Fifty Years On: Jane Jacobs and the Rebirth of New York

September 15, 2011 | 4 books mentioned 6 10 min read

coverA few weeks ago I took a break from reading Jane JacobsThe Death and Life of Great American Cities to visit the block of Hudson Street in Manhattan’s West Village where Jacobs lived when she wrote her classic book on urban planning. One block over, on Bleecker Street, the storefronts bear the names of some of the most iconic brands in fashion – Steve Madden, Juicy Couture, Coach, Michael Kors – but Jacobs’ old block of Hudson between Perry and West 11th retains its scruffy charm, mixing small residential buildings with restaurants, a bar, a nail salon, a bodega, and a dry cleaner.

Then I stopped in at 555 Hudson Street, the building where Jacobs lived with her husband and three children, now occupied by a store called Glassybaby. It is, to be frank, a curious place. The store, spacious by the standards of the neighborhood, is dedicated to a single product, a short, stout, handcrafted glass votive holder that comes in two sizes and a rainbow of colors ranging from “smooch” (hot pink) to “wet dog” (dark brown). If this were a novel, I thought as I browsed this queer crop of retail monoculture, the Glassybaby store would be symbolic of something. But what? Is the store an example of the quirky, one-of-a-kind businesses Jacobs said cities must attract to remain vital? Or is there something vaguely ominous in the building that once housed Jane Jacobs, the queen of urban diversity, becoming home to a store that stocks shelf after shelf of whimsically useless objects lovingly hand-made to look identical except in color?

Jacobs surely would have had something to say on the subject, but she died in 2006 and all we have to go on are her books, the first and most famous of which turns fifty this fall. Vintage Books is coming out with a 50th Anniversary edition of The Death and Life, and there will be numerous commemorations and re-evaluations this fall. All of this is richly deserved. The Death and Life is a terrific read, tart and personable, larded with great gobs of commonsensical observations about how large cities work, presented in clear, straightforward prose. But wise as The Death and Life is, it doesn’t take a degree in economics to see that Jacobs’ observations on the virtues of walkable streets and diverse neighborhoods offered little insight into what was really killing America’s great cities in the middle of the last century: the loss of their manufacturing base.

This is why anyone who wants to understand Jacobs should read her later books, particularly The Economy of Cities. Together, The Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Economy of Cities – the first a classic, the second far less known – form a single, groundbreaking treatise on how cities succeed and fail. Jacobs’ message is simple: a city, and thus a society, lives and dies by how well it can build a creative environment for its citizens to innovate their way out of trouble. This argument is too simple, in that it underplays the role external forces – the depletion of natural resources, the unexpected rise of rivals, and plain dumb luck – can play in the fate of a society. But this country faces a strange conundrum: New York City, which forty years ago was headed for bankruptcy while the rest of the nation was booming, is now clicking right along while the rest of the nation falters. There are many reasons why this should be so, among them dumb luck, but anyone wishing to bring about a version of New York’s miraculous rebirth in his or her own city would do well to reread Jane Jacobs.

Born in 1916 and raised in the coal-mining town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Jacobs moved to New York in the mid-1930s and soon found her way to Greenwich Village. Untrained as a city planner, she rose to prominence in New York politics through her work as a neighborhood organizer, most famously opposing über-planner Robert Moses, who wanted to run a ten-lane expressway through lower Manhattan, a travesty of a project which, had it been built, would have leveled great swaths of Little Italy and Soho.

coverMoses, the Machiavellian central figure of Robert Caro’s biography The Power Broker, earns only passing mentions in The Death and Life and The Economy of Cities, but the books are in many ways an extended polemic against Moses and his vision for a 20th century New York. Moses and like-minded architects such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier sought to clear cities of squalor by replacing tenement slums with vast housing complexes surrounded by parkland and ribbons of highway. In practice, this meant razing entire neighborhoods and stuffing thousands of poor people into high-rise “projects” that soon devolved into crime-ridden towers of drug addiction and despair.

Jacobs’ first great insight was to see cities not as machines for living, but instead as living, breathing organisms. Future planners, she says in The Death and Life, must “think of cities as problems in organized complexity – organisms that are replete with unexamined, but obviously intricately interconnected, and surely understandable, relationships.” But if a city is a living thing, then it can die, and Jacobs’ second great insight was that cities are a self-propagating species. To dump money indiscriminately on a city from outside, in her view, is like sticking a feeding tube down a patient’s throat: it might keep the patient from dying, but it’s not likely to help him get out of bed. The best way to grow a city’s economy is clear away the impediments, architectural, governmental, and economic, that stand in the way of individuals working together to make things for themselves.

