To understand the stories we’ll tell on Placemakers, you must understand the ultimate placemaker: Jane Jacobs. She lacked formal training in city planning but became an urban visionary who promoted dense, mixed-use neighborhoods where people interacted on the streets. She also became the nemesis of New York master builder Robert Moses. On our inaugural episode, we’ll explore Jacobs’ legacy and how the ideas and ideals of “St. Jane” hold up today.Download episode
Rebecca Sheir has been a host and reporter on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Splendid Table, and the Alaska Public Radio Network. Follow her on Twitter.
Glenna Lang is the co-author of Genius of Common Sense, a biography of Jane Jacobs written for young adults.
Peter Moskowitz is a journalist and author of the forthcoming book How to Kill a City, which looks at gentrification in four U.S. cities.
Rebecca Sheir: It’s the early 1960s in downtown New York City, and residents of Soho, Greenwich Village, and Little Italy are up in arms over a plan that would devastate their neighborhoods.
I don’t understand why
The people who run this city
Care so much about getting
From New Jersey
To Long Island at top speed.
I care about SoHo
Sheir: OK, so when all of this actually happened, people weren’t breaking into song—not opera, anyway—but stick with me.
... I don’t intend
To be driven out or trampled over
By Robert Moses or anyone!
Sheir: Robert Moses. He was the infamous, larger-than-life infrastructure czar who built all sorts of grand public works projects in New York’s five boroughs: bridges, roads, tunnels, housing units, pools, parks. But in the process, he often displaced a whole lot of people, sometimes by the thousands.
And—going back to our scene here—that’s exactly what he’s trying to do in SoHo in the 1960s. This time, he wants to construct an elevated, 10-lane highway to link the Holland Tunnel, which runs under the Hudson River, and the Williamsburg Bridge, which runs over the East River. This “Lower Manhattan Expressway,” as it’s called, would shutter 800 businesses and kick about 2,000 families out of their homes.
So, you can understand why people would be fighting against it. And leading the charge is a woman named Jane Jacobs.
Jane Jacobs character: [singing]
I hear their stories.
I understand their stories.
For so long, for so long
I’ve watched their lives
In comings and goings
That watching has become
A kind of knowing.
Sheir: Jane Jacobs lived at 555 Hudson St., in the West Village. And in the early 1960s, she was becoming a star in the world of urban planning. She was a journalist and author turned activist, and this wasn’t the first time she fought Robert Moses over what she thought was best for her beloved city.
The battles between Moses and Jacobs were so high-stakes, so epic that, as you may have guessed, they’ve been turned into an opera. It’s called A Marvelous Order, and it had its debut at Williams College earlier this year, just in time for what would have been Jacobs’ 100th birthday. She died in 2006 at the age of 89.
Here’s the real Jane, not our lilting soprano, in one of her final interviews in 2004.
Interviewer: What keeps you so passionately committed to the things that you really believe in?
Jane Jacobs: I don’t like getting in these fights. They make my life absurd. Not because it’s absurd to oppose these things; if you’re a responsible person you have to oppose things that are dumped right on your neighborhood right in an area that you know about. But I don’t choose these issues.
Sheir: So how did this woman from Scranton, Pennsylvania, with no formal training in city planning—no college degree, even—how did she become the most influential urbanist of the 20th century? And what legacy did she leave behind?
I’m Rebecca Sheir, and from Slate magazine, this is Placemakers: stories about the spaces we inhabit and the people who shape them.
Over the next few months, we’ll crisscross the country, from Oakland, California, to Keene, New Hampshire. We’ll stop in Atlanta, Georgia, to hear how a notoriously decimated neighborhood found new life. We’ll meet an arborist-turned–refugee resettler in Missoula, Montana. We’ll visit Minneapolis, Minnesota, with the transgender matriarch of affordable housing for LGBT seniors. And much, much more.
And to really understand the stories we’ll be bringing you, you have to understand Jane Jacobs. You’ll hear people call her the godmother, the guru, of what it means to live in a place and to design it in a way that is of, by, and for the people.
