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The Life That Shaped Jane Jacobs

A conversation with Robert Kanigel, author of the new Jacobs biography, Eyes on the Street.

Penguin Random House

Robert Kanigel’s Eyes on the Street is the Jane Jacobs biography I’ve been waiting for. A biographer and science writer, Kanigel takes on the daunting task of chronicling the life of the urbanist giant, Jacobs, without descending into the exulted “St. Jane” hagiography that would have surely bothered Kanigel’s subject to no end.

Robert Kanigel’s Eyes on the Street.

The book starts with Jacobs’ early life. We get a deep portrait of Jane Butzner’s middle-class upbringing in Scranton, including the famous “toothbrush” incident, in which she was expelled for warning her fellow students against making the impossible promise to brush their teeth every night. There are glimpses into the origins of her fascination with words, her training as a typist, and her first unpaid foray into journalism at a local newspaper.

Kanigel then follows Jacobs’ move to New York’s Brooklyn Heights in 1934 at the height of the Great Depression, decades before The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Kanigel shows how Jane strung together her early writing career working for a variety of magazines, including such varied titles as Vogue and Iron Age. The book takes an especially close look at her early writing for Amerika, a State Department magazine about the U.S. published for a Soviet Union audience, where she wrote about cities and slums. It also gives us a glimpse into her time covering architecture, cities, and planning for Architectural Forum, where her boss sent her to give a last-minute speech at Harvard that later led to an article for Fortune: “Downtown Is for People,” the original germ of Death and Life.

We also learn how she becomes Jane Jacobs—her affinity for alliteration overcoming her urge to keep her maiden name—marrying the architect Robert Hyde Jacobs, Jr. after a lightning-fast courtship: He proposed on their first date after knowing each other for a week, which she initially declined but changed her mind about a few days later. We learn about their family life, as well as intellectual lives, on New York’s Hudson Street.

The biography details countless other formative moments—an FBI investigation, her disenchantment with Edmund Bacon’s plans for Philadelphia, her famous fights with Robert Moses, and her family’s escape from the Vietnam War to Toronto. And of course there are the stories behind Jacobs’s most notable books: Death and Life, but also The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations, plus later works, including The Nature of Economies, Systems of Survival, and Dark Age Ahead.

Kanigel recently spoke with CityLab about the book and how it came together.

Perhaps my favorite part of the book is your look at Jane’s early life, rebellious and rambunctious, in Scranton. How do you think these early experiences as a youngster, teen, and young adult shaped her interest and writing about cities?

I think they made her less deferential to authority figures, more confident that she could confront Authority, in all its guises, outwit it, and come away unharmed and even strengthened.

She moved to New York City, Brooklyn Heights in November 1934—the height of the Great Depression. She’s still a quarter century removed from Death and Life. How do you see this earlier phase of her life as shaping her thinking and later work?

We, readers today, quite naturally look back for clues in Jane’s early writings about cities, because we know what happened next: She wrote Death and Life. And yes, certainly, Jane was always drawn to the life of cities. She associated them with her own adult life, her adult freedoms, her adult adventures, with good jobs, good friends, with the good life, Jane-style. So the city certainly had a hold on her.

But her intellectual curiosity was capacious and never limited to cities. She was drawn to everything. She wrote about every sort of thing in her various professional capacities, developed skills, came away unafraid to explore any subject. This, I believe, is what marks her more indelibly than cities, this interest in the whole lively world around her, including ideas for their own sake.

During her two years at Columbia’s School of General Studies, beginning in 1938, Jane studied geology, psychology, chemistry, and embryology. She studied constitutional law and economics and anthropology. So great has been the impact on us today of Death and Life of Great American Cities that it is a little too easy to see her as a one-trick pony. That would be a mistake.

