'Eyes On The Street' Details Jane Jacobs' Efforts To Put Cities First

Sep 28, 2016

The 18-year-old Jane Jacobs picked a lousy time to leave her hometown of Scranton, Pa., and move to New York City.

It was the fall of 1934 and New York was dragging itself through The Great Depression. During that first year in the city, Jacobs, who'd gone to secretarial school, scrounged for work, riding the subway from the Brooklyn apartment she shared with her older sister, Betty, into Manhattan.

By late morning, she'd often be left with nothing to do, so, as her biographer Robert Kanigel tells it, Jacobs would take random subway rides to an unfamiliar part of the city. On one of those expeditions, Jacobs got off at the Christopher Street stop, climbed the stairs to the sidewalk, and quickly became "enchanted." This was Greenwich Village, of course, chaotic and off the grid — its streets crammed with tenements, brownstones, warehouses and little mom-and-pop stores.

Jacobs went back to Brooklyn that night and told her sister that they had to move. Kanigel says that for: "the next thirty-three years, Jane had only three homes in New York City, all within five hundred yards of where she'd emerged from the Christopher Street subway stop that day."

Perhaps it's not quite as momentous as Henry Hudson sailing into New York harbor in 1609, but in its mundane way, Jane Jacobs' discovery of the Village would also change the course of the city's history. Jacobs would go on to help lead the fight to save Washington Square and the Village itself from Robert Moses' plan to build an expressway through the heart of Lower Manhattan; she'd draw on her everyday life as a working mother of three living in the city to inform most of her seven books.

One of those books, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, would become a classic, not only in urban studies, but, as Kanigel argues, in the canon of definitive and lyrical books about New York, like E.B. White's Here Is New York and Alfred Kazin's A Walker in the City.

Kanigel's biography of Jacobs is called Eyes on the Street, a phrase that Jacobs herself coined about the crucial importance of a vibrant street life to neighborhood safety and community. Like Jacobs, Kanigel is a lively writer and his biography is comprehensive, clear-eyed, and even sporadically witty. In Kanigel's view, Jacobs — the activist and original thinker — was partly just "born that way." She was expelled from 3rd grade for standing up to her teacher and Kanigel sees a through-line to later, more famous moments of bucking the status quo.

It's thrilling to read here about Jacobs' public face-offs with minions of Robert Moses over the Lower Manhattan Expressway project; but, it's just as thrilling to be privy to how she developed her thinking about how cities worked, thinking that departed from the received wisdom of urban planners in the 1940s and 50s.

Jacobs worked for many of those years as a magazine writer. As Kanigel tells it, one of Jacobs' "Aha!" moments arose out of a trip she took to Philadelphia in 1955 for the magazine, Architectural Forum. Ready to be dazzled by the vista of overcrowded slums leveled and replaced by modernist malls and projects, Jacobs was struck instead by what was missing: people on the sidewalks.

Kanigel says that all her life Jacobs would recollect seeing just one little boy, alone, kicking a tire, on those sanitized streets of rehabbed housing. The vision chilled her, made her realize, as she would put it, that "a community was replaced by a dormitory." In 1961, Jacobs would go on to write The Death and Life of Great American Cities, where she talked about the necessary "intricate ballet" that takes place daily on busy city sidewalks.

Kanigel acknowledges Jacob's shortcomings as a thinker and a human being: he makes room for those critics who fault Jacobs for downplaying the harsher realities of how race and class influence the composition of city neighborhoods. But, in all, Eyes on the Street is a powerful and all too rare biography of the making of a female public intellectual.

Jacobs lacked traditional academic credentials; nor did she possess the time-honored feminine currencies of charm and beauty. Accordingly, she was put down by critics of the time as a popularizer and a mere "housewife." These days, when we're still obsessing over how women in the public arena should talk and look, it's uplifting to read about Jane Jacobs, a woman who effectively spoke her mind and changed the world and didn't give a damn about whether she should have smiled more.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jane Jacobs would've turned 100 this year. In the 1960s, Jacobs famously played David to Robert Moses's Goliath in a fight over the future of Lower Manhattan. She's also written a book, "The Death And Life Of Great American Cities." Jacobs' centenary is being marked by a new documentary, numerous walking tours, an opera and the first major biography of her life. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of "Eyes On The Street."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: The 18-year-old Jane Jacobs picked a lousy time to leave her hometown of Scranton, Pa., and move to New York City. It was the fall of 1934, and New York was dragging itself through the Great Depression. During that first year in the city, Jacobs, who'd gone to secretarial school, scrounged for work, riding the subway from the Brooklyn apartment she shared with her older sister Betty into Manhattan.

