Primal Forces

You might call Jacobs a Democratic Schumpeterian. Though she believed in the dynamism of markets and their propensity to push new, innovative work to grow, she wanted to stoke the egalitarian possibilities of this process within a society that favored established interests.

Jane Jacobs cast her campaigns for urban justice as bids to restore an underlying common sense, not as transformations of the social order.

Robert Kanigel. Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs. Knopf, 2016.

There’s a great photo of Jane Jacobs at a demonstration in Toronto, taken as she sidles up to the fencing surrounding a stretch of condemned row houses. The diminutive Jacobs, scarf wrapped close, cigarette dangling from her mouth, is moving in to grab hold of a fence panel and heft it out of the way. She’s one among a cluster of protestors gathered to turn back the bulldozers on that cold spring morning in 1973.

Jacobs and her family had fled the United States in 1968 to escape the Vietnam War, which threatened her draft-eligible sons, and to escape the highway builders and urban-renewal purveyors of high modern-era New York whom she had been battling for a decade. But even in placid Canada, then in the heyday of its boom years under Pierre Trudeau, she found herself drawn back into familiar fights, thwarting the urban expressways and demolition projects crashing through Toronto’s old neighborhoods. That morning, Jacobs and her fellow protestors had gathered to oppose what she would later describe as the “monotony, stultification, [and] inflexibility” of a plan to replace twenty old homes with a few low-income apartment towers.

The photo is vintage Jacobs: she’s the picture of determined citizen resistance sticking a wrench in the gears of modern progress. Robert Kanigel’s new biography, Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, is full of such scenes—including the time Jacobs derailed a 1968 public meeting about the planned Lower Manhattan Expressway by organizing an impromptu invasion of the speaker’s stage. The chaos, she realized, disrupted the stenographer’s work and left the official record of the hearing incomplete and damaged. “Listen to this!” she supposedly yelled out. “There is no record! There is no hearing! We’re through with this phony, fink hearing!”

The Toronto protest also turned on a moment of disruptive ingenuity. In a speech she gave a few years later, Jacobs recalled the scene: the protestors were standing around in the early light, puzzled about what exactly to do, when “somebody”—others would say it was Jacobs herself—“mentioned that it is illegal to wreck buildings unless a fence has been put up around them.”

The remark was repeated from person to person, and group to group, and without another word everyone began taking action. You would be amazed at how rapidly and purposefully several hundred men, women, and children, with no one directing them, can dismantle a sturdily built fence and turn it back to neatly stacked piles of lumber. When the workmen arrived, just as the last boards were being stacked, they couldn’t do anything until they had rebuilt the fence.

The sudden reprieve, she said, bought the protestors time to win over the sympathetic mayor, who eventually helped greenlight an alternative low-income housing plan—later dubbed Sherbourne Lanes—that preserved the old houses and built new buildings in their backyards, rehabbing and filling in to enhance the already existing city fabric.

The Jacobs of the photos and rallies is the organizer who clashed with the haughty, undemocratic practitioners of urban renewal and got spectacular results. But the image of those industrious demonstrators and their “neatly stacked piles of lumber” suggests that, for Jacobs, resistance wasn’t an end in itself. It was a kind of generative provocation, one that unleashed creativity and inspired residents and planners to rediscover the natural patterns of city life. The new housing plan was thus not unlike the sudden burst of inspiration that stopped the bulldozers in the first place: a bid to unsettle expectations in favor of an ingenious solution just waiting to unveil itself beyond the frame of fixed assumptions. Pragmatic rather than utopian, world-revealing rather than world-shattering, the episode is typical of Jacobs, who cast her campaigns for urban justice as bids to restore an underlying common sense, not as transformations of the social order. Hailed for her rabble-rousing spirit, Jacobs’s fierce wisdom was primarily turned toward explaining how the city actually works.


Jacobs was born in 1916 in the mining town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, the third child of a doctor and a nurse. A dreamy girl—she was late to school so often that her mother had to write her teacher a note to explain that “Jane sat too long at the edge of the bed with one shoe in her hand”—she nonetheless showed signs of early resistance to the regular hypocrisies of institutional life. In the third grade she was “expelled” for organizing a classroom rebellion against a command that students raise their hands and solemnly promise to brush their teeth every morning and night for the rest of their lives. The expulsion only lasted a day, but the righteous outrage she unleashed on absurd regimes of dental hygiene would serve Jacobs well when she discovered the more inflexible bureaucracies that lay beyond elementary school.