Jacobs begins her study of how cities function at the atomic level of a single block, using her own stretch of Hudson Street as her test tube. With a sharp eye and great good sense, she describes how a successful block attracts a diverse set of users, not just residents, but local shopkeepers and visitors from other areas of the city who, without really being aware they are doing so, look out for one another. When it works, she writes, a successful block is the setting for:

an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of a good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.

Jacobs builds upon this image of a “sidewalk ballet” to tackle the knotty problem of how to create a city full of successful blocks. Streets should be short, with wide sidewalks, a good mix of old and new buildings, and a broad range of businesses likely to attract a true diversity of residents and business owners.

If you want to see how these ideas have influenced modern city planning, visit Battery Park City, a planned community at the southern tip of Manhattan built atop displaced fill from the Twin Towers, where short residential blocks are interwoven with pocket parks, playgrounds, shopping areas, and public buildings like schools and libraries. If you live in a big city, chances are that you live near a residential complex like this one, and chances are that, like Battery Park City, it is among the most popular neighborhoods in your city for young urbanites with kids.

The ideas in The Death and Life are so sensible, so profoundly American in their promotion of diversity and tolerance, that it is easy to forget that, while Moses’ public housing towers were just as socially destructive as Jacobs says they were, so were the squalid tenement houses they replaced. For more than a century, from the Irish Potato Famines in the 1840s until the peak of the African-American Great Migration in the late 1950s, waves of immigrants landed in New York’s poorest neighborhoods. These newcomers endured crime-ridden, rat-infested tenements, first, because lousy as conditions were, it beat how they had been living, and, second, because they knew their children and grandchildren could rise out of the ghettos into the American middle class. And rise they did, decade after decade, borne aloft an ever-expanding American manufacturing base – until, that is, the late 1950s when manufacturing jobs began to seep away, first from big cities like New York and, later, from the country as a whole.

In The Death and Life, Jacobs is curiously silent about the twin economic dynamos, shipping and manufacturing, that made New York great, and then, by disappearing, nearly sank the city into bankruptcy. “[T]he economic foundation of cities is trade,” she writes. “Even manufacturing occurs in cities mainly because of attached advantages involving trade, not because it is easier to manufacture things in cities.” Without the context from her later works this sounds absurd, and if one stops with The Death and Life of American Cities, one might conclude that, while Jacobs was a visionary urban planner, she didn’t grasp the economic realities that cause big cities to live and die.

coverJacobs must have entertained similar thoughts, because she appears to have spent the next twenty-odd years of her life studying this very issue. In the two books that emerged from this prolonged study, The Economy of Cities, in 1969, and Cities and the Wealth of Nations, in 1984, Jacobs lays out just what great cities like New York needed to do to bring themselves back from the dead.

In popular lore, the tale of New York’s rise from the abyss turns on Mayor Giuliani and the Squeegee Men. In the early years of the Giuliani Administration, drivers at busy intersections of Manhattan would be approached by homeless guys bearing squeegees who would clean the windshield without being asked and then hassle the driver for a tip. Giuliani took on the Squeegee Men and busted kids spraying graffiti on subway cars, and so the story goes, crack magically vanished from the streets, ordinary people could ride the subways again, and Rev. Al Sharpton had so little to complain about in New York he had to run for president.

This is, of course, fanciful. In fact, the story of New York’s turnaround is primarily an economic one. After decades of stagnation caused by the decline of local industry, New York finally caught the return wave of globalization, which needed a world capital for finance, media, and high-end product design. The rise in these industries, in turn, drove a booming service economy that sopped up waves of immigrants, and faster than you can say Mike Bloomberg, New York was again a world colossus.

But why did a city like New York recover when a city like Detroit, which had a more durable industrial base, fell into blight and decay? The answer, Jacobs argues in The Economy of Cities, turns on the ability of a city’s inhabitants to innovate. Cities grow, she says, through a process she calls “import replacement.” This occurs when local tradesmen produce for themselves the goods and services they had previously been importing and then use the skills learned from this local production to create new products, which they can then export in great bulk. Detroit, she notes, began as a port for shipping flour across the Great Lakes. Soon, local manufacturers were building their own steamships to make the lake crossings and got so good at it they began making ocean-going ships for use in other cities. This not only put money into local coffers, but supported the dozens of local engine-parts makers Henry Ford drew upon when he founded the Ford Motor Company.

But here’s the rub: the auto industry was so successful that once Ford arrived at his greatest innovation, the assembly line, the industry so dominated Detroit’s economy that there was no local market for further innovation, and, as Jacobs points out, it was only a matter of time before another city – in this case, cities in Japan – improved upon Ford’s ideas and made better, cheaper cars. The Economy of Cities came out four years before the gas crisis that set Detroit’s long tailspin in motion, but it eerily predicts the dilemma the city faces today, in which a moribund auto industry, out-innovated by foreign competitors, had to be bailed out by the U.S. taxpayer to avoid collapse.

