Lit Thursday: Debunking the Myth That Legendary Activist Jane Jacobs Was a "Mere Housewife"

An ode to the woman who saved the soul of New York.

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Photo of Jane Jacobs from Matt Tyrnauer's CITIZEN JANE: BATTLE FOR THE CITY. Courtesy of IFC Films. A Sundance Selects release.
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Jane Jacobs was a visionary thinker about cities. The activist and literary icon — and the subject of my new documentary, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (out tomorrow) — fought legendary battles to preserve the soul of New York. Jacobs, who died in 2006 at the age of 89, was that rare public intellectual who was not afraid to get her hands dirty. She became a street fighter for the causes she believed in, which included the anti–Vietnam War movement and more diverse cities where bottom-up forces would have a voice in planning. Jacobs was utterly fearless in speaking truth to power. This tenacity and her skills as a strategist were perhaps her greatest and most effective traits as an icon of the protest movement of the 1960s.

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Starting in the 1950s, Jacobs famously challenged power-mad "master builder" Robert Moses, the man behind a long list of disastrous urban-renewal and highway-building schemes. These top-down interventions, which included the Cross Bronx Expressway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and most of the city's housing projects, tore apart New York. In the mid-'50s, when Moses tried to run a sunken highway through the middle of Washington Square Park, Jacobs — along with thousands of other activists — began to fight back. She and her cohort won that battle and then, in the early '60s, she led the fight to vanquish Moses's dream for a Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have cut through the heart of Soho, Little Italy, and Chinatown. LOMEX went down to a defeat largely orchestrated by Jacobs herself.

Jacobs's first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), is often cited as the most important publication on cities from the 20th century. It was this book that inspired me to make a movie about her (conceived with my co-producer, Robert Hammond, executive director of the High Line). I also gained great insight on her from other books, some of them old favorites, such as Robert Caro's The Power Broker, about Moses. When I realized that Jacobs is not mentioned in the 1,300 pages of this Pulitzer Prize–winning biography, I wanted to put a spotlight on the story of this great writer and warrior-scholar who did so much to challenge and change the way we think about our city.

Here are a few of my recommendations for reading up on Jacobs:

Becoming Jane Jacobs, by Peter Lawrence

Peter Lawrence, a professor of urban studies at Clemson University, wrote this revelatory account of Jacobs's early years that has done much to reframe the understanding of her education and the start of her career. Lawrence uncovers some previously unknown facts about Jacobs's literary past, setting the record straight about some pervasive Jacobs myths — namely that she was a minor journalist and an amateur urbanologist who came up with homespun theories about cities. These notions are far from the truth, as Jacobs had a noted career writing and editing for leading magazines, most significantly Architectural Forum.

Nevertheless, the idea that Jacobs was a "mere housewife" pervaded the media. In his famous New Yorker review of Death and Life, the great architecture critic Lewis Mumford put down Jacobs's ideas about cities as old wives' tales. His review was titled "Mother Jacobs's Home Remedies." William H. Whyte, the editor of Fortune, referred to Jacobs, in a note to her boss at Architectural Forum, as "our girl." This sexism surrounding Jacobs and the narrative of her career needed to be exposed, and Lawrence led the way in doing so. It's also something we focus on in Citizen Jane.

Genius of Common Sense, by Glenna Lang

This book, which was written for young adults, turned out to be one of the best biographical treatments of Jacobs. It's a great primer for anyone looking to learn more about her theories on cities. The title of the book itself is a great contribution: "Genius of common sense" perfectly captures Jacobs in an instant. She was violently opposed to "credentialed" professionals. She preferred to put trust in average people who were keen observers and often more reliable truth-tellers than those with fancy diplomas. In Death and Life, Jacobs compares urban planners to 18th- and 19th-century doctors and their practice of bloodletting. It was doctrine at the time, commonly inflicted, and did great harm — yet an entire profession accepted it as conventional wisdom, not to be questioned. Lang's book elegantly reveals the power of Jacobs's critical thinking and healthy skepticism.

Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs, edited by Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring

Samuel Zipp, a professor at Brown, and Nathan Storring, a curator, collected 40 short writings by Jacobs (some of them never published) to celebrate her centenary last year. Some of the work from her time as a freelance journalist was wonderfully eccentric. One of my favorites pieces in the book, an article from a 1940 issue of Cue magazine, explored the codes and symbols on New York City manhole covers. Her other early work appeared in Vogue, where she wrote about different districts of New York City, such as the fur and diamond districts, and how they related to the fashion industry. These close looks at slivers of the urban economy were harbingers of Jacobs's future writing. She was a longtime student of the city — a keen observer of not only streets and buildings, but of people. What she came to understand was the ecology of urban life: Jacobs determined that cities, which were previously viewed as just bricks and mortar, roads and sewers, were about the people who inhabited them. This perspective came to have a great impact on urban planning and helped form Jacobs's lasting legacy.

Matt Tyrnauer is a director and writer. His films include Valentino: The Last Emperor and the forthcoming Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood.

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