At Architectural Forum, certainly, architecture, cities, and planning became her beat, and she was a natural for it. But, again, those subjects were never the only things she was interested in; after Death and Life, she wrote on plenty of other subjects that all reflected what I see as her larger interest in the requirements, needs, and characteristics of healthy civilization generally. Death and Life came along to forever associate Jane Jacobs with cities because a) she loved cities and city life, and b) because she had become angry at what she saw happening to the cities she loved—not because she was somehow foreordained to make cities, and cities alone, her preferred and lasting subject.

Jane notoriously disliked universities, and this seems to have been shaped by her visit to Harvard and her later interactions with Harvard and MIT urbanists of her day. What was it that made her so disillusioned with universities and the people who work at them?

I wouldn’t quite say she was disillusioned with universities, because that would imply she had illusions that needed undercutting in the first place. She actually did very well at her Columbia studies for her two years there. But I think she had little tolerance for the ways of academia and figured she could do just fine if she was left alone to study, learn, and write on her own—which, of course, she did.

Urbanists consider Death and Life a great classic. But writing it was very difficult for her. Tell us more about that.

The book, as a book, was a huge project; she’d never done anything on remotely that scale before. Tackle a 2,000-word article and you know what’s going into it and what’s not. A 150,000-word book and you’re beset by structural problems wherever you turn. Then, too, after years of being an employee, on someone else’s clock, Jane was on her own, subject to distractions, both personal and professional. Everything took a little longer than she expected. Plus, she was pushing through into new territory. Hers were really new ideas that she was not content to merely describe, but to bring out in as vivid a way as possible.

We like to think of great thinkers operating as part of great intellectual or artistic scenes. New York was of course a center of a great creative ferment when she lived there. But she almost seemed to work alone, in isolation. Was she a lone thinker, or was there a group or scene she was a part of?

Jane and her husband, Bob, had lots of friends in the Village and elsewhere, and Jane had her colleagues at Architectural Forum. And of course she got ideas from everywhere and from everything she read. But a scene? With minds on a par with her own? I don’t think so.

Many people like to think of Jane Jacobs as much an activist as a scholar. Her role in saving Greenwich Village and her battles with Robert Moses are the stuff of great lore. But my view is that she always thought of herself more as a thinker than an activist. What’s your perspective on this?

I agree with you. This fits my reading of her.

How did her move to Toronto in the 1970s shape her work?

Jane’s book Systems of Survival is about the “moral syndromes” on which public life is based, and is written though fictional conversations among a group of earnest friends. Jane tells the story of how, in early drafts, the friends were Torontonians, but that that just didn’t work. “Talking to Canadians,” she’d explain, was “like talking to a pillow.” They were just too polite. So she made them New Yorkers.

On the strength of her first two books, Jane had pretty much “arrived” by the time she got to Toronto, so she enjoyed a bit more leisure to pursue what she wanted to purse on her own schedule.

You describe Jane as someone who is revolutionary but conservative. What do you mean by that?

The terms really don’t apply to Jane. Yes, she was “revolutionary” in some of her ideas. Yes, she was “conservative” in others. But more than for most fresh thinkers, those categories, classes, and divisions tend to obscure her thinking rather than illuminate it. She herself had no use for them.

You mention that there were two more books Jane was working on when she died. I’m sure our readers would like to know more about them.

One was a kind of fresh wrap-up of her work in economics, which she had already explored in three previous books. The other was something she was calling A Brief Biography of the Human Race, a title that her Canadian editor understood to be devoid of irony and absolutely serious.

Last question: as its title implies, Dark Age Ahead is a pessimistic book. Part of me thinks Jane was indeed a pessimist, that given the darkness of her world of the Great Depression, fascism and communism, Vietnam, the “permanent war economy,” the demise of the great pillars of modern civilization— I could go on—she fixated on cities and urban neighborhoods as our last great hope for a diverse, democratic, humanistic order. What do you think?

Dark Age Ahead certainly has a pessimistic tone, but I don’t think of Jane as a pessimist. Her hope was that human reason, good will, and intelligence could be put to the job of solving human problems. And to hold on to that is itself optimistic.

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