Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs 
by Robert Kanigel.
Knopf, 512 pp., £34, September 2016, 978 0 307 96190 7
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Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs 
edited by Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring.
Random House, 544 pp., £16.99, October 2016, 978 0 399 58960 7
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In Enrica Colusso​ ’s film Home Sweet Home, about the recently ‘decanted’ Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle, southeast London, a town planner explains why nearly all the buildings around him – a large council estate and a covered shopping centre – have to be demolished. They’re not real streets, he says. They’re monocultures – allowing for just one type of thing, housing here, shopping there – and worse than that, they’re mono-tenure, one gigantic ‘project’ of poor people put in one place. The people in them are ‘socially excluded’ by being placed in great single-class ghettos. Such places are lifeless, homogeneous, boring, the result of ‘top-down’ rather than ‘bottom-up’ planning.

In fact, as anyone familiar with it will know, Elephant and Castle swirls with street life. The shopping centre, which hasn’t been demolished yet, is the sort of multicultural space usually praised by planners: it has a Chinese supermarket, several Latin American restaurants and grocers, and at the top, a bowling alley. Outside, there is a busy street market. And the housing estate next door was among the most multicultural places on earth. But that isn’t the point. One thing Home Sweet Home shows is that while the shopping centre – and the traffic disaster in front of it, with its two roundabouts – is noisy and ‘vibrant’, the Heygate Estate itself was a quiet oasis, dense with trees. There were no ‘streets’, only walkways, segregated from the traffic, and far fewer people than in the shopping centre. There is a reason this place had to go, even before the interests of real estate and cash-poor councils were taken into consideration, and that reason is: Jane Jacobs says no.

This injunction can be traced back to the epiphany Jacobs experienced as a freelance journalist in Philadelphia in the mid-1950s when she visited new housing estates and old ‘slums’ with the city planner Edmund Bacon. Up to that point, writing for a variety of publications, but mainly Architectural Forum, Jacobs had contrasted ‘Olympian’ town planners such as New York’s quango despot Robert Moses, addicted to models and graphics, seldom getting out of their cars, with ‘pavement-pounders’ like Bacon and the shopping mall designer Victor Gruen, who knew Philadelphia well and explored it on foot. But when Bacon took her to a ‘bad street’, what she saw was a place ‘just crammed with people, mostly black people, walking on the sidewalks and sitting on the stoops and leaning out of the windows’. In the ‘good one’, by contrast, there was just a lone boy kicking a tyre into a gutter. ‘Ed, nobody’s here,’ she said to Bacon, according to Robert Kanigel. ‘Now why is that? Where are all the people? Why is no one here?’ ‘He just wasn’t interested in her question,’ Kanigel says. Even a planner with good intentions had failed to understand what made a city interesting, exciting and economically successful, and to create new spaces that would enable this. This was the insight that led Jacobs to write what is probably the single most read book on cities published in the 20th century.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) was an attack on the orthodoxies of city planning as Jacobs saw them at a time when, in Kanigel’s words, ‘old city neighbourhoods were being erased, high-rise housing projects erected in their place; when slums were slums and everyone knew exactly what they were, or thought they did; when anyone who wanted to live in the city would have been seen as just a little weird’. She gathered the dominant urban ideas of the era together into a scathing portmanteau: ‘Radiant Garden City Beautiful’. Its components were Le Corbusier’s mid-1930s ‘Radiant City’, a vision of a city of towers in landscaped parkland, where housing was rigorously zoned to separate it from industry, leisure areas and the central business district; Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of To-Morrow (1902), which proposed verdant, self-contained new towns to accommodate what would later be called ‘overspill’ from the metropolis; and the City Beautiful Movement, which seized American planners in the early 1900s with its vision of grand, vaguely Parisian classical ensembles – usually for government, and usually after clearing a non-‘beautiful’ part of city for the purpose – in the heart of towns and cities.

