The Death and Life of Jane Jacobs

Today everyone who values cities is disturbed by automobiles.

Traffic arteries, along with parking lots, gas stations and drive ins are powerful and insistent instruments of city destruction. To accommodate them, city streets are broken down into loose sprawls, incoherent and vacuous for anyone afoot. Downtowns and other neighborhoods that are marvels of close-grained intricacy and compact mutual support are casually disemboweled. Landmarks are crumbled or are so sundered from their contexts in city life as to become irrelevant trivialities. City character is blurred until every place becomes more like every other place, all adding up to Noplace. And in the areas most defeated, uses that cannot stand functionally along—shopping malls, or residences, or places of public assembly, or centers of work—are severed from one another.

But we blame the automobiles for too much.

—Chapter 18: Erosion of cities or attrition of automobiles,

The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, 1961.

I just learned that Jane Jacobs passed away on April 25th, 9 days before her 90th birthday.

Not finding the stomach to keep up with the general news these days, I came across this fact mentioned in an offhand way somehow. It is sad news.

I can’t claim encyclopedic knowledge on Jacobs, but I found her practical sense to do the right thing in life poignant enough to write a little homage to her while still making small contributions to Bust magazine a few years ago. It was upon reading the piece in publication that I learned we shared the same birthday. I took this as a nice coincidence and of course always think about her when our day rolls around. Little did I know this past week she was off to (hopefully) that bigger city in the sky.

When I moved back to Seattle almost four years ago, I was so disturbed by what I found in a decade’s absence, I practically ran to Elliot Bay bookstore to buy The Death and Life, Jacob’s most famous treatise on urban planning. In it, I found relief reading her essays, seeing my gut reaction to all the senseless overbuilding (and lack of preservation) was indeed valid. At the time I was living between what used to be the market and Belltown and it was indeed a ghost town at night. (Chapter 2: The uses of sidewalks: safety. “This is something everyone already knows: A well-used city street is apt to be a safe street. A deserted city street is apt to be unsafe. But how does this work, really? And what makes a city street well used or shunned?).

Cranes, building condo after condo reached up through the sky line with unfinished projects, but if there was any indication of life after 6pm it was only found hidden in bushes backed up into the viaduct and infrequent spurts as bar life filtered out into the street. It was depressing. The truth of the matter is the vast majority of Seattleites don’t live in down town proper, and I don’t either any more.

Last night, on a lengthy bus ride home from First Hill, I stared out the window as the sun set over my left shoulder. Our bus traveled gradually— with complete lack of urgency, from the downtown waterfront, through Eastlake, over Portage Bay, and into the congested Friday evening of the University District. If anything can mark an instant return to youth, it’s a lumbering Metro bus ride, one whose routes remain practically unchanged. As the radio towers standing straight up on Queen Ann darkened and car lights brightened, I realized all in all Seattle actually does seem unchanged from the viewpoint of a bus. Downtown disappeared and slowly an almost suburban spread of green lawns and full blown rhododendrons threaded out in replacement.

I think this is the livability that people really mean when they talk about Seattle, (we’ll pretend for a moment, for livability’s sake that it isn’t one of the most over-priced housing markets in the country). In a 2001 interview with Reason magazine, Jacobs sites Seattle as one of the cities that has improved with age:

Reason: Do you think that the people who run American cities have learned what to do and what not to do?

Jacobs: I think some of them have learned a lot. There are quite a few cities that are more vigorous and more attractive than they were 10 or 20 years ago. A lot of good things are being done, but it’s not universal.

Reason: Can you give me an example?

Jacobs: In Portland, a lot of good things are being done. Same with Seattle. San Francisco has done many attractive things.*

Jacobs by Arbus

[Jane with son Ned, by Diane Arbus,Esquire, 6/65]

At any rate, much has and will be said about Jacob’s legacy, and it is neglectful to leave her in 1961 as she wrote many other books. Some site her as missing the point, but I would like to depart thinking of her as someone willing to leave her mark in a positive way on humanity. Besides she was a character:

“Togetherness” is a fittingly nauseating name for an old ideal in planning theory. This ideal is that if anything is shared among people, much should be shared. “Togetherness”, apparently a spiritual resource of the new suburbs, works destructively in cities. The requirement that much shall be shared drives city people apart.”

Chapter 3: The uses of sidewalks: contact. –D&LoGAC.

More notes on Jacobs since her passing:


Michael Blowhard

Outgrowing Jane Jacobs and Her New York

Reason Obit roundup

Jane Jacob’s Memorial 

*Portland boosters should continue to read as she has much more to say on your city, and you’ll get no arguments stateside here.