Jane Jacobs, Savior of Cities

A new biography, documentary, and opera all celebrate the passion and ideas of urban life’s staunchest defender.

October 06, 2016
Colin Huggins has been pushing his piano into New York City's Washington Square Park since 2007.

A. Strakey/Flickr

If you’re ever looking for me on a Sunday afternoon, it’s a good bet you’ll find me with my wife and my daughters in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park—probably somewhere near the fountain.

My family has long been drawn to this treasure in the heart of Greenwich Village, arguably the most romantic of all of New York City’s many picturesque neighborhoods. And we’re certainly not alone. On almost any Sunday between April and November, the fountain in Washington Square serves as a magnet for all manner of New Yorkers: street performers, NYU undergrads, pooch owners headed for the dog run, kids and parents bound for the playground, chess hustlers, churchgoers after services. There’s even a guy who hauls in an upright piano on a flatbed truck and plays Chopin for tips. And another guy who lets pigeons perch all over his shoulders and outstretched arms. (That one kinda grosses me out, but my seven-year-old finds him endlessly fascinating.)

The fountain is, in other words, Manhattan in microcosm. And it’s no overstatement to say that none of us would be enjoying it without the efforts of Jane Jacobs.

For those who aren’t familiar with her, Jacobs (1916–2006) was one of those rare individuals whose impact and legacy can’t be summed up in a single word. It would take nothing less than a double hyphenate to contain the many roles she played while tirelessly advocating for dense and diverse—yet always human-scaled—urban neighborhoods.

So I’ll call her a citizen-scholar-activist. Each of these roles informed and strengthened the others. And by embodying all of them simultaneously, Jacobs not only helped to make her own hometown of New York more livable, but also inspired citizens and city planners everywhere to ask some critically important questions. For instance, how do we define “progress” when it comes to urban planning? Who gets to decide what our cities should look like? What are cities even for, anyway?

Jane Jacobs holds up documents at a 1960 press conference in the West Village.

New York World-Telegram and Sun

Jacobs is most famous for writing The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her 1961 jeremiad against a postwar urban-planning orthodoxy that she believed was sapping cities of their diversity, their humanity, and their dynamic essence. And though she passed away a decade ago, 2016 is very much turning out to be her year. A new biography by Robert Kanigel, Eyes on the Street, has just been published to great fanfare and acclaim. Citizen Jane, a documentary relaying the famous feud between Jacobs and Robert Moses, the titanic force behind New York’s massive urban plan from the 1930s to the 1960s, just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and is slated to open the DOC NYC documentary film festival next month. That same feud is also the subject of A Marvelous Order, an opera that “pre-premiered” at Williams College in March of this year and is expected to make its way to the Big Apple and other cities soon.

It’s easy to see what authors, filmmakers, and opera directors find so compelling about the battle between Jacobs and Moses. Among their many disputes was the one centered on a proposed four-lane expressway that would have aggressively sliced through Washington Square Park, channeling drivers beneath the famous arch and necessitating the removal of the fountain. Another was Moses’s plan to bisect several neighborhoods in lower Manhattan (including SoHo and Little Italy) with a 10-lane superhighway that would have required the demolition of more than 400 buildings. Both projects encapsulated Moses’s belief that cities ought to “evolve” in a way that accommodated drivers over pedestrians. In his view, progress could barely stand to wait for a red light or a stop sign. It definitely couldn’t wait for moms and kids playing on a playground, or young lovers holding hands on a park bench, or a guy covered in pigeons.

Thankfully, Jacobs had a different vision for her city, and for all cities. In 1955, well before she published her seminal work—the same year she began organizing her Greenwich Village neighbors (including Eleanor Roosevelt) in opposition to the Washington Square expressway—Jacobs was already embodying the provocative sentiment behind one of her book’s most famous passages:

There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.

Behind Moses’s blueprints, she believed, was an unrealistic and uncivic desire to control people’s behavior by breaking up their communities and forcing their atomization. Her vision, on the other hand, celebrated the organic diversity of city life: the magic of the serendipitous sidewalk encounter, the haphazard beauty of a bustling avenue, the poetry of a park on a summer afternoon. It was a decidedly humanistic vision. “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city,” she would later write. “[P]eople make it, and it is to them . . . that we must fit our plans.”

In the end, the citizen-scholar-activist won, and Robert Moses lost. The most powerful urban planner in America—a man unaccustomed to losing, it should be said—never got his Washington Square Park expressway, or his Lower Manhattan expressway for that matter. (Moses didn’t take defeat gracefully: At one point during a tense public meeting regarding the Washington Square plan, he blurted out in sheer frustration that “there is nobody against this . . . nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers!”)

We won, too. If you’re lucky enough to live in or frequent a city that prizes density and urban infill; that encourages mixed-use development and public transportation; that values public green space and healthy, resilient neighborhoods, then you have Jane Jacobs and that “bunch of mothers” to thank.

This father, for whatever it’s worth, often says a silent word of thanks on hot Sunday afternoons as he sits on the edge of the Washington Square Park fountain. I sure am happy it’s there. And I sure am glad I don’t have to keep an eye out for speeding cars as I watch my daughters splash around in the shallow water.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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