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In a field dominated by men, Jacobs broke through with groundbreaking, decidedly female ideas about how cities should work

Fifty years ago this month, Jane Jacobs published Death and Life of Great American Cities and changed the way the world understands cities. Yet even when she's acknowledged as an important urban thinker, the 'housewife' qualifier is invariably included. When we talk about strategies for city growth and economic development, women aren't often offered seats at the table. They hold jobs in the field but few posts as critics. Jane was the exception. But the rules didn’t change a great deal.

Jacobs broke into the national discussion about cities somewhat by accident. She was a reluctant stand-in for her Architectural Forum male editor at a cities conference in 1956. She had written some insightful articles about how cities work, particularly in Vogue, documenting how New York City’s fur and flower districts evolved organically.

Today, her early observations are considered pathbreaking. But happenstance thrust her into the public eye.

Jacobs’ early attention-getting articles in Architectural Forum and Fortune Magazine happened because she had as a champion a distinguished male editor William Holly Whyte. Whyte gained fame for writing The Organization Man and for espousing ideas similar to hers. But he had to overcome a sputtering, angry Fortune publisher who once asked, “Who is this crazy dame?”

A housewife without even a college degree was unacceptable. After all, Lewis Mumford’s scathing review of Death and Life was headlined “Mother Jacobs Home Remedies.”

Pondering why men and women’s voices were heard differently on the subject of city building, she noted matter-of-factly that women think about things close to home—street, neighborhood and community. They more easily recognize the big difference small things can make. Men think big, national and global. They are top-down oriented.

This contrast was played out in a very public way when developer James Rouse and Jane Jacobs appeared together in 1980 at the Boston Great Cities Conference. Their subject was the question of whether cities should be developed with big plans and inspiring visions or modest steps and incremental change.

Rouse spoke first, recalling the words of Daniel Burnham, "Make no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men’s blood," he said.

Jacobs followed and began, "Funny, big plans never stirred women’s blood. Women have always been willing to consider little plans."

The applause was deafening.

Rouse argued that big plans could give the world exciting new communities. Jacobs said big plans lead to big mistakes and stifle imagination and alternatives. Rouse claimed big plans avoid wasteful haphazard piecemeal development. Jacobs saw big plans as routinizers, formulas, smootherers.

This was 1980. Jacobs had long before helped defeat Robert Moses on three city-changing projects. Her efforts accelerated his demise. She was world-famous for several books. But she didn’t for one moment think that what she had to say was heard with the same impact as it would have been if her words were spoken by men.

Too many people today claim they plan according to Jacobs' precepts while embracing Robert Moses’ pursuit of big, bold visions. Jacobs, of course, thought big too, but in a different way from Moses – not big demolition and car-based projects but big physical and social infrastructure like mass transit and library systems or big urban networks of smaller components like interconnected neighborhoods.

In the 1993 introduction to the Modern Library edition of Death and Life, Jane questioned the widespread claim that her book changed the urban development field. Interestingly, she divided the world into foot people and car people. For foot people, she agreed, the book gave "legitimacy to what they already knew but whom the experts of the day deemed old fashioned and stopping progress."

She wrote:

It is not easy for uncredentialed people to stand up to the credentialed, even when the so-called expertise is grounded in ignorance and folly. This book turned out to be helpful ammunition against such experts. But it is less accurate to call this effect 'influence' than to see it as corroboration and collaboration. Conversely, the book neither collaborated with car people nor had influence on them. It still does not, as far as I can see.

The subtext here and found in other ways in Jacobs' work and words goes back to her Rouse exchange and the difference in thinking between men and women. We talked about this over the years. She loved the stories I would bring her as I crisscrossed the country for research on my own books, stories of regenerating neighborhoods and whole cities where the catalysts were invariably small neighborhood-based projects most often initiated by women.

Today, those women are everywhere. In New York, Mindy Fullilove. Alexie Torres Flemming. Majora Carter. Kate Wood. Elizabeth Yampiere. Joan Byron. In New Orleans, Tanya Harris, Karen Gadbois, Carol Bebelle. They are activists like Jacobs was. It is one thing to dwell in the world of ideas, another to actively engage in the transformations we need in our world today. Any dogged observer of American cities of the 20th and 21st centuries can’t escape the discovery that women have been in the forefront of saving and regenerating American cities.

Jane Jacobs was just one of them.

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