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The Death and Life of Great American Cities ()

National Review's List of the Top 100 Nonfiction Books of the 20th Century

The significance of Jane Jacobs's book is really twofold.  One reason is specific; it offers a devastating critique of urban planning.   The other is more general; it lies in the degree to which this amateur's analysis calls into question the very concepts of bureaucratic expertise and centralized planning.  On cities specifically, Jacobs was an early and prescient voice warning that what was being billed as urban renewal--big housing projects, highway building, creation of business districts, etc.--was actually destroying neighborhoods and creating more problems than it was solving. Subsequent events of the past forty years have certainly borne out her argument that the planners were killing cities.  An apt companion piece for her book would be The Power Broker : Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro, wherein the author demonstrates in detail that these plans came to be more about the exercise of power by the civil "servants" than about actually helping city dwellers.  The high rise housing projects that blight our urban landscape stand as eloquent testimony to the fact that, regardless of their original intentions, the bureaucrats of the Great Society wasted billions of dollars pursuing disastrous policies and left only ruin in their wake.

Of course, Urban Renewal was just one aspect of the liberal do-gooders sustained assault on the poor families of our great cities.  Similarly interventionist--and equally deleterious in their effect--were ideas like Welfare, the Sexual Revolution, and so on...  The entire panoply of supposedly benevolent government programs of the post-Depression era all had presumably unintended, though entirely foreseeable, adverse consequences for their supposed beneficiaries.  Jacobs' thesis is easily expanded, as indeed she has in successive books, to encompass all centralized government planning.  The alternative vision she offers, of more organic development (basically allowing Free Market forces to function), is certainly the prevailing notion today, at least rhetorically.  It is surely no coincidence that the rebirth of cities like New York has come about under the leadership of Republican mayors.  But one need only look at New York's schools to realize that the bureaucrats are fighting a tenacious rearguard action.  Virtually the entire book could be applied to today's education system.

One surefire sign that this book still strikes a nerve among the liberal elites is its inexcusable exclusion from the Modern Library Top 100 List.  Of course, that list includes instead the insipid  The City in History (1961) (Lewis Mumford 1895-1990)(see Orrin's review).  Mumford's book is mostly self evident historical analysis, devoid of ideas.  In sharp contrast, Jacobs' book is all idea, timeless ideas, and a slap in the face of the modern statists of the Left and the enormous hubris which convinces them that they should make our decisions for us.

One thing I especially love about books like Jacobs', is that they remind folks that conservatives aren't merely reactionaries--sniping at noble but misguided social policies only after they've failed--but actually foresaw the catastrophic effect that Big Government would have on our lives and warned against it at the time.  On the other hand, it's kind of frightening how much of this book remains timely and germane today; but in recent years it does at least seem as if Jacobs' vision is finally winning.  Let us hope so.


Grade: (A-)


Jane Jacobs Links:

