Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs
“What is lively is what is good … If it is alive, it is working,” wrote Commentary critic Herb Gans in notes for a review of writer, activist, and urban theorist Jane Jacobs’s first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). Author Robert Kanigel cites this as Jacobs’s “bedrock belief” in his new biography Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs. Attuned to what made a city vibrant and human—bustling neighborhoods with watchful locals and shopkeepers, a variety of businesses, buildings of an approachable scale—Jacobs wrote books that criticized the sleek modernist conventions that prevailed in 1950s and ’60s urban planning. She took her argument to the streets in battles against the “renewal” of her Greenwich Village neighborhood, among others, and, famously, against Robert Moses and his proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway plan. She revealed the world to readers and those in the urban planning field through questions that identified the undeniable. For instance, “Why is a good steakhouse usually in an old building?” A simple question posed in her 1958 essay “Downtown is for People” (included in Random House’s Vital Little Plans) that immediately rings true, and yet Jacobs was the first to ask.
“Common sense” is a term often applied to Jacobs’s theories—as in, it is “common sense” that a highway should not run through Washington Square Park. True. Yet, “common sense” can imply knowledge without research. In Eyes on the Street, Kanigel recounts the lifetime of work, research, and careful street-level observation that went into Jacobs’s theories. He also discusses Jacobs’s personal life—her marriage to architect Bob Jacobs, their three children, her role as a daughter, mother, and community member in addition to writer and activist. All of this taken together begins to answer the question at the heart of Eyes on the Street: how does a mind like Jacob’s come to be? Kanigel offers readers a well-researched, comprehensive portrait of Jacobs—one that is both reverent and realistic and, a few missteps in tone aside, portrays wholly a writer and thinker whose work changed the way we think about cities.
Kanigel begins Eyes on the Street by chronicling Jacobs’s comfortable childhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania. We learn that Jacobs, the daughter of a doctor and a teacher turned nurse, was confident in confronting authority even at a very early age. She was expelled from third grade after a clash with her teacher, only to go home for lunch with her mother, not mention the expulsion, and return to school to reclaim her seat. The teacher didn’t protest. Narratives about childhood—and especially happy ones—are often dull, yet Kanigel makes Jacobs’s early years intriguing when he quotes Jacobs on the third grade expulsion. “I was an outlaw and I was accepting the fact that I was an outlaw,” she reflected on the moment years later. “It really changed me. It was an important event in my life.” Jacob’s son Jim, who is frequently quoted in Eyes on the Street, offers that the “strategies” Jacobs used against her teachers would later inform her fights against powerful city planners and developers. The section works well as an opening for the biography because it satisfies the biographer’s urge to draw a line from past to present (a connection made even more satisfying when the subject herself draws the line). The only disappointment here is in Kanigel’s tone. Occasionally, he refers to Jacobs as “Miss Jane Butzner.” A later chapter about Jacobs moving to New York City is titled “The Great Bewildering World.” Is Kanigel being tongue-and-cheek about “Miss Jane Butzner”? Is “The Great Bewildering World” simply a nod to a Scranton girl moving to the big city, or is it a diminishing title that would never be applied to a male intellectual? It’s hard to tell, and the avuncular tone is hard to shake.
This avuncular tone, or a version of it, first emerges in the introduction to Eyes on the Street. Kanigel writes, “It was only a few hours into my first spell of research […] that I sensed something was, um, different about my new biographical subject.” He goes on: “Jane was no housewife; but hers was not a man’s life, either. The ‘women’s work’ she managed while writing […] made her for me, the author of several biographies of ‘great men,’ something new to reckon with.” When Kanigel states that Jacobs was “no housewife,” we have the sense that he intends to be reverential, or at least flattering. And yet the phrase still irks. Perhaps because it is obvious—Jacobs worked for her entire life—and perhaps because it calls to mind other diminutive descriptors in the biography that similarly irk (as in, “Miss Jane Butzner”).
More interesting is later in the biography, when Kanigel draws connections between Jacobs’s understanding of the role of the street in a neighborhood and the upbringing of her children. Quoting The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Kanigel writes, “The streets and sidewalks granted them an ‘outdoor home base from which to play, to hang around in, and to help form their notions of the world’—in short, she all but says, become civilized.” If we take this idea a step further, we might consider the amount of free time a mother can have if the supervision of her children becomes a collective, rather than individual, concern (think, “it takes a village”). Several sources in the book remark that Jane and Bob were lenient in raising their children, and that the Jacobs children often roamed without supervision. One has to wonder if those who chided Jacobs for her “lenient” parental style were actually criticizing her for not staying home with the kids. Instead, she took advantage of the (still limited) free time—for thinking, writing, theorizing—that a mother could have when the safety of her children on the street became a collective neighborhood concern.
Where Kanigel excels is in his lively description of Jacobs’s career, which started in 1934 when Jacobs, then eighteen years old, moved to New York to join her sister, first in Brooklyn Heights and then Greenwich Village. The biography becomes expansive and fascinating as Jacobs moves through the city, beginning to observe the streets and people that would inform her later work. She became a freelance writer and journalist. She wrote essays for Vogue celebrating Manhattan’s leather, flower, and diamond districts. Kanigel cites these as examples of writing that “displayed a love of color and oddity, a curiosity about how the world worked, that reflected her deepest sympathies.” She began taking classes at Columbia, where she studied economic geography, psychology, geology, zoology, and constitutional law.
