Jane Jacobs: The Greatest Thinker of the 20th Century

By Tom StreithorstMay 4, 2016

Jane Jacobs: The Greatest Thinker of the 20th Century

  1. SHE WAS BORN 100 years ago today, on May 4, 1916, in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

  1. She is the greatest thinker of the 20th century, or at least one of the most original and most underrated.

  1. Her dad was a doctor; her mom was a schoolteacher.

  1. She hated high school and never graduated from college. For decades, her opponents used her lack of academic credentials to discredit her analysis. It didn’t work.

  1. She was an empiricist. A working journalist, she looked at the world with open eyes, read deeply, wasn’t frightened of anecdotes, and never let established theories overrule her own observation.

  1. She moved to New York City in the middle of the Depression, when she was 19 years old.

  1. She loved big cities, lived in them, and studied them the rest of her life.

  1. She first worked as a stenographer, then as a jobbing journalist for publications as varied as Iron Age and Vogue.

  1. For Jacobs, cities were more than just large towns. With their dense networks of suppliers and customers, cities, better than anywhere else, recombine existing products and talents and create new goods and services.

  1. Jacobs defines a city as “a settlement that consistently generates its growth from it own local economy.” A supply region merely provides raw materials (or manufactured goods) for consumption elsewhere and is dependent on external demand. A city, although it will certainly import and export, is able to create its own supply and its own demand.

  1. Raw materials or even modern factories don’t make regions rich. Vibrant and economically dynamic cities do. That is why redevelopment schemes bringing expensive enterprises to rural areas generally fail. It is the network of suppliers that evolve naturally in big cities that makes them so productive.

  1. The collapse of Calcutta, and the poverty of Bangladesh (Bengal historically was one of the most advanced regions in India), are at least partly due to the separation of the city from its natural hinterland after the partition of India.

  1. An autodidact, Jacobs spent two years happily studying geology, zoology, and geography at Barnard College.

  1. When Barnard insisted she take required courses, she dropped out.

  1. She married Robert Jacobs, an architect, in 1944. They were married for over 50 years and had three children.

  1. In 1947, when most Americans aspired to a home in the suburbs, Jacobs and her husband bought a decrepit old house over a candy store in Greenwich Village, at the time a low-rent dockside neighborhood.

  1. Jacobs and her husband bought the house on 555 Hudson Street for $7,000. It recently sold for over $3 million.

  1. Which I guess makes her the first hipster, gentrifying a poor urban neighborhood half a century before it became fashionable.

  1. Jacobs was never a stay-at-home housewife. She worked steadily as a journalist, writing for trade publications, State Department magazines, and, finally, in the 1950s for Architectural Forum.

  1. While reporting for Architectural Forum, she visited public housing redevelopment projects. The architects would proudly show her the tall buildings, the imposing plazas, the grassy fields, but she noticed the vast lawns were deserted and residents congregated instead in the crowded streets that bordered the new public housing estates. The inhabitants of the projects preferred the funky streets that had been razed in order to create their new sterile homes.

  1. She realized that urban planners didn’t understand, and indeed hated, the very things that make cities desirable places to live: density and mixed use.

  1. Before Jacobs, city planners believed cities should be more like suburbs.

  1. But she understood it’s more fun to walk down a city street filled with a vast variety of shops and homes than on some empty lawn in the shadow of a tall building.

  1. Today, the housing projects of the 1950s are being demolished while the tenements they replaced have become incredibly valuable.

  1. For Jacobs, mixed use is key. She likes neighborhoods that integrate homes and stores and offices. That way, the streets are used all day long, making them safer and more inviting.

  1. Robert Moses was her nemesis. He liked cars; she liked sidewalks. He liked top down planning; she liked organic city neighborhoods.

  1. Although never elected to public office, for almost 40 years, Robert Moses was the most powerful government official in New York City. He built Jones Beach, the Triborough Bridge, and highways, parks, and housing projects all over the city. But in building those projects, he destroyed thousands of homes and eviscerated what had been vibrant neighborhoods. The devastation of the South Bronx is his legacy.

  1. The battle between Jacobs and Moses is legendary among urban historians. It has recently been turned into the opera A Marvelous Order, written by Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Tracy K. Smith, which premiered this March in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It comes to New York in 2017.

  1. A product of utopian 1920s city planning, Moses disdained crowded streets and old run-down apartments. His ideal was airy modern buildings surrounded by verdant lawns. Jacobs liked old buildings and sitting on the stoop watching “the ballet of the sidewalk.”

  1. She said, “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them […] Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” Mixed use is impossible when all the real estate is prohibitively expensive.

  1. Robert Caro, who wrote a magnificent and magisterial biography of Moses, said Jacobs inspired him to write The Power Broker, although he never mentions her in the 1400 pages of the book.

  1. In 1958, Moses proposed extending Fifth Avenue through the middle of Washington Square Park. “There’s nobody against this,” Moses famously told the Board of Estimate, “Nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers.”

  1. Jacobs was against it; against all odds, her grassroots coalition of Village residents defeated Moses’s daft plan. For the first time in decades, his will was thwarted. It was the beginning of the end for the most powerful man in New York.

  1. When she started working at Architectural Forum, like most journalists of the time, she often lauded big urban redevelopment projects. But the more she saw what they did, the less she liked them.

  1. Her 1958 article in Fortune Magazine, “Downtown is for People,” made a big splash and got her a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to turn it into a book.

  1. The Death and Life of Great American Cities came out in 1961.

  1. The book opens with the line, “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” It is now a classic.

  1. Beautifully written, passionately researched, it took on the conventional wisdom and tore it to pieces. From Le Corbusier on, architects and city planners wished to impose an order on anarchic city life, to separate living from shopping from working.

  1. Before Jacobs, the ideal in urban planning was “the garden city”: small, ringed with grassy fields, suburban, planned, and sensible. Jacobs instead loved the rambunctiousness of city life, with lots of different kinds of people using the streets, each in their own way. She recognized it was the organic and unpredictable network of connections between people that made cities so productive.

  1. Death and Life made her a cult figure among urban planners. They call her “Saint Jane.” That’s because she invented, or more accurately, first appreciated the sorts of mixed-use, pedestrian-centered urban neighborhoods everybody wants to live in today.

  1. Death and Life is dedicated to New York City.

  1. Three weeks after Jacobs delivered the manuscript of Death and Life, Robert Moses revealed his plans for building a 10-lane expressway through the heart of lower Manhattan. He wanted to do to SoHo, Little Italy, and Chinatown what he had already done to the South Bronx: blight a neighborhood in order to build a highway. It would be an exaggeration to say that Jane Jacobs single-handedly saved SoHo from the wrecking ball, but one can certainly argue that without Jane, huge swaths of downtown Manhattan, real estate worth billions today, would have been torn down and replaced with highway on-ramps.

  1. Jacobs was arrested twice, the first time for rushing the stage at a city planning meeting, the second time in 1968 for inciting a riot. “A sweet little old lady she isn’t,” said one of her adversaries.

  1. She moved to Toronto in 1968 to protect her two draft-age sons from serving in Vietnam. She lived in Toronto for 37 years and continued to successfully fight the planners in order to maintain vibrant city neighborhoods.

  1. They love her in Canada.

  1. Although she is most famous for her contribution to urban planning, Jacobs was proudest of her insights into economics.

  1. Her second book, The Economy of Cities, was published in 1969.

  1. “To seek ‘causes’ of poverty in this way is to enter an intellectual dead end because poverty has no causes. Only prosperity has causes.”

  1. The cause of prosperity is thriving, functioning cities.

  1. Before Jacobs, most people believed, in the words of Williams Jennings Bryan, “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

  1. Jacobs saw it the other way around. Without cities to buy their produce, or city dwellers to buy vacation homes, rural areas inevitably collapse into subsistence agriculture. It is cities that provide the demand, the capital, the jobs, the knowledge that enlivens the countryside.

