Jane Jacobs, Democrat With a Small ‘D’

By ZELDA BRONSTEIN Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 25, 2004

Last week, San Francisco’s City Arts & Lectures offered a tantalizing twofer at Herbst Theatre: renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs was interviewed by Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for the New Yorker and, before that, for the New York Times. Jacobs, 88, lives in Toronto and seldom ventures into these parts. Not surprisingly, the event sold out. 

Jacobs’ rare local appearance was occasioned by the release of her latest book, Dark Age Ahead, a sweeping survey of a civilization—ours—on the brink of catastrophe. But you’d have scarcely known that from her hour-and-a-half-long exchange with Goldberger, which touched only once on the book.  

Goldberger proposed that, its title notwithstanding, Dark Age Ahead is no jeremiad. Jacobs agreed. “I don’t think we’ve reached a point of no return,” she said. “There’s nothing deterministic or supernatural about this.” In other words, the dangerous mess we’re in is of our own making, and the clean-up, if it happens, will be of our making, too. Dark Age Ahead, however, has much more to say about how we’ve made the mess than about how we might clean it up. 

You might expect Jacobs to frame her cautionary message in terms of ecology or the environment. Instead, the key keyword in her new book is culture, by which she means the attitudes and practices that guide daily life. Jacobs fears that we’re on the verge of a “cultural collapse” brought on by “mass amnesia.” She identifies five “cultural pillars” that are at risk: community and family, higher education, effective science and science-based technology, democratic governance, and self-policing by the learned professions. 

Scanning this list, you may be thinking: I’ve heard this all before. No doubt, you’ve heard some of it. What makes Dark Age Ahead worth a read is the way in which its author brings her famously independent and inductive mind to bear in fresh ways on familiar topics.  

So, for example, in the chapter titled “Families Rigged to Fail,” Jacobs devotes a single sentence to divorce, drug abuse, juvenile delinquency, and spousal abuse and then focuses on family finances strained by runaway housing costs, and the erosion of family and community life by our automotive culture and economy.  

Turning to “Science Abandoned,” Jacobs homes in on, not the current usual suspect (the Bush administration and its denial of global warming or its politicized suppression of scientific research), but the myopic findings of economists, epidemiologists and traffic engineers.  

In another chapter, “Dumbed-Down Taxes,” she deplores the “disconnect between public treasuries and local domestic needs.” She enumerates the destructive effects that that separation has had on her adopted home town of Toronto: the degradation of “once-excellent” public schools and public transit, the new dirtiness of streets and parks, and the destruction of a popular program of sensitively designed infill public housing. With respect to this last item, she writes, incredibly, that “only 74 subsidized apartments affordable by low-wage earners, single-income families, disabled persons, and others on welfare have been added to the city’s housing stock in more than a decade.”  

What makes Toronto’s civic decline particularly scandalous, says Jacobs, is that its source is not fiscal “but purely administrative and governmental.” The culprits are the “provincial kleptocracies” that wield their sovereign authority over local jurisdictions so as to take far more in taxes than they return, leaving cash-starved cities to depend on “only very minor taxation, such as property taxes.” Administrative kleptocracy is a major issue in California as well. Our cities’ and counties’ dire budgetary predicaments stem not only from the dot.com bust but also from longtime, repeated diversions of locally generated tax monies to state coffers.  

Drawing on vivid examples from both Canada and the United States, Jacobs’ ominous report resonates all too closely with this American reader’s experience. But Dark Age Ahead is supposed to be hopeful as well as gloomy. It’s hard to see its hopeful side. Given Jacobs’ oft-expressed disdain for abstraction, we shouldn’t expect her to present a sweeping plan for recovery. We might, however, expect her to serve up a slew of heartening anecdotes. Instead, she recounts many defeats and few victories. The upshot is an argument that offers little alternative to despair.  

