April 27, 2006,
Jane Jacobs, R.I.P.
Remembering an extraordinary intellectual.
Jane Jacobs, one of my heroes, died Tuesday. Her Death and Life of Great American Cities is regarded as one of the most influential books published in the 20th century. It was the first of several books in which she developed a vision of the economy as a complex, adaptive system, driven by the cumulative efforts of mostly ordinary people whose creativity flourishes in the free air of cities. (Other books include The Economy of Cities (1969), Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1985), and The Nature of Economies (2000), as well as an article in the prestigious American Economic Review (September 1969).) For Jacobs, population density plus diversity in skills and tastes generates, without too much fuss, dynamic economic development and entrepreneurial discovery. With that vision came a withering critique of intervention by all levels of government and in nearly all its forms from urban renewal and zoning to price controls and monetary policy. She argued that these undermine the civic basis of economic and cultural creativity.
I had the unbelievably good fortune to meet her three springs ago. She had just finished her ninth book, Dark Age Ahead (2004), and had plans for two more. She was just shy of 87. I will never forget the moment when she appeared at the front door of her home in Toronto, approaching slowly with her walker, looking heavy and frail, smiling benignly and with a sparkle in her eyes: quite a contrast from the image I'd formed from her books of a sharp-witted, forceful thinker. After over four hours of conversation, though, it was clear that the reality fit the image very well indeed.
I felt in her presence much as I did when I had the chance to talk with the great economist, F. A. Hayek . . . only this was much better. What I remember most from that fantasy afternoon is not the ideas we discussed and recorded, which ranged from the pros and cons of the New Urbanism to the errors of macroeconomic policy, or that in that whole time her mind never once faltered (while mine was faltering all over the place). What I will never forget is her warmth and her kindness. My three colleagues and I had planned to stay an hour or so. Each time we made ready to leave she would bring up another topic for discussion, eventually asking us to stay for tea. She welcomed us as her guests but then somehow made us feel like friends, even like family. Beneath her no-nonsense and non-sentimental approach to her life and her work was a deep humanity.
It was that humanity, I think, that naturally led her to see and explain cities from the perspective of flesh-and-blood people on the street. Everything else seems to follow from there: that networks of trust form from casual and informal public contact; that successful cities use those networks as incubators of ideas; that thriving economic and ecological systems are not in static equilibrium but are in fact dynamically stable; that the moral systems appropriate to the market and to governance are fundamentally in opposition; and that civilizations and the cities that constitute them live and die.
She didn't just write about what she read or even about what the keen mind behind her "eyes on the street" was able to analyze. She also wrote about what she did. One of the chapters of Life and Death, the one in which she coins the now-fashionable term "social capital," talks about the conditions in which city districts can use social ties to organize against the intrusions of government policies that would undermine those ties and the precious personal connections that emerge from them. This was not speculation. This was essentially a recounting of how she relentlessly fought, and ultimately defeated, the plan of the powerful master-builder of New York, Robert Moses, to carve a freeway through the heart of what is now the vibrant Soho district of lower Manhattan. Jacobs preached what she practiced, and that, as well as her commonsense genius, is what continues to inspire intellectuals and activists of all ideologies.
I will miss those two books she didn't write even as I use and critique the bold ideas she did publish. I will miss her quiet radiance. She was extraordinary and very human, unexpectedly profound, and, I will presume to say, my friend.
Sandy Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY.