This article was originally published in the Literary Review of Canada as "Tunnel Vision: Why our cities need less Jane Jacobs." It has been partially re-published with permission.
My introduction to Jane Jacobs was completely ordinary. Like many, many architecture students since its publication in 1962, I read The Death and Life of Great American Cities for an introductory course in urbanism. Jacobs was a joy to read, whip-crack smart and caustically funny, and she wrote in impeccable, old-school sentences that convinced you with their unimpeded flow. She explained her ideas in utterly clear and simple language. Planners are “pavement pounding” or “Olympian.” There are “foot people and car people.”
Why were we reading her? I expect it was to encourage us to look harder at the city, and to imbibe some of her spirited advocacy for experience over expertise. It was a captivating message and delivered at the right time. Today it seems as though everybody interested in cities has read at least part of Death and Life and found personal affirmation in it. Michael Kimmelman wrote, “It said what I knew instinctively to be true.” For David Crombie, “she made it clear that the ideas that mattered were the ones which we understood intimately.”
This quality was important, and one of the reasons that Jacobs endures in our culture is the facility with which we can identify with her. She is one of “us,” whoever that is—not an expert, more like an aunt than a professor. Her speciality was the induction of rules from patterns discovered by individual observation, like a 19th-century gentleman scientist. Her work gave seriousness to reactions that might otherwise be dismissed as taste, ignorance or prejudice.
Yet for all that, the Village, the neighbourhood she loved so fiercely and immortalized in Death and Life, has died. It was not levelled by the planners; it was slowly strangled by the invisible hand. Of course, it does not look dead. If anything, it looks recently repainted. But the vitality is gone. Its rich new residents have closed in on themselves, and more businesses serve tourists than locals. Writing in Slate recently, Peter Moskowitz bemoaned its state: “The same neighborhood Jacobs lauded for its diversity in the 1960s and ’70s is today a nearly all-white, aesthetically suburban playground for the rich.” But if Jacobs won, how did her neighbourhood lose?
“The starting point must be the study of whatever is workable, whatever has charm in city life,” Jacobs wrote in 1956. She appealed to pragmatism and common sense based on a conviction that her discoveries on the street could be generalized. Part of her near-mythic status comes from the fact that, at a historical peak of institutional power guarded by men, she was a woman who dared to make people trust their own eyes. As Marshall Berman wrote, Jacobs gave us “a language to appropriate our own experience.”
Her inattention to racism, whether in the form of American housing markets or in official policies like redlining, is well known—at least within the academy, and it was noticed before Death and Life was published. In 1961 her editor, Jacob Epstein, wrote her that he was worried about the absence of any discussion of the race issue: “I don’t think that you can proceed as though the question didn’t exist.” Jacobs replied that she had her reasons but no time to explain them. Sociologist Nathan Glazer wrote her that he agreed with Epstein, then shrugged off the concerns they both had as unrealistic: “on the other hand, you can’t do everything.”
Step outside Jacobs’s crackling narrative, and suddenly all you can see is what she leaves out.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of things you do not see, especially if you are a middle-aged, middle-class white lady in 1950s New York. What you see depends on who you are, and many of Jacobs’s appealing dictums seem much less universal once you consider race, class, ethnicity or other less visible relationships of power. Tweak to those and step outside Jacobs’s crackling narrative, and suddenly all you can see is what she leaves out. It is unpleasant but it is necessary, for whoever today invokes her blindly invokes also her blindness.
Read the rest of the article at the Literary Review of Canada.