The Woman Who Saved Our Cities

by on September 22, 2016

Jane Jacobs is the leading urban visionary for post-WWII cities. Fittingly, her 100th birthday this year is being celebrated by books, events and a new documentary film. I recently spoke at a SPUR panel titled “What Would Jane Jacobs Do?,” and answering that question increasingly charts policy decisions about cities and neighborhoods.

Peter Laurence wrote an exceptional book on how Jacobs came to challenge the planning establishment that I reviewed earlier this year (“The Roots of Jane Jacobs’ Urban Vision”, June 2, 2016). I described Laurence’s Becoming Jane Jacobs as “an enormous contribution both to our understanding of Jacobs and more importantly to the 1950’s era that shaped both Jacobs’ perceptions and the future of urban and suburban America. “ I deemed it a “must read for anyone working to improve the quality of life in cities today.”

Robert Kanigel’s new book, Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, offers the first full biography of Jacobs. Kanigel traces Jacobs’ life with a particular focus on her often overlooked social activism in her adopted city of Toronto. Although Jacobs is typically identified with living in New York City’s West Village, she actually lived longer in Toronto.  It was in Toronto where Jacobs skill at promoting livable cities was most appreciated by city officials, and Kanigel brings to light this critical chapter of Jacobs’ legacy

Jacobs, Pre-Death and Life

Kanigel’s search for the roots that explain why Jacobs emerged as the nation’s most powerful voice against massive, planning-driven urban development schemes begins with her childhood years. While Kanigel tries to find evidence that she might have been shaped by her experiences in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he ultimately concludes as Laurence does that it was the time she spent in post-redevelopment areas of East Harlem, West Boston, and Philadelphia that led her to conclude that the people’s needs had been left out of planners’ plans.

Jacobs was also influenced by her walk through Boston’s North End, which remains one of the city’s most popular walking areas for tourists. The North End was precisely the type of mixed commercial/residential neighborhood that the planning establishment destroyed throughout the nation. Planners preferred highrise apartments with surrounding greenery, creating neighborhoods that lacked vitality, social interactions and were fundamentally impractical due to the lack of nearby small businesses.

Kanigel primarily focuses on Jacobs’ insights gleaned from personal visits to these failed areas, whereas Laurence shows how her research and investigation went much deeper. Nevertheless, a reader unfamiliar with how Jacobs came to her views will get the answer from this book.

Jacobs’ Activism

Kanigel particularly explores Jacobs’ lifetime of community-based grassroots activism. Most Jacobs followers know how her publication of the classic Death and Life of Great American Cities coincided with her efforts to stop a highway from going through Washington Square Park. Jacobs also spent years working to stop a proposed Manhattan Expressway from wrecking  the Village, Soho, Chinatown and Little Italy. Jacobs began that struggle in 1961  and the highway plan was not killed until 1968.

Jacobs’ anti-Vietnam War activism led her to leave New York City for Toronto in 1968 to protect her sons from the draft. She would live in Toronto until her death in 2006.

In Toronto, Jacobs quickly got involved in batting the long planned Spadina Expressway. Proposed in the 1950’s as part of a network of expressways designed to circle Toronto, Jacobs helped defeat the project in 1971. That victory resulted in the abandonment of the entire freeway project.

Kanigel shows Jacobs to be an effective but ambivalent activist. She repeatedly bemoaned that time spent at public hearings was taking away from her writing time; yet she was continued her activism while writing books into her 80’s.

Jacobs Legacy

Has Jane Jacobs’ legacy been overhyped? Was she right that “eyes on the street,” a mix of residential and commercial uses, and preserving old and historic buildings made for successful neighborhoods?

Kanigel addresses Jacobs critics, particularly sociologist Herbert Gans. Gans argued upon the release of Death and Life that Jacobs underestimated the role of cultural and economic factors—as opposed to the surrounding housing type— that made Boston’s Italian North End a successful neighborhood. He also felt Jacobs was “blind to issues of race and class.”

Gans is not alone in criticizing Jacobs for offering a vision for successful neighborhoods, particularly through historic preservation, that often became a blueprint for gentrification.

In my book on San Francisco’s Tenderloin I describe how fears of gentrification led residents in 1983 to oppose becoming a National Historic District.  Most neighborhoods are eager to embrace this designation, which is now associated with increased property values  (the national Uptown Tenderloin Historic District covering 31 blocks was created in 2009).

But while the low-income Tenderloin and its 409 historic buildings fulfill Jacobs’ vision, others point to more typical outcomes such as what occurred in New York City, where real estate speculators promoted the idea of “Brownstone Brooklyn” to get upscale buyers to purchase properties that long housed tenants. Transformed neighborhoods like Park Slope also embody Jane Jacobs’ vision for cities, leading some to accuse Jacobs of ignoring the class implications of her work (often cited is the gentrification of her own former West Village neighborhood).

Such criticisms blame Jacobs for developments out of her control. Jane Jacobs could not promise that following her blueprint for successful neighborhoods would keep them low income or prevent tenant displacement, though neighborhoods of mixed incomes was clearly her preference.

Yet critics should acknowledge that Jane Jacobs did more than anyone of her time to publicize the horrors caused to working-class neighborhoods and low income residents by massive new expressways and urban renewal projects. Gans’ claim that she ignored class and race ignores the core arguments of her work.  Such criticisms seem to be based not on the impacts of her work but on Jacobs’ own middle-class sensibilities and the white communities where she lived and organized.

Those familiar with Jacobs prior to reading this book will come away even more impressed with her legacy. Her enormous impact on Toronto—which she is widely credited with transforming into a far more livable city—was a complete surprise to me and may be the case with most readers who only know Jacobs through Death and Life and her New York City battles with Robert Moses.

Kanigel has created what will likely become the definitive biography of Jane Jacobs in her centenary year. A documentary film, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, will soon be out and further events are planned commemorating her remarkable life. Jane Jacobs was a woman in an overwhelming male field and lacked a planning degree; yet as Kanigel shows, she became and remains the most important urban visionary of our time.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He is the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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