Jacobs squeaked through high school and seems never to have considered college. Instead she moved to New York, where she spent the next decade pursuing a writer’s life. She freelanced for various newspapers and magazines, including Vogue, for which she wrote a series of short but fine-grained profiles of New York’s fur, leather, diamond, and flower markets—stories that now read as dry runs for her later close readings of the operations of economies at the micro-scale. She spent the wartime years writing copy for the US government’s propaganda arm, the Office of War Information, and several years after the armistice on the staff of Amerika, a State Department magazine designed to encourage goodwill toward the US on the other side of the Iron Curtain. During her time on the government’s dime she found herself caught up in the era’s tumultuous labor politics. Her memberships in the United Federal Workers of America and American Labor Party—she staked out positions on the right wing of both Communist-influenced organizations—combined with her anti-authoritarian, free-thinking spirit attracted the attention of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which had her investigated for (nonexistent) anti-American activities.

At Amerika Jacobs developed a specialty in architecture and planning, and in 1952 she arrived at Architectural Forum, then a high-toned cheering section for the modernist ideals that were beginning to transform American cities. She became the magazine’s go-to writer on urban design and a committed believer in the old modernist saw of “form follows function.” For most architects, this simply meant using design to reveal the underlying structure of a single building. Jacobs took the idea further than most of her contemporaries, feeling that design and planning should seek to uncover and work with the underlying processes that made cities go. This emerging conviction began to undermine her faith in the planning orthodoxies she had so far largely embraced. Her doubts would lead to a series of skeptical articles: an exposé of modern planning’s deadening effects on downtowns; an analysis of the way housing projects weeded out shopping streets and killed off the very “strips of chaos” that gave neighborhoods their vitality; a tribute to shoe-leather planners who eschewed the Olympian view from above. And finally, in 1961, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, an indignant, plainspoken, and imperious book that marked her permanent break with the modernist establishment. Pitched as an “attack on current city planning and rebuilding,” it would make her name, catalyze her confrontations with Robert Moses and his ilk, and launch her on a long career as a writer and thinker determined to uncover how cities and economies put themselves together from the ground up.


Kanigel’s book is sure-footed and even skeptical at times, and if he lapses into whimsicality now and then, skimming lightly over the surface of Jacobs’s ideas, he has offered something few others have in a crowded field: a new way of seeing this familiar, almost sainted figure.1 Death and Life, he observes, is commonly regarded as a book about cities, but “it might better be seen as a book about death and life.” The curious reversal of her famous title, which short-circuits any easy resort to stories of rise and fall, upends our assumption that when it comes to the history of cities (and social life in general), we are always living in postdiluvian times, in a moment when past unities have dissipated. Even more surprising, perhaps, is that Jacobs did not reverse that polarity with a story of impending utopia or expected progress. She suggested instead that while we were busy killing cities with housing towers, highways, slum clearance schemes, and other one-size-fits-all planning boondoggles, the “life” of the city was there all along, burbling away, waiting for planners, governments, and academics to recognize what ordinary city dwellers already knew intimately and instinctively. Life, vitality, newness, constant becoming—these, Kanigel reveals, were the true subject of Jacobs’s most famous book—and of her life’s work.

Death and Life is full of wonderfully tactile moments. There are the four “generators of diversity” in cities (mixed uses, short blocks, population density, old buildings mixed in with the new) and the bold tableaus pulling back the curtain on the sidewalk encounters, public characters, and “eyes on the street” that made for vibrant neighborhood life. Yet these scenes were staged on the bedrock of a more fundamental inquiry into what it was that fed and propelled all this urban liveliness to begin with. Beneath the frisson of street life was not just social diversity, Jacobs argued, but economic diversity. For much of the rest of her life—and especially in her two works on urban economies, The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations—she would work out an idiosyncratic treatment of these more primal forces.

