Jane Jacobs: 1916-2006 


“It may be that we have become so feckless as a people that we no longer care how things do work, but only what kind of quick, easy outer impression they give. If so, there is little hope for our cities or probably for much else in our society. But I do not think this is so.” 
          
 –Jane Jacobs

Everyone has a few people they’d like to be — figures they admire so much they’d gladly step into their shoes. I’d happily change places with John Darnielle, for example: the idea of claiming even one of his songs as my own fills me with the same fluttery joy the songs themselves supply. And there isn’t a thing (that I know of) that Jane Jacobs did that I don’t admire, or at least respect.

She fought off the almost supernaturally powerful Robert Moses in the 1960s and saved downtown Manhattan. With no formal training in urban studies, or city planning, she managed to write, in 1961, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which went on to become the most influential book on cities of the 20th century, maybe ever. Every student of the city, of urbanism, of city planning, and of architecture reads it, and rereads it. Then, again without any formal training, she wrote a groundbreaking book on economics, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, and then, later, The Nature of Economies. Her last book, (there were a few more in there, too), Dark Age Ahead, made simple but incisive comparisons between the present day, and times of widespread crisis in the past. It is a terrifying, and fascinating, look both back and forward in time.

Jacobs never made apologies for her lack of credentials, and certainly never held their absence against anyone else. Rather, she allied herself with the common sense of ordinary people over the pronouncements of the “experts”: she herself was an expert at pulling apart the status quo and examining the claims of those who tried to maintain it.

Deep down her spirit, her work, was all aimed at showing people, us, the powers of observation and common sense, and exhorting us to pay attention and trust our own impulses. Not in a purely individualistic way, but as a community, as part of one, any, of her beloved cities. Jane Jacobs died this past week. Read one of her books: she’ll tell you something you never noticed about the world just outside your door. And you won’t believe you never noticed it before.

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