Eyes on the Street:
The Life of Jane Jacobs
Hardback: Knopf, 2016.
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Reviewed by Jeff Crosby
When she was choosing a school for her undergraduate studies a decade ago, New York University in lower Manhattan rose to the top of my daughter’s list of options. The vibrancy of a world-class city, the exposure to the arts and the melting pot of global cultures, and the imprimatur of a diploma from NYU, all lured her to New York.
The cost of her matriculating there for four years and the relative lack of financial aid (apart from the kind that has to be repaid!) prompted me, on the contrary, to suggest that a well-known southern school – a similarly well-endowed but financially generous university in Nashville – just might be the sensible way to go.
NYU and my daughter won.
Financially prudent dad lost.
But really, we both won in the end, for had my daughter not attended New York University I might never have explored Washington Square Park in all the seasons of the year, or partaken of the delightful galleries on Broome Street in SoHo, or the eateries and street music of the cobblestone walkways around Greenwich Village.
And had Scranton, Pennsylvania-born Jane Butzner Jacobs never moved to the Village and done the work on which Robert Kanigel focuses much of his new book Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, none of us would still have those New York landmarks to enjoy. They would have been bulldozed in the name of urban progress.
Needless to say, we are all in debt to Jacobs.
Such was her impact.
Jacobs, best known for her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House), has had something of a renaissance in 2016, 10 years after her death at the age of eighty-nine in Toronto where she moved in 1968, in part, to help her sons Jimmy and Ned avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. Kanigel’s Eyes on the Street is one of four books published about her life and her work as an activist and urban theorist this year, with Becoming Jane Jacobs by Peter L. Laurence (University of Pennsylvania Press, January), Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (Melville House, April), and Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs, edited by Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring (Random House, October) being the others.
Setting up what is to come in the introduction of Eyes on the Street, Kanigel explains:
The subject of Eyes on the City is “not cities, urban planning, or urban design. It’s not a book that sets out to gather upbeat stories of rejuvenation and revitalization from the urban front lines. It does not take the reader by the hand and guide her through resurgent Station North in Baltimore or gentrified Williamsburg in Brooklyn; through old warehouses and office buildings made into homes, or downtowns set a-bustling again. Or exult in the reassuring drops in crime in New York and other cities. Or enjoy the vision of city-busting urban highways torn down in Boston and San Francisco. Each of these, seen through the right lens, can be laid at Jane Jacob’s door.”
Eyes on the Street, Kanigel writes, is not that book. Rather, it’s “a biography of the remarkable woman who helped make such accounts possible.”
Kanigel’s book has a much broader scope than prior published treatments of Jacobs’s life, including Anthony Flint’s excellent Wrestling with Moses (Random House, 2009). Flint focused almost exclusively on how Jacobs sparred with New York’s master builder Robert Moses who was most notably profiled in Robert Caro’s book The Power Broker (Knopf, 1974) – a man whom Kanigel says Jacobs likely only met once or twice in her life, but who loomed large in Death and Life. Indeed, Robert Moses is the man with whom Jacobs’s work is almost always associated. Eyes on the Street is similar in scope to Laurence’s recent Becoming Jane Jacobs but with less focus on architectural design. The books by Flint, Laurence and Kanigel provide highly-complimentary views of her life and work, and all are commended to readers keenly interested in Jacobs.
For those who have read The Death and Life of Great American Cities but none of the Jacobs biographies, Eyes on the Street is a great place to start.
The title of Kanigel’s book Eyes on the Street emerges from the sociological theory that Jacobs popularized with her 1961 surprise bestseller. It was – and still is – a theory that advocates the creation or preservation of mixed-use, high-density neighborhoods where sidewalks are wide and street traffic (walking, instead of driving) is stimulated, helping communities flourish economically and socially and providing a self-policing benefit which, it says, reduces crime.
The author of seven prior books and a former professor of science writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kanigel divides his nearly 500-page book into three equal parts covering the three major movements of Jacob’s life:
In Part I, “An Uncredentialed Woman: 1916 to 1954,” he examines all of the influences and experiences that led Jacobs to New York and her life’s focus on the well-being of cities and the people who inhabit them. Here we see that Jacobs was, despite her later acclaim, not a great student and started but did not complete an undergraduate degree. We read about Jacobs’s love of poetry – both reading it and writing it – and her multi-faceted work as a free-lance writer for numerous magazines and a staff writer for Amerika, a Russian-language magazine published by the U.S. Department of State during the Cold War for distribution in the Soviet Union. That role, Kanigel shows, led to multiple FBI investigations of Jacobs’s loyalty to the U.S. raising the question of loyalty to her own country during that Joseph McCarthy-led era of hysteria. Each time, she was cleared of any wrong-doing.
The influence of her father looms large in this section, as does the story of her aunt Martha who “at the age of forty-eight virtually vanished from civilization,” having fallen in with the “local people of a tiny, hopelessly backwater community called Higgins” in North Carolina.
New York City was the place where, in the dedication to The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs said she “came to seek my fortune but found it by finding” her husband, Bob (an architect), and later their three children, for whom the landmark book was written and who would figure prominently in her activism.
The most productive and acclaimed part of Jacobs’s life is covered in Part II of Eyes on the Street, “In the Big World: 1954-1968.” It includes the period of publishing essays on urban cities in Architectural Forum that ultimately led to a speech she reluctantly gave at Harvard University (subbing for her editor, Douglas Haskell, who wanted to go on a holiday in Europe) that put Jacobs in front of many of the most influential urban theorists of the day. She agreed to go only if she could choose her own topic. Her Forum editor agreed, and Jacobs focused her lecture on the subject of East Harlem in New York where “in the re-housing of fifty thousand people in the projects, more than a thousand stores had disappeared from the neighborhood,” Kanigel writes. “‘A store,’ she said memorably, ‘is also a storekeeper. One supermarket can replace thirty neighborhood delicatessens, fruit stands, groceries and butchers…But it cannot replace thirty storekeepers or even one.’”
It also details the period of research and writing that led to Death and Life’s publication in 1961 and the other struggles with Moses and noted urban architectural theorist Lewis Mumford, a one-time advocate of Jacobs who later turned into a critic.
The book’s third part, “On Albany Avenue: 1968-2006,” examines the lesser-known aspects of Jacobs’s life after her move to the Annex neighborhood of Toronto, where she lived on Albany Avenue until her death. In her later years, Jacobs continued to engage issues surrounding the city, and had an impact on her adopted hometown. She was featured at the Toronto Ideas that Matter conference in 1997, at which she was a daily keynote speaker and dialogue partner with both intellectuals and residents of a community she had influenced over the preceding three decades.
In one of the closing chapters of Eyes on the Street, Kanigel quotes Toronto journalist Kevin Brown regarding the impact of Jacobs’s move to his city:
“The mere fact Jane Jacobs chose to live in Toronto came to be an endorsement for the city’s brand. She was synonymous with the notion of a livable city and her Toronto residency was proof that we, in Toronto, inhabited a special place.”
People in New York familiar with Jacobs and her wrestling with Robert Moses (and others) in the 1950s and 60s would likely say that New York is today a more special place because of her work.
My daughter, the NYU graduate, surely does.
Jeff Crosby is publisher at InterVarsity Press in Downers Grove, Illinois. He is the editor and compiler of Days of Grace through the Year, a collection of meditations drawn from the writing of Lewis B. Smedes. He and his wife, Cindy, reside in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.