Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs, RIP

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Jane Jacobs died this morning at age 89. She was, in her heterodox, anti-ideological, relentlessly empirical way, one of the greatest libertarians of the last century. She was also an excellent writer, a serious scholar who approached her subjects with the sharp eye and clear prose of a good journalist.

All her books are worth a look, and the first two, 1961's The Death and Life of Great American Cities and 1969's The Economy of Cities, are essential reading. The first explores the communities that emerge from the interactions of ordinary people, and defends those concrete places against the abstract, destructive dreams of urban planners. The second offers a bold perspective on why cities emerge, grow, and decline. Not content just to observe and write, she became an activist as well, first battling the depradations of Robert Moses and then, after she moved from New York to Toronto, helping block an expressway and otherwise joining the fight to protect the city's neighborhoods.

Warren Gerard has written an excellent obit for her in the Toronto Star. Here's an excerpt:

Mrs. Jacobs was seen by many of her supporters—mistakenly—as left-wing. Not so.

Her views embraced the marketplace, supported privatization of utilities, frowned on subsidies, and detested the intrusions of government, big or small.

Nor was she right-wing. In fact, she had no time for ideology.

"I think ideologies, no matter what kind, are one of the greatest afflictions because they blind us to seeing what's going on or what's being done," she was quoted.

"I'm kind of an atheist," she said. "As for being a rightist or a leftist, it doesn't make any sense to me. I think ideologies are blinders."

Reason interviewed Jacobs in 2001, and named her one of our "35 heroes of freedom" two years later. One of my earliest articles for the magazine, way back in 1998, was an appreciation of her work that doubled as an attack on the ways it is sometimes misinterpreted.

Here's one of my favorite Jacobs quotes, from her 1984 book Cities and the Wealth of Nations:

The first successful railroad in the world was an amusement ride in London. Many of us can remember when plastics were used for little except toys and kitchen gadgets, and for piano keys as a lower-cost replacement for ivory. Tennis rackets, golf clubs and fishing rods afforded the first uses of strong, lightweight composites of plastics reinforced with fibers of glass, boron and carbon; now those composites are starting to replace metals in some construction products, some types of springs, pipelines, and aircraft and automobile parts. Computer games preceded personal computers for workaday use. For years before artificial voices were being incorporated into computerized work tools to call out the temperatures of equipment or to sound explanatory warnings, they were being used in computerized toys and gimmickry for children (e.g., "Speak and Spell") and were being prematurely written off by "serious" developers and users of computers as cute but useless. In my own city today I notice that solar heating is largely a passion of hobbyists, as is drip irrigation, which conserves labor, fertilizer, water and space in home vegetable gardening.

"All big things grow from little things," [Cyril Stanley] Smith comments, "but new little things are destroyed by their environments unless they are cherished for reasons more like esthetic appreciation than practical utility."

We can cherish Jacobs' books for both reasons.

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  1. Jane Jacobs wasn’t right-wing. She was opposed to ideologies, so she was a pragmatist. Big difference.

  2. One of my heroes. She will be missed.

  3. Ms. Jacobs not only defended vibrant cities against a certain generation of urban planners through her activism, but through her writings, defeated them on their own ground, and set in motion an intellectual coup that has taken over the field.

    She was also a great advocate of public transportation.

    RIP.

  4. I read and enjoyed her last book, published in 2003, although at the moment I can’t remember the title. She was a great defender of common courtesy and civility which, had she been nothing else, would make her one of my heroines. Requiescat in Pace.

  5. Just to be clear, for Jacobs “public transportation” did not necessarly mean “government-run transportation.” From our interview with her:

    Jacobs: …I do think that we need to have a lot more public transit. But you can’t have public transit in the situation you’re talking about.

    Reason: You don’t literally mean publicly owned transit?

    Jacobs: No. All forms of transit. It can be taxis, privately run jitneys, whatever. Things that people don’t have to own themselves and can pay a fare for.

    Reason: You’re not an enemy of free-market transportation.

    Jacobs: No. I wish we had more of it. I wish we didn’t have the notion that you had to have monopoly franchise transit. I wish it were competitive — in the kinds of vehicles that it uses, in the fares that it charges, in the routes that it goes, in the times of day that it goes. I’ve seen this on poor little Caribbean islands. They have good jitney service, because it’s dictated by the users.

    I wish we could do more of that. But we have so much history against it, and so many institutional things already in place against it. The idea that you have to use great big behemoths of vehicles, when the service actually would be better in station-wagon size. It shows how unnatural and foolish monopolies are. The only thing that saves the situation is when illegal things begin to break the monopoly.

  6. was she the one that said the early-adopters of technology are found in games, porn and the military?

  7. As a teenager I was thrilled by projects like the World Trade Center and I also worked on the expressway project she helped kill in Toronto.

    My exposure to her ideas was part of what brought me around to the view that such projects are mostly a lousy idea. It’s too bad the people in power don’t think like her. But then I guess if they did they wouldn’t be in power (or maybe power would be excercised in a whole different way).

