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Iconoclasm and Iconolatry: A Review of Reconsidering Jane Jacobs

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In the introduction to Reconsidering Jane Jacobs, a new book from the American Planning Association, co-editor Max Page writes that the book "is less about Jane Jacobs as an individual than about 'Jane Jacobs' as the shorthand for a set of ideas and planning practices that have spread around the world over the past half century, some of which the individual named Jane Jacobs might not have recognized as her own."

It is wise for Page to acknowledge that 50 years after publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities Jane Jacobs is as much an icon -- and one with a mirrored surface -- as she was a flesh-and-blood writer about cities, but acknowledging this fact begs a big question, a question that lies at the heart of this stimulating book.

If Jacobs might not recognize "ideas and planning practices" that her name has come to symbolize, then what are those ideas and practices, and who decides what they are, and for whom?

For example: in an essay in the book about the impact of Jacobs' work in rapidly urbanizing China, city planner Nathan Cherry writes, after describing several large-scale, convulsive redevelopment projects in China that he has worked on, that "if she came to China with me and saw these projects I described, in all their complexity, I am sure Jane Jacobs would understand that the good in large-scale planning is not necessarily outweighed by the bad."

What Jacobs wrote is fixed on the printed page; but what she "stands for" is in flux.

What's being built in China would make Robert Moses proud -- and for "good" reasons more than bad -- but do any planners spend their time wondering (and hoping) whether he would "understand" their work?

That Jacobs became mythic, or even sacred, an icon who absorbs whatever believers project onto her image, was hardly her fault. That anyone laboring in the urban vineyard must have a "personal relationship" with Jacobs is a tribute not only to the parables she constructed on Hudson Street, but also to the quality of her values. People can believe they serve those values, believe they are Jacobsians, independent of how their actions compare to how she wanted people to act.

A lot has been written about Jacobs, but what in particular makes Reconsidering Jane Jacobs exceptional is that the editors, Page and Timothy Mennel, take a broad view of what Jane Jacobs, icon or individual, was about. This is (mostly) not a book about planning so much as it is a book about culture, and I mean "culture" in both senses of the word.

The book contains six major essays. The first three provide biographical background for and literary analysis of Jacobs' work, while the second three express, in various forms and to varying degrees, criticisms of not so much her work but of the impact the work has had.

The first essay, by Peter Laurence, who teaches architecture at Clemson University, is about Jacobs' education and her work before she wrote Death and Life. Laurence's objective is to show that contrary to legend, Jacobs was not an amateur. Nor was she entirely self-educated, having studied geography at Columbia in the '30s (although not completing a degree). (At Columbia Jacobs read the work of historian Henri Pirenne on the role of cities in the medieval rebirth of Europe, and his work influenced the ideas she developed later.)

By the mid-'50s Jacobs was considered one of the more knowledgeable and important writers on urban issues. It was no surprise that she was a participant at the inaugural urban design conference at Harvard in 1956, and her stature enabled her to receive funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to write Death and Life. According to Laurence, when Jacobs started writing about cities in the '50s she was "with the program" when it came to urban renewal, and that one motivation for writing Death and Life was her personal sense of guilt for having believed the logic of planning theory without comparing it to the logic of real life.

In another essay, this one about Jacobs' literary craft, Jamin Creed Rowan, who teaches English at BYU, makes a wonderful argument that the power of Jacobs' prose comes from her connection to the tradition of hard-boiled urban writing, epitomized by tabloid newspapers and detective fiction. In Rowan's view, Jacobs plays "the part of the hard-boiled detective, [uncovering] the sprawling network of urban renewal's corrupt order ... In Jacobs's telling, urban planners exert the same type of menacing influence over city dwellers as Eddie Mars exercises over the Los Angelenos that populate Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep."

In the third essay, Richard Harris, a professor of geography at McMaster University, examines Jacobs' work and her methods as they relate to traditional scholarship.

Interspersed in the book among the six major essays are accounts of the impact of Jacobs' thought internationally, with reports from Australia, Argentina, Holland, Abu Dhabi, and China. For me, the cumulative impact of these pieces is a realization that "Jane Jacobs" does not travel well. The more I read about the transmission and transmutation of Jacobs' thinking to foreign climes the more it became apparent that the postwar challenges to the great American cities, about which Jacobs wrote so evocatively, were quite specific.

I will write about the three critical essays in a subsequent post.

Reconsidering Jane Jacobs, edited by Max Page and Timothy Mennel, published by American Planning Association/Planners Press.

Frank Gruber writes a weekly column on local politics, which often involve land use issues, for the Santa Monica Lookout News, a news website. His first book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, was published by City Image Press.

Around the Web

Jane Jacobs - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Death and Life of Great American Cities - Wikipedia, the free ...

Jane Jacobs, Urban Activist, Is Dead at 89 - New York Times