The major building project in America at the time Jacobs was writing – the creation of mile after mile of low-density suburbs by private developers, subsidised richly by the Eisenhower-era state – didn’t quite fit in the portmanteau. That’s because her argument was as much about ideology as practice: Radiant Garden City Beautiful had seduced architects and urban planners away from what the city really was, the ways in which its built environment and economy worked, in favour of an idea of how cities ‘should’ be. The result, in her view, was the ‘anti-city’. The anti-city destroyed the treeless pavements, which looked messy but functioned well, in favour of pointless greensward where ‘Christopher Robin might go hippety-hoppety.’ It destroyed human networks and replaced them with emptiness and formality. Jacobs’s alternative wasn’t a new proposal but something, she claimed, that already existed, and needed only to be helped along: the ‘ballet of Hudson Street’, the vision of mutual aid and ‘complex order’ that she saw every day from her window or sitting on her stoop in Greenwich Village.

The reputation of The Death and Life of Great American Cities was bolstered as the 1960s wore on by the successful campaigns Jacobs involved herself in, such as the one to stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have destroyed her home and replaced the ballet of the street with the linear forward motion of cars ploughing along concrete flyovers. Kanigel takes his title from one of the book’s most famous concepts, ‘eyes on the street’, which captures Jacobs’s coupling of humane optimism with anti-statist laissez-faire. Crime, she argued, was actually reduced by the density and constant activity of the built-up 19th-century city: so many people could see what was going on at all times that policing was almost unnecessary. Jacobs’s seventy-year writing career, which began in 1936, was dominated by The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Kanigel, like Nathan Storring and Samuel Zipp, is keen to make a case for what she did both before and after it, but the space he gives to the various phases of her life tells its own story. Only a quarter of Eyes on the Street is devoted to the fifty years of Jacobs’s life that followed the book’s publication.

Jane Butzner​ was born in 1916 into a wealthy Protestant family in Scranton, a declining coal-mining town in Pennsylvania. She didn’t go straight to university, but moved instead to New York with her sister, Betty, and managed with impressive speed to carve out a career as a copywriter and freelance journalist – at first she got most of her commissions from a metallurgy trade journal, Iron Age. In 1944 she married Robert Jacobs, an architect specialising in hospitals, and, still in her twenties, published her first book, Constitutional Chaff, a long out of print annotated collection of discarded drafts and failed proposals for the US constitution. Jacobs experienced New York in the 1930s as a revelation, and was soon finding her way towards the argument of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Kanigel notes that a single block of Jones Street, the location of her first Manhattan flat, contained 1840s houses and 1920s apartments, a toy factory, a French laundry, an ice dealer’s cellar, a barber’s shop and three speakeasies – all unaffected by zoning regulations. At the time she was still susceptible to the visions of imaginary cities that she would later do so much to discredit. One highlight was the 1939 World’s Fair organised by Robert Moses, all spaced-out towers, flyovers and abstract, futuristic architecture. ‘I thought it was so cute,’ she recalled much later in an interview. ‘It was like watching an electric train display somewhere.’

Vital Little Plans passes over Jacobs’s dabblings in constitutional archaeology and begins instead with two pieces about New York microcosms – the ‘flower district’ and the block or so of diamond sellers on the Bowery – that she published in Vogue in the mid-1930s. They are amazingly similar to her later work. There is the same interest in complex economies, urban activity and trust – ‘There has never been a robbery in the centre,’ she claims of the diamond district – and the ability to sketch dramatic and rather sentimental urban panoramas, full of activity:

Under the melodramatic roar of the ‘El’, encircled by hash-houses and Turkish baths, are the shops of hard-boiled stalwart men, who shyly admit that they are dottles for love, sentiment and romance. Apprentices, dodging among the hand-carts that are forever rushing to or from the fur and garment districts, dream of the time when they will have their own commissions houses. Greeks and Koreans, confessing that they have the hearts of children, build little Japanese gardens.

It’s no coincidence that this sounds so similar to today’s urban marketing copy, the sort of thing you find in magazines like Monocle or estate agents’ brochures. Jacobs’s vision won out comprehensively, in Europe and North America at any rate, against the dioramas of the world’s fairs and architects’ models; even the biggest developers and the most enormous projects now try, in the words of Michael Bloomberg’s administration, to ‘build like Moses with Jane Jacobs in mind’. Zipp and Storring write that we live in a ‘triumphant era of urban symphony’, where the things that once marked Jacobs out as subversive and eccentric – a love of street life, old and worn city blocks, informality and small-scale capitalism – have become orthodox. Her pamphleteering style, vividly readable and unafraid of causing offence (or caricaturing opponents) has been codified in town-planning clichés: social exclusion, mixed use, mixed tenure, active frontages.

