Becoming Jane Jacobs

By Peter L. Laurence
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, 376 pp., $34.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Renée Loth

When US Senator Patty Murray was a thirty-something citizen-activist in Washington state, a legislative opponent dismissed her as “just a mom in tennis shoes.” Murray wielded the insult to her advantage throughout her political career, showing up to campaign events in tennis shoes, using them as props at rallies—and winning every time.

A similar mythology has followed the famed urbanist Jane Jacobs; opponents in her time dismissed her, often to their grief, as just a mom with a typewriter. Her prescription for vibrant urban life, epitomized in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was so straightforward and free of cant that it’s easy to believe she sprang full-grown from a Greenwich Village sidewalk, an American Primitive of urban planning. No less a figure than the developer Robert Moses burnished this myth, when he complained at a public hearing about the resistance Jacobs had organized to his plan to blast a roadway through Washington Square Park in the late 1950s. As Jacobs herself remembered it years later, he sputtered before a municipal committee in disbelief, “There is nobody against this…Nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers!”

In Becoming Jane Jacobs, the architectural historian Peter Laurence aims to counter the notion that Jacobs was just a spunky naif who stumbled onto her theories about city planning and urban renewal. Instead, he argues, her views were shaped by years of careful study working as a writer and editor at publications such as Architectural Forum, and by her encounters with great thinkers of the field such as Lewis Mumford and William H. Whyte. “If it seems improbable that a canonical book like The Death and Life of 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,” Laurence writes in his introduction. Critics of Jacobs’s politics and ideas, he writes, “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.”

As a corrective, Laurence traces in minute detail the development of Jacob’s thinking, from her arrival in New York City at age eighteen through the publication of Death and Life, which is perhaps the most important (and certainly the most readable) book on urban planning ever written. She did not come upon her fierce defense of organic, complex urban vibrancy—what she called “the sidewalk ballet” of cities—just by gazing out her brownstone window, he says, but though a combination of careful observation, writing, and “interacting with the architectural press, academy, and profession.”

Laurence shows Jacobs fully engaged in the roiling intellectual arguments of her time—New Empiricism, New Palladianism, functionalism, modernism, and other isms—debating not just urban theory but the ideas of prominent philosophers (Karl Popper) and economists (F.A. Hayek). Her career coincided with a golden age of magazines, when publishing giants such as Henry R. Luce—the founder of Time, Inc., and editor of Architectural Forum—were remaking American journalism. Luce and his editorial team were determined to forge a new kind of architectural criticism and willing to attack building projects and their designers by name—a practice long avoided because of developers’ propensity for libel suits.

Jacobs, whose centenary was observed earlier this year, in May 2016, wrote presciently about the issues that architects, planners, and city officials grapple with today: suburban sprawl, environmental degradation, racially segregated housing, the benefits of density and mixed-use neighborhoods, and—prefiguring Sherry Turkle’s critique of distancing technology by fifty years —the importance of unmediated personal interactions. In an article for Architectural Forum about New York City’s office boom in 1957, Jacobs wrote that there is “no substitute for face to face, for the peek at figures not to be broadcast, the shared Martini, the subtle sizing up, the chance to bring the full weight of personality to bear.” Although Jacobs was steeped in the era’s debates about urban planning, ultimately she had little patience for any critical theory that lacked a conscience or a beating heart.

Laurence traces Jacobs’s lifelong suspicion of authority and planning orthodoxy to an early tangle with the government, in 1948. Despite having written propaganda for the Office of War Information during World War II, she was investigated by the FBI and the Loyalty Security Board for possible Communist sympathies. Her case, Laurence says, was personally overseen by J. Edgar Hoover, because she and her husband had once applied for a visa to the Soviet Union. (At the time the USSR was still an ally of the United States, but never mind!) Jacobs, he writes “opposed top-down, paternalistic, utopian, and statistically driven social and economic planning” at least partly in reaction to the excesses of state control she had experienced first-hand.

