Jane Jacobs was born in 1916 as Jane Butzner, in Scranton Pennsylvania (sidenote: yes, that is indeed the same birthtown as Joe Biden). Her parents were fairly bourgeoise protestants, in a town heavily dominated by Catholics of Irish and Italian provenance mostly. She explains in Death and Life that she moved to New York City in the era the Great Depression. There she became a freelance journalist, working first for women’s magazines and then writing in architectural and planning magazines about the working districts in the city. This really was the beginning of her interest in architecture and planning, and in some regards it was the full extent of her technical training. She did study at Columbia University for a couple of years, jumping between courses in political science, zoology, law, geology, and economics, although she dropped out before finishing her studies. While she certainly had a flexible mind and a broad generalist training, in Death and Life it becomes apparent that her lack of theoretical rigour does have its drawbacks.
During her time in New York, Jacobs became quite the activist. Her causes of choice seemed largely to oppose the projects peddled by Robert Moses, the New York public official du jour (he held a mass of titles throughout his career) responsible for driving a number of urban renewal projects and re-moulding New York City into its iconic contemporary skyline spanning his decades-long career from the late 1920s all the way through to the 1960s. To be fair to Jacobs, Moses did seem to get a multitude of things wrong. The more I read about him, the more he seems like an archetypal macho urban developer who just wanted to plough through and build big buildings and cars while marginalising the city for the people. There are too many of these types around today, but they seem largely faceless, ensconced behind multinationals and shadowy global real estate development companies.
The documentary Citizen Jane provides quite a good entry-route into the rosy world of Jane Jacobs. Based on historical footage, it captures her fight in the 1960s to oppose Moses’ planned Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX). The plans would connect Manhattan Bridge with Williamsburg, ploughing through dense neighbourhoods to make way for a busy expressway. Opposition to the plans grew, and the documentary shows how Jacobs worked with community groups such as the Italian diaspora in Little Italy to oppose to plans throughout the 1960s. She chaired the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway and was elevated to status of local hero for her tireless campaigning work.
The battle culminated with her arrest in 1968, where she was charged with disorderly conduct (quite a step down from the initial accusations of inciting riots, criminal damage, obstruction of public administration). Following this, Jane moved to Toronto to take distance from NYC, albeit commuting in to work in New York occasionally.
The documentary Citizen Jane provides a good context before reading Death and Life, and gives rise to the question: Was Death and Life little more than a polemic? She certainly takes to task Moses – everything he stands for, she invariably stands against.
She doesn’t like:
- parks (Moses was New York City Parks Commissions for a stint in his long career);
- centrality of cars (Moses was very much pro-automobile).
Her issues with parks I do not fully agree with – we will get to this later. Her stance on cars however has aged quite well and in my opinion time has proved her right.
The second character she condemns in Death and Life is Le Corbusier. This is perhaps a proxy for railing against Moses, since he seemed to draw most of his inspiration from Le Corb’s ideas. Big macho buildings, car-centric cities built for speed, prowess, efficiency and large-scale was the order of the day. I do indeed agree with Jacobs on this, and I am certainly not a particular fan of Le Corb’s thinking nor his design (both of which to me scream fragile masculinity).
Despite a strangely contradictory political outlook which often borders on naivety and a lack of technical detail, Death and Life is immensely readable and certainly Jacobs journalistic background comes through loud and clear. It is near impossible to read the book without hearing that unmistakable transatlantic newsreader accent that was popular in the US in the 1950s and 60s. It’s hard to say whether Jacobs was a proto-hipster or just a tenacious campaigner, a radical centrist or urban anarchist, an insightful observer or a good storyteller; or also all of these things rolled together. But it does have to be said: she was right about many things, albeit often for the wrong reasons.