In other words, the ultimate placemaker.
She was born Jane Butzner in Scranton in 1916. And long before she was taking on the mighty Robert Moses, she already was picking fights.
Glenna Lang: She was obstreperous. Obstreperous comes from the Latin word meaning “to make noise against.”
Sheir: Glenna Lang is the co-author of Genius of Common Sense, a biography of Jacobs written for young adults.
Lang: She was not badly behaved, she was not a troublemaker, she was not naughty, but when something happened that she didn’t like, she didn’t want to go along with the program, and she was willing to defy authority.
Sheir: Take, for instance, something that happened when Jane was in third grade.
Lang: One day, they had assembly at school, and a health professional came to give a talk on proper dental hygiene. He asked the kids to raise their hands if they promised to brush their teeth every morning and every day for the rest of their lives. Now Jane had just had a conversation the night before with her father, and they happened to be talking about the importance of promises. So Jane urged her classmates not to join in raising their hands because they would surely be making a promise that they couldn’t keep. Jane’s behavior was viewed as insubordination, and the teacher expelled Jane for the rest of the day.
Sheir: Jane was only 7 years old at the time.
Lang: And she was already an independent thinker who felt it important to stand up for what she believed in.
Sheir: And that independent thinking, that “obstreperousness,” followed her to New York City, where she moved in 1934 in hopes of becoming a reporter. In the midst of the Great Depression, she and her sister found a sixth-floor walkup in Brooklyn, where they pinched pennies by living on baby formula and bananas.
While Jane was out looking for writing gigs, she would wander her adopted city with the spirit of a true explorer.
Lang: She looked at people, and their activities, and how they moved, and how they interacted, and the built environment, how buildings and streets functioned. So she was a scientist of the natural urban environment. Once she had all this collected information that she had observed, she also had a technique that she developed in childhood, which was having conversations with imaginary characters and often characters from history. So she loved having to explain things to them because it made her be very specific and compare things now to what they might have been familiar with, which was nothing like her own times.
Sheir: That’s fascinating.
Lang: Observation, and thinking, and trying out dialogues were her methods.
Sheir: Glenna Lang says Jane’s constant close observation was the engine that drove her intellect. It’s what led her to write in eloquent detail about so many seemingly mundane workings of city life. Like, how did coats and fabrics make their way to the fur district? Why were all the diamond dealers on Bowery, between Canal and Hester Streets? And, what’s the deal with manhole covers?
Lang: She decided to try to decipher what the initials on them meant and gradually discovered what ran below what she called these “lowly iron waffles,” which were actually portals to, and this is another quote, “the underground spaghetti below.” So she wrote an article that she sold to Cue magazine about that.
Sheir: During Jane’s early days as a reporter, she fell in love with an architect named Robert Jacobs. They got married, bought a fixer-upper on Hudson Street in the West Village, and eventually had three kids.
By the mid-1950s, Architectural Forum had snatched her up as a writer and editor. It was the primo magazine about architecture and city planning, and it was this job that led to an even bigger break for Jane Jacobs.
In the spring of 1956, her boss, a guy named Douglas Haskell, was asked to give a speech at the Urban Design Conference. It would be held at Harvard University, and many of the giants of architecture and city planning would be there.
But at the last minute Haskell realized he couldn’t attend. So he asked Jacobs to take his place.
“I’ll do it,” she said. “But on one condition: I get to talk about anything I want.”
And what she wanted to talk about was contemporary urban renewal—this en vogue idea of gutting lower-income areas to make way for new development—and how misguided she thought it was.
You won’t find a recording of the speech, but you can read it in the June 1956 edition of Architectural Forum. Here’s a bit of what Jacobs had to say:
Actor reading Jane Jacobs: When rebuilding happens wholesale, sometimes there is almost no convenient vestigial area left. In one project in East Harlem, the people are very much at loose ends. … Some settlement house workers fine-tooth-combed that development of 2,000 people to find where they could make easy-going contact with adults. Absolutely the only place that showed signs of working as an adult social area was the laundry. We wonder if the planner of that project had any idea its heart would be in the basement. And we wonder if the architect had any idea what he was designing when he did that laundry. We wonder if it occurred to either of them that this represents one kind of social poverty beyond anything the slums ever knew.
