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Retrospectives on the Death and Life of Jane Jacobs

by Anthony Orum, University of Illinois-Chicago

In April of this year, Jane Jacobs, venerable urban scholar and venerated political activist, died in Toronto. Author most famously of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs left an enormous impact and influence on the way we think and act about cities. To commemorate her legacy, City & Community, the journal of the Community and Urban Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association, asked six eminent urban scholars to provide brief retrospectives on Jacobs’ life and work.

Those commentaries will appear in the September issue of the journal. They are written by Herbert Gans, Barry Wellman, Sharon Zukin, Peter Dreier, Philip Kasinitz, and David Halle. They cover all facets of the life and times of Jacobs, among them, her days in Scranton, PA, and the West Village of New York City. Gans, for example, writes that “Jane’s youthful experiences in Scranton and in the West Village may have led to her celebration of white working class neighborhoods, which became the underlying theme in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In it, she wrote glowingly not only about her West Village area, but also about the North End of Boston and the ‘Back of the Yards’ neighborhood in Chicago, another old Irish neighborhood that spawned the city’s famous Mayor Richard Daley. Jane’s romance with, and romantic image of, these neighborhoods blossomed into the urban ideal and the urban policy themes she advocated in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”

Peter Dreier, an urban scholar, but also an advisor to mayors and a long-time activist, compares Jacobs’ work and influence to other seminal writings. He observes that “[s]ometimes a book can change history. Books often influence ideas, but only rarely do they catalyze activism. In the 1960s, a handful of books triggered movements for reform. These include Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1962), which inspired the war on poverty; Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which helped galvanize the environmental movement; Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique(1963), the manifesto of modern feminism; Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), which made its author a household name and precipitated the rise of the consumer movement; and Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s Black Power (1966), which signaled the civil rights movement’s transformation toward black separatism. Jane Jacobs’ 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, belongs in this pantheon. Perhaps more than anyone during the past half century, Jacobs changed the way we think about livable cities.”

And David Halle, of the University of California-Los Angeles, writes that many people think of Jacobs as a conservative, but that this image “could not survive a basic reading of the text and I have long concluded that many of those who cite Jacobs in this way have not read her …. She is absolutely not against new buildings, tall buildings, modern buildings, or buildings whose units are expensive to rent or purchase. She believes that urban neighborhoods should have a good number of such buildings, along with a healthy mixture of other types (e.g., older, smaller, and less expensive structures).

All of this follows logically from her stress throughout [The Death and Life of Great American Cities] on the virtue of diversity.”

Jacobs has something to teach not only urbanists but also all sociologists. This set of retrospective essays underscores just how important and vital her ideas remain today.