Jane Jacobs, 89; Writer, Activist Spoke Out Against Urban Renewal

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Jane Jacobs, 89, a writer and activist who condemned urban-renewal efforts for devastating inner-city neighborhoods and, despite an initial reputation as a radical and heretic, was vindicated as an influential thinker on city planning, died April 25 at a hospital in Toronto. She apparently had a stroke, according to media reports.

The urban-renewal movement of the mid-20th century spent hundreds of millions of dollars clearing communities that were deemed slums, building low-income housing projects and creating parks and highways. Anyone criticizing the model, with its political backing, was not looked on kindly.

In this atmosphere came Mrs. Jacobs, a middle-aged, self-taught architectural and urban-planning specialist with Architectural Forum magazine. She was an incautious woman, at times disheveled in appearance, who tended to anger very powerful people. Several times, she courted arrest to speak out against plans by Robert Moses, a New York City commissioner whose portfolio included oversight of the city's parks and roads.

In her name-making book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961), she recorded what she considered the human toll of urban renewal.

She spoke of the displacement of thousands of residents and the destruction of small, if untidy, communities whose diversity she said was crucial to a city's allure. She maintained that urban renewal worsened the problems it was intended to solve: high crime, architectural conformity and a general dullness infecting daily life.

She attacked the arrogance of city planners for making decisions without consulting those affected.

"The planner's greatest shortcoming, I think, is lack of intellectual curiosity about how cities work," she told the New York Times in 1969. "They are taught to see the intricacy of cities as mere disorder. Since most of them believe what they have been taught, they do not inquire about the processes that lie behind the intricacy. I doubt that knowledgeable city planning will come out of the present profession. It is more likely to arise as an offshoot of economics."

When "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" was published, the director of the American Society of Planning Officials urged members to "batten down the hatches." The usually urbane urban-planning expert Lewis Mumford, insulted by his portrayal in the book, wrote a critique of Mrs. Jacobs printed in the New Yorker magazine under the heading "Mother Jacobs' Home Remedies for Urban Cancer."

Others considered her a visionary. John Chamberlain, writing in the Wall Street Journal, dubbed the book "a lucid and thoroughly devastating attack on the shibboleths of the reigning school of modern city planning." Decades later, New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote that the book "was to urban planning what Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring' was to the environmental movement, and it is arguably the most important book written about cities in the 20th century."

Within a decade of publication, Mrs. Jacobs's book was a part of architecture school curricula. In 1975, the American Institute of Architects' jury on honors recognized her as "one of the earliest liberal opponents of such generally accepted liberal programs as urban renewal and city planning." In more recent years, she was regarded as a chief influence on the "new urbanism" architecture and planning movement to restore multi-use neighborhoods -- retail and residential functions -- in aging urban centers.

Mrs. Jacobs thrived as a lecturer and writer. She seldom doubted the rightness of her views and remained an implacable opponent of high-rise buildings and sprawling suburbs even when they proved popular.

"Never before have normal human beings been consigned to such poverty of imagination and disrespect for function," she recently told students at the City College of New York. The suburbs were originated by those "selling out the country for cheap parking," she said.

Jane Butzner Jacobs, a daughter of a family doctor and a schoolteacher, was born May 4, 1916, in Scranton, Pa. A bright if inattentive student, Mrs. Jacobs spent much of her time working for the local newspaper. After high school graduation, she left the coal-mining region of northeastern Pennsylvania and settled in New York with an older sister.

"I had no understanding of the subway system," she said of her arrival in Manhattan. "I just would get off the subway not knowing where I was. One day, I emerged at Christopher Street. I went home and told my sister, 'I know where we should live!' The Village appealed to me because of its small scale and the shops of artisans."

She began writing freelance articles about the fur, diamond and flower districts in Manhattan, and each piece told her more about the city's layout.

In 1952, she began a decade-long writing career at Architectural Forum, where, she later said, "the editors declared I was to be their 'expert' on city planning subjects." An editor introduced her to the Rev. William Kirk, a figure in East Harlem's settlement-house movement who revolutionized the way she saw cities.

From him, she gleaned that cities should not be carved into distinct sections for working, living and shopping. "It's not just sidewalks and streets but what's on them and where they go," she said.

Her essay "Downtown is for People," which ran in Fortune magazine and appeared in the book "The Exploding Metropolis" (1958), attracted wide notice for underscoring her criticisms of urban renewal. This led to a Rockefeller Foundation grant to write "The Death and Life of Great American Cities."

During the next several years, she sat on various city and federal commissions on housing and beautification. At the same time, she led the effort to end the bulldozing of Greenwich Village's small-scale homes and replace them with high-rise housing.

In 1968, she was arrested for inciting a disturbance at a city hearing on a proposed expressway across Lower Manhattan. The charges were later reduced to disorderly conduct, and she agreed to pay for a new stenographic machine that was damaged in the scuffle.

Later that year, she moved to Toronto, where her husband, an architect, received a commission to design a hospital complex. She said it was the perfect time to leave the United States because she did not want her tax dollars going to support the Vietnam War.

Her other books included "The Economy of Cities" (1969), "Cities and the Wealth of Nations" (1984) and "Systems of Survival" (1994).

A Canadian citizen since 1973, she also addressed Quebec's struggle over sovereignty with "The Question of Separatism" (1980); wrote a memoir of her great-aunt in "A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska" (1995); and likened America's fate to that of the collapse of the Roman Empire in "Dark Age Ahead" (2004).

Her husband, Robert H. Jacobs Jr., whom she married in 1944, died in 1996.

Survivors include three children and a granddaughter.

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