Last week I was in the middle of packing and came across a well-thumbed copy of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I don’t remember when I read the book, but it was way more than twenty years ago (and predates my professional involvement with cities). As a very belated tribute to the anniversary of her 100th birthday, I decided to dip back into that remarkable book. Here’s ten takeaways from the godmother of the American city.
1. The mythical “ballet of the streets” motif is a tiny portion of the book.
That section, which occurs early on, is electric. It’s like an early John Cheever story. But the rest of Death and Life is a dense, meticulously constructed attack on the city planning orthodoxies of the day. Today it reads as a sort of literary polemic, fused with an urban planning and economics manual for cities. No wonder everybody’s head exploded in 1961.
2. Having said that: Jane’s magic world of Hudson Street feels as distant as Colonial Williamsburg.
It’s a Lost World. Her famous house at 555 Hudson Street sold in 2009 for the “bargain price” of $3.5-million.
3. Jacobs was remarkably prescient on gentrification.
She didn’t invent the term or even use it. But she observed (and I don’t know how, since most cities were in decline at the time) that lively diverse neighborhoods are always at risk for becoming victims of their own success, because newcomers invariably alter the characteristics that made these neighborhoods appealing to them in the first place. Today this seems obvious and self-evident, but that’s largely because of Jane Jacobs.
4. Jacobs won the battle of Ideas, but countervailing forces, including suburbia, won the war on the ground.
The conventional wisdom is that Jacobs ultimately prevailed. But did she really? Locally, she defeated Robert Moses, no doubt, but America sprawled and suburbanized for a half century, pretty much unimpeded, and many of the urban planning ideas that she so soundly debunked have had a Zombie-like resilience. Jacobs created a durable moral compass. Shamefully, it’s a best practices handbook that developers, especially, feel free to cite and then ignore when it suits them.
5. Jacobs-style urbanism (diversity of uses, scales, buildings, people) may be impossible to achieve with current development models.
New urban neighborhoods—even ones that at least attempt to adhere to her principles—often feel cold and sterile. They just can’t replicate the intricate web of relationships that Jacobs celebrated. These develop over time and at multiple scales, even small ones. It’s precisely these smaller scales, in fact, that give our best neighborhoods soul; unfortunately, when you’re building new, the haberdasher and the dry cleaner don’t pencil out economically.
6. Everyone, neighborhood activists and developers alike, cherry picks her ideas.
Many of her ideas were abused, like standard songs that have been covered (far too often) by inferior artists. It’s precisely why developers and activists who constantly evoke her should occasionally re-read her.
7. While the book’s lessons are indeed timeless, the examples she uses to illustrate them are now historic.
Truth be told, the examples—if you’re a native New Yorker of a certain age—border on the nostalgic. (The Italian butcher. The experimental theater. The candy store!) It makes reading the book in 2016 both fascinating and a bit rueful.
8. She was amazingly on-point about the effect of cars on cities.
Her remedy—what she called “car attrition” (making it more difficult for cars to operate in cities, rather than outright banning them)—predates the work of Jan Gehl and ideas like congestion pricing by several decades.
9. Despite what NIMBY-ists would like to believe, Jacobs was not anti big buildings.
She was against large, stand-alone, single-use buildings. Big buildings, surrounded by other structures of different sizes, scales and uses, were perfectly OK (even dreaded sports arenas).
10. Although it’s a fun parlor game for urban geeks, no one really knows which projects Jane Jacobs would have “approved” of.
But here’s a safe bet for what she would have surely opposed: anything that involved the use of eminent domain.