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Urban Iconoclast: Jane Jacobs Revisited

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from the magazine

Urban Iconoclast: Jane Jacobs Revisited

Winter 1994

She did to
urban renewal what Rachel Carson did to DDT and Ralph Nader did to the
Corvair. The Death and Life of Great American Cities marked Jane
Jacobs as one of the great protest authors of the early 1960s. Upon the
release of her book in 1961, the idea of wholesale government clearance of
poor urban neighborhoods, whether for housing or highways, almost immediately
fell out of favor. It is not surprising then, that three decades after its
release, Death and Life has recently been included in the Modern
Library series of classics.

Despite her prominence, Jacobs has been almost universally misunderstood.
Her role in the public life of New York in the 1960s may explain some of this
misunderstanding. Her opposition, to the point of arrest, to plans for a
highway through Washington Square Park and to a development scheme that would
have destroyed hundreds of buildings in the West Village has lead her to be
seen as the mother of all preservationists, pedestrians, and community
activists. And because she moved to Toronto (where she remains) in part
because of opposition to the Vietnam War, it is assumed she is a woman of the

That she is none of these is not superficially apparent from her work.
Because Death and Life poetically describes the rhythms of
neighborhood street life—its teeming sidewalks, local characters, and small
merchants—Jacobs is frequently invoked as the patron saint of old
neighborhoods, protecting them from rapacious developers who would supplant
the last drugstore that still has a soda fountain. Because she writes of the
value of small blocks and smaller buildings, it is easy to infer that she is
a Jeffersonian opponent of bigness per se, whether of new developments or
firms—or even cities, if they get too large.

But Jane Jacobs has no more desire to buffer cities from change than
Herman Melville had to save the whale. For Jacobs, change is the very essence
of city life. One cannot seek through public policy to “freeze conditions and
uses as they stand. That would be death,” she wrote in Death and Life.
Indeed, her great trilogy of works on cities—The Death and Life of Great
American Cities
(1961), The Economy of Cities (1969) and Cities
and the Wealth of Nations
(1984)—are a plea for us to understand the
dynamism, crucial to human progress, that arises in cities relatively
unfettered by government. “Most city diversity,” she writes in Death and
, “is the creation of incredible numbers of different people and
different private organizations, with vastly differing ideas and purposes,
planning and contriving outside the framework of public action. The main
responsibility of city planning and design should be to develop—insofar as
public policy and action can do so—cities that are congenial places for this
great range of unofficial plans, ideas, and opportunities to flourish.”

The Jane Jacobs story is a remarkable one. A native of Scranton,
Pennsylvania, Jacobs came to New York without having gone to college, worked
as an editor for Architectural Forum, and raised her family on Hudson
Street. Her confrontations with the city’s bureaucracy over its plans for her
own neighborhood inspired her not only to organize community protests, but to
embark on an intellectual journey. It was a journey in which she pondered,
for more than two decades, what makes cities and neighborhoods work. New York
was her crucible of experience and has remained the city in which her name
carries the most renown, making it all the more important that New Yorkers
understand her, lest policies, ostensibly in “the Jane Jacobs tradition,”
further undermine a city she loved.

Jacobs still has much to offer us, but not what is commonly assumed.
Though culturally associated with the Left, Jacobs dared to follow the logic
of her own observation in ways that lead her to oppose much that the Left
stands for. The real Jane Jacobs not only enjoys busy city blocks, but
deplores high levels of welfare spending that inhibit urban economies. The
real Jane Jacobs not only enjoys the great variety of small businesses which
cities offer, but questions the public operation of services such as transit
that preempt the formation of private competitors.

How do such views follow from those she is most often associated with? To
begin to get Jane Jacobs right, one must understand why she opposed urban
renewal. Her opposition has generally been understood to be based on
aesthetic and planning concerns. And there is no doubt that the design of
public housing deeply concerned and offended Jacobs. In her view, the
quintessential housing-project design of the high-rise tower set in a plaza or
park defied common sense. Plazas which aren’t regularly traversed by people
for a wide range of reasons—some going to work, some to the library, some to
their homes—are apt to become dangerous gauntlets, as are the long corridors
in high-rises, where the neighborly eyes Jacobs found watching the street in
old neighborhoods are absent. The wealthy might be able to afford doormen and
security patrols but, Jacobs made clear, the less affluent need the
self-policing that older, unplanned neighborhoods can provide.

But the heart of Jacobs’s quarrel with the advocates of urban renewal and
city planning involved much more than design considerations. In Jacobs’s
view, urban renewal was simply one manifestation of a set of beliefs that
threatened to smother the economic life of cities as well as level old
neighborhoods. Put another way, Jacobs actually saw herself as an apostle,
not an opponent, of progress, but was convinced that policies pursued in the
name of economic and aesthetic improvement were actually anti-modern and
would deaden the city’s economy.