Sheir: Author Glenna Lang says Jacobs absolutely wowed her audience.
Lang: Many of the attendees commented later on the fact that her simplicity of speech, her sincerity, and her thoughtfulness just swept everybody off their feet.
Sheir: Soon after, William H. Whyte, author of the popular book The Organization Man, commissioned Jacobs to write a feature story for Fortune magazine, where he was an editor. She titled the piece, “Downtown Is for People.”
Lang: And this was important because I think a lot of people at the time felt that downtown was a terrible place, it had no value, and they were more concerned about how cars would get through the city. And one of the statements that she made in this article was, “You’ve got to get out and walk.” She wanted people to explore the city on foot, and she encouraged them to enjoy what she called “the cheerful hurly-burly of city life.” And in the end, she cautioned people that if they kept tearing down the old neighborhoods and putting up these glistening towers in parklike, uncrowded places, cities would have all the qualities of what she called “a well-kept, dignified cemetery.”
Which might sound overly dramatic, but you have to remember: This was the late 1950s. And the predominant philosophy in urban-renewal circles went more or less like this:
One: Designate a run-down neighborhood for so-called slum clearance.
Two: Tear down hundreds of tenements and brownstones.
Three: Put up a bunch of large brick towers.
Four: Stick a lawn in the middle, maybe a playground.
Five: Repeat. Douglas Haskell
Jane Jacobs detested this trend in city planning. She argued that it was actually anti-city; it was more like the walled-off order of the suburbs. By putting up this enormous, monolithic compound, you lose the bustle that comes with dense, mixed-use development—shops and homes and restaurants and bars—and you make the surrounding area less safe.
And by speaking out the way she did, Jacobs was issuing a kind of war cry against the conventional wisdom in urban renewal. Thing is, she’d never been battle-tested. Jane Jacobs was a writer and a thinker, an un-credentialed academic, really, whose ivory tower was the city itself.
So Jacobs the thinker becomes Jacobs the activist. We’ll hear more of her story, after the break.
Sheir: From Slate magazine, it’s Placemakers. I’m Rebecca Sheir.
Now, it’s fair to say that since Jane Jacobs died 10 years ago she’s achieved a kind of sainthood. College professors offer entire courses devoted to her ideas. A New York–based nonprofit organizes “Jane Jacobs walks” in cities across the country, to, quote, “advance the observations” of the author. And on what would have been Jacobs’ 100th birthday, she got her own Google Doodle: Tt shows a bespectacled, cartoonish Jane smiling in front of trees, buildings, bikes and other cutesy renderings of city life.
But “St. Jane” does have her critics.
Do you think it’s time that we pushed St. Jane off the pedestal?
... like this guy.
Alex Marshall: Uh, I do think it’s time.
Sheir: Alex Marshall is a journalist and writer. He’s also a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association, an urban-planning group whose New York office I visited a little while back.
Marshall: See if you can guess which cubicle is mine: the one with all the books. I still like print.
Sheir: Do you have any Jane Jacobs?
Marshall: Oh, yeah. I've got two here and more elsewhere. I've got The Nature of Economies, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her most famous one. I've got books about Jane Jacobs—Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary.
Sheir: So, Jacobs is essential reading, says Marshall. But the problem, he says, is what she missed.
Marshall: Well, she missed infrastructure, to be very direct. She did not really focus on or, I think, almost believe in—and sometimes even see—the big system that makes city life possible, and from which really city life springs. She didn’t really get or see subway systems, water systems, electrical systems.
Roberta Brandes Gratz: It’s so untrue.
Sheir: Roberta Brandes Gratz wrote The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs.
