A Jane Jacobs cornucopia

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Jane Jacobs at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village. (streetsblog)

Here is an excellent review of recent books published by and about Jane Jacobs in the past year, which was the centennial of her birth. “What Jane Jacobs Saw,” by Michael Lewis in the upcoming March issue of First Things, includes a new biography, an analysis of how Jacobs’s ideas developed, a collection of interviews and a couple of anthologies, including Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs. I posted on it last December in “Jane Jacobs at Ada Books,” when the volume (co-edited by Nathan Storring and Samuel Zipp) went on sale locally. Of this set of books, Lewis writes:

They face a considerable burden: to explain how a woman with no training in economics or architecture—without even a college degree (though she had taken a course in stenography and shorthand at a business college in Scranton)—could have written the most important book on the city to appear in the last century. … But for all her precocious intelligence, she was a mediocre student, and if her curiosity was not aroused, she became restless and mischievous. She annoyed her teachers with her brazen indifference toward authority in any form—a trait evident in all her writing. It is notable that, to the end of her life, she turned down all offers of honorary degrees.

Her lack of academic credentials was in fact among her chief intellectual assets. She graduated from the school of hard knocks. She learned the nitty-gritty of New York City by poking her nose in its business. When she finally emerged as a thinker about cities, it was not in spite of but because of her lack of a scrap of paper. In fact, her depth and breadth of knowledge was so obvious after her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities that the reigning bigwigs on her subject – such as Lewis Mumford and, of course, Robert Moses – spluttered with embarrassed indignation.

I would not imagine that scholarly Michael Lewis could do full justice to Jacobs’s lack of credentialism, by which she avoided donning the blinders that characterize so much educated thinking. But he does a pretty good job:

[H]er decade spent in the offices of New York’s manufacturers and vendors, and another as a propagandist of American life, stood her in better stead than any technical training. Like all good journalists, she knew how to generalize intelligently, but in her case her generalizations were invariably informed by intimate and detailed personal knowledge about a vast array of enterprises. Those who knew her well were not surprised when she emerged as an architecture critic of unexpected subtlety and virtuosity.

Here is another quotation:

Seldom has a book ever achieved so thoroughly and swiftly its goal. “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding,” Jacobs wrote in the first sentence, and that attack was immediately successful. Within a year or two it became the conventional wisdom that city planners, heavy with Utopian hubris, had fundamentally misunderstood the city, mistaking a complexly functioning system of order for chaos, which they would replace with the schematic abstractions of the Radiant City.

“That attack” may have been immediately successful but it was not totally successful. A lot of city thinkers are backsliding into support for more Robert Moses-style big projects, most of which give as little intelligent thought to people or cities as Moses’s own work. What these city thinkers really want, I suspect, is a license to inflict more modern architecture on innocent citizens, and the bigger the better. That is the only way they can think of to hit back at the public. That’s about the depth of their thinking.

So it’s time to read Jacobs’s book again. I did last year, and my already-opened eyes were opened even wider at the fecundity of her insight. An excellent companion, by the way, which I am rereading, would be James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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