100 Years of Jane Jacobs

Tag Christof

May 01 2016

Jane Jacobs, the most well-known crusader for living, functional, social cities would have turned 100 years old this week. She was famous for her seminal book, Death and Life of Great American Cities, as well as a famous rivalry with the most notorious New York City don of building, Robert Moses.

Over the course of her lifetime, Jane fought vociferously for the human quality of life in cities, first from Philadelphia, then from New York City’s West Village, and later, from Toronto. Her ideal was typified in her beloved bohemian West Village, where she moved in the late 1930s – the same neighborhood Betty Draper timidly visited alone in an episode of Mad Men set in the 1960s. Among her most famous causes was the cancellation of massive expressways that would’ve cut through and destroyed vibrant neighborhoods in cities around the world. She championed the human connections and networks made over time, and which relied on “eyes on the street,” neighborliness, and a social contract rather than surveillance and police presence for safety and cohesion.

Popular opinion has always been pretty clear about who between Jacobs and Moses came out on the right side of history: as the crusader for the people, she always wins the narrative as the best foil to the heartless and relentless builder bent on filling the city with lifeless tower blocks. But as cities become more complex, as economies evolve, as new migration patterns emerge, we’re beginning to see that there might be more to the story. 

Today, the small three-story building Jane and her husband purchased and lived in at 555 Christopher Street in the West Village still stands, modestly overlooking a much-changed neighborhood. Ironically, its ground floor is occupied by a boutique realty firm specializing in just the sort of high-priced real estate that keeps neighborhood’s continued class homogeneity intact. Though it is true that the neighborhood is among the tidiest and most pleasant in New York City, it has become something of a contemporary flip side to uptown enclaves and the whitewashed suburbs of the 1950s and 1960s. The working artists are gone, the chaotic liveliness has been replaced with ,  and anyone on sub-six-figure incomes couldn’t dream of paying the rents on even the smallest of apartments.

Jane’s West Village, thanks in no small part to her steadfast work to preserve its form and texture, has evolved into exactly the type of pretty neighborhood that earns high marks on Monocle’s manicured Quality of Life lists, with nonexistent crime rates, excellent coffee and no blight. Only problem is, all this goodness becomes a slippery slope when viewed through the prism of who actually benefits from them. From Park Slope across the bridge in Brooklyn to most of San Francisco proper, these once bustling, dynamic neighborhoods are now exclusive in all senses of the word.

Moreover, it is difficult to look at the emergent refugee encampments around Europe, long-blighted metropolises in the American Rustbelt, and neighborhoods like Brownsville in Brooklyn, Compton in L.A., or Clichy-sous-Bois in Paris that just can’t catch a break and assert that human-centered urbanism can be a cure-all. The expansive, transformative visions of the midcentury, despite their many failed promises, were incredible in scope and possessed of an ambitiousness that is totally unknown today outside of, perhaps, China. Political stasis, combined with conservative rhetoric that the private sector should finance everything, ensures that the only truly grand urban projects we will see in our lifetimes are 1) luxury apartments and 2) “smart” infrastructures whose overarching goal is to enrich already unfathomably rich corporations. I would argue that some grand Moses-style building, tempered by a big dose of Jacobsian humanity and financed by an ambitious, progressive government would make for a far nicer future than one in which corporations track our every move and every surface is an advertisement. And this would, indeed, be the best way to counteract the real urban evil today: monied developers bent on filling every city with lifeless tower blocks of the most profitable sort.

We see glimmers of hopeful Jacobs-influenced design in some of the work of architecture firms like BIG, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Snøhetta and others, and and definitely in the work of this year’s Pritzer Prize winner, Alejandro Aravena. But until these projects do not have to rely primarily on exorbitant rents only luxury storefronts can pay, they will be few, far between, and that elusive human city will only exist for very few. 

Jane wrote several other books, most notably Cities and The Wealth of Nations, The Economy of Cities, Systems of Survival, and Dark Age Ahead, the last of which foretold a dystopian technological future that seems rather prophetic in retrospect. She was a pragmatist oracle whose sense of what made a place worth living in, as well as the forces that shaped it.

It is telling that, after she was arrested for allegedly inciting a riot in 1968, Jane packed up her Hudson St. house and move to Canada, where she lived out the remainder of her life. Until she passed away almost exactly ten years ago, she never stopped fighting for cities and for the people in them. Her lessons remain as valid today as ever, and it is difficult to imagine an alternate present she did not have a hand in shaping – whatever effect market forces continue to have, the renewed, safer, more pleasant New York City of today, as well as every resurgent American city, owes her a debt of gratitude.

Happy 100th, Jane.