Jane Jacobs Was No “Saint,” Great Man” or “Ordinary Mom”

by Peter Laurence on September 29, 2016

Jane Jacobs leading a planning meeting for West Village Houses in May 1963
Jane Jacobs leading a planning meeting for West Village Houses in May 1963

(Ed Note: Leading Jacobs scholar Peter Laurence wrote this in response to a very inaccurate story on Jane Jacobs in The New Yorker. It is worth reading regardless if you have read the article it challenges).

Jane Jacobs made grown men cry on a number of occasions. During the battle to Save Washington Square, she hammered so hard on a fellow Greenwich Village Study committee leader about how a press release should be written that the man was reduced to tears. He was a good man, but a compromiser. She wasn’t. When it came to saving Washington Square, or the West Village, or stopping the Lower Manhattan Expressway, she didn’t compromise. She didn’t try to be a “nice lady.”

In a similar way, when one reads The Death and Life of Great American Cities, it is not easy to see the influence of people who helped Jacobs to write the book. Yes, there are people named in the acknowledgments, but she harshly criticized some, including Lewis Mumford and her one-time friend Catherine Bauer, within it. When writing the book, cities and intellectual differences about cities superseded sentimentality. She took their ideas down, despite the fact that they, along with a list of others little recognized, had written enthusiastic letters to recommend her book project for foundation support, aid she was probably aware of.

While Jacobs was no saint as a human being, nor was she a saint in ways more commonly suggested, in terms of having an all-seeing, supernatural intellect. As one would expect, her ideas, and her understanding of cities, evolved over time. Yes, in her very first published essays on the city, written while she was in her late teens, we can see the interest in the intersection of geography, history, inhabitation, and economics that characterized her life’s work. However, in the early 1950s, when the nation was deciding between suburbanizing or modernizing its cities, she not only backed urban renewal, she wrote favorably about it. She praised city planning and suburban and urban redevelopment in ways she would unequivocally recant in Death and Life. As she wrote to a confidant in 1959, while she was writing Death and Life, she regretted beliefs she had held and things she had written some years earlier, feeling guilt for her personal involvement in the impact on cities. Part of the anger in her book was anger at herself for having believed in bad ideas about cities and planning.

As for writing Death and Life, a project that transformed from a modest series of articles into a volume meant to offer nothing less than a new “system of thought about the great city,” the book was a struggle. Her ideas continued to evolve and develop as she wrote it. However, this does not change the fact that she had been following and writing about American urban redevelopment from at least the passage of the US Housing Act of 1949, a defining historical moment for cities, for many years, first, as I wrote in a 2007 obituary, for the State Department’s Amerika, and then for Time Inc.’s Architectural Forum. And during this decade of learning, when she became recognized as one of the nation’s most notable writers on cities (already before Death and Life), she absorbed ideas from many sources including those, once again, she later criticized. For example, in Death and Life, her criticism of Catherine Bauer and her comment, “Fry Bacon!,” a delicious recollection of public sentiment about Philadelphia planning chief Ed Bacon, belies the positive influence that Bauer (for her criticism of various planning ideas) and Bacon (for ideas about urban redevelopment very similar to those she is now associated with) had on her thinking. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine her writing Death and Life without the experience she gained; the cities and projects she visited; and the people—architects, city planners, housers, city commissioners, and academics— she met and learned from during her years at Forum and as a Rockefeller Foundation grantee. The nineteenth-century “Great Man” theory of history, the story of godlike genius changing the course of the world without substantial effort, error, and the assistance of others, is no more true for Jacobs than other “Great Men.”

As for being an ordinary mom, as she was recently described, Jacobs was both unconventional and a career woman. She spent her days and two decades in various office buildings as a professional writer; she spent her evenings and weekends in a home and neighborhood that even Jacobs herself then considered a slum. When many women stayed at home and lived in new homes in the suburbs, if not new apartments like those at Stuyvesant Town, she was hardly an ordinary woman of the 1950s. Yes, she had three children, but she also had hired help for childcare, which allowed her full-time work outside of the home, something completely unremarkable among households with two parents today. So when it comes to talking about someone who wrote one of the most important and enduring books ever written on cities, does it make sense to define her as an “ordinary mom,” not just today but as an adult of the 1950s? And when was the last time you heard someone notable called “an ordinary dad”?

This was unsurprisingly commonplace in the Mad Men era. In 1962, Lewis Mumford, upset by Jacobs’s rather unkind treatment, titled his New Yorker book review of Death and Life “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies for Urban Cancer.” And the title really says it all: Jacobs was a woman and her book was obsessed with what Mumford regarded as the particularly feminine concern of personal safety. Her best ideas were small-scale and domestic, the view of the street from the kitchen window. Big ideas were for the big boys: “We’ll handle cities and their ‘Urban Cancer,’ Ma’am,” was Mumford’s unsubtle, paternalistic, and condescending message.