  1. Right before she moved to New York City in 1935, Jacobs spent four months in a remote Appalachian hamlet. Her aunt, a missionary based there, wanted to build a stone church, but the villagers protested it would collapse. They were convinced that mortar could not hold the large stones. These villagers were the descendants of proud English yeoman who had built magnificent cathedrals, but over the generations they lost the knowledge of how to build stone buildings. Without the interconnections and cross-fertilizations inevitable in large cities, knowledge inevitably dissipates. That is why, for Jacobs, cities are the vital engines of economic growth.

  1. In The Economy of Cities, Jacobs implausibly claimed that agriculture began in cities, specifically in Catal Huyuk in central Anatolia. When I first read The Economy of Cities, this struck me as outlandish and unlikely, but modern archaeologists now agree, having caught up with Jane.

  1. Jacobs was into network effects before network effects were cool.

  1. In The Economy of Cities and its follow-up volume Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jacobs first describes import replacement, the theory she believes will secure her reputation.

  1. For Jacobs, import replacement is what makes city economies dynamic and is the essential mechanism of economic growth.

  1. Cities begin with certain natural endowments that they can sell to other cities. Venice began by selling salt from its marches to Constantinople. With the money from salt sales, Venetians were able to import goods from the much more advanced Byzantine city. Soon, Venetian manufacturers learned to make some of the goods they imported from Constantinople.

  1. Constantinople wasn’t interested in buying second-rate copies of its own manufactures from Venice, but other Italian cities were. Venice exported its new manufactures to Genoa and Pisa.

  1. Without more advanced, established cities to learn from, new cities cannot prosper.

  1. A network of other cities at a similar level of development to trade with helps new cities grow. Taiwan is to Seoul and Bangkok what Pisa was to Genoa and Venice.

  1. Constantinople spawned Venice, which spawned Antwerp, leading in time to London, then New York, then Los Angeles, then Tokyo, and now Shanghai.

  1. When a city replaces an import with its own production, it does not import less, it imports something different, which then can lead to another episode of import replacement.

  1. Cities learn by doing.

  1. Jacobs describes how late 19th-century Tokyo, after it made contact with the West, started importing bicycles. Soon mechanics learned to repair bicycles and began cannibalizing broken bikes for parts. After a while, they were able to manufacture bikes themselves. Learning by doing made them better and better at bicycle manufacture and before long, Tokyo was exporting bicycles to other cities and countries.

  1. Had a full-scale bicycle factory been dropped into late 19th-century Tokyo, it would have failed. By growing gradually, organically, Tokyo developed the expertise and the supply chains it needed to make bicycles good enough and cheap enough to compete on world markets.

  1. “Whenever and wherever societies have flourished and prospered rather than stagnated and decayed, creative and workable cities have been at the core of the phenomenon. Decaying cities, declining economies, and mounting social troubles travel together. The combination is not coincidental.”

  1. 19th-century Peru, like 20th-century Saudi Arabia, was much richer in natural resources than 19th-century Japan. But Peru and Saudi Arabia never became import replacers so their growth was much less dynamic. Once the guano ran out, the Peruvian economy collapsed and Lima aristocrats squandered their good fortune on European luxury goods instead of creating an import replacing infrastructure.

  1. In Cities and the Wealth of Nations, published in 1984, Jacobs says that cities, not nations, are the basic economic unit.

  1. If Detroit had its own currency, she notes, demand would make the value of the “Detroit Dollar” decline, making its exports more affordable. But since Detroit’s currency is tied to that of a much larger nation, the feedback loop between exports and currency value is broken. This is an excellent argument against the euro.

  1. In 1992, I was rereading Cities and the Wealth of Nations while riding on Bill Clinton’s campaign bus (I was working as a soundman covering his primary campaign for NBC News). I thought about giving the book to the presidential candidate and perhaps chatting with him about Jane Jacobs, but selfishly decided to keep the book for myself. I don’t have many regrets in life, but not giving Clinton that book is one of them.

  1. Maybe, if he had read her books, President Clinton would have invested more in cities. Infrastructure investment in cities is less politically advantageous than investment in rural areas, but much more economically productive.

  1. My favorite Jane Jacobs book is Systems of Survival, published in 1992.

  1. Its subtitle is “A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics.”

  1. It is written in the form of a novel. Six friends gather together to explore “the breakdowns of honesty.”

  1. One of the characters, Kate, mimics Jacobs’s own research style, reading and observing and noting paradoxes in a notebook, then trying to explain them.

