50 Years Later, Jacobs Still Leads a Sorority of Dissent

 

There must have been something in the water affecting women in the early 1960s, and it wasn't just DDT. 

This year, planners have celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of a great book, it is not just one book or one author who deserves celebration. While eggshells collapsed, killing new life in the nest, three women – speaking for the countless other women (and men) who had grown weary of the false promises of the 1950s – issued crucial, intertwined dissents through equal parts activism and prose. That the planner is the most obscure among the three is unfortunate, but, ultimately, her impact may be no less profound than the other members of her sorority. 

Rachel Carson, Betty Friedan, and Jane Jacobs tore at the social fabric of America at the very moment when the country’s own global dominance was more assured than ever. They each published their pathbreaking works, in such rapid succession that the sequence hardly matters: Jacobs published Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, having begun writing it in 1958; Silent Spring followed in September 1962; and The Feminine Mystique completed the cycle—from city to forest to bedroom—five months later. 

Though Jacobs' ink was dry by the time The Feminine Mystique went to press, it's entirely likely that each was loosing her fury upon her Smith-Corona at exactly the same time, bound by common ribbons of outrage and lucidity. 

I am not old enough to know whether anybody at the time marveled at this coincidence. But through the distance of 50 years, it seems that they arose at a remarkable moment. So close were their publication dates, and so original was each book, that surely none can be considered an influence on the others: they were, all together, products of both their time and extraordinary contemplation. E.O. Wilson wrote that Carson “delivered a galvanic jolt to public consciousness;” that Friedan did the same is indisputable. Whether many people beyond lower Manhattan knew of Jacobs is less clear. 

A casual reading of The Feminine Mystique, Silent Spring, and Death and Life suggests that each relied on what can only be described as an abiding faith in perceptiveness, observation, and simple common sense – the type of common sense that social science often attempts to discredit. Each too spun literature out of dreary subjects: murderous chemicals, urban blight, ennui. All three relied focused not of the esoteric, learned, and complicated but instead of the achingly familiar: baked goods, birdsongs, stoops. They mix analysis with storytelling. Jacobs describes ideal streetcorners just as Carson invokes a pastoral ideal before burying it in invisible toxins. Friedan reveals the shocking complexity of the kitchen table upon which she herself served those fatal meals.

They reaffirmed the beauty -- unquantifiable, nearly indescribable, but eminently palpable -- that had been forgotten in the aesthetic cataclysm of the 1950s, and then they painstakingly explained what had happened and what could be done. They exposed the ego of the builder, the thoughtlessness of the industrialist, and the despair of the so-called housewife – things that turn into nonsense if you try to enter them into a spreadsheet. That's why each of their nonfiction tomes qualifies as literature: not because they aren't based on fact (which they are) but rather because they, like any other great work of art, attempt to drive at truth. 

Though they chose different images, they all wrote about the same thing. Carson's concern for nature echoes Jacobs’ concern for the built environment. The lifestyle that Friedan describes is the almost-inevitable result of the urban form that Jacobs laments. Both Jacobs and Carson (not to mention Friedan herself) are shining examples of the types of women that Friedan believed all women could and should be. They are to Friedan what the poet Whitman was to essayist Emerson: the embodiment, in a country that so much enjoys speaking of its greatness, of unspeakably great hopes. 

How these particular truths all erupted in the span of two years is as delicious a question as history ever will provoke. As a historical coincidence, the ascendency of Friedan, Carson, and Jacobs ranks up there – in all seriousness -- with the question of how Wal-Mart, K-Mart, and Target all came into being in the same year, thus exacerbating to this very day the problems that all three women railed against. (That year happened to be 1962.) 

The great postwar sigh of relief that blew over the country in the late 1940s brought with it the toxins that would become the problems of the 1960s. The Baby Boom, Levittown, and even the chemical industry all seemed benign in their inception. Prior to 1919, women’s most immediate goal had a name—suffrage—and therefore was easier to combat. But not until the end of the 1950s did women's problems, and so many others that arose in the years following World War II, reach critical mass. 