Jacobs’s concern about the economics of city life manifests itself in her
heartfelt protests about the number of businesses destroyed to clear the path
for “renewal”:

People who get marked with the planners’ hex signs are pushed about,
expropriated, and uprooted much as if they were the subjects of a conquering
power. Thousands upon thousands of small businesses are destroyed, and their
proprietors ruined, with hardly a gesture at compensation.

The small businesses she eulogized were being replaced by an anti-city
within the city: enormous towers set in dangerous windswept plazas. This was
the culmination of a chain of ideas—Ebenezer Howard’s suburban Garden City,
LeCorbusier’s high-rise Radiant City, and Catherine Bauer’s massive state-
subsidized housing complexes—each of which attempted to control the
disorderliness of the modern city and put the genie of growth and change back
in the bottle. Jacobs did not hesitate to link such planning, with its
obvious elements of regimentation, to the totalitarian impulse, to the “repression
of all plans but the planners’.” Urban renewal destroyed a human ecosystem of
myriad interdependencies and surprising accidental improvements that were the
result of individual initiative, not economic development offices.

The construction of new housing projects not only destroyed existing
businesses, it also suppressed future economic activity by designating a
limited amount of space for preordained commercial activities-for instance,
leaving room for only one grocery store and one hairdresser. According to
Jacobs, this represented a misuse of the power of the state for “monopoly
planning.” Moreover, people who have ideas for new businesses need the cheap
space offered by older, sometimes rundown buildings. “Old ideas can sometimes
use new buildings,” observes Jacobs. “New ideas must use old buildings.”

Much more was involved in Jacob’s protest against urban renewal than a
simple concern for small local merchants themselves. By suppressing economic
diversity, urban renewal struck at the very heart of the city. For in
Jacobs’s view, cities cannot be viewed simply as places where large numbers
of people live and work. They are the centers of all creative economic
activity, and the engines of human progress by virtue of the ways in which
they allow for the expression of individual ingenuity. New economic ideas
take root within cities because only in an urban setting can entrepreneurs
find convenient suppliers of parts and services.

Small businesses are the source of the city economy’s regeneration.
Jacobs’s favorite example is the story of a New York dressmaker named Ida
Rosenthal, who in the 1920s, as a bonus to her customers, produced a corset
substitute: a natural-looking brassiere. Her invention led her to leave the
dressmaking business to found the Maidenform company. The fact that
Maidenform ultimately built its headquarters in New Jersey does not dismay
Jacobs: when firms become large, she expects them to leave their city home.
The creative spark is always creating new work: “a playground designer
starting to make and sell equipment for nursery schools; a cleaner of
clothing starting to sell her cleaning fluid, a sculptor starting a line of
costume jewelry.” Jacobs’s concern lies in the failure of cities to generate
such replacement enterprises. She is not enthusiastic only about manufactured
goods; new financial instruments that facilitate capital markets and,
indirectly, other kinds of development, move her as well.

Again and again Jacobs warns against government policies that are
insensitive to this process of economic generation and regeneration—an
insensitivity which she clearly believes can be just as fatal to whole
cities, and ultimately to national economics, as urban renewal was to specific
neighborhoods. This leads her to oppose the value-added tax, because it
imposes a tax on each step of production and would specifically handicap
urban start-up businesses, which depend on a long chain of suppliers and
contractors. She even goes so far (in Cities and the Wealth of Nations)
as to express concern about the notion of a single national currency, which,
she believes, skews the terms of trade by locking all of a nation’s cities
into one exchange rate. Thus her fondness for city-states such as Hong Kong
and Singapore. She (like Margaret Thatcher) would clearly by cheered by such
developments as the breakdown of the European monetary union and the
emergence of so many new states within the former Soviet empire.

Jacobs was particularly concerned about the economic effects of high
social spending. Thus, she objects to New York’s $300 million investment
during the 1950s in public housing in East Harlem, not only because it
leveled 1,300 Puerto Rican-owned businesses and produced dangerous, unsightly,
crimeridden projects, but because it represented a massive diversion of
capital away from private-sector entrepreneurs. “Consider,” she writes in The
Economy of Cities
, “how much investment in new and young enterprises
might be bought with $300 million.” She feels the same way about New York’s
high levels of welfare spending—which she characterizes (in Cities and the
Wealth of Nations
) as a “transaction of decline.” At a time when New
York’s welfare spending was a mere $1.4 billion, she wrote, “Suppose 10
percent of that were invested annually in new and young enterprises; consider
how many such investments could be bought. . . . Does 10 percent of the
welfare budget seem a lot? But welfare costs have doubled in only a few
years, which means that much more than an annual 10 percent increment has
been available for a thoroughly unproductive type of expenditure.”

Nor would Jacobs accept the inevitable protests that such a diversion of
funds would victimize the poor and minorities. In her view, it is from those
of modest income that important new ideas arise. Again and again, Jacobs,
presaging Walter Williams and others, makes clear that her particular concern
is the effect a pronounced public-sector role in planning has on the poor.
She fears that in its zeal to help the poor through redistribution of goods
and services, government will preclude the rise of the poor through their own
ingenuity, and consequently rob society of the fruits of that ingenuity:

Acute practical problems in cities often bear
most heavily upon people lowest in the social hierarchies, and thus are
noticed, and also often understood, by those people long before they are
taken seriously by those who lead more sheltered lives. If people who do
lowly work cannot add new work to it . . . serious practical problems that
will ultimately affect everyone are apt to remain unsolved.