Jacobs’s transformation from cranky freelancer to feted urban guru (‘the Mother Theresa of urbanism’, as Mike Davis, a rare dissenter from the church of St Jane, once put it) came about through her encounter with the slum, as a concept and, less and less over time, as a reality. It was the slum, in the eyes of the planners of Radiant Garden City Beautiful, that made drastic urban transformation necessary. At first, Jacobs didn’t disagree. ‘A too-hasty glance,’ Kanigel writes of the famous house on Hudson Street from which Jacobs watched her ballet, ‘might have suggested that Jane, Bob and their young son had moved into a slum.’ It was rat-infested, with a garbage dump in the yard, when they bought it for $7000 in 1947, and they did a lot of work to make it nice – their own contribution to what Jacobs would later call ‘unslumming’. In the early 1950s, she still believed in replacement and rebuilding, and the inevitable clearance that would accompany it, writing of ‘futuristic apartment complexes, slums erased, a new American cityscape replacing them’. One of the many places she wrote at the time was Amerika, a magazine financed by the State Department from 1944 onwards to showcase American life for the Soviet market. (Her work for Amerika – and her membership of such leftist institutions as the United Public Workers and the American Labor Party – earned her a thick file during the McCarthy era. She was put under surveillance by the FBI, had to declare that she wasn’t a communist – she wasn’t – and was repeatedly interrogated by the State Department’s Loyalty Security Board.) At the height of the Cold War in the early 1950s, Jacobs wrote a piece for Amerika on contemporary American architecture that immediately elicited a hostile response in the Soviet daily Izvestia, which pointed out her avoidance of the question of slums. In an era when, according to her later collaborator Daniel Seligman, 17 million Americans lived in dwellings that were ‘beyond rehabilitation – decayed, dirty, rat-infested, without decent heat or light or plumbing’ – Izvestia had a point, however desirable those slums may have looked by comparison with the Soviet Union’s urban housing. ‘Let’s see if we can’t clear up what a slum is,’ Izvestia’s editors challenged.

The change in her perspective on this question came when she started writing for Architectural Forum in 1952 and visited the new projects that were replacing the slums. At first, she saw the work of Ed Bacon and the architect Louis Kahn in Philadelphia as a third way between blanket clearance and laissez-faire. She even advocated the destruction of the city’s old market – ‘Slum markets are like slum housing: there are big profits in them for some people, at the expense of all people’ – but then, after her encounter with the small boy kicking his tyre around, she came to reject Bacon’s Philadelphia much as she did the work of Robert Moses in New York. The shift in Jacobs’s thinking is most marked in a series of essays from the end of the 1950s, in particular ‘Downtown Is for People’, published in a widely read paperback anthology The Exploding Metropolis, edited by William H. Whyte. Her argument in these essays – that cities can and should be understood on foot, by ordinary people, non-experts – gradually developed into a fixation with the damage done to cities by ‘projects’. Her use of the term wasn’t confined to the ‘public housing project’ – the American analogue to the English ‘council estate’ or German Siedlung – but encompassed any single-use development in the inner city, anything zoned so that it is just housing, just industry, just culture, just business. The particular projects that offended Jacobs were the ‘urban renewal’ of East Harlem, whereby the population was moved into large, spacious high-rise flats like the George Washington Houses; the ‘middle-income’ towers (what would now be called ‘luxury flats’) of Stuyvesant Town in Lower Manhattan; and the cultural ‘ghetto’ of the Lincoln Center, itself adjacent to a dense concentration of housing projects. These schemes were, and are, heavily differentiated in terms of class and race – only the ones that housed mainly working-class people of colour were called ‘projects’ – but for Jacobs, they were all essentially the same thing, pieces of a deadly ‘anti-city’ imposed on America’s greatest metropolis. The interiors, the facilities, the standards of upkeep and the quality of life they afforded may have differed, as did the residents’ perceptions of their new homes – but none of that counted. The worst thing a place could be wasn’t noisome, impoverished, dirty or crumbling, but boring. The projects killed the street.

