Jane Jacobs was far more than the sum of her activism. The woman who took on planning titan Robert Moses—defeating the Lower Manhattan Expressway proposal in 1962—was a critical thinker, dominant debater, insightful writer, mother, and wife. Above all, she was an iconoclast.
“For anybody who loves cities, Jane Jacobs is a part of their lives,” Robert Kanigel, author of Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, says of the The Death and Life of Great American Cities author. “What Jane did with that book is legitimize all of us [city dwellers]....She said there are all sorts of reasons for loving cities, for living in the cities, completely different from the kind of perks you get from living in the suburbs—they’re incommensurable.”
Kanigel, an award-winning science writer and acclaimed author of seven prior biographies (On an Irish Island, 2012, etc.), lives in Baltimore. He has always lived in cities—and in 2010, while living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and looking for his next assignment, he learned that Jane Jacobs’ papers were being kept at Boston College. He spent the day reading her correspondence and left charmed.
“Here we have an intellect and a spirit that was so determined to speak its own mind,” Kanigel says, “—to freely explore areas of interest to her and write about them and take as much time as she wanted, and really, without regard to anything, except her own independent spirit. We need more people like her in the world.”
Jane Isabel Butzner was born May 4, 1916, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to parents who fostered her independence. “She set no limits to her imagination and apparently no one tried to do it for her,” Kanigel writes. (In her own words: “Being in a family where I wasn’t put down, that’s luck,” he quotes.) Never excelling at school, she thought of herself as an intellectual outlaw and moved to New York City at age 18. She became a stenographer, journalist, union member, an activist on behalf of her beloved Greenwich Village neighborhood, and author.
“She was [a] social activist, gadfly, rogue, and rebel,” Kanigel writes. “She was an economist of sorts, and something of a philosopher, and, one hears it said, an expert on cities, too,” he writes. Each of her seven books, from Life and Death to 2004’s Dark Age Ahead,tackled “what civilians needed to survive and prosper, what a culture needed to be vigorous, what human society needed in order to thrive,” he writes.
Jacobs’ many cultural contributions included a vital, interconnected, ever burgeoning conception of cities; revolutionary ideas in urban planning and economics; and the phrases “social capital” and “eyes on the street.”
“[‘Eyes on the street’] is a phrase that she used in Death and Life,” Kanigel says, “and it stands for a human presence in our cities making them healthier, safer, stronger, livelier....It’s the whole public social presence that exists in the city, at least in some working neighborhoods, and often doesn’t work in the suburbs...where people are more home-oriented, in their backyards, and pulled back, so that the streets themselves are deserted.
“There’s something so healthy and lovely and vibrant and delightful about [her idea],” he says. “All those people, all those eyes on the street at once.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.