Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs

Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs

by Robert Kanigel


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The first major biography of the irrepressible woman who changed the way we view and live in cities, and whose influence can still be felt in any discussion of urban planning to this day.

Eyes on the Street is a revelation of the phenomenal woman who raised three children, wrote seven groundbreaking books, saved neighborhoods, stopped expressways, was arrested twice, and engaged at home and on the streets in thousands of debates—all of which she won. Here is the child who challenged her third-grade teacher; the high school poet; the journalist who honed her writing skills at Iron Age, Architectural Forum, Fortune, and other outlets, while amassing the knowledge she would draw upon to write her most famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Here, too, is the activist who helped lead an ultimately successful protest against Robert Moses's proposed expressway through her beloved Greenwich Village; and who, in order to keep her sons out of the Vietnam War, moved to Canada, where she became as well known and admired as she was in the United States.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345803337
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/08/2017
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 753,409
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

ROBERT KANIGEL is the author of seven previous books. He has been the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship and the Grady-Stack Award for science writing. His book The Man Who Knew Infinity was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. For twelve years he was a professor of science writing at M.I.T. He and his wife now live in Baltimore, Maryland, and he writes full time.

Read an Excerpt

The Great Bewildering World

It couldn’t have been long into her life there that Jane learned what every New Yorker knew, that “the city” was Manhattan, period. The fur district she’d stumbled upon so fortuitously was in Manhattan. So was the diamond district. Vogue itself, New York fashion personified, was in Manhattan. The jobs she got that first year were all in Manhattan, as were the better jobs she sought now. So were Broadway, Times Square, Fifth Avenue, the tall towers, the publishing houses, the galleries, and practically all the other iconic places of New York. It was hard not to feel the pull. Jane had only to glance down Henry Street, at the great stone arches that were the Brooklyn Bridge approaches, to take herself in her mind’s eye to Manhattan. For Jane, as for any young person of curiosity and spunk, the city beckoned.

On one of her forays into Manhattan near the end of that first year, probably in late summer, Jane got out at the Christopher Street subway stop; she “liked the sound of the name,” she’d say. She had no idea where she was, “but I was enchanted with this place . . . I spent the rest of the afternoon just walking these streets.”

As she got off the train, she’d have seen the name of the station set in mosaic tile, as in most of New York’s four hundred–odd subway stations:
Sheridan Square was no “square” at all, of course. But out of its irregu- lar and unlovely expanse radiated Seventh Avenue South and wide West Fourth Street. Stroll along them, or on Grove Street, Washington Place, or Waverly Place, which all converged there, and soon you found your- self among a warren of little streets south and west of the square, the clubs and bars lining West Fourth Street that drew revelers from the outer boroughs, art galleries, small shops, modest apartment buildings.

It was here, in a low-lying bowl of cityscape mostly off the tourist maps, far from the great employment centers, not grand, not rich, maybe a little ragtag, that Jane now found herself. No neatly defined shopping districts here in the streets near Sheridan Square, nothing like upscale Fifth Avenue or proletarian Fourteenth Street—no neatly defined any- thing. Blocks of handsome brownstones across Sixth Avenue that could have stepped out of a Henry James novel, musical Italian filling the shops and stoops of the tenements to the south, gritty warehouses and a sprin- kling of small-scale industry to the west. Along Bleecker Street, a bakery selling Italian bread for a nickel a loaf, a cheese shop selling ricotta for twenty-five cents a pound. Peasant smocks, antique jewelry, and second- hand books for sale arrayed on one block. A drugstore selling cosmetics and contraceptives. An ice cream parlor where the neighborhood’s young Italian men hung out. The scale was small, the range and variety stun- ning, the streetscape obeying nothing like cool Cartesian order. This wasn’t New York in its bigness, its numbers, its densest crowds that Jane found here. If anything, it was New York in all its smallness, its irregular- ity, its turn-the-corner-and-what-do-you-find little shocks and surprises.

The Manhattan street grid fell apart here, as if by an abrupt, invasive fault in an otherwise orderly crystal matrix. West Fourth Street, obediently grid-bound just to the east, at Sheridan Square abruptly veered northwest and, after a few blocks, dared to run, against all sense and logic, into West Eleventh Street. Other streets, like Carmine, Cornelia, and Jones, simply disappeared after a block or two. A conscientious student of urban life, Professor Caroline Ware of Vassar College, had recently tallied the “contents” of one block of Jones Street. She counted old-law tenements and 1840s-vintage houses, an apartment house that went up only in 1929, factories that made feather mattresses, children’s toys, and Italian ice cream; an old stable, a settlement house, two grocers, a tobacco and candy store, an ice dealer’s cellar, a French hand laundry, a barber shop, a tea room, an “Italian men’s café,” a wrought iron workshop, and (it still being Prohibition at the time of her census) three speakeasies. All in a single block. Behind this line of five-story façades—inside, unseen, hidden—life played out each day and night, in all its struggles, pains, and pleasures; on the busy sidewalks outside, traces and whispers only of those silent stories, spilling out into the city’s everyday jangle.
Spend an afternoon on streets like Jones Street, as Jane did, and any part of the brain habituated to easy order was bound to come away bruised. But Jane? She “liked the little streets,” she’d remember. “I liked the variety of it and there were craft shops of hand-made things of inge- nuity and artistry. I had never seen shops like those. I just thought it was great.” The whole neighborhood was great. Could she have said why, exactly? Maybe not. She was nineteen. She was all enthusiasm.

Table of Contents

Maps xii

Introduction 3

Part I An Uncredentialed Woman 1916-1954

Chapter 1 A Generous Place to Live 19

Chapter 2 Outlaw 36

Chapter 3 Ladies' Nest of Owls, and Other Milestones in the Education of Miss Jane Butzner 48

Chapter 4 The Great Bewildering World 61

Chapter 5 Morningside Heights 74

Chapter 6 Women's Work 85

Chapter 7 Amerika 95

Chapter 8 Trushchoby 108

Part II In the Big World 1954-1968

Chapter 9 Disenchantment 129

Chapter 10 Ten Minutes at Harvard 146

Chapter 11 A Person Worth Talking To 157

Chapter 12 A Manuscript to Show Us 176

Chapter 13 Mother Jacobs of Hudson Street 199

Chapter 14 The Physical Fallacy 208

Chapter 15 West Village Warrior 224

Chapter 16 Luncheon at the White House 247

Chapter 17 Gas Masks at the Pentagon 260

Part III On Albany Avenue 1968-2006

Chapter 18 A Circle of Their Own 277

Chapter 19 Settling In 291

Chapter 20 Our Jane 308

Chapter 21 Flummoxed 319

Chapter 22 Adam, Karl, and Jane 329

Chapter 23 Webs of Trust 342

Chapter 24 Ideas That Matter 364

Chapter 25 Civilization's Child 382

Acknowledgments and Sources 401

Notes 407

Bibliography 453

Index 467

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