While her fans and protégés continued to celebrate the “sidewalk ballet” of Hudson Street, Jacobs forged ahead, insisting that to see the economic currents flowing beneath the streets one had to reorient one’s understanding of how cities truly worked. Planners in the urban renewal era were forever promising to cut out the “cancer” of blight. Death and Life sought to redirect city thinking away from medical metaphors toward an ecological one: the vision of the city as a fecund machine for growth, with hives of activity bubbling up from below. Healthy cities, Jacobs decided, were made up of intricate and improvisational economic niches that combined and recombined in mutually beneficial “economic pools of use.” Streets and stoops were nothing without storefronts and lofts and small workshops and little manufacturing concerns, all whirring away in cycles of death and life like the industries she’d profiled for Vogue. Cities, then, were important because they were the social and material manifestations of a healthy economy in perpetual motion, churning away in interconnected networks, continually aligning and reassembling dozens of interdependent variables, handling its problems of “organized complexity” like a marsh or a meadow.

In The Economy of Cities, Jacobs argued that in human history, cities emerged before agriculture. Archaeologists have long scoffed at this idea, but her account relied on a particular—even metaphorical—definition of “cityness.” It was a way of saying that complexity preceded simplicity. Agglomerations of roaming peoples, she believed, began to settle down in nodes and networks of “cities” when their trading activity grew fruitful, and it was only then that they would start to grow crops for subsistence and trade. Here was an origin story for both the city and for all productivity, both of which were driven by the human proclivity for industrious invention and exchange. Understand the story’s implications, and you could unravel the big problems of midcentury society—poverty, say, or uneven global development.

For Jacobs, the trouble with urban renewal and other top-down modernization schemes, whether of the capitalist or state socialist variety—the War on Poverty, World Bank and IMF lending programs, Five Year Plans—was that they treated symptoms rather than causes. The planners failed to see that development could only emerge by encouraging the natural, cross-fertilizing processes inherent in the “organized complexity” of small-scale urban economic life. Trying to spur economic growth by attacking the causes of poverty, for instance, was thus “an intellectual dead end,” as Jacobs put it in The Economy of Cities. “Poverty has no causes. Only prosperity has causes.” Look not to death, only to life.

But what kind of economic vision is this—and what kind of political economy? Fredric Jameson once wrote that Jacobs was a true modernist:

Jacobs’s delight . . . in new inventions and in the endless chain of inventiveness and creative resourcefulness of her entrepreneurs is virtually Brechtian in its jubilation; her celebration of innovation as such and the modern New, her remarkable eye for the production of new needs and new desires, is comparable only to that of Marx himself.

But if you had to rough up a framework for Jacobs’s economic thought, you’d have to say she seems more a child of Adam Smith than Marx, the Smith of “truck, barter, and exchange” as much as the “invisible hand.” Economic life, for her, sprung not from production but from the initial urge toward trade. The rush of newness was not modern at all; it was perpetual. In cities, where novelty and exchange accelerated, the important kind of innovation was what she called “new work”: the ingenious improvisations on established lines of making and trading that people always sought to carry out if given the right conditions and incentives.

And yet both Smith and Marx went awry, she thought, when they abstracted economics away from individuals. All the great Enlightenment attempts to systematize economic life abstracted too much. They could never see life as it was. “If there is such a thing as original sin,” she wrote in notes for a final, unfinished book on economics:

I would nominate for that pre-eminence the objectification of human beings as items divisible into supply and demand. That is a stupid and untrue concept. Human beings—all human beings—are both producers and consumers. The concept that wealth issues from one or the other category poisons and falsifies everything it touches. Among other things, it diverts otherwise intelligent people from looking for the good sense in the complex economies we have and thinking of how to make the most and best of what is there more easily and humanely available than the fool’s gold of hypothetical ideologies.

Don’t waste energy on the struggle between workers and capitalists or supply and demand, Jacobs argued. Economies were plagued not by Marx’s recurring capitalist crises or by neoclassical inefficiencies, but “stagnation”—the great vice in Jacobs’s cosmology—which set in when cities, nations, economies, and even people were encouraged to concentrate too long on older forms of work and could not freely pursue the drive to produce new ones.