Her essay ‘The Missing Link in City Redevelopment’ – included in Vital Little Plans – stressed the consequences of clearing the dense, multi-functional old streets in favour of a scattering of ‘community centres’. ‘The stores themselves’, she pointed out, already worked as ‘social centres’, ‘especially the bars, candy stores and diners’. Ground-floor units weren’t used solely for commerce, either. ‘Most political clubs are in storefronts. When an old area is levelled, it is often a great joke that Wardheeler so-and-so has lost his organisation. This is not really hilarious.’ ‘The hand-to-mouth co-operative nursery schools, the ballet classes, the do-it-yourself workshops, the little exotic stores which are among the great charms of a city’ had been eradicated, and since their replacements were utterly inadequate, residents were forced to improvise, appropriating what were intended to be functional spaces: ‘Absolutely the only place that showed signs of working as an adult social area was the laundry. We wonder if the planners of the project had any idea its heart would be in the basement.’ What projects do, Jacobs writes in ‘Downtown Is for People’, is to ‘take a part of the city’s life, abstract it from the hustle and bustle of downtown, and set it, like a self-sufficient island, in majestic isolation’. And what commerce means in these places is big business. ‘When a new building goes up’ in these new, shiny, high-rent spaces, ‘the kind of ground floor tenants it gets are usually the chain store and the chain restaurant.’

All of this was based, as Jacobs saw it, on a fundamental lack of interest in what a city is, rather than what it could be. ‘No one can find what will work for our cities by looking at the boulevards of Paris, as the City Beautiful people did; and they can’t find it by looking at suburban garden cities, manipulating scale models, or inventing dream cities. You’ve got to get out and walk.’ This sounds like excellent advice. It would certainly have been useful if the planners of the new Elephant and Castle had got out and walked before they denounced the existing projects, wilfully blinding themselves to the fact that here were all the small stores, co-operative institutions and urban activity Jacobs claimed such projects made impossible. The problem is that Jacobs’s theory of urbanism was based on little beyond what you see if you wander around. ‘We are apt to think of big cities as equalling big enterprises, little towns equalling little enterprises. Nothing could be less true,’ she writes. But cities have long been as much a matter of big business as they are of ‘mom and pop stores’, and Jacobs’s overriding preference for small business over big business would seem odd to many people who have rented from a small landlord or worked for a shopkeeper. When someone depends on your rent or your labour for their livelihood, discipline is likely to be enforced more strictly than it is by a distant corporation or municipality.

In ‘A Living Network of Relationships’, a speech she gave in 1958 to the New School, Jacobs describes an advertisement for the luxury Park West development:

Three apartment towers set upon a vast meadow. The scene is more rural than anything within twenty miles of New York, let alone 97th street and Amsterdam Avenue. ‘Your own world in the heart of Manhattan,’ says the ad. This advertisement, objectively a lie, is unfortunately subjectively true. It is an honest picture of the fundamental rejection of the city which is part and parcel of New York’s slum clearance and rebuilding programme. None of us can have our own world in the heart of Manhattan.

This might sound as if Jacobs were mounting an attack on Manhattan’s rich, for annexing space the city badly needs. But that wasn’t her intention. It wouldn’t have mattered to Jacobs who occupied this ‘vast meadow … in the heart of Manhattan’, even if it were former slum residents. It simply shouldn’t have been in Manhattan at all, for it is the anti-city, a space that has no function, no use, no life, no point.

‘None of us can have our own world in the heart of London’ could have been the rallying cry of Southwark Council and LendLease when they set about destroying the projects at Elephant and Castle. Within the slab blocks of the Heygate Estate was a green, tree-filled space, with no function other than to be pleasant and tranquil for the residents of one of the noisiest and most polluted places in Europe. The blocks’ architects would have congratulated themselves on having made it possible for council tenants to gaze out on a vista of trees and to listen to birdsong not a hundred yards away from one of the most congested roundabouts in Britain. Such spaces were intended to be a relief from housework, and a salve to those who worked in factories or on the docks. In Jacobs’s city nobody suffers, except from the tedium-inducing consequences of urban renewal. In Jacobs’s city, nobody is much bothered about inequality, which barely exists. How could it, when the mainly black and Latino social tenants of the George Washington Houses and the private owners of the whites-only Stuyvesant Town were actually in the same place, if only they realised it?

