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Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary

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Today, we take for granted the wisdom of renovating old factory buildings into malls or condos, of making once decaying waterfronts into vibrant public spaces, of protecting historic buildings under landmark laws, and of building public housing on a human scale rather than as high-rises. In contemporary cities, it is now common for community groups to plant gardens in empt Today, we take for granted the wisdom of renovating old factory buildings into malls or condos, of making once decaying waterfronts into vibrant public spaces, of protecting historic buildings under landmark laws, and of building public housing on a human scale rather than as high-rises. In contemporary cities, it is now common for community groups to plant gardens in empty lots and to buy abandoned apartment buildings from the city for a dollar and fix them up. But these and other urban planning policies and practices have not always been accepted. Before they became widespread, they were the visionary ideas of the writer and urban commentator Jane Jacobs. Best known in the United States for her path-breaking efforts to preserve the character of Greenwich Village, Jacobs is the author of the classic 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, one of the most influential works ever published in urban studies. The architectural critic Herbert Muschamp wrote in the New York Times that its publication “was one of twentieth-century architecture’s most traumatic events. Its impact is still felt in cities across the land.”   In this analysis of Jane Jacobs’s ideas and work, Alice Sparberg Alexiou tells the remarkable story of a woman who without any formal training in planning became a prominent spokesperson for sensible urban change. Besides writing the seminal book about contemporary cities, Jacobs organized successful community battles in New York against powerful interests. She resisted urban renewal in the West Village in the 1960s, helped defeat the Lower Manhattan Expressway, advocated the pleasures of street life that she called “sidewalk ballet,” and opposed the original Twin Towers plans. She was also active in the anti–Vietnam War movement, which eventually led her to move to Canada. There she continued her grass-roots activism, including helping to prevent the construction of an expressway that would have cut through several neighborhoods in Toronto. Based on a rich array of interviews and primary source material, this book brings long-overdue attention to Jacobs’s far-reaching influence as an original thinker and effective activist.


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Today, we take for granted the wisdom of renovating old factory buildings into malls or condos, of making once decaying waterfronts into vibrant public spaces, of protecting historic buildings under landmark laws, and of building public housing on a human scale rather than as high-rises. In contemporary cities, it is now common for community groups to plant gardens in empt Today, we take for granted the wisdom of renovating old factory buildings into malls or condos, of making once decaying waterfronts into vibrant public spaces, of protecting historic buildings under landmark laws, and of building public housing on a human scale rather than as high-rises. In contemporary cities, it is now common for community groups to plant gardens in empty lots and to buy abandoned apartment buildings from the city for a dollar and fix them up. But these and other urban planning policies and practices have not always been accepted. Before they became widespread, they were the visionary ideas of the writer and urban commentator Jane Jacobs. Best known in the United States for her path-breaking efforts to preserve the character of Greenwich Village, Jacobs is the author of the classic 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, one of the most influential works ever published in urban studies. The architectural critic Herbert Muschamp wrote in the New York Times that its publication “was one of twentieth-century architecture’s most traumatic events. Its impact is still felt in cities across the land.”   In this analysis of Jane Jacobs’s ideas and work, Alice Sparberg Alexiou tells the remarkable story of a woman who without any formal training in planning became a prominent spokesperson for sensible urban change. Besides writing the seminal book about contemporary cities, Jacobs organized successful community battles in New York against powerful interests. She resisted urban renewal in the West Village in the 1960s, helped defeat the Lower Manhattan Expressway, advocated the pleasures of street life that she called “sidewalk ballet,” and opposed the original Twin Towers plans. She was also active in the anti–Vietnam War movement, which eventually led her to move to Canada. There she continued her grass-roots activism, including helping to prevent the construction of an expressway that would have cut through several neighborhoods in Toronto. Based on a rich array of interviews and primary source material, this book brings long-overdue attention to Jacobs’s far-reaching influence as an original thinker and effective activist.

