The Woman Who Saved Lower Manhattan From Becoming a Highway

A timely new documentary celebrates the legacy of Jane Jacobs, the revolutionary writer and organizer who fought to preserve citizens' voices as urban renewal projects threatened to destroy local communities.
April 21, 2017, 5:02pm
Images courtesy of IFC Films

What makes a city? It's not the buildings (skyscrapers) or the streets (traffic), or the banks and government offices and shopping districts sandwiched between them. It's the people. This is obvious nearly to the point of tautology, yet in the middle of the 20th century, the men in charge of making cities better paid very little mind to the behavior of those who actually lived in them. In 1958, when Fortune published Jane Jacobs's essay "Downtown Is for People," the following was almost revolutionary: "The best way to plan for downtown is to see how people use it today; to look for its strengths and to exploit and reinforce them. There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans."


Beginning in the decades before World War II and gaining widespread acceptance afterward, the philosophy of urban renewal sought to cleanse American cities of their slums. This program was repeated throughout the country, but the archetypal example is the New York iteration, where it was spearheaded by the city planner Robert Moses. Moses, who was later immortalized as "The Power Broker," wanted to replace New York City's notorious squalor with new developments. Entire neighborhoods were razed, with residents moved to large public housing buildings—projects—often on the outskirts of town. Massive highways like the Cross Bronx Expressway were constructed and literally divided the city. While there was definitely some truth to the belief that New York's poorest were living in abhorrent conditions (see Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives or Luc Sante's Low Life), there were also thriving neighborhoods in their midst. Moses's top-down development program would annihilate these communities with no input from the people who belonged to them.

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This was the New York City that Jane Jacobs moved into from Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1934. Like so many before and since, she came with the dream of becoming a writer. Though she took a job as a secretary for a candy manufacturing company, she pitched articles in her spare time, writing about the metal trade and manholes, as well as a series for Vogue about the city's diamond, flower, leather, and fur districts. She eventually settled in Greenwich Village, one of the neighborhoods Moses would later mark for slum clearance, and took a job at Amerika, a State Department–funded, Russian-language magazine about American life that was distributed in the Soviet Union. It was the height of the Red Scare, and after four years on the job she was investigated by J. Edgar Hoover for being a Communist, a charge she denied. In 1952, she resigned and took a job at Architectural Forum, where she began writing about city planning and housing.


The new documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City uses extensive use of archival footage and interviews with architects, historians, and people who knew Jacobs to tell the story of her career, which began to pick up steam around this time. Initially Jacobs parroted the wisdom of the day, writing about the importance of centralized planning and praising slum clearing. But a trip to a planned community in Philadelphia had a profound impact on her. Jacobs had written favorably about the project during its development phase, but once the community was built, "the city around them didn't react the way the city around them should've reacted," she says in a recording in the documentary. She realized the city planners weren't the experts they purported to be. Why were cute storefronts sitting empty? Why were streets deserted? The planners told her it was because "people are stupid. They don't do what they're supposed to do." But for Jacobs, people couldn't be stupid; the theories of men in office buildings were useless if they didn't consider actual observation of city life. "Let the citizens decide what end results they want," she writes in "Downtown Is for the People." "They can adapt the rebuilding machinery to suit them."

These ideas were solidified in 1961's The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs's most famous work. Her prose is at times charmingly folksy (the only book I've read with more casual anecdotes is How to Win Friends & Influence People), at times philosophical, and sometimes almost poetic (multiple pages are dedicated to the "ballet of the sidewalk," the improvised dance between children, shopkeepers, mothers, businessmen, and revelers that makes city living so vital). It's also funny (at one point she subverts the standard wisdom and ironically suggests that "suburbs must be a difficult place to raise children") and occasionally revelatory, at least for a reader who hadn't previously given a ton of thought to city planning. Jacobs explains everything from what makes a neighborhood popular to what makes a street feel safe (crowds) to why some parks are filled with perverts, and in the process she forms a unified theory of what makes cities great and what doesn't. Good things include: short blocks, mixed-use neighborhoods, having both old and new buildings, and density. Things that don't work include, well, the opposite: long streets, single-use districts (e.g., the financial zone, where parks attract creeps once the offices close and the area empties), and, most of all, centralized planning. The book's essential message is that a city cannot simply be designed from the top down; the people must have their say. She recognizes the chaos of the city but compares it to a living organism, arguing that a city that is clean and understandable is a city that is dead.