For a book​ which has become such an unassailable classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities received some very harsh reviews. A lot of this was a matter of vested interests: offence was taken at Jacobs’s lack of qualifications. There was some pearl-clutching over her forthright language, and quite a bit of casual misogyny. Some critics simply missed the point. One of the book’s most poignant moments is an account of walking round Boston’s North End with a planner, cheerfully discussing how well it works for the people who live there, only to be met with the response that delightful though it may be, it’s a slum and it has to go. A Boston planner responded that these streets were ‘no model’. The fact that they weren’t a model but a normal, flawed part of the city was, she retorted, exactly her point. But some of the criticism was more serious. One of her collaborators when she was working on the book, the sociologist Herbert Gans, accused her of indulging a ‘physical fallacy’, giving buildings and streets what another critic, the urbanist Kevin Lynch, described as ‘a very singular power to change people’s lives’. Ellen Lurie, who had shown Jacobs around the projects of East Harlem, pointed out that while some residents were bored and depressed by their new neighbourhoods, many more preferred their new apartments, with their heating and running water, their views and peaceful surroundings. At a conference in Chicago, residents pointed out that the packinghouse neighbourhood she praised was ‘known to exclude black people’. Her book ends with a programme as rigid as any modernist plan, even urging a cap on the length of street blocks so as to maximise street activity, and mandatory densities matching the streets of Paris. Few of these recommendations have been followed.

Jacobs, in Gans’s words, imposed ‘her tastes and values on the city more narrowly than any planner would dare to do’. Personally I share most of her tastes and many of her values. I strongly agree with her that a large city offers more visual pleasure and more excitement, and is less wasteful of resources and less destructive of the environment than the suburban anti-city she denounced. I find it much harder to believe that the economies of these cities are necessarily more ‘vital’ than the economy of low-density sprawl; Newcastle and Pittsburgh aren’t notably more affluent or economically dynamic than Surrey or Silicon Valley. There’s a problem, too, with the way her scorn for new towns and suburbs extended to those who chose to live in them. It seemed to baffle her that anyone could ever choose Levittown over the West Village, or Harlow over Stepney. Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities – which would become official policy in Britain, with the building of new towns after the Second World War – were ‘really very nice … if you were docile and had no plans of your own’. This is nothing but a reflex on her part. Raphael Samuel recalls in The Lost World of British Communism that Wythenshawe, an interwar council suburb in Manchester, a project and a Radiant Garden City Beautiful if ever there were one, was a prime recruiting ground for radical politics, because it was inhabited by workers who had the self-sacrifice and drive to move out of the slums, even if it meant paying more rent. The postwar new towns attracted people who had plans; they wanted to get out of what they considered hopeless, dead-end places and bring up their children somewhere fresh and modern. Many early suburbs and new towns weren’t places for the passive, for ‘children’, yet this is just how Jacobs saw them. New York ‘is never going to get finished’, she asserted against the planners who wanted to ‘solve’ it with their projects, and ‘this should not really be discouraging to anybody over the age of 18.’

It was easy to argue, as Lewis Mumford did, that Jacobs’s lack of interest in poverty and the realities of slum life was the result of romanticism, that she was what would later be called a ‘gentrifier’, a middle-class incomer dazzled by the big city and making it her own. In one remarkable anecdote, Kanigel recounts that Jacobs’s son Jimmy, ‘not much older than 12 at the time’, would walk down Hudson Street to the Fisher chemical warehouse ‘for a litre of potassium chromate, some sulphuric acid, potassium hydroxide pellets and purple dye, pay for it with a little pocket money, and head home to concoct crazy “experiments”’. Jacobs, with her disdain for zoning, would have supported the presence of the chemical warehouse near a residential area. Kanigel doesn’t consider the less cutesy things that might happen when a child gets hold of a large quantity of chemicals. (One of the more startling facts in Eyes on the Street is that one of Jacobs’s sons was, without her realising, still illiterate at the age of nine – she quickly rectified the problem.)

