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Death and Life
Jane Jacobs, Prophet

There are few women approaching ninety on whom I could honestly admit to have, or to have had, a crush. Jane Jacobs, who died on Monday, was one of those—not just because she could write better than a stadium-full of Ph.D.s even though she was a college drop-out, not just because she moved to Toronto in 1968 to spare her two sons the chance of being drafted to Vietnam (I would do the same for my son and anyone else’s son who’d be threatened with the sort of imbecilic wars that are becoming an American specialty), not just because she stood up and to (and beat) Robert Moses (“the nearest thing to a dictator with which New York and New Jersey have ever been afflicted (so far),” she wrote in her last book; too bad she never took on Donald Trump or Giuliani), not just because she foresaw the mush and muck of suburban landscapes, and the cultural, economic and environmental costs they would impose on us (see yesterday’s trees, today’s gas prices), and not just because she is one of the few serious American thinkers who’s taken on the purpose and morality of economic growth the way she took on Moses, but because, like Henry Adams, she could be the most scathingly pessimistic social critic while simultaneously writing in a more hopefully optimistic—a more substantially optimistic—way than any critic out there, pseudo-optimists à-la-Prada like David Brooks and John Tierney among them.

Here’s Jacobs writing in 1961, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “It may be that we have become so feckless as a people that we no longer care how things do work, but only what kind of quick, easy outer impression they give. If so, there is little hope for our cities or probably for much else in our society.” Or this: “Without a strong and inclusive central heart, a city tends to become a collection of interests isolated from one another. It falters at producing something greater, socially, culturally and economically, than the sum of its separated parts.” Note the distinction: it’s the sum of a city’s separated, not separate, parts, because cities and sprawls are made consciously. They are the way they are—vibrant or soulless, successful or morbid—by developers’ design. Chance fills in the cracks. It doesn’t make the city. Dumb policies and vapid imagination do. Cities, and of course suburbs, because that’s what Jacobs could have been describing in those few lines, as a horror like Disney’s Celebration illustrates. So much for the pessimism. Then she gives you this—a finger-wagging sermon turned on its head, with happy how-to’s to get around our developers’ and planners’ arrested developments: “Orthodox planning is much imbued with puritanical and Utopian conceptions of how people should spend their free time, and in planning, these moralisms on people’s private lives are deeply confused with concepts about the workings of cities. In maintaining street civilization, the White Horse bar and the church-sponsored youth center, different as they undoubtedly are, perform much the same public street civilizing service. There is not only room in cities for such differences and many more in taste, purpose and interest of occupation; cities also have a need for people with all these differences in taste and proclivity. The preferences of Utopians, and of other compulsive managers of other people’s leisure, for one kind of legal enterprise over others is worse than irrelevant for cities. It is harmful. The greater and more plentiful the range of all legitimate interests (in the strictly legal sense) that city streets and their enterprises can satisfy, the better for the streets and for the safety and civilization of the city.”

Not to mention the civilization of the nation. But what cities lives up to that description? In the United States, you can count them on two hands, if that. I live in one of those Florida exurbs ( Palm Coast) that is neither city nor suburb, neither livable nor lived in: we live there because the alternative ( Daytona Beach and its environs) would be worse by several orders of magnitude, and because with time even hell has its cozy nooks. Palm Coastcould be a great little town, but it was designed not for its people, but for its developers’ interests: “clear, hold, build,” the Bush administration’s joke of a strategy in Iraq, has actually been the Florida developer’s credo, with a minor adjustment: “Clear, subdivide, build.” Even the city centers being planned in Palm Coast and cities like it are artificial contraptions, Celebration-like, that design diversity into the plan, but can’t make it happen for lack of those things Jacobs says are vital to any city’s heart and soul: a diversity of densities, of interests, of uses. Palm Coast is still being planned on the old segregationist ideal of residential homes in one zone, shops in another, titty bars at the edge, schools on horrible, vast, soulless, isolated campuses on their own.

Jacobs’s last book was Dark Age Ahead, a wonderful if slightly excessive little book in which she argues, counter-intuitively, that former civilizations’ “mass amnesia in which even the memory of what was lost was lost” is a fate staring the American civilization in the face. Living in Palm Coast like exurbs, where the landscape drips of that amnesia, Jacobs’ thesis is as credible as it is palpable.

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