Like Detroit, New York began as a port city, but in New York’s case a principal byproduct of its shipping trade was a robust banking industry, which survived the city’s manufacturing collapse. Even as New York was begging for a bailout from the federal government in the mid-1970s, young hotshots like Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, many of them children and grandchildren of immigrants who had filled the ghettos earlier in the century, were inventing new ways to own and finance large companies. Think of all the financial innovations of the last thirty years: junk bonds, hedge funds, leveraged buyouts, asset-backed securities, credit derivatives, subprime mortgage markets, and on and on. Yes, bankers are evil, and, yes, the banking industry required a federal bailout even larger than that of the auto industry’s, but like it or not, New York is the safest large city in America, with a vital private sector and a buoyant real estate market, largely because the living, breathing organism we call Wall Street has spent the last thirty years innovating its way out of obsolescence.

Which brings us back to the Glassybaby store. When I walked out of Glassybaby, I felt certain Jane Jacobs would have agreed with me that the store was a sad commentary on what had become of her beloved West Village. An entire store devoted to votive holders? What’s next, a store that sells only Tibetan prayer flags? A pet store specializing in fair-trade chew toys? Now I can see I was wrong, mostly because I, possessor of a less subtle mind than Jacobs’, let my personal prejudices get in the way.

Whatever Jacobs may have thought of Glassybaby as a product, she would have seen the store for what it is: a small, niche business that neatly encapsulates her economic theories. According to its website, Glassybaby started when its founder Lee Rhodes was battling cancer and found solace in glass votives that she spread around her house. She soon taught herself to make the votives herself and began distributing them, first as gifts to friends and later as products sold to strangers. The market for these items was so strong that she taught other glass blowers to make Glassybabies and then opened retail stores, first in her native Seattle and now in New York. In 2009, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos acquired a 22 percent stake in the young company.

Thus, just as Jacobs describes, a smart, creative person has adapted an imported product to her needs, hired others to help her produce and sell it, and has now found financial backing to export it to other cities. What’s more, now that Rhodes has identified a market niche, she has found ever more creative uses for her product, including programs that allow percentages of sales of certain colors of her votives to go charity. Rhodes, with nothing more than some colored glass and a good idea, has created money and jobs where they didn’t exist before, and in the process, found an original way to serve a market niche that others can now exploit.

I could be wrong, but I suspect Jane Jacobs wouldn’t have been a big Glassybaby customer, and I am certain she would have deplored all those Wall Street hotshots selling each other worthless tranches of securitized home loans until the system blew up. But I think she would have acknowledged the uncomfortable truth that those guys brought New York back from the dead to the point it could support a quirky, marginal business like Glassybaby. Today, as we as a nation stare down the double barrels of high debt and low employment, the question is whether we can follow Wall Street’s example of serial reinvention or turn our backs on the lessons of Jacobs’ work and end up a nation of proud, decaying Detroits, blaming other, more creative folk for our failures?

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022


  1. Nice piece; always like to see Jacobs remembered by the literariate. Although one could recommend dozens of secondary sources dealing with the period she lived in (and fought through), an excellent recent exemplar is Christopher Klemek’s “The Transatlantic Collapse of Urban Renewal,” which (a) talks about Jacobs’ efforts in Toronto as well as in New York, and (b) places those efforts in the context of comparable (at least in aim) movements in England and Germany.

    Plus, there’s a great picture of activists burning a car in Washington Square Park to celebrate the defeat of the attempt to put a thoroughfare there.

  2. “New York City, which forty years ago was headed for bankruptcy while the rest of the nation was booming, is now clicking right along while the rest of the nation falters.”

    Not that it changes your thesis, but the U.S was hardly booming in 1975 when NYC slid close to bankruptcy. It was caught in a recession combined with inflation. NYC’s problems were symptomatic of the nation’s as a whole.

  3. I too always like to see pieces on Jane Jacobs. That being said, I don’t think she would argue against the economic revolution (from manufacturing based to service based) would result in some neighborhoods facing the guillotine, but the post-war planning orthodoxy tried to push entire American cities into mass graves. NYC was able to maintain its diversity and density—due in part to Jacobs’ efforts. Meanwhile, Detroit became less dense with the suburbanization of the auto firms and their employees, and became less diverse due to the dominance of the Big 3. Therefore, when Manhattan and downtown Detroit lost their comparative advantages in shipping and manufacturing, only Manhattan maintained the needed diversity and density for its renaissance. At least that’s part of the story.

    “There are many reasons why this should be so, among them dumb luck”
    – I don’t think “dumb luck” is ever a reason why something “should be.”

    “In her view, is like sticking a feeding tube down a patient’s throat: it might keep the patient from dying, but it’s not likely to help him get out of bed.”
    – Using a feeding tube is “likely to help him get out of bed.”

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