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What she left
Two Jacobs biographies, nourished by a University collection
Jane Jacobs peers from the front cover of Peter Laurence’s recent book, Becoming Jane Jacobs, looking knowing and wary. In her tousled, graying bob of a haircut and cat-eye glasses, she stands framed by soulless apartment towers that rise behind her on either side. This is the world’s enduring image of Jacobs: the feisty New York matron who, beginning in the late 1950s, stared down master builder Robert Moses and ushered in a new, people-centered form of urban planning with her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
It’s not a wrong view, necessarily, but it is an incomplete one, observed Laurence, a professor of architectural hisory at Clemson University, during a talk he gave in Devlin Hall on November 17. The deification of Jacobs as the amateur activist in a David-and-Goliath struggle with Moses has obscured an appreciation of Jacobs as a deep thinker who formed her social philosophies over decades of work. “Not only have I tried to put forward Jane Jacobs the intellectual,” Laurence told an attentive audience of about 100 people, “but I have tried to show how the activist work and the intellectual work were part of the same enterprise.”
Laurence’s book is one of a pair of new books published in 2016, the hundredth anniversary of Jacobs’s birth, that have reexamined the evolution of her system of thought before and after her confrontation with Moses. Becoming Jane Jacobs focuses on the years from her childhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania, until the publication of Death and Life. Another book, by science writer Robert Kanigel, titled Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, provides a more sweeping timeline, including extensive examination of the seven books in four decades that Jacobs wrote after her magnum opus, which generally receive short shrift.
“This is not a book about city planning, this is a book about Jane’s mind,” Kanigel said in a talk on October 12 in the Thompson Room of the Burns Library. “A mind that just happened to change the world.” Both his and Laurence’s books draw heavily from the Jane Jacobs Papers at the Burns Library, which the author donated before her death. Jacobs was first invited to speak at Boston College in the 1970s by Carroll School of Management senior associate dean Richard Keeley, who was then the director of PULSE, an undergraduate program that focuses on social justice and responsibility, where Jacobs’s books were and remain part of the curriculum.
The papers include early drafts of Jacobs’s books, as well as photos, articles, and correspondence that demonstrate her wide-ranging mind. One of Kanigel’s favorite items is a long letter Jacobs wrote her mother about the political economy of the Cayman Islands after she took a trip there in 1971. In it, she goes on about a single family farm’s crops and livestock (and what the animals ate) and the water supply and the family’s trials with bulb breeding. “I found an infinite number of Janes in the archive,” Kanigel said.
Laurence first visited the Burns Library some 20 years ago when, as an architecture student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, he wrote his thesis on Jacobs’s work (he gave a copy to Jacobs that is in the collection). “The Jacobs Papers offer a window into her life and work like no other,” he said. “The papers are really nothing less than a time machine, and one that, as I continue studying her work and ideas, I expect to step back into in the future.”
Jacobs left Scranton for New York in 1934, during the height of the Depression, and took classes at Columbia University. She never earned a degree. Her real education came as a writer, starting in 1941 at the Iron Age, a trade magazine for the metals industry. Her activism was tied to her writing from the beginning, said Laurence. During World War II, she published stories in the magazine about the decline of manufacturing and the loss of jobs in Scranton, also speaking out at rallies and successfully persuading several companies involved in the war effort to move to the struggling mining and steel town.
After the war, she wrote for Amerika, a magazine published by the State Department to disseminate U.S. news to the Soviet Union, before eventually finding a job as an editor at Architectural Forum in 1952. New York at the time was in an exciting moment of architectural change. Traditional and modernist architects alike agreed the city was in decline, said Laurence, “slum-filled, blighted, congested, diseased, overpopulated, and cancerous.” Modernist planners began pushing for renewal in the form of huge clearance projects to level neighborhoods and create superblocks of tall towers surrounded by open space to entice the middle class to stay in the city.
In examining archives at the State Department and at the Rockefeller Archive Center (Jacobs received early research support from the Rockefeller Foundation’s urban planning program), Laurence was surprised to discover Jacobs had originally been a champion of such full-bore redevelopment, writing an early comprehensive article on the phenomenon in 1950 for Amerika, and continuing to sing its praises in articles at Architectural Forum. “She seems to have come rather late to her activism” and to her awareness of what was happening “in her own backyard,” Laurence noted. “[Not the person] you’d suspect of battling Robert Moses in the future.”
Two seminal events changed that: In 1955, Kanigel related, Jacobs toured Philadelphia with a city official to examine before and after scenes of urban renewal. Streets that the official called blighted struck Jacobs as vibrant and full of life, with residents crowding the sidewalks and sitting out on their stoops. By contrast, the post-renewal streets seemed quiet and dead. “Where are all the people?” Jacobs asked, according to Kanigel. “What bothered her,” he continued, “wasn’t just that [the official] didn’t have an answer, but that he didn’t seem curious about the question.”
A year later, an activist named William Kirk came into the offices of Architectural Forum incensed about Robert Moses’s ongoing efforts to bulldoze his East Harlem neighborhood. Already, 57 acres had been leveled to make room for 10 housing complexes, with more planned. At the time, nearly everyone at the magazine, as well as the public at large, supported the project, and a senior editor pawned Kirk off on Jacobs as a way to get rid of him. But Jacobs took Kirk seriously. “Jane listened, and when Jane listened, she really listened,” said Kanigel. Later, she toured the neighborhood with him, seeing the vitality of the community through his eyes. “Out of this, Jane saw a hidden order to the streets.”
Jacobs gave a talk at Harvard shortly afterward, defending the traditional urban fabric over the chill of urban renewal, and became a celebrity in academic circles overnight. Legend has it that her masterwork, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, sprang from her mind fully formed, but she labored over the book for more than two years, at one point despairing that she had anything to say, said Laurence. In it, she railed against clearance projects and advocated for densely populated, diverse neighborhoods, where “eyes on the street” could help enforce order and foster community.
The book had a mixed reception in the press. What clinched Jacobs’s fame was her activism, as she stepped to the forefront of the movement to save her own neighborhood of Greenwich Village from Moses’s plan for a Lower Manhattan Expressway, which threated to displace 2,000 families and 800 businesses and destroy Washington Square, a public park since 1827.
While stories of “Mother Jacobs” chaining herself to buildings made headlines, that popular mythology is also incomplete. Behind the public image was a thoughtful tactician, who used her reporting skills to sleuth out documents exposing political corruption at the Planning Commission and Housing and Redevelopment Board; and who, along with her fellow activists, helped design plans for the West Village Houses, a cluster of five-story walkups built to human scale, which still exist.
After she won the fight to save Greenwich Village, Jacobs continued to develop her philosophy in several books about the economics of cities and countries, as well as a more conceptual book called Systems of Survival, published in 1992. That book, said Kanigel, is organized as a Socratic dialogue, with a group of people discussing two competing moral philosophies she calls the Guardian Syndrome and the Commerce Syndrome (espousers of both have to work together to create a healthy society).
“Of course, they were all just expressions of herself,” said Kanigel. Those books were not nearly as influential as Death and Life, but they show a mind constantly wrestling with new ideas, still working to change and improve the way we all live.
Michael Blanding is a Boston-based writer and author of The Map Thief (2014).
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