Gratz: Well, I know Alex. And Alex should go back and read her books. Sure, she didn’t do a whole analysis of the water system, but she was a major advocate of mass transit in a big way. She was an advocate of bike lanes and parks and libraries. The problem today is the word infrastructure is a substitute mostly for highways. Yes, she was a big critic of big highways that plowed through cities, destroyed neighborhoods, and had no intention of having any purpose other than to pass through cities. She even said to me, “I’m not against a highway or a road, as long as the city is not redesigned to accommodate it.” So, this idea that she was against infrastructure comes from nowhere. There are people who say, “Well, she never addressed racism.” Well, that's not true. If you read Death and Life, she says right upfront where she first started to see that urban renewal was going wrong was in Harlem. And she saw it because she talked to the occupants of the public housing that had destroyed the neighborhood that they all had live in.
Sheir: And Jane Jacobs knew a thing or two about bureaucratic efforts to destroy neighborhoods in the name of so-called progress. In the 1950s, Robert Moses wanted to carve up Washington Square Park, a much-loved spot in lower Manhattan.
Lang: Robert Moses had decided that he wanted to run a four-lane sunken highway through Washington Square Park, and this would have destroyed the magnificent arch and the fountain in the center.
Sheir: Again, Jacobs biographer Glenna Lang.
Lang: To him what was of utmost importance was moving traffic quickly through the city, even if thriving communities had to be sacrificed. That was just collateral damage.
Sheir: And Lang isn’t using hyperbole here. Here’s Moses himself in 1953, addressing a gathering of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Robert Moses: You’re never going to get unanimous approval of any of these projects. If you try to please everybody, you’re not going to accomplish anything. There must be people who are discommoded, inconvenienced or call it what you will, on the old theory that you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.
Sheir: So Jane Jacobs—and here’s that “obstreperousness” again—she decided to raise a little hell. She helped inundate city officials with more than 30,000 postcards opposing the plan. She sat at a table in the park to collect signatures for a petition.
And she got some big-time names to come on board. Eleanor Roosevelt, who lived along the west side of the park, lent her support. So did congressman John Lindsay, who later became mayor of New York.
The final showdown over the proposal happened in 1958. Glenna Lang says both Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses were there.
Lang: Jane had never come into contact with Moses personally before. I know we have this David and Goliath myth of Jane versus Moses, but she had never actually met him, and this is the one time that she caught a glimpse of him.
Sheir: It was at a meeting about the fate of the park, and it took place in the park, and there was a podium. And he was furious because he knew that his plan was in real danger of not happening. And he looked around him, he saw all the women and children gathered there, he gripped the railing and he shouted, “There is nobody against this, NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY, but a bunch of mothers!” And then he stomped out.
In the end, the park was saved from the onslaught of the automobile. Moses, a man accustomed to getting his way, was defeated, and Jacobs got back to writing.
Actor reading Jane Jacobs: This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.
Sheir: This is the first paragraph of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Actor reading Jane Jacobs: It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding, different and even opposite from those now taught in everything from schools of architecture, to the Sunday supplements and women’s magazines.
Sheir: When Death and Life was published in 1961, it was an immediate sensation. Not only was it an “attack on current city planning,” as Jacobs promised in her opening lines, but it was a love letter to the pulse of urban life.
Actor reading Jane Jacobs: Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance—not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.
Sheir: In her book, Jacobs also stressed the importance of what she called “eyes on the street.”
Actor reading Jane Jacobs: The sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. Almost nobody does such a thing. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.
Sheir: The book was a shot over the bow of the entrenched planners and architects, almost all of whom were men—men who suddenly found themselves on the defensive. So, they shot back. The Journal of the American Institute of Planners mocked Jacobs as “the Enchanted Ballerina of Hudson Street.” The esteemed architecture critic Lewis Mumford reviewed Death and Life in the New Yorkerand dismissed Jacobs as “a sloppy novice.” His piece was derisively subtitled “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies.”
Gratz: For years, people loved pointing out that she was just a housewife.
Sheir: Again, here’s author Roberta Gratz.
