A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[URBAN NOTE] On the event of the 100th birthday of Jane Jacobs

Today would have been the 100th birthday of urbanist Jane Jacobs. I learned this today, because Google’s doodle for the day celebrated this biographical fact.

News sources in Toronto, like CP24, celebrate Jacobs as a Torontonian, but one of the top hits on Google News is of one Jen Chung’s Gothamist post highlighting how Jacobs and her thought got their start in New York City. Suffice it to say that she is a figure of global import.

There’s a lot written about her today. Libby Nelson’s Vox piece is a good place to start, as is Richard Florida’s CityLab essay reflecting on her predictions.

At the very center of Jacobs’ work, I have come to believe, lies a great concern over the darker, more pessimistic forces of standardization, top-down planning, bureaucracy, and globalization that have acted against diversity and human progress. This was the same kind of concern evident in the work of great thinkers such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Joseph Schumpeter, who saw capitalism, bureaucracy, and large corporations as draining the humanity out of modern society.

At the time of her death, Jacobs was working on two books that reflected this deep-seated tension between the deadening tendencies of large organizations and squelchers, and the humanizing tendencies of great cities and urban neighborhoods. The first book was titled Uncovering the Economy, where she planned to bring together a lifetime of thinking to help us understand cities as the underlying engines of innovation and economic growth. The second was portentously titled A Sad But Short Biography of the Human Race. Here she would expand on the enduring legacy of the plantation economy, standardization, inequality, globalization, and domination. In her last interview with the Montreal writer Robin Philpot, she gave us important clues about this work: “It’s not my anticipation that we’re into evolution for a short run,” she said. “We’re much closer to our beginnings than we realize. … Our economies haven’t changed since the beginning and certainly globalization is not a new phenomenon.”

She went on to worry about the eventual decline of the United States, noting that “the collapse will come about as a banal thing.” One can only imagine how unsurprised Jacobs would be by the evolution of America’s economy and society in the decade since her death—particularly the hyper-gentrification of great cities, the growing social and economic divides, the continuing erosion of scientific norms, burgeoning celebrity culture, and, most recently, the rise of Donald Trump—in many ways the symbol of it all.

Also recommended is Tom Streithorst’s essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter’s “Was Jane Jacobs right?” (spoiler, yes), and Metropolisreprinting of a 2000 Jim Kunstler interview. I’d also point the interested towards my review of her The Question of Separatism, a book that–at the very worst–recommends the interestingly risky.

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Written by Randy McDonald

May 4, 2016 at 9:59 pm

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