In 1956, Jane Jacobs was 39 years old, working as a staff writer at Architectural Forum. Her boss, unable to attend a conference at Harvard, asked her to go in his stead and give a talk on land banking. Jacobs, skittish about public speaking, reluctantly agreed, on one condition: that she could speak on a subject of her choice.
That subject, it turned out, was the utter wrongheadedness of many of the ideas cherished by her audience, the era’s luminaries of urban planning. The prevailing wisdom at the time held that “urban renewal” required clearing “slums” and starting over. The rebuilt cities would tidily disentangle residential and commercial areas and include plenty of open space. These ideas may have looked good in architectural drawings, but in real life, Jacobs had come to believe, they were a formula for lifeless monotony.
In East Harlem, she noted, 1,110 stores had been razed to make way for housing projects. Jacobs argued that these little shops couldn’t simply be replaced by supermarkets. “A store is also a storekeeper,” she said. Stores were not just commercial spaces; they were also social centers that “help make an urban neighborhood a community instead of a mere dormitory.” Even empty storefronts had a function, often sprouting into clubs, churches, or hubs for other civic activities. When these spaces were destroyed, the community was gravely wounded.
This speech, a turning point in Jacobs’s career, appears in Vital Little Plans, a new collection of her short works; Robert Kanigel’s new biography of Jacobs, Eyes on the Street, fills in the context. The men in the room—including the mayor of Pittsburgh, the head of the New York City Housing Authority, and The New Yorker’s architecture critic, Lewis Mumford—took the rebuke remarkably well, and Jacobs won some distinguished admirers. The speech was also the germ of what became her masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), one of the seminal books of the 20th century.
The talk demonstrated Jacobs’s trademark strengths: her clear-eyed vision, her pungent language, her sheer gutsiness (she may have dreaded public speaking, but she never hesitated to tell her betters what she thought). It also reflected her slippery political orientation. Jacobs was celebrating commerce and condemning government overreach in the form of public housing, and thereby showing some sympathy with the values of the right. Yet she was doing so on behalf of low-income people who, she believed, had been ill served. Like any good leftist, she was defending the underdogs: the mom-and-pop stores as well as the residents of these projects, many of whom hated their bleak housing as much as she did.
Jacobs’s unconventional politics grew out of her temperament. She was allergic to dogma; she followed not an ideology but a methodology. She did not assume, or imagine, or take things on faith; she observed. But she didn’t stop there: She accumulated observations and distilled them into general principles. For her, empiricism and theory were not opposites but complements.