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How Activist Jane Jacobs Changed the Way the World Thinks About Cities

The story of how a woman derided by critics as "crazy dame" became the most important urban thinker of the 20th century.

by Annalies Winny
11 March 2016, 5:00am

Writer Jane Jacobs walking on streets of New York. Photo by Bob Gomel/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Last weekend in the Berkshires, 150 miles outside of New York City, a small group gathered to preview A Marvelous Order, an opera based on Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, two ideological rivals whose legacies have defined 20th-century urban planning and the landscape of New York, the city they both loved.

To get there, most attendees had taken convenient, scenic drives up the Taconic State Parkway from New York, a road master-planned by Moses for exactly this sort of weekend escape. Still, most attendees toasted the neighborhood-led planning ideas of Jacobs, his ideological enemy, who would have turned 100 this April.

Over smoked salmon hors d'oeuvres, architects, artists, and musicians alike pondered why this story warrants its own opera. Because it really is that dramatic, say the opera's creators. "It was a love triangle between Moses, Jacobs, and the residents of New York City," composer Judd Greenstein told the group.

In one breath, describing Jacobs as "an incredible hero" and Moses "in many ways a terrible person," Greenstein nonetheless urged his audience to try to see their respective motivations. "You can't just say bad Moses and good Jacobs. That's not art."

Seeing it in those shades of gray might be a tall order for some. Career urbanists tend to take a more severe view of the twin legacies, and in large part, they side firmly with Jacobs, who despite being dismissed by critics as a "housewife" and a "crazy dame," is widely considered the most important urban thinker of the 20th century, complete with her own reference term: Jacobsian. She despaired at the idea of suburban sprawl and celebrated the idea of a thriving mixed-income urban neighborhood, a concept that has rarely panned out, despite her widespread influence. "Eyes on the street" and "social capital," terms she coined, are now a central part of urban-planning vernacular. Her ideas are so embedded now that it can be a struggle to remember they were once new.

History has mostly demonized Moses for his top-down approach and made an urban heroine of Jacobs. "Urban renewal is commonly considered to be destructive," said Stacey Anderson, public events director of the Municipal Arts Society, which advocates for public participation in city planning. In an era of virtually closed-door planning operations, mostly strong-armed by Moses, "Jacobs was really revolutionary in bringing that conversation to the street-level. She's sort of our patron saint."

A mother, journalist, and champion of Greenwich Village, Jacobs took on Moses when his vision of an expressway through Lower Manhattan was still under serious consideration—and won.

"All of Soho, Chinatown, the Lower East Side—were ready to be wiped out for the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Those are all monuments to Jane," - Roberta Gratz

Despising one another's ideas from a distance, Jacobs and Moses only came face to face once at a Board of Estimate hearing in 1958 that squashed Moses's plan to build a ten-lane expressway through Downtown Manhattan that would have razed the cast-iron district of Soho and much of Chinatown and Little Italy through a "slum-clearance" initiative.

"All of Soho, Chinatown, the Lower East Side—were ready to be wiped out for the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Those are all monuments to Jane," said Roberta Gratz, another rare female urbanist and close friend of Jacobs's.

Self-educated but with no college degree, Jacobs was disparaged by the Establishment for her lack of formal credentials at every turn. "To this day, she is often referred to as the housewife who wrote a book," said Gratz. "She didn't let any of that stuff bother her. She had a job to do."

Jacobs has inspired politicians in Brazil; projects based on her ideas are currently taking shape in India. She's even big in Japan, where her death in 2006 was commemorated with an entire magazine. A series of walks in her honor has spread to 180 cities. Her seminal critique of 1950s urban-planning policy, The Death and Life of Great American Cities , has been translated into six languages.

But, Gratz warned, when it comes to actual development, while Jacobsian ideas are bandied around a lot, they are rarely put into practice as intended. Though the planning community has latched onto the rhetoric, many developers still build cookie-cutter neighborhoods wholesale with enormous injections of cash—what Jacobs would call "cataclysmic money."

"Developers love to say they're building something 'à la Jane Jacobs,'" Gratz told me. "The planning field has learned how to co-opt the language, but they don't follow the process that Jane advocated," which involves enhancing existing neighborhoods rather than building new ones and stresses local engagement in the planning process. These methods stand in stark opposition to Moses's dictatorial approach and the enormous scale of his projects, many of which are unmissable throughout the city—not only the neighborhood-zapping Cross Bronx Expressway but also Jones Beach and Lincoln Center, built on the cleared slums where West Side Story was filmed.

"You cannot design a whole new neighborhood 'à la Jane Jacobs,' because Jane's neighborhoods evolved," Gratz continued. "Moses would say you have to break an egg to make an omelet. Jane would say you have to cultivate the chickens to make an omelet. She valued above all else the local wisdom."

In her later years, Jacobs continued to take on the Establishment in her new home, Toronto, where she helped stop another expressway. Here, too, her ideas were embraced. Still, despite the prevalence of Jacobs's ideas in more holistic cities like Vancouver, much of big planning remains in a hurry to build and earn.

In her final piece of public writing, a year before her death in 2006, Jacobs wrote to Mayor Bloomberg advocating an alternative to the "ambush" City Hall proposals for development in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, warning of "destructive consequences, packaged very sneakily with visually tiresome, unimaginative, and imitative luxury project towers." Sun-blotting silver condos with names like the "Edge" soon peppered the waterfront. Starbucks wasn't far behind.

It's turned out that this type of wealth is what has brought people back to living in city centers. Jacobs's neighborhood-centric approach to planning has been widely embraced as a noble concept, but as with Moses, things haven't panned out exactly as she predicted. The beauty of the historical neighborhood she fought so hard to protect has made Greenwich Village one of the most unaffordable neighborhoods in New York City, in large part because it does not contain an expressway.

Scratching the surface of her ideas makes Jacobs seem easy to understand. But her legacy is nothing if not complex. "People will argue tooth and nail about what it is she stood for," said Stacey Anderson.

As with many things, Jacobs summed it up best in her own words, in her humble salutation to that final letter: "Dear Mayor Bloomberg, My name is Jane Jacobs. I am a student of cities."

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