  8. Whenever a really great libertarian woman dies, I’m always reminded of how much I hate Ayn Rand, who was a bitch and a hack above anything else.

  9. Jesse Walker,

    I’ve seen this on poor little Caribbean islands. They have good jitney service, because it’s dictated by the users.

    Yes, that is my experience too. The same is true of Mexico City as well.

    Herrick and His Balls,

    Wow.

  10. One of my heroes.

    Me too. “Pragmatist” is a good description of her ideas. And she was way ahead of her time, especially in describing how run-down cities could revive themselves without the destructive “urban renewal” that was so prevalent in the 60s, and yet also in describing practical ways to deal with the gentrification that she saw coming. RIP.

  11. I also worked on the expressway project she helped kill in Toronto.

    Which project is that? The Gardiner is bad enough; I can’t imagine topping that monstrosity.

  12. If Jane Jacobs was such a big libertarian, why did she move to the People’s Republic of Canada, for the socialized medicine? Maybe she loved paying high taxes.

  13. If Jane Jacobs was such a big libertarian, why did she move to the People’s Republic of Canada, for the socialized medicine?

    It was during the Vietnam War. She didn’t want her kids to be drafted.

  14. She moved to Toronto because she was a lover of the kind of urban life there, which had mostly decayed in American cities by the 70s.

  15. The Spadina or William R Allen Expressway (late 60s/early 70s). The Gardiner was built in the late 50s/early 60s.

    Interestingly enough the planning and building of the Spadina figured in some of the reading for a PoliSci class I took. Apparently all of the letters written by “concerned citizens” advocating its construction were typed on the same typewriter that belonged to the PR firm for the developer of the Yorkdale Shopping Center which was located at the junction of the Spadina and Hwy 401.

    http://www.expresswaysite.com/toronto.htm

    Also the Spadina was not outright killed, just the section that was supposed to connect to the Gardiner and downtown. They had already built one section completely and on another section they had aquired the right-of-way and completed the subgrade and overpasses so they figured they might as well finish it.

  16. Well, if Jacobs had been a libertarian, I don’t think she could have stomached having here medical bills paid with stolen money.

  17. I doubt that either socialized medicine or high taxes would have figured in the decision. Medicine had not yet been totally socialized and taxes were not thar much higher in Canada in those days.

  18. Also the Spadina was not outright killed, just the section that was supposed to connect to the Gardiner and downtown.

    Ahhhh. That must be where the Spadina subway line is now?

  19. thar=that dammit.

  20. That must be where the Spadina subway line is now?

    That’s it. The subway line was always a component of the project. In fact both the subway and the road were to go underground for part of the alignment.

  21. Just a quick search on Wikipedia reveals that Jane Jacobs supported this guy for Mayor of Toronto. Some libertarian.

    David R. Miller (born December 26, 1958) is a Canadian politician. Elected in 2003, he is the 63rd mayor of the city of Toronto, Ontario, and second of the merged megacity. He is the first Toronto mayor to be formally affiliated with the left-wing New Democratic Party (other mayors have had ties to the NDP, but have never been members). He succeeded former North York and Toronto mayor Mel Lastman.

  22. Weird Story: she is a close relative of one of my bosses here at work. When I saw this HnR entry I had to ask a co-worker if it was the same person. All I knew is that she was in poor health. I had no idea that she was famous or wrote books or anything like that. Been to the house, but never saw her.

  23. bob,

    Your tireless devotion to proving that Jane Jacobs wasn’t a libertarian of pure ideology are getting tiresome.

  24. er, “are” s/b “is”.

  25. It should also be pointed out that David Miller has been generally helpful in keeping the police in line, which is a libertarian cause and a difficult one in modernday Toronto.

    It is also noted that the NDP position on socialized medicine (keep it, get the wait times down) is pretty indistinguishable from the Conservative one (keep it, get the wait times down).

    bob is beginning to sound like John and fakejoe.

  26. And let me add that when I’m 87 years old, I expect to be able to vote for whoever I goddamn feel like it without being subjected to ideological purity tests from anybody.

  27. bob

    She explains her positions on a wide number of subjects in her books. Why don’t you just read some of them?

    You can come to your own conclusions. Jesse Walker and many of the posters here have come to theirs.

  28. To complete the foregoing thought.

    Just like the best run cities in Italy have Communist administrations. While having Communists in control of the national government would likely be a disaster.

  29. cuz she’s a ‘pragmatist’? which i guess is enough for young walker to claim/covet her for his libertarian mantle; really i don’t see the need, esp for a described iconoclast

  30. So Italian libetarians should vote communist. I see.

  31. What a shame that her ideas have been corrupted by the “landmarks preservation” crowd who have just as great a contempt for property rights as her arch-nemesis, Robert Moses, ever did.