Disdainful as she was of escapees from the city, Jacobs was unusually sympathetic to people who worked hard to make lives for themselves in the inner city. Her explanation of how places like Greenwich Village, ‘slums’ at the start of the 20th century, became desirable places to live was that their residents, rather than planners, governments or developers, had ‘unslummed’ them. One of the most frustrating things about Jacobs’s work is her failure to explain how ‘unslumming’ happens, as it undoubtedly does. One possibility, which she certainly wouldn’t have considered plausible, is that it was a knock-on effect of the Garden City. Of her three adversaries, the Garden City was the only one that didn’t require clearance or erasure of the existing city: instead, the point was to relieve pressure and overcrowding in cities by providing alternative new centres. Ebenezer Howard, lecturing in Krakow in the 1910s, was asked by his hosts what they should do with their city, which they held in low esteem. He surprised them by answering that they didn’t need to build a Garden City, because they already had one – all they needed was to build a bit more workers’ housing to alleviate overcrowding. The population of the big cities fell sharply in the postwar era because of the new towns and new suburbs, and it’s very likely that this, along with full employment and expanded education, gave the residents of slums more time and breathing space to sort their neighbourhoods out themselves. The state and local government could do things for the inner cities other than wield what Robert Moses described as his ‘meat axe’, but Jacobs preferred that its field of activity be limited as much as possible. After Death and Life, she extended these strictures to cover economic activity too.

Jacobs’s second most read book is The Economy of Cities (1969), in which she advocated import replacement, made some penetrating comparisons and historical digressions, and took some very ill-advised forays into speculative archaeology. Based on her interpretation of the remains of Çatal Hüyük, the large neolithic settlement in southern Turkey first excavated in 1958, she argued that cities preceded agriculture and that this would come to be archaeological common sense within a couple of decades. That has not proven to be the case. The rest of the book, much of which is reprised in the essays in Vital Little Plans, is less easily mocked, though in many ways the ideas are just as questionable. In a discussion of the problems of single-industry cities such as Manchester and, later, Detroit, as compared with cities such as Birmingham and New York, she introduces her notion of the ‘creation of new work’. The single-industry mass production metropolis, which Marx and Engels saw as the harbinger of the future, was in Jacobs’s view a clumsy and lumbering thing, which could achieve brief and rapid growth but would collapse just as quickly because of its inflexibility; when other cities learned how to mass produce textiles, Manchester found itself obsolete, whereas in Birmingham, the abundance of small producers and skilled workers in the metal trades constantly generated further workplaces doing different things. The future is Birmingham, Jacobs claims, yet many of the megacities of the 21st century are industrial monoliths as inflexible and dependent on mass production as Manchester – electronics assembly in Shenzhen, textiles in Dhaka and so forth. That’s because mass production, as well as creating massive profits in the short term, is also a relatively efficent means of adequately feeding and clothing seven billion people.

The Economy of Cities attempts a theory of capitalism suited to the 1968 generation, a sort of Schumpeter for hippies, where the small tradesmen of Birmingham become the real drivers of technological and economic change. Jacobs wants Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction’ without the destruction, or any of the suffering that comes with it, the Nietzschean entrepreneur replaced by the plucky, family-run small business. She would regard the dominance of New York since the 1970s by the finance, insurance and real estate industries as entirely dubious and unproductive, yet they have been the main drivers of the ‘triumphant era of urban symphony’ celebrated by the editors of Vital Little Plans. And the stagnant monoliths of the projects which were, in her view, inimical to the generation of ‘new work’, have generated new things, and, in their way, new industries, usually in places where Jacobs wasn’t looking, particularly in music. The birth of hip hop in the late 1970s in the projects of the Bronx is the obvious example. For someone who appeared to love cities and modernity so much, Jacobs had a surprising lack of curiosity about 20th-century culture. The often strange and discordant popular culture created in the projects as much as in the streets of New York is beyond her remit. So too is much interest in art or architecture: she explained modern architecture’s failure as a consequence of its excessive abstraction, caused by the loss of ‘common sense’.

