Wednesday, September 14, 2011

History of Jane Jacobs

It's the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Jane Jacob's first and still most renowned city book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Her editor Jason Epstein recalls the context here, particularly Jacobs's part in the epic battles against the freeway developments and "urban renewal" led by highway czar Robert Moses.  The story is also told  in a lively journalistic account by Anthony Flint, Wrestling With Moses.

Epstein and Flint both allude to the re-evaluation of Moses and Jacobs lately going on. Architectural historians Kenneth Jackson and Hillary Ballon have recently argued that Jacobs's preservation of neighbourhoods like Greenwich Village and SoHo has mostly led to extremes of gentrification, so that only the very wealthy can live in them (Not, evidently, a problem for Epstein, who now lives in a building where Moses intended a freeway ramp), and that infrastructure such as roads, bridges, parks and pools of the kind Moses provided in abundance are, after all, essential to the modern city.  But that seems no more than a qualification; the influence of Jacobs remains immense.

Jacobs, always an activist and organizer, wanted above all to be a writer -- a fact integral to her decision to move to Toronto in 1968.  Given the centrality of Jacobs to the New York development battles -- which were far from over when she decamped -- both Flint and Epstein seem unsure of just how to deal with that part of her biography.

Follow @CmedMoore