30 review for Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary

  1. 5 out of 5

    Carl Rollyson

    Mention that a biography is unauthorized and all sorts of presumptions come into play: This is a hostile takeover, and the subject will be savaged; access to the subject and sources has been limited because the biographer has gone negative; it is best to wait for the full life — presumably the one the authorized biographer publishes. Put aside the possibility that the authorized biographer operates under limitations as well — such as the psychological and perhaps even legal burden of being behold Mention that a biography is unauthorized and all sorts of presumptions come into play: This is a hostile takeover, and the subject will be savaged; access to the subject and sources has been limited because the biographer has gone negative; it is best to wait for the full life — presumably the one the authorized biographer publishes. Put aside the possibility that the authorized biographer operates under limitations as well — such as the psychological and perhaps even legal burden of being beholden to the subject or the subject's estate — and consider that quite a different set of problems confront certain unauthorized biographers. Without the imprimatur of the subject and her intimates, the unauthorized biographer can become overly cautious, bending too far in the direction of bland fairness, lest reviewers deem the biography mean. This is not a hypothetical concern: One reviewer of my Norman Mailer biography actually asserted it was too fair to be really interesting. The comment itself may not have been fair, but it is indicative of the restraints that unauthorized biographers suffer. The editor of the Susan Sontag biography my wife and I wrote favored an "on the one hand this, on the other hand that" approach to forestall the fear that another editor expressed: By taking a sharply critical perspective on our subject we would be leading with our chins. So my antenna went up when Alice Sparberg Alexiou mildly noted that Jane Jacobs would have nothing to do with "Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary." The result is a well-intentioned, informative, but tepid biography. Ms. Alexiou is a great admirer of Jacobs — no problem there since there is plenty to admire — but Jacobs was a firebrand (she died April 25, 2006), and her biographer ought to be as fiercely inquisitive as her subject was. Although Jacobs's obstreperous behavior goes back as far as challenging teachers in grade school, the biographer does not really grapple with the consequences of being someone as assertive as Jane Jacobs. Jacobs attended college for only two years and had no formal training as an architect or city planner. She married an architect, though, and wrote for architectural magazines with a fresh vision that could not be learned in any academy. Her signal achievement, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities"(1961), turned city planning on its head. This was the age of "urban renewal," by which city planners meant slum clearance and the building of high-rise, low-cost housing for the urban poor while at the same constructing civic showcases like Lincoln Center. Jacobs opposed this thinking — she believed the Robert Moses school of urban design effectively destroyed neighborhoods and a sense of community, actually contributing to urban congestion by inviting the automobile into places like Washington Square via massive highways. When the park was closed off to traffic, both business and the community profited because urban congestion decreased. Jacobs lost more battles to Moses and his ilk than she won. And would we really want to do without Lincoln Center? As Ms. Alexiou notes (repeating what other critics have said), Jacobs was better at pointing out the negatives of urban renewal than she was at prescribing remedies. Not everyone could live in the messy funk of Greenwich Village and love it as Jacobs did. Certainly suburban sprawl — the bête noire of Jane Jacobs — can be ugly and wasteful, but the suburbs themselves are surely not the problem. And this is where Ms. Alexiou's failure to confront Jacobs's rather crabbed personality is telling. Ms. Alexiou affirms that Jacobs loved the city "passionately and unconditionally." Not a good thing for a critic, I would say. When families began to flee the cities after World War II, it was not just a matter of white flight and escaping high crime rates, or a bad case of indulging in conspicuous consumption. This movement embodied a desire for space and a modicum of privacy. Not everyone wants to sit on those stoops Jacobs extolled. When my family moved into the suburbs from Detroit, I watched my grandmother take immense pleasure in creating a garden — her own bit of land, something she had not had since leaving her life as a peasant in Poland in 1911. I went to a new high school and marveled at how the doors to the classrooms had different colors, and how the one-story school had a human scale lacking in Pershing High School, the rather grim edifice I dreaded when I walked toward it on the east side of the city. What kind of woman could see beauty only in a city or presume that those raucous urban neighborhoods were some kind of ideal form of living? To this question Ms. Alexiou has no answer. I wanted to know more about the Jacobs who did not live only in her books. Here, for example, is just about all the biographer has to say about Jacobs's wedding: It took place in Jacobs's hometown, Scranton, Pa. It was a modest ceremony. "Miss Butzner [Jacobs's maiden name] will wear a white, streetlength dress trimmed with turquoise and fuschia, and a corsage of white orchids."This and a few other quotations come from the local newspaper. What I want to know is did Jacobs wear this getup, or did she, at the last minute, decide the corsage was too much? My complaint may seem trivial, but it is indicative of a larger problem: How did Jacobs actually behave and what was this event and others actually like for her? About her attraction to Robert Hyde Jacobs, she is quoted as saying: "Cupid really shot that arrow." I realize Jacobs resisted the biographer's prying into her life. But that does not let the biographer off. Jacobs deserves her historic place for shaking up conventional thinking about urban design. This is why a much tougher, inquiring Robert Caro-style biography, is required.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Camille

    Quick and easy primer on Jacobs.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jamie