In​ her later books – Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984), Systems of Survival (1992) and The Nature of Economies (2000) – Jacobs inched closer to what is conventionally understood as neoliberalism. Her disdain for planning and state-driven development led her to make some deeply odd claims (the Marshall Plan was a failure, she asserted, citing evidence of continuing poverty in southern Italy). Her criticism of expressways – another of which she campaigned to block just after she moved, in the late 1960s, from New York to Toronto – now looks prescient, even if she does appeal to a silly distinction between ‘foot people and car people’. But Jacobs also had trouble with large-scale, publicly funded transport networks like underground systems; she preferred something called the carveyor, or ‘StaRRcar’, a single-carriage, no-timetable, on-demand tram so far introduced only in Morgantown, West Virginia.

The lexicon changes in her later work, with old dichotomies as ‘pavement-pounders’ and ‘Olympians’ displaced by the more ambitious ‘guardians’ and ‘traders’, labels for the kind of people who favoured government or business, respectively. She preferred to keep the two apart, avoiding the ‘monstrous moral hybrids’ entailed by public-private partnerships. Certain things – policing, healthcare, prisons, schools – were ‘guardian’ functions, and pretty much everything else was to be left to the ‘traders’, including the postal service and public transport (Jacobs was an early advocate of privatisation, one of the founders of Canada’s pro-privatisation Consumer Policy Institute). As the bad place where the bad things happen, the ‘project’ was replaced by the ‘plantation’, characterised by stagnant mass production, which she blithely separated from her alternative, dynamic metropolises like London and Amsterdam – which, historically, set up many of the world’s actual plantations. In all this, the theory of ‘new work’ introduced in The Economy of Cities remains a constant. In the last essay in Vital Little Plans she describes how the frames of her glasses, once metal, were now plastic, as a result of technology transfer: plastics ‘originated by makers of tennis racquets and rods for surf and sport fishing’ ended up making her famous specs more comfortable. It wouldn’t be difficult to compile a list of technologies that originated in what Jacobs would see as bad, stagnant projects – the military, for example, or the space programme – and were adapted to produce benign consumer goods, but that would upset her family-firm theory of capitalism. Kanigel paints Jacobs as beyond conventional left-right dichotomies, but that seems indulgent. With a few caveats, such as her liking for local democracy and opposition to private-public partnerships, her ideas fit neatly with the ‘third way’ politics of New Labour and the New Democrats – a market economy, with the state’s role limited to the maintenance of order.

Jacobs lived long enough to witness her own ideas become orthodoxy. In some ways she dealt with this well, refusing to be flattered by would-be disciples. As Storring and Zipp point out, she shared with modern architects and planners ‘a wholehearted belief in the primacy of function in design’, so it isn’t surprising she thought the attempts of the New Urbanist movement to reconstruct the historic city (Celebration in Florida, Poundbury in Dorset, among others) largely facile. However much they ‘looked’ like historic cities, these were just projects, Radiant Garden City Beautiful reincarnated, and their ‘centres were not really centres’. But her responses to the problems thrown up by the death of the planner-state and the growth of the neoliberal market were barely adequate. She did anticipate the possibility of gentrification in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: too much success in unslumming, she saw, might lead to increasing homogeneity as big business moved in. But she had little idea what could be done to stop it. Many of the plausible instruments, such as rent controls or more public housing, weren’t quite organic enough; instead she suggested that the state help new small businesses to buy their premises, which may well allow cool places to stay cool but does nothing at all to prevent rising rents for housing when a place becomes ‘vibrant’ enough to be gentrified. Asked about the fact that Greenwich Village has become uninhabitable to all but the exceptionally rich (her Hudson Street slum house sold a few years ago for $3.5 million) and a few lucky public housing tenants, she answered that ‘it attested to how much people really wanted diverse and vibrant neighbourhoods.’ The growth of the anti-city in the 1960s meant that ‘we stopped building places worth gentrifying,’ so that ‘demand … outstrips supply.’ It’s a flimsy response: for one thing, many projects – the council estates of inner London, for example – are also now being gentrified.