What burst forth in the early 1960s was building up throughout the 1950s. It's no wonder that the regimented "Organization Man" ethos of 1950s business culture found foils in independent, iconoclastic, literary women perhaps oppressed yet unbound by the hierarchy. Moreover, the task of exposing the defects of 1950s America may have fallen to women if only because many men were invested in the status quo, what with their black suits, skinny ties, and slide rules. They were not inclined to incite revolution -- they were, in many ways, the ones against whom the revolution was incited.   

While corporations hummed along, Friedan, Jacobs, and Carson were simply the first to look around them, realize how deeply the problems had sunk in, and then air their realizations publically. They were quite unlike, for instance, Martin Luther King, whose own protests of the early 1960s trace their lineage literally to the Old Testament; the injustices that he fought against and died for were manifest equally to all who suffered them and all who did not. 

Betty Friedan launched feminism. Rachel Carson launched environmentalism. They tower over their fields like few other leaders – male or female – do. But, if you ask plenty of people involved with urban planning, Jacobs' name belongs atop the Empire State Building, the Sears Tower, and the Space Needle all stacked atop each other. In fact, within planning circles, she is more powerful than ever, as her ideas have made that generational trek from radicalism to budding orthodoxy. 

In 2009 the urban planning web portal Planetizen.com (whose parent company hosts CP&DR’s website) conducted a poll – albeit an unscientific one – of history's 100 "greatest urban thinkers." Jacobs won with 6,000 votes out of 14,000 cast. Contemporary architect and planner Andres Duany came in runner-up and yet received only one-fifth as many votes. And, even so, a piece of each of his votes belongs to Jacobs, since Duany’s New Urbanist movement is derived directly and unapologetically from Jacobs' ideas. Today, nearly every urban plan that makes headlines can trace its lineage back to Jacobs' promotion of pedestrianism, mixed land uses, community cohesion, and local economies. 

Yet Jacobs herself has no –ism. 

Jacobs' relative obscurity owes itself to several reasons, not the least of which is the obscurity of her field. Nearly four billion humans live in cities entirely unaware of the forces that create those cities. Being the most local of political pursuits, planning is, for the most part, a leaderless profession. It relies on the principle that what is good for San Juan Capistrano is not necessarily good for San Juan Bautista. 

There is also the problem of words. Protest though she might, even her impassioned literature cannot in and of itself effect change when the built environment is at stake. A reader can read the Feminine Mystique, or even just the first chapter, and join Friedan's movement instantly. Likewise, environmentalism lends itself to individual, and sometimes instant, behavioral changes. In Carson's case, it required the abandonment of DDT – an politically challenging but logistically simple gesture that culminated in its outright ban in the United States in 1972, only ten years after Carson brought its evils to light. 

But what do you do when the enemy is set – literally – in stone? 

Like many other revolutionaries, Jacobs wrote sometimes in militaristic terms. With an eye as much towards the cannon ball as the wrecking ball, Jacobs abandons diplomacy by the fifth word of Death and Life: “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” Although Jacobs' real-life conflict with New York’s dictatorial “master builder” Robert Moses was a mighty contest and a great story, Jacobs' real enemy was not a person, and anger would have gotten her so far. She hews to the the inspirational in the very next sentence: “It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding, different and even opposite from those now taught in everything from schools of architecture and planning to the Sunday supplements and women's magazines.”

Jacobs spoke for a genuinely marginalized group: people who wanted to live in dense, diverse, stimulating vibrant cities. But because the urban instinct is not an immutable characteristic of either individuals or groups, these people do not define a protected class, and they have no human antagonist or oppressor. Instead, they have a system, so dispersed and purposeful that it seems almost to have no agency or leadership of its own, even as “whole communities are torn apart and sown to the winds with a reaping of cynicism, resentment, and despair that must be seen and heard to be believed.”

What Jacobs fought against, in the 1950s and even today, was progress itself: progress as defined by an elite few. 

