a target of an extreme version of the guardian syndrome in McCarthyism. It is impossible to say how Jacobs would have written Death and Life differently, or whether she would have written it at all, had she not been forced out of her job at the State Department during the McCarthy era and developed even greater anger toward bureaucratic ignorance than she already held as someone suspicious of government bureaucracies. However, Death and Life's criticisms of top-down thinking and mandates read differently when one knows something about her experiences only a short number of years before.

Like the details and influences of Jacobs's experiences in the 1930s and 1940s, the significance of her work at Architectural Forum, which has been absent from previous commentaries, cannot be underestimated. Jacobs may have had no formal education in architecture or city planning, but she learned from working with Haskell, who became known as the "dean of architectural editors" (despite having no such training himself), and others in the "academy" of the magazine. She may have held no educational credentials, but, in her position as associate editor at Forum, she had access to research and resources, entrée to architectural and academic circles, and a privileged view of the world of modern architecture and city planning. Having already written about both for Amerika, Jacobs started at Forum prepared to follow urban renewal efforts related to the U.S. Housing Act of 1949. As Forum's expert on shopping center design, she befriended the architect Victor Gruen, who invented the new building typology, and, because of the shopping center's role in suburbanization and its challenge to the relevance of the historic city center, she also soon segued into writing about urban redevelopment and housing. Although Jacobs eventually wrote about redevelopment projects in Cleveland, Ohio, Fort Worth, Texas, Washington, DC, New York, and other cities, she covered a journalistic beat that included Philadelphia, which brought her into close contact with the architect Louis Kahn and the Philadelphia city planning director Edmund Bacon, whose pioneering ideas in urban design shaped her own. Death and Life's foundation was built through Jacobs's contact with these figures, sharing ideas with Haskell and her other colleagues, editing their work and guest columnists' essays (notable among these were essays by the modern housing and planning advocate Catherine Bauer Wurster), attending and participating in historic academic conferences, and interacting with the larger world of architectural and urban theory, particularly with her counterparts at The Architectural Review (London).

If it seems improbable that a canonical book like The Death and Life of Great American Cities emerged spontaneously from the typewriter of a housewife who had previously written nothing but a few captions, that is because it is improbable. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine the book without the foundation provided by Forum and Jacobs's previous writing and without the support of people (despite what she may have said about some of them later, or them about her) including Mumford, Bauer, and Whyte, the sociologist Nathan Glazer, the city planner Martin Meyerson, the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Fine Arts dean G. Holmes Perkins; the New School for Social Research president Hans Simons, and the Random House editor Jason Epstein—all of whom wrote letters endorsing her book project. Even more significant were the Rockefeller Foundation's financial support, which allowed Jacobs some two and a half years for research, travel, and writing, and the foundation's intellectual support, provided most notably by its associate director, Chadbourne Gilpatric, who, with Jacobs's help, created a circle of pioneering figures in urban design that included architects, planners, and landscape architects such as Gordon Stephenson, Kevin Lynch, Ian Nairn, Grady Clay, Christopher Tunnard, I. M. Pei, and Ian McHarg. Finally, it is impossible to imagine Death and Life without the difficult and imaginative work of writing the book itself, which evolved, through the struggle of its creation, from a less ambitious series of articles into the determinedly pioneering tome we are familiar with today. For Jacobs as a writer, it was an extraordinarily demanding and transformative process—one perhaps well symbolized by the fact that her hair went from auburn to shock white while writing it. While Death and Life is extolled for its good sense and readability, Jacobs believed in the writing adage that "the easier it is to read, the harder it was to write."

Apart from discussing Jacobs's early work and the origins of Death and Life, Becoming Jane Jacobs has some other primary goals. It seeks to place Death and Life in the context of larger debates about the built environment by showing how Jacobs's work fit within the overarching and widely shared early twentieth-century impulse to suburbanize and to make cities, and housing projects in particular, more like suburbia. I discuss Jacobs's participation in debates and her writing about sprawl, and I show how Jacobs's discussions about land use in Death and Life connect to these earlier writings, as well as how her strategic decision to focus on cities did not lessen her concerns for the larger environment.

