Uncommon Sense

Remembering Jane Jacobs, who wrote the 20th century's most influential book about cities


The last time I saw Jane Jacobs was in San Francisco, in the spring of 2004, almost exactly two years before her death. She was 88 and on tour to promote the book she had just finished, Dark Age Ahead, which I suspect she knew would be her final work. It is a despairing look at the state of things, and like everything Jacobs wrote, it is a curious combination of plainspoken common sense based on simple, empirical observation of the world around her, and broad generalizations about the nature of cities and cultures. Jacobs felt that the network of small-scale, local communities within larger, heterogeneous cities—a pattern she first saw in New York in the 1950s and which for her had always been the source of both urban and societal health—was breaking down, unable to be sustained in the sprawling world of automobiles and technology in which we live.

That spring Jacobs and I had been asked to appear together as part of a venerable San Francisco lecture series that often sponsors conversations with public figures, and the idea was that I would interview her about Dark Age Ahead. Eventually we did talk a little bit about the book, but not much. Jacobs was the opposite of the
eager author who turns every question into an opportunity to snare a plug. She seemed to want to talk, period. We were on the stage of the Herbst Auditorium, in front of a sellout crowd of 600, and what I remember most is how intimate it seemed. Jacobs was greeted by a standing ovation. It lasted a very long time, long enough for her to make her way, slowly and haltingly, across the stage. When she sat down, she spoke with less self-consciousness than anyone I have ever seen. Her conversation had the same direct, no-nonsense declarative quality, seasoned with just the tiniest bit of primness, that her writing does. She never overtly played to the crowd, and yet she had the audience completely in thrall.

Sweet old ladies who are as tough as nails are not that rare a breed, of course, but relatively few of them have written books that can truly be said to have changed the world. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, was not the only book to challenge orthodox city planning in the postwar era, butit is the one that struck the deepest chord, and the one that is still cited as a kind of touchstone, a source of so much that has come since. In this sense it has less in common with other books about cities and urban planning than it doeswith two other books from the same time about other things entirely: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. All three of these books were written by women of roughly similar age who were relatively unknown and who had something new to say that went entirely, and courageously, against the common wisdom. At the beginning all three women were dismissed as crackpots by the establishment they challenged. And all three eventually came not only to garner grudging respect, but to be elevated virtually to the status of prophets.

Jacobs was not a professional planner, and an ongoing theme of her life and her work was the deep conflict she felt about the relationship of knowledge to professional expertise. She was largely self-taught, and throughout her life she relied heavily on observation and instinct. She was not insecure about that—quite the contrary. She believed deeply in the value of knowledge, but she drew a sharp distinction between the knowledge of an educated person and the information that experts carry around, much of which Jacobs considered not only useless but dangerous. Traffic engineers who know off the top of their heads how many vehicles any type of road can carry in an hour are never inclined to ask whether the road ought to be there in the first place, she would say.

When I asked Jacobs in San Francisco how she came to write The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she responded with a wonderful monologue about her life, beginning with her postwar job at the Office for War Information. But her leitmotif was a swipe at the whole notion of expertise. She went to work for Architectural Forum, she told me, when the Office for War Information was consolidating its staff in Washington, and she didn’t want to leave New York. The Architectural Forum job paid better than Natural History, the other magazine that had a position open.

“I went to Architectural Forum, and they said well, you’re now our school and hospital expert,” she explained. “That was the first time I got suspicious of experts. I knew nothing, not even how to read plans.” She paused for a moment. “Anybody who would want to be an expert, I have some advice for you: apply at a magazine.”


Jacobs was married to an architect, however, and her husband taught her the rudiments of reading architectural plans. No matter how little she knew on the technical side, Jacobs seems to have had an astonishing degree of confidence in her own observations and a profoundly non-ideological view of the world. It turned out to be a striking and potent combination: her willingness to start by looking at cities, not by reading about them, and to believe in what she was seeing blended well with her lack of interest in fitting any of what she saw into a preexisting theory or in creating an overarching theory of her own. The result was a clear-headed pragmatism that came to define her sensibility and guide all of her writing.