For some on the left, Jacobs’s economic idiosyncrasy is easy to classify: file under neoliberalism. Having inspired everyone from Rebecca Solnit to William F. Buckley to Richard Florida to Sarah Jessica Parker, she has come to symbolize the unevenly distributed urban virtues endemic in an era of hypergentrification. Patron saint of loft conversions, pop-up shops, and NIMBYs everywhere, Jacobs has been reimagined as a streetwise rabble-rouser who hated big government, touted the power of creativity to remake cities everywhere, and inspired a million brownstone renovations. Her ire against modernization from above, her critics say, was a cold war–era campaign against top-down planning singularly unfit for an age—ours—in which urban redevelopment by city branding imperils the very diverse cities she loved.

No doubt there is something in Jacobs that foreshadows the heady talk of “creativity,” “disruption,” and “flexibility” so common to today’s faux-risqué business-speak. With her penchant for catchphrases, her faith in entrepreneurial energy, and her readiness with a sweeping gesture, she bears a superficial resemblance to a Florida or a Steven Johnson, or other business writers, social psychologists, and urban futurists who dominate our popular intellectual life and count themselves as her protégés.

But for Jacobs “creativity” was not the property of a particular class or cohort of people cities needed to cater to, Florida-style; it was the property of every citizen of every city where new work jumped up uninhibited. A “creative city,” she said in a speech in Amsterdam in 1984, was “a city where many, many ordinary people can try out their hopes, insights, ambitions, and skills, and make something of them, often enough something unexpected to others and often enough surprising even to themselves.”

You might call Jacobs a Democratic Schumpeterian. Though she believed in the dynamism of markets and their propensity to push new, innovative work to grow, she wanted to stoke the egalitarian possibilities of this process within a society that favored established interests. She didn’t want government power to grease the wheels of corporate capitalism, didn’t think that market exchange should primarily serve capital accumulation, and argued for a more equitable redistribution of the fruits of the “creative destruction” economist Joseph Schumpeter identified as the engine of capitalism. In Death and Life, she called for public sources of “gradual money” to promote bottom-up city development in commerce, housing, and redevelopment. In a 1969 speech called “Strategies for Helping Cities,” she said that governments should intervene at the foot of the economic ladder simply by protecting young enterprises from established players. They should strive to activate the natural “organized complexity” on which cities thrive.

And yet, it’s hard not to admit that this faith in busy creative hubbub has a Pollyannaish air in these darkening days. For all her insight, Jacobs has little to say about how most Americans outside the blessed neoartisanal districts of Richard Florida’s creative cities experience the capitalist economy today. Small business may still have a role to play, but the many little workshops where Jacobs sets her primal scenes feel far out of date, superseded not only by Smith’s pin factory or Marx’s coal dark skies, but by the precariousness and casual brutality of so-called flexible labor, a shift sure to be accelerated by a Trump Administration. Even before the election, one could have been excused for fearing that the boat had long since sailed on a prosperity fueled by millions of industrious citizen-entrepreneurs in a society wholly dependent on the globalized accumulation of capital in finance-propelled multinational firms. Efforts to raise the minimum wage have helped, but chances of a federal increase are now even slimmer. Manufacturing may be trickling back from abroad, but new “clean tech” can’t lift all boats. Meanwhile, actually existing capitalism continues to wrench us all from one bout of crisis to another. As it expands across the globe and reaches ever-greater heights of precipitous inequality, there’s less and less chance for more of us to pursue whatever propensity we might have for vital new work.

So many cities and economies we live with now—the Baltimores and Chicagos, say, or the Fergusons, where economic development strategy boils down to “ticket the black and poor”—are more than stagnant. They are predatory. They boost the fortunes of certain groups above others as a matter of standard operating procedure—stacking the deck with abandoned public infrastructure, failing public schools, police trained to occupy rather than protect, a criminal record rather than an apprenticeship in a local factory the likely payoff of a high school education, and unsustainable debt waiting for those lucky enough to make it to college and beyond. These dispiriting tendencies feel firmly entrenched, especially now, after the election of a President who seems to care little about urban policy except insofar as it can be harnessed to put his name in gold on glass towers.


