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What Are They Reading?

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DARK AGE AHEAD.
By Jane Jacobs.
Random House. 256pp. $23.95

About the Author

Ben Adler
Ben Adler
Ben Adler reports on Republican and conservative politics and media for The Nation as a Contributing Writer....

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I could hardly believe it when I heard Jane Jacobs was still alive and that she had written a new book, Dark Age Ahead, at the age of 88. Jacobs, one of the twentieth century's most effective activists and influential authors on urban issues, is perhaps most famous for leading the fight to save New York City's Soho neighborhood from the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway championed by master builder (and destroyer) Robert Moses.

That campaign, as well as the 1961 publication of her classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, marked a watershed in urban planning. Against the grains of popular convention, Jacobs exposed the havoc that highway building and urban renewal were wreaking on American cities. Her ideas, once heretical, have since become widely accepted.

Dark Age Ahead is a survey of the current American cultural and professional landscape, in which Jacobs critiques North American culture for losing not just its most valued traditions but even the memories of them. This essentially is the definition of a dark age, like the one that followed the fall of Rome, to which the title refers. While the idea of the book is alarmist and gimmicky, I could not pass up the opportunity to hear what Jacobs has to say.

Rather than a centrally organized treatise, it is more a series of essays on various cultural and political trends. These include: "Credentialing versus Educating" (she believes the former prevails in universities), "Science Abandoned" and "Dumbed-Down Taxes" (she thinks tax revenue should be controlled locally to make it more accountable to taxpayers and flexible to local needs).

Of course, Jacobs also continues to rail against automobile culture and its effects on American social life. In predicting the coming dark age, she unsurprisingly differs from the conservative commentators who finger Hollywood or the music industry as the culprits in the decline of collective morality: "Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities," she declares. While Jacobs overreaches in her broadest assertions about a coming dark age, on the subject of American micro-communal life she argues convincingly that vast swaths of suburbia have already entered into a period of darkness.

Jacobs writes in sharp and entertaining hyperbole, bringing to life even the dullest topics. In dissecting the folly of traffic engineering, she says: "Here they are, another generation of nice, miseducated young men, about to waste their careers in a fake science that cares nothing about evidence; that doesn't ask a fruitful question in the first place and that, when unexpected evidence turns up anyhow, doesn't pursue it."

When Jacobs ties urban-planning theories into her chapter "Science Abandoned," as well as her critique that higher education is "credentialing" rather than educating, she again picks on the traffic engineers: "It is popularly assumed that when universities give science degrees in traffic engineering, as they do, they are recognizing aboveboard expert knowledge. But they aren't. They are perpetrating a fraud upon students and upon the public when they award credentials in this supposed expertise."

Ultimately, Dark Age Ahead will never stack up with The Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Economy of Cities as a monumental work. But if you want to hear original analysis from one of our sharpest social critics on a variety of current and important topics, Dark Age Ahead is a must.

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