    Jane Jacobs, 89; Writer, Activist Spoke Out Against Urban Renewal (Adam Bernstein, April 26, 2006, Washington Post)
    Jane Jacobs, Urban Activist, Is Dead at 89 (DOUGLAS MARTIN, 4/25/06, NY Times)
    She wrote the book on cities (WARREN GERARD, Apr. 26, 2006, Totonto STAR)
    -Jane Jacobs (Wikipedia)
    -Jane Jacobs Writing on the Web (The Preservation Institute)
    -The Jane Jacobs Home Page
    -INTERVIEW: Jane Jacobs Interviewed by Jim Kunstler (Metropolis Magazine, March 2001)
    -INTERVIEW: City Views: Urban studies legend Jane Jacobs on gentrification, the New Urbanism, and her legacy. (Interviewed by Bill Steigerwald, June 2001, Reason)
    -T.O. owes debt to Jacobs (CHRISTOPHER HUME, 4/26/06, Toronto Star)
    -Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) (FEE, April 26, 2006)
    -Building on Ideas for Urban Conservation (LINDA BAKER, March 4, 2001, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE: Jane Jacobs still helping to shape cities: "Death and Life of Great American Cities" author influential guide to new generation of urban planners (CNN, November 23, 2000)
    -PROFILE: CITIES AND SONGS (Adam Gopnik, 2004-05-17, The New Yorker)
    -Ideas That Matter (A Quarterly to Stimulate Public Discourse)
    -ESSAY: Jane Jacobs: Why TVA Failed, NY Review of Books
    -EXCERPT: Jane Jacobs on Urban Renewal in Hyde Park-Kenwood (from The Death and Life of Great American Cities)(Urban Planning at the University of Chicago)
    -LECTURE: The Separation of Norway from Sweden (Jane Jacobs, excerpted from the 1979 CBC Massey Lectures)
    -INTERVIEW: Jane Jacobs: Urban Agitator (Adele Freeman, Architecture Magazine)
    -INTERVIEW: Whole Earth: Vital Cities: An Interview with Jane Jacobs (Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Magazine)
    -DISCUSSION: Beyond the Car (A Panel Discussion with Olivia Chow, Joan Doiron, Jane Jacobs, Marilou McPhedran, Lisa Salsberg and Sue Zielinski)
    -DISCUSSION: After the Megacity: What Next? (MegaCouncil Watch)
    -PROFILE: When Jane Jacobs Took On the World (Robert Fulford, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: Jane Jacobs: Still a Pioneer (Paul Goldberger, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: An Expert on Cities, at Home in the World (MICHAEL KIMMELMAN, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: The Metropolis Observed: Jane Jacobs at 81 (Lisa Rochon, Metropolis Magazine)
    -PROFILE: Radical Dreamer: Jane Jacobs on the streets of Toronto (Robert Fulford, Azure, October-November 1997)
    -PROFILE: JANE JACOBS:  EYES ON THE STREET "Meaningful change doesn't come about through lots of clout and lots of money. It comes about through lots of little changes everywhere." (David Dillon, Preservation Magazine)
    -ARTICLE: Grooving with Jane Jacobs (Christina Varga, University of Toronto Varsity)
    -ARTICLE: Jane Jacobs talks city business (Paul-Mark Rendon, University of Western Ontario Gazette)
    -ESSAY: Why Jane Jacobs Stopped the Spadina (Debbie Gillies, 32CP1)
    -LINKS: Jane Jacobs: writing on the web (Preserve Net)
    -ESSAY: The Life And Death Of England's Cities (Ed Driscoll, August 07, 2005)
    -REVIEW: of The Nature of Economies By Jane Jacobs (Robert Kuttner, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Nature of Economies by Jane Jacobs Economies of Truth (ROBERT M. SOLOW, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of The Nature of Economies By Jane Jacobs (mike davis, Voice Literary Supplement)
    -REVIEW: Alan Ryan: Cautionary Tales, NY Review of Books
        Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics by Jane Jacobs
    -REVIEW: of SYSTEMS OF SURVIVAL A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics. By Jane Jacobs (Alan Wolfe, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Systems of Survival A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics By Jane Jacobs (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Peter Bauer: City Lights, NY Review of Books
        Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life by Jane Jacobs
    -REVIEW: of CITIES AND THE WEALTH OF NATIONS Principles of Economic Life. By Jane Jacobs (Richard J. Barnet, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of CITIES AND THE WEALTH OF NATIONS. Principles of Economic Life. By Jane Jacobs (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Richard Sennett: An Urban Anarchist, NY Review of Books
        The Economy of Cities by Jane Jacobs
    -REVIEW: E.Z. Friedenberg: Splitting Up,  NY Review of Books
        The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle Over Sovereignty by Jane Jacobs
    -REVIEW: of Cities and the Wealth of Nations by Jane Jacobs (John Chamberlain, The Freeman)
    -REVIEW: of Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics by Jane Jacobs (Peter J. Boettke, The Freeman)

Book-related and General Links:


    -Congress for the New Urbanism
    -ESSAY: Toronto, Canada:  A Big City that Works (Jay Walljasper, Utne Reader)
    -ESSAY:  The New Urban Studies : Los Angeles scholars use their region and their ideas to end the dominance of the 'Chicago School' (D.W. MILLER, Chronicle of Higher Education)
    -ESSAY : The Big City: Woody Allen and Some Curious Logic (JOHN TIERNEY, April 10, 2001, NY Times)
    -BOOK LISTS: Utne Reader Loose Canon
    -LINKS: Internet Resources for Public Planning