After World War II, Jacobs became a staff writer for Amerika, a publication of the U.S. State department for Russian readers. During her tenure at Amerika, she wrote about architecture and supervised a team of several other writers. She met her husband Bob Jacobs, an architect, and started a family. She also became the subject of thirteen FBI field investigations during the McCarthy era. She was judged “loyal” in 1949, but two and a half years later came under scrutiny again. Ultimately, the investigation was dropped—or at least she never heard back from the FBI. In 1952, she left Amerika and moved on to Architectural Forum.
Kanigel writes that in Jacobs’s pieces for Amerika and Architectural Forum, “You find little hint of the themes percolating in The Death and Life of Great American Cities—except, that is, for her interest in the subject itself: cities.” Jacobs herself later felt that when writing for Amerika and Architectural Forum she had too easily accepted the opinions of planners, failing to question if their renderings were in some ways lacking, inhumane, or just wrong. And yet, if we consider an excerpt from Jacobs’s statement to the FBI during her investigation, it becomes clear that if the themes of Death and Life were not yet “percolating,” as Kanigel writes, the abiding contrarian sensibility of her work was: “[…] I was brought up to believe that there is no virtue in conforming meekly to the dominant opinion of the moment,” she wrote. “I was encouraged to believe that simple conformity results in stagnation for a society, and that American progress had been largely owing to the opportunity for experimentation, the leeway given initiative, and to a gusto and freedom for chewing over odd ideas.” In Death and Life, Jacobs would critique the dominant opinions of 1950s urban planning—for example, that new developments with designated public spaces were preferable to busy, old neighborhoods—and advocate instead for dense neighborhoods with a diverse mix of people and businesses. Kanigel does not explicitly draw a connection between Jacobs’s FBI statement and her later writing, but one has the sense that the “gusto and freedom” described in her letter is not so different from what would be necessary when taking on influential planners like Robert Moses.
Kanigel cites a visit to an urban renewal project in Philadelphia in early 1955 with Edmund Bacon, the city’s planning commission director, as the turning point that would lead Jacobs to rail against ideas commonly held by urban planners of the time. In Philadelphia, Bacon showed Jacobs two streets: one a “down-and-out street” in a predominately African-American neighborhood that would soon be “revitalized,” and then a street that had been bulldozed and completely rebuilt. Though the “revitalized” street was outwardly clean and attractive, Jacobs pointed out that the new street was completely empty, devoid of human activity. Meanwhile the so-called down-and-out street was bustling and lively. Of the moment, Kanigel writes: “For Jane, Bacon’s perspective was narrowly aesthetic, a question mostly of how it looked; to her, the new street represented not entirely a gain over the old, maybe no gain at all, but a loss, one that mocked Bacon’s plans and drawings and the glittering future they promised.” Kanigel’s moment-by-moment descriptions are useful when considering the development of Jacob’s theories. The scene of Jacobs and Bacon at the Philadelphia project is, in a way, proof of her “common sense”—who wouldn’t prefer a lively neighborhood to a starkly cold one?—and yet it also reveals Jacobs as having a particularly shrewd eye, one that can discern, as Kanigel aptly notes, where a “gain” is actually a loss.
With the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs had invented a new theory of urban planning—one that was informed by visits to developments, observing Hudson Street and Greenwich Village, and reading and writing about architecture, among other things. She did not have a degree in urban planning, and she was not herself an architect. Unsurprisingly, the book was met with strong criticism—“Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies” was the title of one dismissive review. Still, many reviews were positive and Kanigel’s recounting of the book’s reception energizes the biography. We watch as the good reviews roll in: “Hers is a huge, a fascinating, a dogmatically controversial book, and I am convinced, an important one,” wrote Orville Prescott in the New York Times; “How seldom one comes upon a new book of unmistakably seminal importance like this one. This is a dangerous book. Dangerous to vested interests: to all city planners, to almost all our architects,” read Commonweal. The excitement that comes with reading these reviews is a testament to Kanigel’s ability to imbue the creation of ideas with meaning and weight. We feel the exhilaration of a new author whose work is setting off debates and changing readers’ minds.
Jacobs and her family moved to Toronto in 1968 so that her sons Jim and Ned could avoid the draft. She lived there for the rest of her life and became a Canadian citizen. “It would have been disruptive if we had thought of ourselves as exiles. People who think of themselves as exiles, I find, can never really put their lives together. We thought of ourselves as immigrants. And it was an adventure, and we were all together,” Jacobs said in a 2001 interview in Metropolis (published in Melville House’s 2016 Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview). While it was a move that their friends at first considered a phase, it became clear as Jacobs fought the development of Toronto’s Spadina Expressway and finished work on her second book, The Economy of Cities, that they were in Canada to stay. Four other books followed The Economy of Cities, and in 2004, just two years before her death, Jacobs’s final book, Dark Age Ahead, on symptoms of cultural decline, was published. When she turned in the corrected page proofs to editor David Ebershoff, Kanigel notes, Jacobs wrote that she had labored to meet her deadline, so that “I could have the luxury of thinking for a few days about the next book.” On April 25, 2006 Jacobs died.
Past biographers Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch deemed Jacobs “a genius of common sense,” a description that Jacobs’s editor and lifelong friend Jason Epstein has agreed with, as well. Yet Eyes on the Street shows readers that “common sense” alone does not describe Jacobs’s theories. What we learn instead is that Jacobs’s understanding of urban life arose from thinking critically, contemplating, listening to the arguments of the other side. This is perhaps the most striking quality of Eyes on the Street—the ability to show readers how new ideas come into existence. We leave the biography with the sense that Jacobs’s mind “came to be” through observation and research, of course—and an urgent curiosity about what makes a city and its inhabitants feel most alive.
HILARY REID writes fiction, reviews, and criticism. Reid works for the publishing imprint of the New York Review of Books and lives in Brooklyn.