  32. Bob’s either a troll pissing onto an obituary, in which case he has no class, or someone with a weird cultish view of libertarianism that excludes anyone who moves from the U.S. to Canada, in which case he has no head. Either way, I suggest ignoring him.

    As for whether Jacobs was a lib herself, I said in my post that her views were heterodox and anti-ideological. She wound up taking a recognizably libertarian stance at least 85% of the time, and that’s good enough for me. (Mises supported conscription, and that’s much more statist than anything Jacobs ever said or did. But I’m not going to excommunicate him either.)

  33. with a weird cultish view of libertarianism that excludes anyone who moves from the U.S. to Canada

    I explained to her relative that I was a libertarianish guy who was fed up with quality of life in the US and moved to Toronto. His attitude was kind of like, “yeah, the same old story.” His non-reaction makes more sense now than it did last year. Thanks for the report and remembrance.

  34. fed up with quality of life in the US and moved to Toronto

    Toronto is one of my favorite cities – it has all the “cosmopolitanism” of a large American city without most of the nasty side-effects. Rather like many American cities used to be before the likes of Robert Moses got on the scene.

  35. Mrs. Jacobs was seen by many of her supporters — mistakenly — as left-wing. Not so.

    Interestingly, back in 1970, William F. Buckley, Jr., included a selection from Death and Life of Great American Cities in his anthology, Did You Ever See a Dream Walking? American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century. She wasn’t included in the second edition of the book (Keeping the Tablets: Modern American Conservative Thought (1988).)

    (Another mention. )

  36. From the obit:

    Her arch-critic, Lewis Mumford, called her vision ?higgledy-piggledy unplanned casualness.?

    Ugh, that fossil. I read his “The City in History” for Intro to City Planning class. He was a big fan of every megaproject that helped destroy American cities.

  37. What’s so bad about Robert Moses? He’s pretty much loved on Long Island, at least by Newsday, any info or places to look would be appreciated.

  38. What’s so bad about Robert Moses?

    He was the megalomaniacal embodiment of everything that was wrong with city planning from the 30s to the 60s – from massive housing projects to networks of parkways and freeways to the suburbs. All this was going to happen anyway, as it happened in every other American city, but he was the most powerful “broker” of them all, in the biggest city in the world, and therefore served as a convenient focus of resentment for the near collapse of many central cities.

  39. I had never heard of Jane Jacobs, but came cross one of her books in a bookstore (The Death and Life of Great American Cities) and was blown away. Who would have thought that it would be possible to write a book on urban development
    that was fascinating and interesting and extremely readable.

  40. Either way, I suggest ignoring him.

    Yeah, I wish I had now.

  41. The current Toronto mayor is one who loves hug a thug policies, rails against guns being posessed by law abiding citizens, stops police from going into public housing prjects, and doesn’t want youth to be charged for crimes they commit.

    From the WIKI:

    Canada
    In 2004 the homicide rate in Canada was 2.0 per 100 000 people or approximately 650 homicides per year [6]. This is equivalent to numbers in most of the western world, except the U.S. which has triple the number per capita. The main methods of murder in Canada are shootings (30%), stabbings (30%), and beatings (22%).

  42. There were 52 gun related murders out of a total of 78 homicides in 2005 (this is a very close number from the previous year(s), as the total number of homicides has barely changed); thus, Toronto had a murder rate of about 3.1 per 100,000 – significantly higher than the rate in 1999 (1.3 per 100,000), but less than the peak years of the early 1990’s.
    From the wiki

    Comparable numbers for US cities here:
    http://www.morganquitno.com/cit01rank.pdf
    Philadelphia, f’instance, rates a 20 (more than 6 times Toronto).

    Eat it, Hey.

  43. Jane Jacobs is one of several writers on cities and development who have promoted “spontaneous order” only to have their ideas taken over and subverted by the “planners”.
    Most Smart Growth planners refer to Jane Jacobs as justification for their enforced “intensive development” and enforced “mixed use” development. Christopher Alexander is another example.
    He, like Jane Jacobs, makes a strong statement in his opening chapters that the kinds of communities and designs he advocates can only happen sponaneously and must be “enabled” rather than enforced. Naturally the Planners ignore this restraint.
    It will interesting to read the obits on the planning pages. I am sure they will all remember her as an advocate of Smart Growth.

  44. ‘Just to be clear, for Jacobs “public transportation” did not necessarly mean “government-run transportation.”‘

    Just to be clear, for Jacobs, “public transportation” did not necessarily mean “private-sector jitney rides,” either.

    Anyone with a passing familiarity with her books will be familiar with her appreciation for the benefits of the type of density (of buildings, jobs, and people) that subways and buses make possible.

  45. Well David Miller’s big issue in his campaign was stopping a bridge so that is probably why Jacobs supported him.

  46. I wouldn’t support that bridge either. The downtown waterfront airport should be closed.

  47. She was the only city planner I have read that made any sense. To bad she was totally ignored in the USofA.Women like her provide a friendly face in the service of a free market defense of community.
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