Dead or Alive at Fifty? Reading Jane Jacobs on her Golden Anniversary

Dead or Alive at Fifty? Reading Jane Jacobs on her Golden Anniversary

I first encountered The Death and Life of Great American Cities in college. A course on U.S. urban history assigned Jane Jacobs’s 1961 bombshell of a book during a discussion of urban renewal, and I was a Jacobsean from that moment forward. I recall the dual sensation of confirmation and revelation. In the first case, Jacobs expressed things I somehow already knew, in an inchoate way, as demonstrated by the pull of vibrant urban places. Yet while she didn’t fundamentally change my sensibility, she clarified what was before me. It was almost as if scales fell away from my eyes, and I was really seeing cities only for the first time, understanding the deep connections between everything I saw. In this respect, Jacobs’s writing was paradigmatically transformative, and I have hardly framed an urban observation since that day that is not somehow indebted to her ideas. Death and Life is simply that kind of book; once you read it, you seem to forever encounter the urban world on its terms.

Jacobs’s work belongs in a perennial genre of gently popularized social science that engages current affairs with data as well as polemical force, while attempting to avoid the overt demagoguery of partisan political commentary. Entries over the last generation or so would include Bowling Alone; Guns, Germs and Steel; and the more incendiary Bell Curve. The field was much more robust in the 1950s and early 1960s, a reflection of the ascendancy of social scientific expertise in postwar America: for example, The Lonely Crowd; The Affluent Society; The Power Elite; The Organization Man; Beyond the Melting Pot; Understanding Media; One-Dimensional Man. Credentialed (albeit atypical) academics generally wrote such works, then as now. Yet Jane Jacobs, boasting little more than a high school diploma, was no such authority. Nevertheless, her book belonged very much to this tradition, even as it challenged the expertise of many within it.

In retrospect, postwar America’s smug masculine expertocracy seemed ripe for toppling. It is already a glib academic trope to lump Jacobs with Rachel Carson and Betty Friedan as a troika of crusading women whose books fired the American political conscience within a year of each other. But Jacobs had neither Carson’s scientific expertise nor Friedan’s communist background. Instead, her methodology integrated personal insight with a magpie’s collection of social scientific ideas—from city planning, political science, sociology, community development, criminology, child psychology—all submitted to an outsider’s irreverent scrutiny. The result was an iconoclastic interdisciplinary synthesis.

Death and Life demonstrated a way of seeing. While not completely novel in any of its particulars, like any great paradigm (to borrow a term Thomas Kuhn popularized that same year), it synthesized a coherent new picture, in this case of urban life. Better than paradigm, f...