Tom MacWright

I read Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs on


This book sat on my list for over a year before I spotted the gold-jacketed 50th anniversary edition at The Bindery. I read it in fits and starts, losing interest somewhere in Part 2 and finding a groove again in 3 & 4. Much wider-ranging, and much earlier, than Human Transit, it occupies a similar space and shares a lot of ideological ground.

I greatly enjoyed this book. Reading it in 2018 requires you to remember that before Jacobs, the norms of city planning and the attitudes toward cities were much different than they are today, and many of the ideas we consider mainstream were conceived, or at least promoted, by Jacobs. She writes with an attention to people and life that I found engaging and unlike a lot of planning-related books that I’ve read. Where Walker or another modern author writes about transit passengers in the aggregate and maybe adds their age and role as detail, Jacobs very much lives in a city and writes about more than simple top-line numbers or projected efficiencies.

Where Jacobs is a bit tricky - as the New York Times review points out - is in her dismissal of predecessors like Corbusier and Mumford, who were prominent in her time but rarely mentioned today. Part of her thought is a strong reaction to these influences, and an attempt to find alternative narratives, like those she spins in Chicago, Boston, and New York. Part of her narrative, too, which seems awkwardly modern, is a sort of libertarian free-market streak: approached in her ideas about rent assistance and the few words she spends on government buildings. I fear that this is the side of her thinking that eventually yielded Dark Age Ahead, her 2004 book about the decay of society.

I have many notes on this one, and might eventually add them here, but one other bit that comes to mind for this short review is the social environment she writes about, that is critiqued in Ned Beauman’s review in The Guardian:

Jacobs romanticised social conditions that were already becoming obsolete by the time she wrote about them.

This really rung true for me - that she talks about shopkeepers who know you by name and keep your keys, and watch out for the neighborhood kids. I’ve lived in many neighborhoods that have long-present populations, mixed uses, short blocks - all the things Jacobs prescribes for social cohesion - but never one that had the sort of casual encounters she describes. The man who runs the corner store on my block recognizes me, but does that social bond extend beyond that, for me or anyone? In a way the world of Jacobs probably did exist, and probably explains those older television shows where a jolly man walks down the street and everyone greets him by name. That’s just a social norm that I was born too late to ever encounter.

Anyway, Death and Life is wholly deserving of its reputation. It was written over half a century ago, but its recommendations and ideas are still worthy of consideration and the general approach and writing style demonstrate a way to explain and persuade that many current advocates could learn from.