May 15, 2006 - From the May, 2006 issue

‘Radiant & Endearing,' Jane Jacobs Reminded Planners How to Appreciate the ‘Visceral' City

Perhaps the most astute theorist of urban life of the 20th century, Jane Jacobs, who passed away this month at 89, wrote little about California. But now that L.A. is pursuing the attributes that she promoted-density, neighborhood vibrancy, socioeconomic diversity-her influence is stronger than ever. In the following essay, journalist and planner Sam Hall Kaplan reflects on his friendship with Ms. Jacobs and remembers a visionary whom no city should forget.


Sam Hall Kaplan

The recent soaring eulogies extolling her life no doubt would have amused Jane Jacobs, who was as plain spoken as she was plain dressed; utterly and charmingly unpretentious.

What's important to remember about the bad old days of bulldozing bureaucrats, Jane probably would add as she downed a beer, was not her voicing concern for the future of cities.

Rather, it was the awakening awareness of what makes cities special and the need to protect them from the outrages of Olympian plans flaunted by petty tyrants fronting for the greedy design and development community.

But her voice indeed will be remembered, as will be her prescriptions, thanks to her classic treatise, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." Published in 1961, it challenged the planning establishment's portentous practice of slum clearance with a wealth of trenchant observations about the vitality of neighborhoods and the benefits of density and diversity. The book had a profound influence on generations of urbanists, prompting us to better appreciate the joys of city dwelling.

The Jane I knew back in her New York hey days in the early 60s was an unapologetic populist and a heartfelt humanist. Frankly homely, and awkward, yet radiant and endearing, she was a sometimes journalist and a steadfast community activist. As for me, I was at the time a fledgling metro reporter for the New York Times who also surreptitiously wrote for the Village Voice and hung out in her West Village neighborhood.

Self taught and staunchly street-wise, she reveled in the daily drama of her adopted New York, beguiling a cadre of us writer-types with her plain spoken honesty that questioned the city planning dogma of the day and the powers-that-be. It made for good copy and good company.

Jane's appreciation of cities was visceral, not abstractions viewed from an upper floor board room, or from the back seat of a cab, or as a site plan in an architect's office. Rather, cities were to be experienced on the sidewalk, moveable feasts appealing to the five senses. She ate like we born and ill-bred New Yorkers, standing up at hot dog stands and pizza stalls, and sitting down in communal Italian restaurants or to have a beer at taverns such as the White Horse. Not incidentally, the tavern, a former haunt of the poet Dylan Thomas where we and some select nefarious hung out, was a few wobbling steps from her second floor apartment on Hudson Street.

This was an attitude that informed "Death and Life" and made it unquestionably the most influential book on urban planning of the last century. That it was written by an untutored urbanist, with no academic credentials or professional conceits made it all the more salient.

To be sure, she was mentored, as I was, by the social critic William H. Whyte, who had written the classic "The Organization Man" in 1956. As an inveterate city dweller and editor at Fortune magazine, he assigned Jane to write an article on urban downtowns that was subsequently reprinted in "The Exploding Metropolis." This prompted a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for her to write the book that was to become "Death and Life."

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Her vision of a warm, welcoming streetscape may not be the answer to all our urban ills, but it is a precept. And she should not be blamed for her insights being co-opted and corrupted by some urban designers, as chided for in a singularly depreciative commentary entitled "Outgrowing Jane Jacobs" by neocon Nicolai Ouroussoff, which appeared in the New York Times recently. (Once again the fawning, former LA Times critic has revealed his aesthetic prejudices no doubt influenced by the Albert Speer School of Architectural Arrogance.)

If alive today she would not have been surprised, for she also had been wary of the Times back at the turn of the 60s. Particularly earning her scorn was its editorial board, which was a big fan of her nemesis Robert Moses. A man then of many municipal hats and much influence, Moses had proposed extending Fifth Avenue south through Washington Square Park in the heart of Greenwich Village so as to give several high rise apartment houses built under a redevelopment program he managed a more marketable Fifth Avenue address. And to hell with the park.

Jane spearheaded the incipient uprising to stop the roadway and save the park, much to my pleasure because it was principally a good story-a band of locals thwarting the imperious Moses. I also happened to be very fond of the park, where I had hung out as youth, listening to folk songs with the Music &Art High School crowd and hustling chess games. This ingratiated me to Jane, and despite my working for the Times she came to trust me.

Helping also was our mutual friendship with Bill Kirk, head of the Union Settlement House on East 104th street in East Harlem, where I was living at the time. He had tutored her as he did me on being able to see past the appearances of a down and out neighborhood and into its vibrant heart and engaging soul. It's a lesson she wrote about in her book and one I never forgot.

The rest is history. She and her neighbors stopped the roadway, the book was published to critical acclaim and she became famous, This in turn helped her a few years later to win yet another battle with the fading Moses, and bury his plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway.

But then the Vietnam War was heating up, and prodded by her architect husband Bob, the Jane and her family moved to Toronto, principally to protect their sons from the draft. Meanwhile, I left the Times to try my hand at urban planning, a move she also encouraged. We kept in touch, as she continued to write books with urban themes.

When I later returned to journalism (as the design critic for the L.A. Times), she kindly wrote a blurb for my book, "LA Lost & Found, " calling L.A. "an improbable city." She really didn't like or understand L.A. and urged me to move back to New York or even to Toronto, as she had encouraged others to do.

While I told her I had come to love L.A. as she had Toronto, there was no question that New York had been our crucibles. For me Jane was first a good story, and then in time became foremost a friend and mentor, as she had for a generation of urban planners. Her teachings will live on.

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