By late morning, she'd often be left with nothing to do. So as her biographer Robert Kanigel tells it, Jacobs would take random subway rides to an unfamiliar part of the city. On one of those expeditions, Jacobs got off at the Christopher Street stop, climbed the stairs to the sidewalk and quickly became enchanted. This was Greenwich Village, of course, chaotic and off the grid, its streets crammed with tenements, brownstones, warehouses and little mom and pop stores.

Jacobs went back to Brooklyn that night and told her sister that they had to move. Kanigel says that for the next 33 years, Jane had only three homes in New York City, all within 500 yards of where she'd emerged from the Christopher Street subway stop that day. Perhaps it's not quite as momentous as Henry Hudson sailing into New York Harbor in 1609. But in its mundane way, Jane Jacobs' discovery of the village would also change the course of the city's history. Jacobs would go on to help lead the fight to save Washington Square and the village itself from Robert Moses's plan to build an expressway through the heart of Lower Manhattan. She'd draw on her everyday life as a working mother of three living in the city to inform most of her seven books, one of those books "The Death And Life Of Great American Cities" will become a classic, not only in urban studies but as Kanigel argues, in the canon of definitive and lyrical books about New York, like E.B. White's "Here Is New York" and Alfred Kazin's "A Walker In The City." Kanigel's biography of Jacobs is called "Eyes On The Street," a phrase that Jacobs herself coined about the crucial importance of a vibrant street life to neighborhood safety and community.

Like Jacobs, Kanigel is a lively writer. And his biography is comprehensive, clear-eyed and even sporadically witty. In Kanigel's view, Jacobs, the activist and original thinker, was partly just born that way. She was expelled from third grade for standing up to her teacher. And Kanigel sees a through line to later, more famous moments of bucking the status quo. It's thrilling to read here about Jacobs public face-offs with minions of Robert Moses over the Lower Manhattan Expressway project. But it's just as thrilling to be privy to how she developed her thinking about how cities worked, thinking that departed from the received wisdom of urban planners in the 1940s and '50s.

Jacobs worked for many of those years as a magazine writer. As Kanigel tells it, one of Jacob's aha moments arose out of a trip she took to Philadelphia in 1955 for the magazine Architectural Forum. Ready to be dazzled by the vista of overcrowded slums, leveled and replaced by modernist malls and projects, Jacobs was struck instead by what was missing - people on the sidewalks. Kanigel says that all her life, Jacobs would recollect seeing just one little boy alone kicking a tire on those sanitized streets of rehabbed housing. The vision chilled her, made her realize, as she would put it, that a community was replaced by a dormitory.

In 1961, Jacobs would go on to write "The Death And Life Of Great American Cities," where she talked about the necessary intricate ballet that takes place daily on busy city sidewalks. Kanigel acknowledges Jacob's shortcomings as a thinker and a human being. He makes room for those critics who fault Jacobs for downplaying the harsh realities of how race and class influence the composition of city neighborhoods. But in all, eyes on the street is a powerful and all-too-rare biography of the making of a female public intellectual. Jacobs lacked traditional academic credentials, nor did she possess the time honored feminine currencies of charm and beauty. Accordingly, she was put down by critics of the time as a popularizer (ph) and a mere housewife.

These days, when we're still obsessing over how women in the public arena should talk and look, it's uplifting to read about Jane Jacobs, a woman who effectively spoke her mind and changed the world and didn't give a damn about whether she should have smiled more.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed a new biography of Jane Jacobs by Robert Kanigel called "Eyes On The Street." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Andrea Arnold, the writer and director of the new film "American Honey," which won this year's Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It's about a group of homeless and abandoned teenagers who are in a magazine crew selling subscriptions door to door. And we'll hear from the creator of the FX series "You're The Worst" Steven Falk and its co-star Aya Cash. I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner. Therese Madden directed today's show. My thanks to Dave Davies for hosting the show the past few days. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.