During our conversation on stage in San Francisco, Jacobs went on, in her mildly self-deprecating way, to say that her first major assignment for Architectural Forum, an update on urban renewal plans or Philadelphia, came about because she was the only person available on a short-handed staff. “I was not what you would call a city-planning expert,” she said.

Philadelphia was the big thing at the time, and Ed Bacon [Philadelphia’s legendary planning director] was very fashionable. So they sent me to Philadelphia, and Mr. Bacon showed me all that they were doing. First he took me to a street where loads of people were hanging around on the street, on the stoops, having a good time of it, and he said, well, this is the next street we’re going to get rid of. That was the “before” street. Then he showed me the “after” street, all fixed up, and there was just one person on it, a bored little boy kicking a tire in the gutter. It was so grim that I would have been kicking a tire, too. But Mr. Bacon thought it had a beautiful vista.

There you have it, in a nutshell: Jane Jacobs wrote the most influential book of the 20th century about cities because Edmund Bacon preferred the cold abstractions of urban renewal to the messy vitality of real urban neighborhoods. Well, so did almost every planner in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was largely believed that the city was a physical more than a social problem, and that tidying everything up was the answer to its ills. Jacobs returned to New York, she said, full of determination to write a series of essays about sidewalks and streets and the indifference of planners to the way people actually use cities. Ultimately she was convinced by both her husband and William H. Whyte, the brilliant Fortune editor who was eventually to devote most of his life to studying the way people use public space in cities, that what she had in mind wasn’t a series of articles; she wanted to write a book. The Rockefeller Foundation gave her a grant to support herself while she did her research, a great deal of which consisted of walking around the West Village neighborhood where Jacobs and her family lived, observing what she would come to call the “street ballet.”

Death and Life ended up as a 457-page polemic against traditional planning. “The pseudoscience of planning seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success,” Jacobs wrote. In a way, the most revealing lines in the book are not Jacobs’s passionate defenses of neighborhood scale, street life, and diverse community of the sort that she experienced around her home at 555 Hudson Street, but her note at the beginning, explaining why she had included no photographs in her vast tome about cities. “The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us,” she wrote. “For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger, and think about what you see.”

It is pure Jane Jacobs—clear, straightforward prose, with an air of calm reasonableness and the tone of a schoolteacher quite cleverly hiding a radical sensibility. Jacobs may have been proper, but she turned out to be afraid of no one. Her neighbors in the Village learned just that when she played a major role in the battle to keep traffic out of Washington Square Park, which Robert Moses wanted to change into a turnaround for Fifth Avenue buses. Jacobs and Moses would be at odds for years, even more than Jacobs and Edmund Bacon had been. Indeed, they are joined forever as antagonists in history: Jacobs is often described today as the anti-Moses, the force for populist planning, representing the antithesis to Moses’ Olympian indifference to public sentiment. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, in part because Jacobs was always more interested in how people used cities than in what political positions they held about them, but no one can doubt that there has been a sea change in urban planning during the last 40 years, away from Moses’ autocratic pronouncements and toward vastly greater levels of public participation. Jane Jacobs is as responsible for this as anyone. If her
name is to be used as a shorthand for citizen participation just as Moses’ is for planning by fiat, so be it.

Jacobs was introduced to civic activism at Washington Square, but she remained engaged in public issues long after she had begun to build her reputation as a writer. And she continued to clash with Moses. Their heroic and ultimate struggle came in 1968, when Jacobs, who had been leading opposition to the Lower Manhattan Expressway, the highway Moses had planned to ram across Broome Street, spoke at a public hearing about the highway and, in a deliberate act of civic disobedience, destroyed the transcript that was being prepared. Jacobs was arrested. If nothing else, her gesture took care of any lingering impression that Jacobs was a mild-mannered housewife.

Today the notion of an expressway slicing across Lower Manhattan is incomprehensible. It would have destroyed the neighborhood of incomparable 19th-century industrial architecture now known as Soho and wrenched apart Lower Manhattan. But in the 1960s the expressway was given considerable credence, not just by automobile-mad planners but by all sorts of reasoned, liberal folk. (Mayor John Lindsay was originally a supporter of the idea, which seemed, to pre–Jane Jacobs minds, to have the appeal of efficiency. After all, what harm could there be in moving cars and trucks from the Holland Tunnel straight to the Williamsburg Bridge? It would keep them off the streets—streets that back then seemed to have little appeal to anyone.) Today the idea of the Lower Manhattan Expressway is barely remembered, let alone taken seriously, which tells us that we have at least made some progress in the last generation. Its demise, in which Jacobs played no small role, ranks, along with the decision to halt the construction of the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, as a turning point in the evolution of American attitudes toward ties.