Gratz: Yet, her two primary editors and promoters, Douglas Haskell and William H. Whyte, had the exact same training that she did: none. The interesting thing that history teaches us is that the people who change the professions they write about are always outsiders, whether it’s Rachel Carson, Ralph Nader, Marshall McLuhan, Jessica Mitford, Jane Jacobs. They are observers from the outside—they are not prisoners of the dogma of the profession—so they can look at things with fresh eyes in a way that often can be missed by the academic or the practitioner of that field.
Sheir: Funny story: One dissatisfied reader of Death and Life sent his copy of the book back to Random House. He included a brief letter: “I am returning the book you sent me,” he wrote. “Aside from the fact that it is intemperate and inaccurate, it is also libelous. … Sell this junk to someone else. Cordially, Robert Moses.”
Sheir: [Street sounds] This is the sound of Christopher Street, and the West Side Highway. I recently visited New York’s West Village, to meet someone who has his own beef with Jane Jacobs.
Peter Moskowitz: I assume the person with the microphone would be the person that I’m looking for.
Sheir: Nice to meet you.
Moskowitz: Yeah, you too.
Sheir: How’s it going?
Sheir: Peter Moskowitz wrote a piece for Slate titled “Bulldoze Jane Jacobs.” Subtitle: “The celebrated urban thinker wrote the blueprint for how we revitalize cities. It’s time to stop glorifying her theories.” The article ran on her 100th birthday.
Moskowitz grew up in the West Village, just blocks from where Jacobs wrote Death and Life. And he says the problem with Jacobs is the kind of neighborhood she championed. The one with small, varied streets and mixed-use buildings and that “street ballet” she talks about? Well, as he writes in his Slate piece: “Seemingly every Jacobsian paradise, from Portland, Oregon, to San Francisco to the newly revitalized parts of Detroit and New Orleans, is mostly white and well-off.”
Sheir: So, I mean, here we are at the corner of Greenwich and Christopher. Do you feel like we still have that ballet of the street that Jacobs talked about?
Moskowitz: Yeah, I mean I think it still exists, and I still think the West Village is a great neighborhood, at least design-wise. But I think, I think it’s just slowly going away. And when you look at the building I grew up in, for example, there are parents who get limos to pick their kids up for school every day, to send them to private school on, like, the Upper East Side. What is that kid getting out of living in this neighborhood? Are they gonna be cloistered in this environment that’s more like a country club than it is a city?
Sheir: Well Jacobs, she talks a lot about kids in her book and how she loves looking outside and seeing them, you know, playing jacks and playing hopscotch and playing catch, and you don’t really see that as much now, I guess.
Moskowitz: No, you don’t. I mean, I didn’t grow up in like the ’40s New York, like in Scorsese movies where, like, kids are knocking on the fire hydrant or whatever to get water. But kind of your after-school life took place on the street, and you don’t see that anymore. I don’t see kids hanging around in this neighborhood. They don’t use public space in the same way. Like if you walk down any of these side streets, you’ll see all this construction in these brownstones and townhouses and what they’re doing is taking what used to be like three-family homes and converting them into McMansions basically, which they sell for like $15 million to $20 million. Which then of course are never occupied for most of the year ’cause it’s like Russian oligarchs and people like that who own them, so …
Sheir: What would Jane think of that?
Moskowitz: You know, she did say these things about income inequality. She did say that success has a tendency to destroy itself, which is kind of like the lesson of the Village, like because it’s close to public transit, because it’s really cute, because it has varied streets and small businesses, it’s a desirable place to live, and without protections for the poor or middle class, like, people are gonna come here and buy it up. She basically said that in her book.
Sheir: As Peter and I walk, we eventually reach a landmark in the life of Jane Jacobs.
Moskowitz: This is Jane Jacobs’ house. 555 Hudson St., and it’s fitting that a high-end realty company has taken the bottom floor [laughs].
Sheir: The Next Step Realty.
