Jane Jacobs was always ahead of her time. In her trilogy of urban works, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The Economy of Cities, and Cities and the Wealth of Nations, written in the 1960s and mid-1980s, she not only outlined the key elements of great neighborhoods and effective urbanism, but also predicted the back-to-the city movement. Early on, Jacobs identified the increasingly important role of cities in innovation and economic development. But urbanism was not the only subject on which she proved prescient. In her last book, Dark Age Ahead, she also predicted some of the more negative and destructive trends of modern society—rising inequality, the erosion and decay of key social institutions, the downsides of globalization—that have paved the way for demagogues like Donald Trump.
Released in 2004 when she was 88 years old, Dark Age Ahead is hardly talked about among urbanists and fans of Jacobs’ earlier works. In fact, it was widely panned as the work of an aging crank whose best days and smartest commentary were behind her. The New York Times called it an “extremely sloppy” and “haphazard” book. Such reactions were par for the course with her later works. The MIT economist Robert Solow wrote that her 2000 book The Nature of Economies “[does not tell] us much about the nature of economies, beyond the pun itself.” For these reviewers, Jacobs should have long since retired from writing. But like early critics of Death and Life, these reviews missed the incredible prescience and foresight of her thought.
Back in 2004, before the economic crisis, urbanists were celebrating the resurgence of the city. We didn’t think much about the rise of conservative populists like Trump or the late Rob Ford. But there was Jane Jacobs, arguing “caution” against a new dark age lurking right around the corner.
In Dark Age, Jacobs focused on the erosion of the key pillars of stable, democratic societies—the decline of the family, the rise of consumerism and hyper-materialism, the transformation of education into credentialism, the undermining of scientific norms, and the take-over of politics by powerful special interest groups, among others. Persistent racism, worsening crime and violence, the growing gap between the rich and poor, and increasing divides between the winners and losers of globalization provided growing evidence of the decay of society, she argued.
“Her voice was prophetic,” says Mary Rowe, the vice president of New York’s Municipal Art Society, who was quite close to Jacobs during her lifetime. “The last book, Dark Age Ahead, is the most sobering—and now even more so as it all continues to be borne out.”
I received a firsthand glimpse of Jacobs’ thinking on these darker trends in our society when I sat down with her in October 2003 for “A Conversation with Dick and Jane,” organized by Artscape’s Creative Spaces + Places Conference in Toronto. I wanted to hear her talk about cities as the motor force for innovation and economic progress by harnessing human knowledge and creativity. She was encouraging of my work, saying that she was “joyful" to hear my remarks on the “importance of ingenuity and creativity.” But, as was her style, she also pointed out that the age of knowledge and creativity was itself under threat. Creativity is fragile, she noted, and cities need to cultivate and nurture their very structures for harnessing the diversity that propels it. She drew attention to the powerful counter-tendencies that act against creativity, especially the role of what she termed “squelchers”—individuals like Robert Moses and large bureaucracies like corporations or top-down city planning agencies. Squelching happens when society somehow forgets that diversity in cities is its most important economic and social asset.
She then went on to talk about the long legacy and imprint of the plantation economy, and the troubling “standardization of creativity” by corporations, universities, and other bureaucratic institutions. According to Jacobs, these historical tendencies were reasserting themselves in ways that could undermine the modern economy and society. The diversity that makes cities innovative and creative was being threatened by increased homogeneity in neighborhoods brought on by extreme gentrification, the replacement of unique shops with franchises, and the transformation of local styles and fashions with luxury goods. As cities collapse, fashion and luxury goods are the last things to disappear, she added, predicting the rise of the uber-rich neighborhoods that we see in New York and London today. Standardization is the greatest squelcher of all, she argued, because it means that the city will be unable to generate new innovations and replace exports.
At the very center of Jacobs’ work, I have come to believe, lies a great concern over the darker, more pessimistic forces of standardization, top-down planning, bureaucracy, and globalization that have acted against diversity and human progress. This was the same kind of concern evident in the work of great thinkers such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Joseph Schumpeter, who saw capitalism, bureaucracy, and large corporations as draining the humanity out of modern society.
At the time of her death, Jacobs was working on two books that reflected this deep-seated tension between the deadening tendencies of large organizations and squelchers, and the humanizing tendencies of great cities and urban neighborhoods. The first book was titled Uncovering the Economy, where she planned to bring together a lifetime of thinking to help us understand cities as the underlying engines of innovation and economic growth. The second was portentously titled A Sad But Short Biography of the Human Race. Here she would expand on the enduring legacy of the plantation economy, standardization, inequality, globalization, and domination. In her last interview with the Montreal writer Robin Philpot, she gave us important clues about this work: “It’s not my anticipation that we’re into evolution for a short run,” she said. “We’re much closer to our beginnings than we realize. … Our economies haven’t changed since the beginning and certainly globalization is not a new phenomenon.”
She went on to worry about the eventual decline of the United States, noting that “the collapse will come about as a banal thing.” One can only imagine how unsurprised Jacobs would be by the evolution of America’s economy and society in the decade since her death—particularly the hyper-gentrification of great cities, the growing social and economic divides, the continuing erosion of scientific norms, burgeoning celebrity culture, and, most recently, the rise of Donald Trump—in many ways the symbol of it all.
And yet, for Jacobs, the one optimistic force remained the city itself, which harnesses human diversity and propels our economy, culture, and politics forward in a more progressive, human-centric direction. Our cities, she argued, were our main line of defense between the over-powering forces of darkness and an impending dark age. Just one week after publishing Dark Age, Jacobs wrote an article for The New York Times magazine in which she argued that “perhaps it will be the city that reawakens our understanding and appreciation of nature, in all its teeming, unpredictable complexity.” These words take on an even greater importance today, a century after she was born.