But it isn’t clear that it makes much sense anyway to read Jacobs if you’re trying to understand London – or any city outside the US. The estates built by the London County Council aren’t like the projects of Robert Moses, and it’s the lack of maintenance, employment and public transport links, rather than their spatial layout, that have in most cases been responsible for turning an estate back into a ‘slum’. What’s more, American public housing projects were only ever intended as a stop-gap, a means of getting people out of the slums and ‘back on their feet’ before they moved back into the private sector. Making them as good as private housing would have been criticised as tantamount to socialism. You can see this even in the one New York scheme Jacobs had a minor hand in – the West Village Houses, an extensive project where gap-sites were filled in with low-rent, walk-up flats, successfully presented as an alternative to a mooted clearance and high-rise project. To an English eye, these look every bit as stark as the towers to which they were meant to be the alternative; a blunt profile, tiny windows, dun brick, just like every other project in Manhattan. This parsimony of provision was seldom found in London or Vienna, where public housing was usually superior to private for much of the 20th century; in Stockholm or Berlin, it was indistinguishable from private housing. (One of the few European cities where a divide as obvious as the one in the US can be found is Paris, a city which was essentially declared ‘finished’ in the 1960s, pushing new development into the banlieues.) In none of these examples was the density of pre-clearance commerce replicated, but in very few of them were the only community spaces to be found in basement laundries.

When Jacobs refers, in a foreword written for a 1992 reprint of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, to London’s ‘grandiose but bankrupt Canary Wharf project’, which she believes destroyed the ‘Isle of Dogs community, much loved by its inhabitants’, it’s obvious she didn’t know London particularly well. She remains an insularly American thinker. ‘All my life I have had a couple of imaginary companions,’ she recounts in an interview from the 1990s included in Vital Little Plans, ‘Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.’ She wasn’t joking, and always remained very much the writer who compiled a book of drafts of the US constitution. Its values – a vigorous yeoman democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of capital and a wilful ignoring of the divisions created by class and race – were her values. Much of the power of her work – or of her most famous book, at least – comes from the accuracy with which she described the homogenising effect of the public-private meat axe on America’s great cities. Transferred elsewhere, many of her ideas have the quality of a cargo cult.

However, London has followed her advice, as has everywhere else. Asked about the dynamiting of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing scheme in St Louis in 1972, she insisted that she didn’t ‘think things should be blown up … We should learn to knit them back and make them part of the fabric of the city.’ In the South Bank Centre, London’s nearest analogue to the Lincoln Center, the monoculture of ‘culture’ was soon supplemented with skateboarders and second-hand bookstalls, and in the 1980s by the opening of its foyers to the public and the addition of new neighbours in the co-operative housing of Coin Street Community Builders. Further cultural megaprojects on the banks of the Thames followed, like the Globe Theatre and Tate Modern; more recently, the public bodies who own the site have sold off little parcels to be used by chain restaurants and bookshops. The result is a much loved part of the city, albeit of a tamed sort. Less than a mile away in Elephant and Castle, the new shopping mall couldn’t tempt the chains that snapped up positions on the South Bank, and low rents meant that shops serving the local community emerged instead, encouraged by the mall’s owners allowing a messy street market to fill part of the underpass. The housing, with its big, airy flats in the middle of London, became desirable after Margaret Thatcher introduced Right to Buy; a government office block designed by a famous architect opposite the Heygate Estate is now a tower of luxury flats. Like many of London’s more interesting spaces, Elephant and Castle ‘worked’ because of a combination of capitalist investment not working quite as intended and social housing working exactly as intended. But it broke every rule in the good book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The new development, with its ‘street food pop-ups’, short street blocks, shops on ground floors, massively reduced open public space, densely packed flats and overwhelmingly private owners, ticks all the boxes. I strongly suspect Jacobs would have hated it.

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Vol. 39 No. 16 · 17 August 2017

It is neat of Owen Hatherley to set Jane Jacobs against the recent demise of the Heygate Estate (LRB, 27 July). As often when I read about Jacobs, or read her in her own words, I wonder why she took so long to visit London and then so briefly. The pulsing shopping centre at Elephant and Castle, still surviving, would test her judgment, Hatherley thinks. But she could have turned to that gadfly Ian Nairn who stayed with Jacobs in Manhattan in the late 1950s, collaborating on a piece for Fortune magazine. She had high hopes they would work together in the future. I like to imagine Nairn taking Jane Jacobs down Peckham Rye: that he didn’t, and couldn’t, was her loss.

Gillian Darley
London WC1

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