Just as "Robert Moses and the Modern City," which was mounted last spring in three museums, sparked a widespread reconsideration of Moses, so, we may be sure, will "Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York," opening next week at the Municipal Art Society's Urban Center Galleries, do the same for Jacobs.
Troll the Internet for interviews with Jacobs (you'll find several) and you can't help being struck by the subtle ways she alters her apparent message for her audience. How else to explain why such diverse people and groups have claimed her for their own? Two of her books appear on the National Review's list of the 100 most important books of the 20th century. Yet she's hailed by *Tikkun,* a Jewish magazine. James Howard Kunstler, who believes our economy shall soon implode as a result of our being on the downward slope of "peak oil," reveres Jacobs; so does Virginia Postrel of "Dynamism" fame, who believes in the extraordinary capacities of technology and human ingenuity to make the future ever a better and a brighter place. Rod Dreher, a counter-culturally cultural-conservative Christian writer who wrote the book "Crunchy Cons," about "Birkenstock-wearing Burkeans," cites Jacobs as a principal influence, along with the agrarian poet and essayist Wendell Berry, whom Jacobs chastised in her last and perhaps most profound book, "Dark Age Ahead." When Jacobs's book "Cities and the Wealth of Nations" came out in 1984, with its blistering critique of transfer payments from rich to poor, the writer Richard Barnett, reviewing the book on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, bizarrely hailed it as a call for full-employment legislation. He so wanted to like the book, to like Mrs. Jacobs, that he heard her say things she did not say. What kind of writer has such an odd impact on her readers? How many books such as "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" come along that so many people think they've read but haven't, have read but misunderstood, or claim they've read though they haven't? How many writers write one big book (in this case, "Death and Life") that makes a huge splash, then follow it up with several books that brilliantly refine its central points, books that not even the writer's putatively most faithful followers have ever even heard of, let alone read?
For 25 years, I've not merely been fascinated by Jane Jacobs's writings. I've also been just as fascinated by the phenomenon of Jane Jacobs, by the way she alone of American public intellectuals of the last half century has managed to captivate a broad swath of the American public.
The political philosopher Leo Strauss believed that the great philosophers throughout history wrote in a sort of code, which veiled their inevitably subversive messages so as not to alienate the status quo, or the powers that be. The philosopher's job first and foremost involves disentangling the esoteric colloquy that has gone before. Jacobs, who died last year just days shy of her 90th birthday, always coded her messages, if not esoterically, at least slyly. Noting so is key to understanding her triumph.
What exactly is the nature of that triumph? First, as everyone knows, she wrote in passionate defense of a kind of inner-city life that had perhaps never had so eloquent an advocate. She wrote soaring prose, a learned, lively, rhythmical, cunning, and more than occasionally caustic prose that knew few rivals among contemporary American writers. She had the demonstrativeness and the unsuspected angles of the fierce autodidact (she never attended college), yet also the gravitas not to float away into a cloud of crankiness. She schooled a generation of citizens and scholars in the virtues of city life. Cranks don't do that, but then neither do "experts." Only the rare writer who combines things that don't often get combined — the zeal of the autodidact with the most closely grained inductive examination of her own life and circumstances — can manage the feats she accomplished, which include acceptance by both popular culture and academia, and a massive influence on the lives and values of people who may never have read or even heard of her.
In other words, she struck a chord.
The poet and cultural critic Frederick Turner has suggested that "left" and "right," "liberal" and "conservative," are no longer salient political categories. He believes "left" and "right" have recombined into "libertarian" and "communitarian." Yet, again, Jacobs defies the roles. She was both a libertarian and a communitarian, or else neither. In "Death and Life" she places extraordinary faith in the power of traditional urban forms and arrangements to foster the kind of casual connectedness among people — friends, neighbors, and strangers alike — that makes modern city life not merely bearable but the fulfillment of the Aristotelian ideal of the polis. She spoke often of self-organizing systems — her fascination with ecological and information theory found its way often into her writings. But she also believed government ought to proactively straighten out the urban forms cast asunder by, for example, the ill-considered housing project or expressway. In "Death and Life," she considers how reforms may be made to large housing projects, and in "Dark Age Ahead" she enthusiastically takes up the notion of planners Allan B. Jacobs (no relation), Elizabeth Macdonald, and Yodan Rofé that 19th-century-style boulevards that mix different modes and speeds of traffic could be made to bear some of the burden of modern high-speed motorways in such a manner as not to rip cities apart. In both instances, she parts ways from rigid libertarians.
Yet she also believed that government, often as not, mucked things up. She loathed what zoning — once the urban progressives' cause célèbre — had made of cities. Cities, she said, existed for the fruitful and invigorating mixing and jumbling together of disparate uses and users. Sure, laws should keep a glue factory from setting up next to a school. But why couldn't the same block accommodate artisans' live-work spaces, stores, middle-class homes, bars? She especially loathed the zoning of children. From the birth of the nation, it seemed, American progressives had endeavored to "get kids off the street." Why? Jacobs wondered. What richer environment could there be for children than the streets of a lively city? Kids could find infinite amusement in the myriad quirks of the typical street. Children gloriously adapted their play to stoops and hydrants and even airshafts. They mingled with the world of grownups, such as the postman and the grocer going about their work, and so were gently educated to the ways and workings of the world. Parents and other adults could keep eyes on kids cavorting on stoops and sidewalks, in a way impossible in the playgrounds of the sylvan yards of the new high-rise projects — or for that matter in the deadly dull streets of suburbia.
Her acute awareness of crime and how it rips the heart from a neighborhood as surely as an expressway cutting through proved prescient in 1961. Some commentators then thought she placed too great an emphasis on crime and strategies for its prevention. But a decade later, no one felt she'd overdone it. Today, even a lot of people who lived through the high-crime 1970s and '80s seem to have forgotten how lawlessness degraded our civic life. She understood. She didn't come up with a broken-windows theory, but it jibed with her way of going at problems: viewing all problems as ones of emergent form to be channeled at the simplest or most basic level.
In "Dark Age Ahead," she rails against "neo-conservatives" (without ever attempting to define the term) yet concludes the book with a ringing endorsement of subsidiarity, or the idea that "a community of a higher order should not interfere with the life of a community of a lower order." But those aren't Jacobs's words; they are those of Pope John Paul II. For though she never says so, "subsidiarity" comes from Roman Catholic social teaching, enunciated by Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) and restated by later popes. In recent years, neoconservatives revived the concept as part of President Bush's "compassionate conservatism" that everyone forgot about after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Why would Mrs. Jacobs proclaim subsidiarity while not noting the provenance of the concept, and while elsewhere excoriating neoconservatives? (She also enthusiastically endorsed "enterprise zones," the supply-siders' salve to urban wounds in the 1980s, while elsewhere saying the supply-siders had it all wrong.) After all, she's no neoconservative. But she slyly, even esoterically, made many conservative ideals palatable to urban progressives.
So her triumph consists in this: As much as, if not more than, any other public intellectual of the last half century, she taught that good ideas are good ideas, wherever they come from. She feinted to ideology in the cause of transcending it.