From stenographer to author to icon: Jane Jacobs’ tremendous career and legacy

Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobsby Robert Kanigel

Knopf. 512p $35

If you have any interest in Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), author of the 1961 urban planning paradigm-shifting The Death and Life of Great American Cities, you should read this comprehensive and accessible biography. If you’re not familiar with her, but are in the mood to read about an extraordinary pre-Betty Friedan independent woman with gifted eyes and rare judgment—a friend said “she was absolutely sure of herself and absolutely not full of herself”—read it and then get hooked on what makes and unmakes vital cities, and indeed nations and civilizations.

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As one reviewer observed, “She began by writing about sidewalks and finished with an account of Western civilization itself.” Her biographer, until recently a professor of science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a gifted writer, the author of the text for the acclaimed movie The Man Who Knew Infinity. Kanigel tells us that his Eyes on the Street is not about urban planning or urban design, but it is a biography. If this book aims to highlight any subject outside that of Jane Jacobs herself, he writes, it is that of the independent mind in conflict with received wisdom.

Although there are now “Jane Jacobs scholars” and she received a life achievement award from the American Institute of Architects in 1998 and over 30 honorary degree offers and the Order of Ontario in 2000 (in 1968 she left the United States under Vietnam War protest disorderly conduct charges with her architect husband, daughter and two draft-eligible sons), she spent the first half of her life as an uncredentialed secretary showing no particular promise. She did not foresee the public intellectual acclaim she received almost immediately after the 1961 publication of The Death and Life. Indeed, she was expelled from the third grade, was frequently late for her high school classes, never made the honor roll, never got her college degree, but learned shorthand and typing at a secretarial school, held a succession of low-paying secretarial jobs, worked 10 years in the federal bureaucracy and then at mid-level professional magazines, where she was never singled out as an up-and-comer. What happened?

The year 1956 was a lucky one for her, when her boss asked her to stand in for him at a conference at which he did not want to speak. Though uncredentialed and not formally trained, she was ready. Her well-crafted address about cities, packed with jolts of verbal snapshots, was heavily applauded. She had always considered herself a writer. She had written for her high school newspaper and interned at a newspaper. As deftly as a playwright, Kanigel records the twists and turns of Jacobs’s evolution from stenographer to author in a way that makes her evolution seem more inevitable than incredible. And he is insightful, not iconic. He cites in detail the criticism that Jacobs’s focus on vitality tended to relegate race and poverty concerns to the peripheries.

The Vital City Is in the Eyes

When I was about a third of the way into the book I became aware of Kanigel’s steady use of “eyes” and sight metaphors to characterize Jacobs’s close-to-the-real and away from the abstract approach to research and writing. I found at least 20 examples, as in “she was beginning to see a kind of order right behind the confusion of the East Harlem streets, an endlessly intricate one.” And always behind large rimmed glasses, as she was nearsighted, 20-200 in both eyes. In a variety of contexts Kanigel summarizes just what Jacobs’s eyes showed her that architects and urban planners, under the modernist glare of Le Corbusier and his “Radiant City” and Ebenezer Howard’s “Garden City,” with their bird’s-eye-vistas-eyes on blocked-out spaces filled with their starchitecture buildings and making for easy automobile travel, could not. The eyes of a woman with three children are far more likely to notice the little but life-giving details that the eyes of the starchitect do not. When asked how she found such wonderful examples to illustrate her points, Jacob replied: “It’s just the opposite. The examples come first. I think from the concrete. I can’t think from the abstract.” Even in her later and denser works dealing with macroeconomics—The Economy of Cities, published in 1969 and her 1985 Cities and The Wealth of Nations—Jacobs advised, “Look to the small.”

With her eyes on the street, Jacobs saw the importance of mixed primary uses; short blocks; buildings of various ages, including old ones; and dense concentrations of people. “Mixed primary uses” means an urban texture where warehouses and factories and residences and shops and bars and grocery stores are all mixed together, drawing people to the area at every hour of the day and night, thus helping to keep the area safe and lively; and its short blocks encouraged varied walking paths and more corners for more shops and old buildings with low rents, which encouraged startups. But Kanigel calls this a “cartoonish summary” of the book’s main ideas because it loses her aphoristic kick. Like this one: “New ideas must use old buildings.” Or this: “Why are there so often no people where the parks are and no parks where the people are?”

On Sept. 14, 2016, The New York Times’s Stephen Heyman asks, “Did the urban architecture of Syria help fuel the civil war that has shattered that country and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives?” He writes that this was a question asked by Marwa al-Sabouni, an architect who spent two years confined to her apartment in Homs with her husband and two children as the city was reduced to rubble. Homs, Syria’s third largest city, had a centuries-old history of Sunni and Alawite and Christians living in a relative harmony that was reflected and encouraged by the mosques and churches and residential and commercial sites sharing the same intertwining streets. But this classic setting was upended by urban modernization imported as modern “progress,” which involved the tearing down of small scale architecture and housing and replacing it with bomb-able superblocks of massive apartments that isolated their occupants and with population growth led to ghettos on the urban fringe divided by religion and social class.

The Times report does not mention Jane Jacobs. Fittingly. As Paul Goldberger, the Times’s architecture critic, wrote many years earlier, Jacobs was now “standard urban theory.”

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