Moskowitz: [laughs] And right next store, these two used to be small businesses. One was a really great cheap Italian restaurant, and both of these have been closed for like years because of high rent. No one can afford to even rent one of these stores, but their landlord refuses to lower the price. If you walk up and down Hudson Street, “high rent blight” as they call it, has like—it’s crazy—like, every block there’s a closed store.
Sheir: “High rent blight.”
Moskowitz: Yup. That used to be my family’s favorite Chinese food place; it’s now an HSBC. The other Chinese food place closed and made way for a tapas place where everything costs like $40. There’s now a Starbucks on the corner and then a Rite-Aid and then a Duane Reade on the other corner. It’s just not—it’s not a neighborhood anymore. It’s, it’s basically become a huge shopping mall.
Sheir: That’s depressing.
Moskowitz: Yeah, well if you wanna be depressed, let’s keep going that way [laughter].
Sheir: In one of the many books Jane Jacobs wrote after Death and Life, she says: “Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities.”
But as I wander the West Village with Peter Moskowitz, I can’t help but wonder: What “community” did Jacobs help save from destruction? Would she still recognize, to borrow her phrase, “a marvelous order” in the West Village? Or has that “order” given way to something else entirely?
Case in point: Jacobs and her husband bought 555 Hudson St. in 1947 for $7,000; that would be about $77,000 today. The house last sold in 2009 for nearly $3.5 million. The real estate pages called it “a bargain.”
Going back to our opera, A Marvelous Order: it’s framed as a love triangle, with both Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses vying for the affection of New York City. And they do so with very different points of view.
The way the opera is staged, Moses tends to see the city from above: You’ll see him looking down at a map or riding in an airplane. From that perspective, New York is part of a larger metropolitan area, divided up by waterways and connected by arteries. But Moses is too zoomed-out too much of the time to see actual people.
Jacobs, on the other hand, is down on the sidewalk, where she can look her neighbors in the eye and participate in that intricate ballet of the street. But she’s too zoomed-in to see around the corner.
So, yes, Jacobs saved Washington Square Park from being torn in two. She saved Lower Manhattan from becoming an expressway. She even saved a large part of her own West Village from being designated a “slum” and torn down. Three times she battled Robert Moses, and three times she won.
But those neighborhoods she fought to protect—they’re totally transformed. I mean, at $3.5 million, her own home is considered “a bargain.”
I doubt St. Jane would ever describe it that way.
By the year 2050, nearly 100 million more people are projected to live in American cities. That’s in addition to the 270 million residing there already.
And here on Placemakers, we’ll be taking you to a number of those cities. Cities that face common challenges, like how we get around, how we find a home we can actually afford, how we can grow a neighborhood, and how we can keep it alive.
And there are people who see these challenges as opportunities. People like Jane Jacobs. Planners, visionaries, activists, dreamers who are making a difference in the places where they live.
So come along with us over the next few months, and chances are good you’ll never look at your community the same way again.
Placemakers is a production of Slate magazine and is produced by Mia Lobel, Dianna Douglas, and Michael Vuolo… and edited by Julia Barton. Our researcher is Matthew Schwartz. Eric Shimelonis does our mixing and musical scoring. Our theme was composed by Robin Hilton. Steve Lickteig is our executive producer. I’m Rebecca Sheir.
For more information about today’s show and other episodes of Placemakers, go to slate.com/placemakers. You can drop us a line at email@example.com. And follow us on Twitter; our handle is@SlatePlacemaker.
Coming up next time on Placemakers:
Carol Naughton told residents of the worst public housing project in Atlanta that their homes were going to be bulldozed. But first, she had to win over a very powerful tenant.
Naughton: She called me a crook and a liar and a cheat and a thief and a honky and a cracker and all kinds of horrible things. And then, at the end of the meeting, she’d say, “Love you, baby.”
Sheir: We’ll hear the story of the emotional and social turmoil that ensued, when Atlanta destroyed public housing—to save it.
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Jacobs: Everything new starts small. We can worship what has already become big because of its power. But we have to have awe and wonder and love for what is small because of its possibilities.