What is more, she continues, without the motivation to apply their own
ingenuity to problems at hand, the poor are more apt to remain poor:

A metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is
constantly transforming many poor people into middle-class people, many
illiterates into skilled people, many greenhorns into competent citizens....
Cities don’t lure the middle class. They create it.

It is not that Jacobs sees no role for the public sector. Libraries,
concert halls, arenas, and municipal offices, when properly sited within
neighborhoods rather than in their own “fortress” settings (Lincoln Center
draws her fire), can help keep neighborhoods safe and encourage the formation
of spin-off businesses. According to Jacobs, government can facilitate
commerce—the ultimate purpose of cities—but must resist two major
temptations: the first, to redistribute income in too great a degree, and the
second, to allow itself to be captured by mature industries whose interests
diverge from those of the new generation of economic innovators. “There is no
point in pretending that economic development is in everyone’s interest. . .
. Economic development, no matter when or where it occurs, is profoundly
subversive of the status quo,” she writes. Thus, logically, Jacobs would be
saddened by the sight of the mayor of New York begging established firms to
stay rather than creating a climate conducive to the start-up of new firms.

Today one can imagine Jacobs protesting a different set of public policies
and practices than those which concerned her in the 1960s, but for the same
essential reason: concern about the economy of cities. Commercial rent
control, to the extent that it provides older businesses with an incentive to
remain too long in commercial space and blocks the entry of new firms into
the market, would be likely to worry her. So would the competitive
disadvantage to New York-based manufacturers of high local property taxes and
the local sales tax. She would be aghast at the city’s multibillion-dollar
investment in the rehabilitation of abandoned apartment buildings—because it
both diverts capital from new economic ideas and concentrates large numbers
of subsidized tenants in buildings owned, albeit indirectly, by the city.
Jacobs, in Death and Life, favored a voucher-type system in which
low-income tenants were placed in privately owned, taxpaying buildings,
preferably run by owners who live on the premises. And she was by no means
strong in her endorsement even of this limited form of public subsidy.

Moreover, by 1969 her concern about New York’s overall planning, policy,
and economic blunders apparently made moot the question of how best to
subsidize the housing of the poor. Typically, she took a long view. In The
Economy of Cities
she wrote:

Beginning in about 1800, New York enjoyed
tremendously high rates of development for twelve or thirteen decades. That
they have continued is unlikely, for many recent signs inform us to the
contrary: absolute declines in the sheer number of enterprises in New York;
persistent growth in the numbers of idle and underemployed poor; remarkable
growth of unproductive make-work in the city bureaucracies, make-work which,
more and more, is depended on to take up the slack of insufficient useful
work for the city’s high school and college graduates, piling up of undone
work and unsolved practical problems, lack of new kinds of manufacturing work
to compensate for the losses of old; a seemingly compulsive repetition of
existing ways of doing things even though it is evident that what are being
compulsively repeated are mistakes; lack of local development capital for new
goods and services, accompanied by a surfeit of capital for projects that
destroy existing enterprises and jobs. . . . All these are classic signs that
a great city is dying economically and their clear evidence in New York
announces that the city’s once vigorous development rates have been declining
badly for some decades and that the decline is probably accelerating.

That said, there are some developments in New York’s economic and
political life which Jacobs might cheer. She would certainly be intrigued by
the Staten Island secession movement since she devotes an entire chapter in Death
and Life
to “governing and planning districts” and takes the view that
government should have succinct geographic locales on which to focus. Jacobs
wants public officials to get to know specific places well so they can
deliver public services in ways which fit the needs of those places. This
leads her to favor decentralization: “In short, great cities must be divided
into administrative districts . . . [that are] horizontal divisions of city
government.” She does not specifically call for a return to independent boroughs
in New York, but her logic leans in that direction.

Fundamentally, however, one does not look to Jane Jacobs for specific
policy prescriptions, though she explores many ideas in fascinating and
original ways. Her essential message is far broader. It involves a faith in
cities and people to work out their problems in original ways, ways which
will create new jobs, new wealth, and, ultimately, lead to new problems that
people will eventually solve as well. Cities are the forum in which this all
happens, the place in which intellectual and economic cross-pollination

If she came back to Hudson Street today, Jacobs might not be disappointed
to find it radically changed. She would be unhappy had her old building been
leveled and replaced by subsidized apartments or by a highway which had
cleared away small businesses. But if the storefronts had changed, if there
were new businesses on the second and third floors, if there were vendors
from different parts of the world fleeing rural poverty for the opportunities
of New York, she would revel in such change and savor its permutations. Those
who would do the same, who would have New York and all the cities of America
grow and flourish again, can claim Jane Jacobs as their own and look to her

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