Jane Jacobs was an author and activist whose fame and influence derived from one book. It’s apt, then, that the most stirring part of the first major biography of Jacobs, Robert Kanigel’s enthusiastic and admiring Eyes on the Street, concerns the creation of that book, 1961’s paradigm-smashing The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
When it was published, Jacobs, who was born and raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania, had been living in New York City for nearly three decades. The ideas that became Death and Life began brewing in the mid-1950s when Jacobs, then a writer for Architectural Forum, was shown around Philadelphia by celebrated urban planner Edmund Bacon. Bacon, something of a showman, started what he conceived as a “before and after” tour in a densely packed, impoverished black neighborhood where Jacobs observed people crowding the sidewalks and hanging out on stoops. Next, as Kanigel tells it, the planner proudly escorted her to a street that had been “the beneficiary of Bacon’s vision—bulldozed, the unsavory mess of the old city swept away, a fine project replacing it, all pretty and new.” Jacobs acknowledged that the street looked very nice, but what struck her with most force was the absence of human life: “She saw one little boy—she’d remember him all her life—kicking a tire. Just him, alone on the deserted street.” Worse yet, when she asked her guide where all of the people were, he appeared uninterested in the question.
Around the same time, Jacobs went on tours of East Harlem with community leader William Kirk; their meandering walks convinced her that so-called slums had a strong and functional social fabric, that razing dilapidated blocks to build tall modernist projects resulted, in Kanigel’s words, in “social glue weakened—a community, as Jane would put it, replaced by a dormitory.” Indeed, when a community group wanted to meet with residents of an East Harlem project that had replaced a chunk of the old neighborhood, its members were told that there was nowhere to gather except the basement’s laundry room.
Jacobs wasn’t an urban planner or an architect; she didn’t even have a college degree. But as Kanigel—whose previous books include On an Irish Island and The Man Who Knew Infinity —establishes in the first third of the book, she grew up challenging received wisdom and believing she could do anything, qualities that served her well as an uncredentialed woman taking on male-dominated professions, as she did in Death and Life. (The author is explicit in his desire to convey the hurdles Jacobs faced as a woman and a mother, so one wishes he’d focused less on her appearance—”never beautiful” and “not even memorably unbeautiful,” he marvels—or at least consulted a thesaurus before describing her as “fat and dumpy.”) Jacobs wrote in her own unique style, neither academic nor literary, full of observations, insights, and provocation. Across several pages, she lovingly described the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of her own chaotic-seeming Greenwich Village block, which involved a web of community ties that urban planners were blind to. “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder,” she declared in one of the book’s famous passages, “and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and be served.”
The Death and Life of Great American Cities had immediate impact. While critics took issue with its blind spots (among them Jacobs’s lack of analysis of race and ethnicity and her tendency to romanticize city life without fully acknowledging the costs of poverty and crime), readers found it thrilling. Jacobs’s prescription for vital cities—mixed-use buildings, population density, short blocks—has triumphed so completely that it’s difficult to appreciate how disruptive her thinking was to the status quo. Kanigel provides useful context of the postwar period, when destroying cities and rebuilding from scratch seemed the obvious course of action (although here, as throughout the book, he has an irritating tendency to make his point with rhetorical questions): “Was any old horse-and-wagon better suited to us today, more desirable, than a new automobile? Then in what impossible, upside-down universe would you not want to tear down an aging slum of nineteenth-century tenements and put up a new apartment complex designed to make life easier, airier, and brighter?” As far as Jacobs was concerned, easy, airy, and bright were better left in the suburbs. Whether landscaped “superblocks” were created as part of low-income housing projects, middle-income residences like Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town, or cultural complexes like Lincoln Center, she argued that overlarge structures set back from the street deadened, rather than revitalized, urban life.
Jacobs, who authored seven books, saw herself primarily as a writer, but when her own beloved neighborhood was threatened, she reluctantly abandoned her typewriter to enter the fray. She helped kill a proposal to narrow the sidewalks on her block in order to widen the street for cars and a plan to allow traffic into Washington Square Park, her children’s local playground. She is credited with a major role in defeating New York master builder Robert Moses’s planned Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have destroyed parts of the Soho and Little Italy neighborhoods to make room for an eight-lane highway. Jacobs and Moses are so often paired in a David and Goliath narrative—there’s even an opera about them—that it’s surprising to learn they may have met only once.
Kanigel’s account of how Jacobs came to write Death and Life is so compelling that the biography suffers a loss of momentum afterward. Jacobs and her family moved to Toronto in 1968 to protect her draft-age sons from serving in the Vietnam War. She became a Canadian citizen and remained in Toronto, a city she came to love, until her death, in 2006, at 89. Her later books were respectfully received, but none had the impact of her masterwork. All told, she had an interesting, contented life: a happy childhood, a solid marriage, well-adjusted children, work she loved along with ample recognition for it. “All these lucky things,” she herself said. The biggest drama of her life involved the formation and expression of her visionary ideas. Eyes on the Street works because as cities evolve and face fresh crises – gentrification, soaring rents, and renewed segregation — those ideas continue to challenge as much as they fascinate.