Becoming Jane Jacobs

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University of Pennsylvania Press, Jan 21, 2016 - Architecture - 365 pages
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Jane Jacobs is universally recognized as one of the key figures in American urbanism. The author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she uncovered the complex and intertwined physical and social fabric of the city and excoriated the urban renewal policies of the 1950s. As the legend goes, Jacobs, a housewife, single-handedly stood up to Robert Moses, New York City's powerful master builder, and other city planners who sought first to level her Greenwich Village neighborhood and then to drive a highway through it. Jacobs's most effective weapons in these David-versus-Goliath battles, and in writing her book, were her powers of observation and common sense.

What is missing from such discussions and other myths about Jacobs, according to Peter L. Laurence, is a critical examination of how she arrived at her ideas about city life. Laurence shows that although Jacobs had only a high school diploma, she was nevertheless immersed in an elite intellectual community of architects and urbanists. Becoming Jane Jacobs is an intellectual biography that chronicles Jacobs's development, influences, and writing career, and provides a new foundation for understanding Death and Life and her subsequent books. Laurence explains how Jacobs's ideas developed over many decades and how she was influenced by members of the traditions she was critiquing, including Architectural Forum editor Douglas Haskell, shopping mall designer Victor Gruen, housing advocate Catherine Bauer, architect Louis Kahn, Philadelphia city planner Edmund Bacon, urban historian Lewis Mumford, and the British writers at The Architectural Review. Rather than discount the power of Jacobs's critique or contributions, Laurence asserts that Death and Life was not the spontaneous epiphany of an amateur activist but the product of a professional writer and experienced architectural critic with deep knowledge about the renewal and dynamics of American cities.


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Urban Sprawl Urban Design and Urban Renewal
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About the author (2016)

The Unknown Jane JacobsHow 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, 1959Jane 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