This week we saw a remarkably similar essay in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik, who told us he would “pay her the compliment of taking her seriously” by attempting to figure out what “rattled around inside” her head. Like Mumford, he says Jacobs is “obsessed with crime.” And as in Mumford’s piece, Jacobs, “St. Joan of the small scale,” is described as being at her best when making “micro-observations” and not “biting off more than she could chew.” Her thinking is described as “very simple,” and limited to “street smarts,” ostensibly in comparison once again to what the big boys do.

As a review of The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Jane Jacobs’s lifework at the time of her centennial, it was truly Gopnik who bit off more than he could chew.

With regard to the background description of Jacobs’s career, the facts are outdated. It is said that Jacobs came to her subject “very late… Only in the mid-1950s did she begin writing about urban issues and architecture, for Fortune [magazine]….” In ignoring the fact that Jacobs’s first essays about the city were published when she was still a teenager, and dismissing her subsequent professional writing career, the point seems to retread a decades-old image of her as an uncredentialed housewife. As such, the essay differs little from those written by the likes of Ed Logue, whom Gopnik defends with equally anachronistic arguments, decades ago.

With similar glibness, an epoch of American urban history is casually handled. Robert Moses and the Lower Manhattan Expressway project are described as not so bad because they were typical of the era when there were equally bad people and projects elsewhere. Actually, they weren’t; even city planning chiefs in other cities spoke of the “Bob Moses Approach.” But the trauma wreaked by the Urban Renewal Administration and other massive historical forces, such as segregation and redlining, that defined the time when Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities are glossed over.

With eminent domain’s compulsory sales and urban renewal’s bulldozers long forgotten, the enduring impact Jacobs’s writing on cities has made her the target of some specious arguments and dogwhistle attacks. In Death and Life, Jacobs wrote, “our country’s most serious social problem [is] segregation and racial discrimination”— among other notable observations on race, segregation, and discrimination. But today, the simple observation that she was white is meant to suggest something about her character. (Gopnik says Jacobs celebrated “her own privilege” and asks, “Are there black folks on Hudson Street?”) Also sure to draw attention, Jacobs is described as a gentrifier because her West Village home became very, very expensive a half century after she bought it in the late 1940s. (Expect to see a new clickbait headline every time 555 Hudson Street goes on the market.) Nevermind that Jacobs was a pioneering theorist about city dynamics and gentrification at a time when people were leaving the city and it was more difficult than today to observe, let alone be concerned about. (Gopnik’s discussion of her ideas about gentrification is flawed at best; her idea of “unslumming” was not to make a neighborhood “appealing to new settlers,” and he misses her “self-destruction of diversity” concept.)

In a similar way, Jacobs is repeatedly criticized for missing “the big picture.” Earlier in the year she was accused of having had nothing to say about infrastructure, as if streets and sidewalks, for example, and the space in cities given over to cars, had nothing to do with infrastructure. In Gopnik’s essay, Jacobs is treated similarly. He grants her two important ideas, recognizing her principle about city streets as a network, not just infrastructure, and some aspect of her more complex concepts about diversity. But this is followed by a list of “big picture” critiques that may seem compelling to those who haven’t read The Death and Life of Great American Cities lately and those who don’t know too much about postwar American urban history. We are told that those massive urban redevelopment projects that Jacobs didn’t like were needed to create lots of housing. (This was obvious to all who lived through the postwar housing shortage, and of course to Jacobs, who was part of a team to improve a public housing project in East Harlem, who later developed West Village Houses, and who wasn’t simply against housing.) We are told that capital and markets influence cities. (Having written a couple books about cities and economics, Jacobs didn’t need Gopnik to explain to her that, “The butcher and the locksmith on Hudson Street were there because they could make a profit on meat and keys.”) We are told that self-organization isn’t enough, that we need some centralized planning in the form of government and policies, difficult though their maintenance may be. (Jacobs wasn’t a libertarian or anacharist, discussed new ideas for rent control and zoning among other “top-down” policies, and she had much to say about governing cities in Death and Life, including concepts for reforming city governance.) We are reminded that the conflicting demands of liberty and equality can’t be easily resolved, and that politics isn’t a ballet. (One of the twentieth century’s great activists, Jacobs knew this perhaps better than anyone.) Finally, we are told that cities change over time. (Gopnik would like to convince us that because Death and Life was written in a time when people were leaving the city that her ideas do not hold up for a time when people are returning to it.) There is a hint in Death and Life‘s title that Jacobs thought about how cities change over time, and only those who can find only two big ideas in Jacobs’s writing on cities could believe that she didn’t think a lot about “the tragedy of time and change.”

Jacobs received more than a few harsh reviews and “corrections” in four decades of book publishing. But Jacobs’s centennial year has been an especially good opportunity to write some very shallow things about her. Jacobs was no “saint” and no “Great Man,” but she was no “ordinary mom” either. Her books, The Death and Life of Great American Cities in particular, will be read long after today’s quick-takes are forgotten. Gopnik is unsure if Jacobs had “a rich, original mixture of ideas or merely a confusion of notions decorated with some lovely, observational details.”

Time will tell.

Peter Laurence is the author of Becoming Jane Jacobs

Filed under: Book Reviews