The central moments of Citizen Jane are Jacobs's famous battles with Robert Moses over his desire to extend Fifth Avenue through Greenwich Village's Washington Square Park and his plan to wipe out much of SoHo and Little Italy and replace them with the Lower Manhattan Expressway. (In recreations, Jacobs is voiced by Marisa Tomei; because a typewriter sound is often heard under Tomei's voice, these parts are reminiscent of the beginning of Sex and the City, but if Carrie Bradshaw were talking about how Robert Moses is bad. Robert Moses is voiced by Vincent D'Onofrio.) Moses is portrayed as a Trumpian figure, an authoritarian who bristles at the slightest criticism. In response, Jacobs reluctantly becomes a community organizer, collecting signatures, speaking out at public hearings (she's even arrested for inciting a riot), and eventually getting the mayor behind her efforts to stop the Fifth Avenue extension and the Lower Manhattan Expressway projects. In both cases she was successful; if she hadn't been, there's a good chance those neighborhoods wouldn't be around today.

There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.

If Jacobs's theories were initially criticized, part of that can be ascribed to her being a woman without a college degree. (In 1962, the New Yorker architecture critic Lewis Mumford panned Death and Life in an article titled "Mother Jacobs Home Remedies.") But it's also important to emphasize just how counterintuitive her ideas would have appeared at the time, when Moses's philosophy had been taken as gospel for decades. In the years after Death and Life's release, it became clear that Jacobs was right when she wrote, "Look what we have built… Low-income projects that became worse centers of delinquency, vandalism, and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace." More than 50 years later, the whole project of urban renewal is now seen as one deeply tied to racist government policies; Citizen Jane features a clip of James Baldwin saying, "The phrase urban renewal is Negro removal." Decades of top-down planning turned many neighborhoods into desolate and even sometimes dangerous places; meanwhile, communities that followed the Jacobs model thrived.


There's a certain irony that the very things Jacobs proposed to save her beloved Greenwich Village ultimately transformed it into a tourist trap dominated by the extremely rich, NYU students, and a few lucky elderly people with rent-controlled apartments. Well-preserved, walkable, mixed-use cities around the world are becoming victims of their own success. The city planners Jacobs despised had started with a utopian goal: clean, affordable, safe housing. They failed, of course, and took far too long to recognize this failure, but it was a noble aim. Today, when cities are facing a massive housing shortage, Jacobs can seem not utopian (or not government-driven) enough. Assessing her legacy recently in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik wrote, "The reality is that good housing that will alleviate the San Francisco problem will probably look more like Roosevelt Island [a bland, planned community] than like the West Village, simply because more Roosevelt Islands can be built for many, and the West Village can be preserved for only a few."

The Death and Life of Great American Cities touches on what to do about the "self-destruction" of successful urban areas, but in those passages Jacobs is referring to small neighborhoods—even individual blocks—not entire cities. In her era of white flight and suburban sprawl, she couldn't have foreseen that, decades later, millions of people would want to move back to the city. When I asked Citizen Jane's director, Matt Tyrnauer, if he thinks Jacobs is partly responsible for the high rent that now blights neighborhoods like SoHo and Greenwich Village, he told me, "I don't think you can really pin blame for gentrification on her; it wasn't really a concept then. You'd have to also step back and consider that there would be no SoHo without Jane Jacobs. Jane Jacobs was who the community turned to when SoHo was literally going to be decimated by the Lower Manhattan Expressway… Did this lead to gentrification 50 years later? Yes it did. But I don't think we can pin that on her."

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How would Jacobs fix the problem facing cities today? "There are no one-size-fits-all solutions," Tyrnauer told me. Producer Robert Hammond agreed. "When people went to her and said, 'What should we tell these cities to do?' She said, 'People in their own cities have to [solve] their own problems,'" he said. "She was skeptical of her own expertise. It's not about taking every one of her tools and using them today." We need to look around our cities and "come up with solutions rather than saying, 'The whole thing is a mess. Wipe it out and start over.'"

Tyrnauer and Hammond see Jacobs's ethos as something that can be expanded beyond city planning and applied to our current political movement. After all, Donald Trump, like Moses, is a power-hungry child of privilege who made his name in New York City housing development. "I think we're in another dangerous, authoritarian, top-down moment right now," Tyrnauer said. "Jacobs gives you strategies to resist, speak truth to power, and push back against it. She's a great antidote to hopelessness. She was anti-expert. She was a woman writing about a field that was (and still is) utterly male dominated. They did everything they could to malign and reject her, yet she kept pushing back and was skeptical of the solutions being presented by the white men in charge."