Jacobs’s vision of a voluntarist energy just waiting to be unleashed has trouble accounting for the barriers that have long stymied the full realization of her self-organizing economies and societies. Take, for instance, her analysis of “redlining”—the catch-all term for the process by which government agencies, beginning in the 1930s, recommended that mortgage credit be denied to certain neighborhoods based on the socioeconomic or racial demographics of their populations. Historians have long identified redlining policies as central to the construction of the racially divided cities we still live with today, in part thanks to Jacobs herself, who was one of the first writers to identify and attack the phenomenon, which she called credit “blacklisting” in Death and Life. She saw it as devious—in a 1957 essay in Architectural Forum called “Metropolitan Government,” she wrote that the Federal Housing Administration and other government agencies had done much to unleash the “progressive ghettoizing of core cities, the class segregation of the suburbs, and the form of metropolitan scatteration” that already plagued cities in her day.

Yet she was less able to see the way that these government programs perpetuated—not simply inaugurated—forms of class and racial bias that had long been at work in the private real-estate and commercial markets. Long before redlining, the US had sanctioned a system devoted to selling land in commodified chunks; “communities” were defined by their socioeconomic homogeneity, and whites protected the property values of houses and neighborhoods with restrictive covenants and mob violence against outsider newcomers, whether black, Latino, Asian, or any other immigrant group considered not-quite-white. She loathed the public-private combine at the heart of urban renewal—like neoliberalism later on, it mobilized government support for private capital in what she called a “monstrous moral hybrid”—but she had less appreciation for the more subtle, behind-the-scenes ways neighborhoods or economies had been shaped by race and class in the first place.

Jacobs found models for her ideal economic and social worlds in neighborhoods poised between semi-industrial pasts and post-industrial futures. These were places like Greenwich Village, or North Beach and Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, or the North End in Boston, where in the 1950s and ’60s an older, white-ethnic immigrant world was beginning to thin out, taking advantage of mid-century government-backed mortgage subsidies for white families and decamping to the suburbs. Meanwhile a new generation of younger, middle-class, white and white-collar professionals and bohemians were starting to filter in, choosing these romantic destinations in cities that were, on the whole, attracting most of their migrants from the black South.

These neighborhoods have thrived even as they’ve changed, largely surviving the shock of the urban crisis in the ’60s and ’70s and booming in the years of urban rejuvenation since. But that is not because they’ve always hosted small-scale industriousness—though that was among their virtues then as today. It was because they boasted a social profile, in the form of the “social capital” (a term of art Jacobs did much to promote) of whiteness and upward mobility. That social capital gave people the capacity to stay or go, move away or settle in and invest, and guaranteed that they could find subsidized capital to underwrite their choices.

Jacobs herself doubted whether she could contribute to these histories of structural inequality, some of which were already being written, in books and in the streets, as she pursued her ideas. Kanigel reveals that she was leery of writing more about the problem of race and cities than she had: it was not her subject, she said to those who pressed her on it, including her editor Jason Epstein and the sociologists Nathan Glazer and Herbert Gans. “Middle class to her toes,” is the way Kanigel puts it. Her populism was a kind of rage for common sense as much as for justice.

The judgment leaves her legacy in an odd place. Jacobs’s stunning intelligence and sharp tongue upended the patriarchal worlds of planning and economics, returning everyday people to those precincts of expertise where men had for so long made plans for everybody else. No doubt she would have felt a kind of rueful solidarity with the clamorous calls of Occupy and Black Lives Matter to remake the terms by which we all live—heirs as they are of her refusal to go along quietly with the powerful. But her demands that the world be put to rights always betrayed an equally fierce sense of underlying order thwarted, of irrational authorities making waste of the shared industrious endeavor that could thrive if only everyone were allowed to make their own plans. Jacobs may appear out of step, a throwback to an age of easier quandaries, a time before globalization and precipitous inequality, before austerity, precarity, and our recent Trump-induced dread—a time when it was simpler to imagine how the city and its economies bubbled away, defying grand plans and their blind guarantees of economic growth. We would do better, though, to see how she, too, has been transformed, against her will perhaps, into a kind of backdoor utopian, offering us a vision of the world as we might wish it to be, rather than the world we have.

  1. For readers in search of a full account of the intellectual push-and-pull that went into Death and Life, Peter Laurence offers a thorough picture of Jacobs’s immersion in the world of midcentury architecture and design thinking in Becoming Jane Jacobs. Those hoping to appreciate the full sweep of her intellectual journey might try the volume of Jacobs’s short works, Vital Little Plans, that I’ve co-edited with Nathan Storring. Both are recently out in 2016, her centennial year. 

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