Are there any nonfiction books on your shelf over fifty years old? I have only a few reference books: Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, and Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. These have been updated, periodically overhauled. I also have a few fiction classics, and two classic texts left over from university: Plato’s Republic, Machiavelli’s The Prince. And the Bible.
But I also have the book that we are beginning to read today: The Death and Life of Great American Cities, penned by Jane Jacobs in the late 1950s and published by Random House in 1961. Jacobs lived to the age of 89. In her lifetime it was reprinted many times, and translated into several languages, but to the best of my knowledge, she never altered a single word in it. She did offer a new Introduction for a 1992 edition, in which she described the evolution of her work as having become about observing a city’s “ecology”—from which one of the sponsoring organizations of this Book Club has taken its name (Centre for City Ecology). She stood pat on the original text of Death and Life.
Like many, I first read Death and Life as part of a university course in the early 1980s. It was assigned, interestingly, as a text for a course that was looking at cities in what was then called “the Third World” (thank goodness we’ve dropped that hubristic label; at least the vocabulary has changed). Taught by esteemed University of Toronto professor Richard Stren, the course focused on the dynamism of “informal” settlements in Africa, Asia, and South America. Although Jacobs’ observations had been taken principally from American cities, Stren cited her as the early observer of the dynamic elements of vibrant urban life, and of the perils of over-planning and trying to “control” or “clean up” a city. Stren’s life work has continued to be about valuing the informal in cities in the Global South, and he, like so many others, sees Jacobs as a sage.
I remember not attending very much of that course, surviving, though, largely due to Professor Stren’s forbearance. I was near graduation, ready to be out and about, to find my way in the big city. I made money then as a basketball referee. My eagerness (and income needs!) made me available for every assignment, no matter when or where. I got to know the transit system very well. (At that time, more organized recreational basketball was played in Toronto than in any other North American city—an early indicator of the evolving impact that large numbers of immigrants, and ball-playing cultures, were having on it). Those years had an indelible impact not only on my knees, but also on my understanding of the workings of the city, its neighborhoods, how it supported (or suppressed) people’s aspirations and their commitment to community, and the make-up of their lives.
For the first time I saw teenage moms—in the stands of their high school gymnasiums, with their infants. From those bus windows I saw empty playgrounds, strip malls, blocks and blocks of old low-rise apartment buildings and wartime bungalows, new towers (condominiums: what were they?). I watched daytime business execs blow off steam in high school gyms and community centres, as they became evening bloodhounds, playing in the “industrial” leagues their pals organized. (The Filipino leagues, which played all day on the weekends, brought their own delicious food, spurning vending machine fare for Tupperware.) I’d leave late-night games and trundle home on the subway, accompanied by other late work-leavers, or shift workers, teen carousers, or adults heading home after a movie or play.
I was in my early twenties. This was the city—and I was seeing it.
That is the exhortation Jacobs speaks in Death and Life. She purposefully included no photos, no sketches (actually there are a few hand drawn, showing the benefit of short blocks), no graphs. (Had PowerPoint existed, I suspect Jane would have never used it.) Right at the outset she tells us why: because what illustrates her points is all around us, and that we should “listen, linger, and think about what you see.”1 But more importantly—and I think this is central to the Jacobs ethos—she required her readers to do their own work. She was not a prescriber. This is hard for many of us, because we all look for a source of steady, certain answers.
Stop reading Death and Life if that’s what you’re after. I read sections of Death and Life frequently, because they remind me to pay attention to detail; to probe what is really going on in a practical way rather than accept some pat explanation; because her prose is just so beautifully constructed you can’t help yourself to not read just another page (that just happened to me, again); and because her analysis is not predictable. After you read her, you’re left with your own thoughts and musings, from your own observations and experience. Just wait until the chapters when she discusses streets and parks. Her observations are so opposite to common thinking—still.
Perhaps that speaks to an important lens with which we can together read this explicative volume. Why are so many of the challenges Jacobs identifies, and the foibles she exposes, still so prevalent in the ways cities are building and developing (old and new)? Who, or “what” is not getting this? What stubborn structures continue to obstruct the organic, the particular, the diverse, the vibrant, the sustainable, the self-organizing, the resilient, the livable city? Or, where do we see these aspects of city life flourishing—and why there, and why now?
This week we are to be reading the Introduction. On the page facing it, Jacobs chose to quote Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose ideas she greatly admired. I am struck by the hopefulness of the quote she chose:
“…more complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life. They mean more life. Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it.” (Jacobs quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes, Front matter, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Random House, New York, 1961.)
The Introduction begins with a sentence for which she is now—in professional planning circles—infamous. “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” The chapter—which is really a tour de force, summarizing the ideas that she will lay out in detail and the notions that will become, over time, generally accepted as the contemporary understanding of how great, large, complex cities thrive, or decline. But that first sentence has led what may have already been a narcissistically-preoccupied profession—urban planning—into thinking this book, and therefore city-building, is about them. (Attention readers who happen to be planners: You probably think this book is about you, don’t you…don’t you…?). It really isn’t. What we’ve seen in my lifetime (I am just slightly older than the book) is the democratization of city-building, with Jacobs’ neutralizing the traditional deference paid to ‘experts’, in favour of the real experience of people. Her practical, common sense analysis and shunning of grand approaches and universal theories was by her own powers—as Holmes advocated—by which she made sense of the city. She challenges her readers to do so also. Where has this left the profession of planning? If lay people—who live, work, and use the city in every way—know best what they need and want from it, what “expertise” does a planner bring? This is a worthy question, to which lots of planners have creatively responded (including several you will read here, in subsequent posts). But Death and Life is not about planning or planners. It’s about life.
As mentioned earlier, Jacobs wrote a new essay for the front matter of the 1992 edition, to include with the original Introduction. If your edition doesn’t include it, you might want to borrow a friend’s 1992 book or read an excerpt online, as it provides a further challenge from the author to better understand how cities work, and the still generally unheeded implications for their planning and governance.
Reading Death and Life first in the Jacobs canon is important because the concepts here underpin her work that follows. In reflection you can see the seeds of subsequent volumes—how city economies grow, the challenges of governance and dependencies on “senior” governments, the importance of seeing connections—the “web” of organized complexity, her distrust of large “schemes” or one-size-fits-all universals (from the “right” or the “left”). And she lays out her method, to which you will see she returns again and again, as her “tactics for understanding”:
- think about processes, not outcomes;
- work inductively, not developing theories and applying them; and
- look for the “un-average”—clues that explain things in smaller instances and quantities that may be instructive at larger scales. (For more information on this, see the final chapter of Death and Life, “The Kind of Problem a City Is”.)
Death and Life is an eloquent and rigorous primer of the Jacobs way. And if you’re like me, you’ll return to Death and Life again and again, as a reminder to pay attention to what you are seeing.
My own life experience continues to confirm what Jacobs first described fifty years ago: the city is the never-ending story. The City Builder Book Club is an exciting new vehicle for reading and telling one another the stories of the city. I am looking forward very much to readings yours. Thanks Jane. (And you too, Dr. Stren.)
1. The Center for the Living City, initiated by Jacobs’ friend and colleague, urban chronicler Roberta Gratz, and directed by artist/planning professor Stephen Goldsmith, was created to advance the legacy of Jane Jacobs. To that end, in 2010 the Center published, with New Village Press, a terrific book embracing Jacobs’ exhortation, entitled What We See. This volume, available here, is a great companion piece to Death and Life. Once you’ve read the latter, dip into What We See.