That the world has come around to Jane Jacobs’s way of thinking is indisputable, but this has hardly brought us to the promised land. Not the least of the price we pay for having so many of Jacobs’s views become the common wisdom is the extent to which they are now co-opted by real-estate developers and politicians. They have realized that there is money to be made in shopping centers created as fake villages with pedestrian “streets” leading to “town squares,” and in “festival marketplaces” that are little more than shopping malls in drag. Developers proclaim these places to be like real cities, as if they were a natural outgrowth of Jacobs’s ideas. The term mixed use, which started as a sharp-eyed writer’s observation of what underlies an organic urban fabric, has become a developer’s mantra. Indeed, who could have envisioned the day when politicians and developers trying to sell New York on a gigantic football stadium beside the Hudson River would propose surrounding it with shops and cafés so that they could promote it as an asset to the city’s street life? When that happened in 2004—when I heard people trying to sell the stadium as enriching street life—I knew the age of Jane Jacobs had entered a new phase, the phase that comes when radical ideas move into the mainstream and can be corrupted by those who claim to follow them. In the 21st century, the danger is not with those who oppose Jane Jacobs, but with those who claim to follow her.


Jacobs herself always knew better: she had no patience for orthodoxies, including her own. That is probably why she ended up so much at odds with Lewis Mumford, who shared her dislike of Robert Moses’ mode of urban renewal by bulldozer and tried to make Jacobs something of a protégé at the beginning of her career. But Mumford loved theories as much as Jacobs hated them, and he thought that the city could be made rational. Jacobs knew better. It was the very randomness of things that she loved—she took solace from the unpredictability and messiness of the city while Mumford sought only to bring more order to it. Is it a surprise that his review of Death and Life was called “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies for Urban Cancer”? The title tells all. Jacobs was never as eager as Mumford for acolytes, though she ended up with plenty of them, and she saw right through many of the things that were presented as consistent with her views. She didn’t even have much patience with the New Urbanists, whose philosophy of returning to pedestrian-oriented cities would seem to owe a lot to Jacobs. But she found the New Urbanists hopelessly suburban, and once said to me, with a rhyming cadence worthy of Muhammad Ali, “They only create what they say they hate.”

What Jane Jacobs really taught wasn’t that every place should look like Greenwich Village, but instead that we should look at places and figure out their essences, that we should try to understand what makes cities work organically and to think of them as natural systems that should be nurtured, not stymied. I think of her less as showing us a physical model for cities that we need to copy and more as providing a model for skepticism.

Today, it’s hard to know where embracing her skepticism will take us. The city is not the same as it was in the years when Jacobs first began to observe it. In some ways it has become too big and too gentrified to continue to operate as Jane Jacobs wanted it to. In her day, a fairly natural process gave us the Greenwich Village she loved—and gave us the rest of the neighborhood-rich, pedestrian-oriented, exquisitely balanced city New York once was—and Jacobs wisely saw that planning was not able to do much except upset this natural equilibrium. Today, however, the natural order of things yields something very different from the vibrant, highly diverse world Jacobs taught us to admire. The natural process of growth now gives us sprawl; it gives us gigantism; it gives us economic segregation; and it gives us homogeneous, dreary design. In Jacobs’s day, intervention into organic urban growth was symbolized by the acts of a Robert Moses. Today, the forces trying to intervene are the forces set in motion by Jane Jacobs herself. Her legacy is always to represent, in one way or another, radical intervention.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paul Goldberger is the architecture critic of The New Yorker and holds the Joseph Urban Chair in Design and Architecture at the New School in New York City. He is the author of Up From Zero: Politics, Architecture, and The Rebuilding of New York, among other books. He received a Pulitzer Prize for his architecture criticism at The New York Times.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up