    This was an interesting and quick read, although I was annoyed by the typos I found throughout the book. ("Than" instead of "that", a random exclamation mark in the m!ddle of a word - which is something I've never seen in a trashy paperback let alone a hardcover book!) I was ready to completely dismiss the book when the author, within the first few pages, revealed that Jacobs did not want anything to do with the book, and therefore was unable to verify anything in it. My annoyance with the autho This was an interesting and quick read, although I was annoyed by the typos I found throughout the book. ("Than" instead of "that", a random exclamation mark in the m!ddle of a word - which is something I've never seen in a trashy paperback let alone a hardcover book!) I was ready to completely dismiss the book when the author, within the first few pages, revealed that Jacobs did not want anything to do with the book, and therefore was unable to verify anything in it. My annoyance with the author continued when she inferred feelings on behalf of Jacobs (she must have felt ____ when so and so published their criticism) and when she referred to her as a "young woman" when she was in her 40s. I'm not saying 40 is old, but to call a 40-something a young woman is an insult. Despite my irritation with the author (which was relatively minor despite my criticisms here) it was interesting to learn more about Jane Jacobs. I have only read excerpts of her work (which I probably shouldn't admit because I'm an urban planner) but now that I know more about her life and her books overall, I am more intrigued and hope to read them soon. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book and her life is the awareness of the context and history I now have of Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Lee

    Alexiou shines a light on one of the most enigmatic figures in 20th century architecture and urbanism. Jacobs, essentially a very private person went on to change the face of architectural thinking, particularly in the USA with The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The woman behind the visionary words is revealed here in an inspiring portrayal of the unwaivering but humble Jacobs. Alexiou tells how a "housewife" who took on the New York City and won, a testament to persisting in your belie Alexiou shines a light on one of the most enigmatic figures in 20th century architecture and urbanism. Jacobs, essentially a very private person went on to change the face of architectural thinking, particularly in the USA with The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The woman behind the visionary words is revealed here in an inspiring portrayal of the unwaivering but humble Jacobs. Alexiou tells how a "housewife" who took on the New York City and won, a testament to persisting in your beliefs no matter what the odds and to never accept convention in place of looking for yourself. Alexiou portrays Jacobs' work with both its successes and faults with the same warmth of words that made Jacobs own writing inspiring. A warming tale of a truly visionary urban thinker who never lost sight of the "little people" that cities exist for.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Dan

    An OK biography about an extraordinary person. Jane Jacobs was notorious about not wanting to draw attention to herself, and this is, to my knowledge, the only biography of her. I got the sense that the author wrote this without the Jacobs family's blessing, and as a result, she is short on good sources, with her best information coming from old interviews and newspaper articles. It's a good summary of Jacobs' life, but nothing particularly relevatory or vivid. An OK biography about an extraordinary person. Jane Jacobs was notorious about not wanting to draw attention to herself, and this is, to my knowledge, the only biography of her. I got the sense that the author wrote this without the Jacobs family's blessing, and as a result, she is short on good sources, with her best information coming from old interviews and newspaper articles. It's a good summary of Jacobs' life, but nothing particularly relevatory or vivid.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Katie

    A disappointment. The author's tone was too fawning (and seemed to be written at an 8th grade level) to really take seriously. Jane Jacobs must have been an extraordinary person but this book really never goes beyond the superficial. I had hoped for a book that would put her writings into context, but this wasn't it. A disappointment. The author's tone was too fawning (and seemed to be written at an 8th grade level) to really take seriously. Jane Jacobs must have been an extraordinary person but this book really never goes beyond the superficial. I had hoped for a book that would put her writings into context, but this wasn't it.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    I had never heard of Jane Jacobs though I was vaguely aware of her magnum opus, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities". I tried to read this book before and during a recent trip to New York. It was difficult to stay engaged. This was an unauthorized biography so the author lacked deep and personal source material. The author did well with what she had. I am still intrigued to know more. I had never heard of Jane Jacobs though I was vaguely aware of her magnum opus, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities". I tried to read this book before and during a recent trip to New York. It was difficult to stay engaged. This was an unauthorized biography so the author lacked deep and personal source material. The author did well with what she had. I am still intrigued to know more.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Nicholas Baker

    Quite well written, a pleasure to read.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Heather

    I found this book really interesting. Althought the author did tend to go off on tangents on occassion I still found it a facinating read.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Nancy

    An interesting synopsis of an incredible woman's work. An interesting synopsis of an incredible woman's work.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Leiper

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jenna

  13. 5 out of 5

    Skye

  14. 5 out of 5

    Riddhi Sheth

  15. 4 out of 5

    Frank Comete

  16. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

  17. 4 out of 5

    Cynthia

  18. 5 out of 5

    Alexandra

  19. 4 out of 5

    Manali

  20. 5 out of 5

    Anna Chiaramonte

  21. 5 out of 5

    Francesca

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ian

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jan

  24. 4 out of 5

    Kierkegaard's Pancakes

  25. 5 out of 5

    Anastasia

  26. 5 out of 5

    Constance

  27. 5 out of 5

    Casey

  28. 4 out of 5

    Erik

  29. 5 out of 5

    Alice Siragusa

  30. 5 out of 5

    Isha

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