It is a fascinating idea, but overall Laurence does little psychoanalyzing of Jacobs in what he calls “an intellectual biography” of the urban planner. His focus is more on the great book than on the author herself. Time and again, Laurence connects the dots for the reader, showing Jacobs meeting the people, reporting on the developments, and “rehearsing passages” that will later appear in the volume. If a book can be said to have a biographer, Peter Laurence is the Boswell of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1916, Jane Butzner showed an early aptitude for writing, publishing her first works at age eleven in the local newspaper. The eldest daughter of a doctor and school teacher, she abjured college for a quick course in stenography, which she hoped would be her ticket to a life in the big city. In Depression-era New York, however, jobs were hard to find, and she supplemented her mostly part-time wages with freelance writing assignments that took her deep into the city’s many diverse neighborhoods. Her keenly observed portraits of workers in the leather, flower and diamond districts—published in Vogue, of all places—were some of her first experiences as what she later called “an urban naturalist.” Laurence writes admiringly of these early essays, which were unusual because “there was no hint of condescension in her discussion of the ethnic, working-class districts, which others saw as the home of the unwashed masses.”

When she was 28, Jane married Robert Jacobs, an architect—and it would be unfair to both of them not to recognize his contribution to her education. They shared a close relationship as colleagues, parents, and activists. Bob Jacobs taught Jane how to read architectural drawings and introduced her to many of those who would become her mentors and champions.

Importantly, Laurence shows that Jacobs was not always a fierce opponent of urban renewal schemes, for which she is now best known. Like most of her contemporaries, she was initially swept up in postwar enthusiasms for technical, almost scientific, solutions to urban problems. Although she rejected the “garden city” concept emblemized by suburban development and its attendant sprawl, she did think that inner-city slums could benefit from new housing developments, with their promise of self-contained parks, sunlight, and healthful recreation.

Perhaps because of her orientation as a journalist, however, rather than as an academic or theorist, she soon observed where these utopian ideas went wrong. She began to grow wary of urban renewal while reporting on redevelopment projects in East Harlem. Laurence quotes from a letter she wrote to a close friend, explaining the evolution of her thinking: “I saw that many people in East Harlem were of true importance in their circles and had the dignity that comes of having some influence and mastery, however little, on their environment.” In contrast, urban renewal schemes usually wiped out a community’s self-determination and replaced it with a “buffer principle” designed to keep both uses of buildings and classes of people apart.

Although Laurence doesn’t draw the reference, Jacobs came to abhor the “Tobacco Road” mentality of urban renewal, where, as in the song, the solution to a blighted neighborhood was to “blow it up and start all over again.” Her genius was to recognize the value in the messy, noisy, informal social structures of city neighborhoods and the civic glue provided by their institutions.

In the same letter, Jacobs lamented the development of Charles River Park, the walled community that followed the razing of Boston’s teeming West End, because its designers believed it would be “unsafe unless the strangers are kept out.” On the contrary, as she noted in Death and Life, it is precisely the close interactions among a city’s inhabitants and the self-policing “eyes on the street” that keep it safe.

Laurence recounts all this dutifully, with sometimes plodding prose. The book is deeply researched and helpfully illustrated, but it is not a jargon-free zone. Describing the debates that engulfed an international group of modernist architects and critics calling themselves Team 10, for example, he writes: “Team 10 members and others advanced the metabolist and megastructural movements of the 1960s and 1970s with a persisting ambition for ‘total architecture.’” Happily, the book includes ample passages by Jacobs herself, where the language is vivid, the pace picks up, and the book breathes.

Because it is mostly about the formative period leading up to the publication of Death and Life, Laurence’s biography gives relatively short shrift to the years just after, when Jacobs reached the peak of her fame and influence over the city she loved. There is little focus on her epic battles with Robert Moses, which pitted the builder against the preserver. For that, one has to read other accounts, such as The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs (2010) by fellow urbanist Roberta Brandes Gratz; Wrestling with Moses (2009), by the former Boston Globe reporter Anthony Flint; or perhaps Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, by Robert Kanigel, forthcoming in September.

Even Robert Caro’s magisterial biography of Moses, The Power Broker (1974), scants the relationship with Jacobs. Years after its publication, Caro admitted that chapters about Jacobs ended up on the cutting-room floor, an editing decision he came to regret. As well he should. “The great virtue of the city, the thing that helps make up for all its disadvantages, is that it is interesting,” Jacobs said in a 1957 speech. By fighting to keep it that way, Jacobs and her ideas were at least as influential in shaping urban America as the most powerful men in wingtips. Becoming Jane Jacobs provides a crucial rebalancing of the public record.

Renée Loth is editor of ArchitectureBoston magazine, the quarterly “ideas” publication of the Boston Society of Architects, and a former senior editor at the Boston Globe.

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