In a striking contrast, the mood at Herbst Theatre last week was celebratory. The upbeat feeling stemmed in part from Jacobs’ presence itself. The book that made her famous, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was published in 1961. How inspiring to see her, 43 years later, still leading the life of an active public intellectual. Her toughness and vitality were evident before she’d said a word: She walked onto the stage leaning heavily on a cane and then sank into the chair opposite Goldberger with a look of triumphant relief.  

The sense of enduring achievement and possibility was reinforced by the evening’s discursive tone. Gracious, charming and modest, Goldberger fulsomely praised his senior colleague. The Death and Life of American Cities, he proposed, is “one of the few books of our time about which it could be said, it changed the world....It is to the world of architecture and planning what Freud is to the world of psychology.....How much contemporary thinking comes from it!” 

Jacobs accepted the tribute. And why not? At 88, she’s entitled to rest on her considerable laurels. 

But the evening would have been far more interesting if she had said something like: If The Death and Life of Great American Cities had had the influence with which you credit it, I would have had far less reason to call my new book Dark Age Ahead.  

At one point, she did hint at her dissatisfaction with the current state of the planning field, after Goldberger asked her opinion of the New Urbanist movement.  

Jacobs replied: “I feel sorry for the New Urbanists. They talk a very good line. They’re a delight to read and to hear....But they don’t have very good tools, so what they create is very much what they like to hate.”  

These comments begged for a follow-up question. New Urbanists count Jacobs as a major source; some of their precepts—mixed use, transit-oriented development, traditional neighborhoods, and densification (yes, it’s a real word)—are central to Jacob’s own thought. So why the put-down? The issue has special relevance for Berkeleyans, who employ a city planning staff for whom these concepts are stock in trade. Frustratingly, Goldberger moved on to another theme. 

Dark Age Ahead holds some clues as to what Jacobs meant. Discussing how to fight sprawl, she argues that planners need to stop fixating on ground coverage, density and land use and start focussing on “performances,” which is to say, on what built environments actually do to people’s lives. “Whether densification actually can improve suburbs as places in which to live, work, have fun, learn, and raise families,” she writes, “will not depend on abstractions like densification and smart growth [first cousin to the New Urbanism], but rather on tangible, boring details.”  

The details she has in mind are the “dreaded side effects” of development that people routinely cite at zoning hearings—things like heavy automotive through-traffic, bad smells, “transgressions against harmonious street scales,” and the destruction of loved buildings and views and access to sun and sky, among others. We need “performance codes,” Jacobs writes, that are both direct and adaptable, as well as enforceable by “civil court orders requiring noncomplying and noncorrecting offenders to halt outlawed performances forthwith or vacate the premises.” 

What’s signal here, besides Jacobs’ attention to specifics and her endorsement of appropriate regulation, is her profound respect for ordinary people—even when those people are, in her own words, “suburbanites suspicious of change.” Jane Jacobs is first and foremost a democrat with a small “d”. Her new book is only 176 pages long, but in it she twice quotes Lincoln’s vow that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” That statement, she says in her final paragraph, embodies the ‘core values” of both American and Canadian culture.  

I stress Jacob’s democratic commitments because these days such commitments are often lacking among those who style themselves her followers. Of the local figures who readily come to mind here, the one who stands out is Berkeley’s most aggressive developer, Patrick Kennedy, an avowed Jacobs fan who has publicly characterized neighbors who oppose his ungainly projects as “vigilantes.”  

Kennedy might as well apply that label to Jacobs herself. Developers, planners, and other professionals who focus on her support of high density seem to forget that she came into her own as the leader of the successful fight to save her Greenwich Village neighborhood from high-rise urban renewal in the 1950s. To this day, Jacobs is not merely an active public intellectual; she’s also an active neighborhood activist, and one whose faith in democracy is complemented by an abiding distrust of credentialled authorities.  

Both the faith and the distrust were in lively evidence at Herbst Theatre. Repeatedly, Jacobs voiced skepticism about “experts.” As for formulating the “precise standards” that she considers indispensable to good urban development, Jacobs said that “the beginning step is going to zoning hearings and listening to what people are really saying.”  

City of Berkeley planning staff and public officials, please take note. ô