  1. Kate (and Jacobs) observe that behavior considered laudable in a certain context is seen as criminal in another.

  1. If a businessman refuses to trade with a foreigner, he is at best an idiot, at worst a racist, but if a soldier sells secrets to a foreign government, he is no savvy entrepreneur, but rather a traitor.

  1. A businessman should always be striving to generate more customers, but a fireman who turns arsonist in order to create work is a psychopath.

  1. Jacobs says we have developed two very different moral systems: one for guardians like government officials, soldiers, and police officers; the other commercial, for businessmen. These two syndromes are almost opposite.

  1. Jacobs says these two moral syndromes exist because humans have two ways of making a living: trading and taking. The guardian morality evolved from that of hunter-gatherer bands; the commercial morality from that of traders.

  1. Each syndrome has 15 precepts. Read them here.

  1. Problems occur when the two syndromes become intertwined. If you give policemen quotas (a useful motivating tool for salesmen and factory workers), they arrest the innocent. Both Feudal Japan and Feudal Europe used the same method to ensure the two syndromes were kept distinct. Today we have no such method.

  1. Guardians should shun trade. Businessmen should shun force. Government officials who sell their influence are corrupt. Businessmen that use force are Mafia. What is laudable in one syndrome is reprehensible in the other.

  1. The primary virtue of commercial morality is respecting contracts. A good businessman’s word is his bond. Otherwise, doing business would be almost impossible. But a soldier who lies and successfully deceives the enemy will get a medal.

  1. The primary virtue for guardians is loyalty. Businessmen must be willing to trade with anyone, but a guardian’s first responsibility has to be to his own community.

  1. I have found the notions of the Guardian Syndrome and the Commercial Syndrome incredibly useful in explaining systemic failures in government and business. For example, here is why Tony Blair (and Bill Clinton) are sleazebags.

  1. In her next book, The Nature of Economies, Jane brings back the gang from Systems of Survival.

  1. It is perhaps the deepest exposition of her ideas on economics. In it, she notes that economics is fundamentally a branch of ecology — the ecology of humans.

  1. An economy, like an ecosystem, is rich when it takes inputs and processes them in a myriad of ways before spitting them out.

  1. New York and the Amazon Rain Forest will take inputs and recombine them and use them over and over again before they are done with them. Saudi Arabia and the Sahara Desert take an input and spit out an output with few steps in between.

  1. She published her last book, Dark Age Ahead, in 2004, when she was 88 years old.

  1. As the title suggests, it is a pessimistic tome. She fears if we keep going on the way we are, amnesia will set in. A dark age is one that forgets existing knowledge. Jacobs reminds us it only takes a gap of a single generation for a skill or a piece of knowledge to become extinct.

  1. I haven’t read The Question of Separatism, which she wrote in 1980, but one of these days I will. In it, she discusses the roles of Toronto and Montreal in the Canadian economy.

  1. Jacobs has been called “a genius of common sense,” and I think that nails it.

  1. Unlike most intellectuals, she doesn’t follow fashion.

  1. Which makes her hard to explain to people who haven’t read her.

  1. I hope this list will tempt you to read her books.

  1. Start with Cities and the Wealth of Nations or with Systems of Survival.

  1. Peter L. Laurence has just written her biography, entitled Becoming Jane Jacobs, which tells her story up to the publication of Death and Life. I hope he writes volume two.

  1. Happy Birthday Jane!


Tom Streithorst has been a union member, an entrepreneur, a war cameraman, a commercials director, a journalist. He is an American in London and has been writing for magazines on both sides of the pond since 2008.

LARB Contributor

Tom Streithorst has been a union member, an entrepreneur, a war cameraman, a commercials director, a journalist. These days, he mostly does voiceovers and thinks about economic history. An American in London, he’s been writing for magazines on both sides of the pond since 2008. He is currently working on a book on how the incredible productive power of capitalism and technology have the potential to bring us all prosperity and happiness but so far, we keep screwing it up. He also writes a regular column about economics at pieria.co.uk.


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