Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities whupped the ass of the architectural and planning establishment, has died. Jacobs wrote until the end of her life, just a week before her 90th birthday, but that first book was the barn-burner. “A city cannot be a work of art.” She said, and italicized it to make sure we got the point. The city is organic, said Jacobs. You can’t plan it.
Jacobs emerged as a community activist who took down (an already wounded) Robert Moses and launched the concept that neighbors had a right to say how their neighborhood looked and what should go in it. A fifty-year history of urban planning as an elite, expert enterprise ended on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village when Jacobs systematically disemboweled the “Radiant Garden City” of Howard, Burnham, LeCorbusier and Moses.
A housewife and mother who pulled apart the metalogic of urban planning. She wasn’t just against urban renewal – she understood it better than its proponents. My favorite part of Death and Life –which I assigned in my seminar this semester – is near the end when she exposes the pseudo-science of urban planning. Twenty years earlier Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture had trumpeted modern architecture and planning as an expression of the new Einsteinian understanding of space and time. Jacobs exposed this as a rank falsehood.
Scientific thought had three phases, she noted. First, in the Enlightenment, was Newtonian physics and the ability to solve problems of two variables. Next, modern physics gave us the ability to solve problems of disorganized complexity, dealing with multiple variables through probability. Planners still operated in these phases: the neighborhood is 60% low-income and 50% of the housing stock is substandard, therefore it should be renewed, or the classic – the buildings cover only 10% of the land, leaving 90% open for parks and playgrounds! Jacobs said LeCorbusier “assumed the statistical reordering of a system of disorganized complexity, solvable mathematically”
Jacobs said the problem with the planners was that they didn’t know what a city was. It was not a simple two variable problem nor even a problem of disorganized complexity but a problem of organized complexity – a biological problem – a problem of processes.
Here’s the beauty part. She told all the smart experts that they were stupid, that they were pretending to use advanced science when they were using concepts “to which nothing new has been added since their fathers were children”. Then the coup de grace.
“The processes that occur in cities are not arcane, capable of being understood only by experts. They can be understood by almost anybody.” This was a total kick in the nuts to the establishment. Not only are you experts WAY behind the scientific times in terms of your analyses, you are also WAY behind the average person on the street. Cities required inductive thinking, not the deductive thinking the guys in the suits learned.
Jacobs wrote a lot more books, including a rather dire one about our future just recently, but every obituary mentions that 1961 book because it was Ruth’s called shot, Beamon’s Mexico City long jump and Roger Whittaker’s 4 minute mile all rolled into one for the ages. Everything changed after that book.
Now is the part where we say: So we will miss her. Don’t kid yourself. She’s not gone. Those books, those community uprisings she led, they are never gone. Hudson Street is still there, White Horse tavern and all.
All the articles pictured her in the 2000s, a very elderly if still impish lady, but I will remember the 1960s views on Hudson Street, in her awkward trench coat talking to ladies on folding chairs or posed at the White Horse bar with a beer and a cigarette. She could kick it. She still is.