Few concepts yield so many definitions as Modernism does, but for the purpose of Jacobs' activism it entailed the use of engineering, technology, and large-scale industry to alter and expand cities to accommodate the automobile; aesthetically it favors formal efficiency, "honest" use of industrial materials, and lack of ornamentation. Ideologically, Modernism is bound up in the curious fixation with "progress" that prevailed in the middle of the 20th century. At the time, progress achieved an untenably narrow definition that loosely correlated with the notion that the human condition could always be improved upon, typically through science, technology, and rationality. Jacobs’ objection to Modernism was no esoteric academic exercise, of the sort that plays out at conferences, swaddled in obtuse theory and excess syllables. She despised Modernism with perfect clarity—the sort of clarity to which Modernist design often lays claim. 

"Human progress," as Dr. King points out in his letter from a Birmingham jail, “never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.” Indeed, if you ask Jacobs, it does not roll in on wheels at all. Just as Carson heard the silence, Jacobs needed little more than the halo of a streetlamp in order to view the failure that was so prevalent in New York City and just about everywhere else. She saw that “all the art and science of city planning is helpless to stem decay--and the spiritlessness that precedes decay--in ever more massive swatches of cities.” Jacobs was, perhaps, the first leader in history ever to lead a movement against progress without being branded an anarchist or nihilist. She ascribed, however, to a heretical notion: the old was better than the new. 

By the time Moses proposed the evisceration of lower Manhattan, "progress" had long overshot its mark (or missed its exit, if you will). 

The rest of the story is history doubling back on itself. Starting in 1968 with the Jacobs-led defeat of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, countless similar instances of would-be urbanicide were also halted. Since then, some highways have been disassembled and many ghastly public housing projects have been demolished. Formalized in the late 1990s, a wholesale movement to promote historically inspired neighborhoods has arisen in the form of New Urbanism and other ideologies, almost all of which openly proclaim their allegiance to Jacobs, who moved to Toronto in 1969 and, until her death in 2006, engaged in virtually no more rabble-rousing as she instead wrote several more excellent books. 

For the purpose of today’s progressive urbanism, Life and Death did all the leading, and it did so anachronistically, drawing planners and architects back in time to a moment when cities were built at a human scale and with human pleasures in mind. Jacobs led first and foremost by reminding readers that rationality -- and its co-conspirator, paternalism -- cannot constantly arrive at better and better answers. A world insane enough to, say, deny black people their basic human rights surely cannot be neatly tamed by freeways, subdivisions, and glass towers. 

Though Jacobs’ her civic activism was based on the ideas that she articulated in Death and Life, the book was not a template for how to get what she wanted. Rather, it rather a vision of what she wanted. So, while Jacobs’ two personas – author and activist – lend credibility to each other, they easily could have existed in each other’s absence. New York is probably glad that they did not. 

Though Jacobs probably is not a household name even today, she touched the lives of millions of people whose cities have been planned with her ideas in mind, and those numbers are growing. By now her eminence within the field is more than complete, but her veneration followed a slow process—possibly for the better, given the limits of veneration. To this day her goals are realized through countless dispersed, time-consuming, excruciating battles that take place over and over again and are fought by intimates, not by larger-than-life demagogues that sometimes pass for leaders. 

Indeed, the revolution that Jacobs incited is condemned to take place at a nearly glacial pace. Building things takes long enough. How long it takes to not build things sounds like a calculation that only a Zen master could perform. Try putting that in your general plan update. 

Then again, it’s still easier to un-build a city than to resurrect an extinct species. 

Though the American population is rooted in cities, the vast bulk of American literature that speaks of landscape does so of the natural landscape. Cities hardly existed when the early American novelists and short-story writers – Irving, Hawthorne, Cooper – were writing. The primacy of nature in American culture and consciousness was cemented by Thoreau and Emerson. Since their time, everyone from Mark Twain to John Steinbeck to Cormac McCarthy has reveled in the non-urban landscape, thus leading America through road trips, Frontier idylls, suburban disaffection rather than inquiries into back alleys and bursting subway cars. 

But for everyone who lives in cities and believes in what they offer – including a way for Americans to achieve Carson’s goal of leaving nature alone and a venue in which to achieve Friedan’s goal of self-actualization – Jane Jacobs, even 50 years later, remains the leader who, more so than any other American, gave voice to their desires and a nest for their dreams.