Given Jacobs's rejection of superficial modernism, another goal is to show the relationship of Jacobs's frequent admonishments to study the "use" of things ("the use of sidewalks," "the uses of neighborhood parks," "the uses of city neighborhoods," etc.) to major debates about the collapse of modern/functionalist architecture and urbanism in the 1950s. Jacobs was deeply interested in innovation, "how things work," and complexity as an understanding of how things work. By Jacobs's own description, Death and Life was originally conceived of as a study of "the relation of function to design in large cities," and she returned repeatedly to a functionalist critique of functionalist architecture and urbanism. Supporting my argument with evidence from Jacobs's work as an architectural critic, such as her admiration for Kahn's work, and comparisons of her ideas with other critics of modern architecture, such as the architectural critic J. M. Richards and the architect Percival Goodman, I argue that Jacobs can be better understood as a "neofunctionalist," or a reformer of modernism, and as a participant in the eternal renewal of modern architecture and ideas.

Another goal, which relates to Jacobs's lifelong interest in systems of thought, is to address some questions about her ideological position, particularly with regard to the question of planning. Jacobs and Death and Life have long served as screens on which various partisans—conservative, liberal, and libertarian—project their own frequently contradictory ideas and values about cities and societies. Some invoke her to preserve neighborhoods from change and to attack real estate development projects, especially if they are large and modern, while others celebrate her as an advocate of markets free from government regulations. Some see a deep respect for people in her fights against top-down urban planning, while others argue she had too little to say about segregation, racism, and gentrification. When contradictions arise, critics are often disgruntled that Jacobs does not adequately address their special interests, and she is used as a straw man for forces beyond her argument, context, time, and control. Again, here an understanding of Jacobs's early work and Death and Life's historical context is helpful, as is a comparison of Jacobs's anti-ideological, scientifically biased, and allegedly antiplanning approach with the thinking from such influential figures as the economist F. A. Hayek, the philosopher of science Karl Popper, and others.

In all of this, finally, is a new attempt to better understand Jacobs's lifework as a whole. While not a traditional or a complete biography, which would require another volume, by going beyond the first half of her career, and also beyond her battles with Moses, Becoming Jane Jacobs seeks to shed light not only on Death and Life but also on key ideas found in the six major books on cities and civilizations that followed. Seen as a whole, from her first essays on city neighborhoods, written in her teens, to Dark Age Ahead, in which, in her eighties, she reflected on the course of civilizations, consistent themes can be observed within the evolution of her thinking. For example, although Jacobs's first book, Constitutional Chaff: Rejected Suggestions of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, was an edited work that contained little of her voice, Jacobs's philosophical and methodological interests in systems of thought, dialogue, and trial and error are evident. By focusing on ideas rather than battles, and beginning at the beginning and not in the middle of Jacobs's intellectual life, I seek to shift deeper attention to Jacobs's vita contemplativa. This is no reflection of a desire to diminish the importance of her community activism, her vita activa. On the contrary, in Becoming Jane Jacobs, I seek to show how Jacobs's writing and her activism grew together.

That said, Jacobs's "attack on current city planning and rebuilding," the first idea in Death and Life, is not the first word in Jacobs's lifework. More representative is Death and Life's second sentence, in which she explained her ambition as being "also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding." While there may be disagreements about the validity of Jacobs's various ideas or the heart of her ideology, all seem to agree that Jacobs was an observer of cities par excellence. If the etymological root of "theory," which is observation, still has relevance, then, despite the David versus Goliath stories and Jacobs's own anti-expert/anti-theory rhetoric, Jacobs was a great theorist, as well as a great activist. Favoring the concrete over the abstract, she was probably a great activist because she was a great theorist, and vice versa. Thus, challenging the activist, amateur, and genius stereotypes, Becoming Jane Jacobs shows that it was only through a combination of years of observing and writing about the city, of building a writing career and the experiences of her early years, and of interacting with the architectural press, academy, and profession, and many others, that Jacobs had the ambition and confidence to describe Death and Life in 1959 as nothing less than a new "system of thought about the great city." It shows, in other words, that Jacobs could not have written Death and Life by simply sitting on her Hudson Street stoop and watching the "sidewalk ballet" go by.