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.
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 .