Jane Jacobs, RIP

Although belated due to the recent nature of my joining the Conspiracy, I do want to pay tribute to legendary urban theorist Jane Jacobs, who passed away last week. Jacobs wrote many important books, including The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), a classic critique of urban planning and "renewal" programs that caused tremendous harm in the post-WWII period, including the forcible displacement of hundreds of thousands of people (primarily poor and minorities). In that book and elsewhere, Jacobs also was one of the first critics of the use of eminent domain for "development" purposes. In the Kelo case (which angered her even more than it did me), I had the privilege of writing an amicus brief on her behalf, which is available here.

Update: The link to the amica curiae brief has been fixed and should now be working.

Rue Des Quatre Vents (mail):
Just how libertarian can we characterize Jane Jacobs?
5.3.2006 10:35am
Robert Schwartz (mail):
Outgrowing Jane Jacobs and Her New York, By Nicolai Ouroussoff Published: April 30, 2006:

"By then, Ms. Jacobs had fled for Toronto, and Mr. Moses, who died in 1981, had lost much of his power and prestige. But in the popular imagination, the two are forever at odds: the imperious city planning czar versus the tireless public advocate. Today, the pendulum of opinion has swung so far in favor of Ms. Jacobs that it has distorted the public's understanding of urban planning. As we mourn her death, we may want to mourn a bit for Mr. Moses as well."

"Ms. Jacobs had few answers for suburban sprawl or the nation's dependence on cars, which remains critical to the development of American cities. She could not see that the same freeway that isolated her beloved, working-class North End from downtown Boston also protected it from gentrification. And she never understood cities like Los Angeles, whose beauty stems from the heroic scale of its freeways and its strange interweaving of man-made and natural environments."

"The threats facing the contemporary city are not what they were when she first formed her ideas, now nearly 50 years ago. The activists of Ms. Jacobs's generation may have saved SoHo from Mr. Moses' bulldozers, but they could not stop it from becoming an open-air mall."

"The old buildings are still there, the streets are once again paved in cobblestone, but the rich mix of manufacturers, artists and gallery owners has been replaced by homogenous crowds of lemming-like shoppers. Nothing is produced there any more. It is a corner of the city that is nearly as soulless, in its way, as the superblocks that Ms. Jacobs so reviled."

"The answer to such superficiality is not to resurrect the spirit of Robert Moses. But in retrospect his vision, however flawed, represented an America that still believed a healthy government would provide the infrastructure — roads, parks, bridges — that binds us into a nation. Ms. Jacobs, at her best, was fighting to preserve the more delicate bonds that tie us to a community. A city, to survive and flourish, needs both perspectives."


My own view is that Jane Jacobs lead the charge of the Greenwich Village idiots against Robert Moses' beautiful vision for downtown Manhattan. This ushered in years of decay, crime, drug addiction and misery, that is only now beginning to be dispelled.

She also was one of the ideological forces behind the plague of NIMYBISM that is crippling the country's ability to respond to the pressing problems of energy and the environment.
5.3.2006 11:32am
Gary Imhoff (mail) (www):
Both links go to the Washington Post obituary. Can you correct the second link, so that it goes to your amicus brief? Thanks.
5.3.2006 11:39am
Robert Moses was a destructive racist who believed that the collective whims of the wealthy and powerful reigned supreme over the rights of any individual. There are few more deplorable characters in the history of our urban environment and few more deplorable characters in urban scholarship than his apologists.
5.3.2006 12:51pm
Alex R:
Since Robert Schwartz has repeated the claim that he made in comments on Marginal Revolution, essentially that Moses was right to propose a Lower Manhattan Expressway and Jacobs was wrong to fight it, I will repeat my request that he defend that claim with an argument stronger than "The conventional wisdom is always wrong". In what ways would Greenwich Village or the rest of New York be better today with an expressway in place of Soho? Would those benefits really outweigh the costs?

I would also note that the Nicolai Ouroussoff piece he quotes does not say that Jacobs was wrong in her battles, only that her modern acolytes have "overlearned" her lessons and the 2000s may require different approaches.
5.3.2006 1:33pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
Alex: You have to have seen it. As I think about it. I am taken with the idea of an expressway rather than SoHo. I think cars a better for everyone than the current residents of that neigborhood.

Whatever: Whatever.
5.3.2006 3:23pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
Oh yes, and Alex, mine kind, the conventional wisdom is always wrong.
5.3.2006 3:27pm
Chico's Bail Bonds (mail):
No, Schwartz is right. If only Manhattan were more like Irvine, that would be great!
5.3.2006 3:33pm
It's a funny time when Robert Moses and his "progressive" nostrums for "urban renewal," in the 1950's and 1960's the province of Great Society Democrats and technocrats, are now the nostrums given to us by the conventional Republican right, with its glorification of autopian suburbia and nihilistic attack on our cities.
5.3.2006 4:21pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
"the conventional Republican right"

I hate being thought of as conventional.
5.3.2006 5:01pm
byrd (mail):
So Robert, if you were in a life raft and nearby were a drowning hippie and a drowning DeSoto and you could save only one, which would you save? (Just kidding, mostly, but I refuse to use emoticons.)

I think that Moses' failure to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway was one of the best things to happen to NYC in the last 50 years. He wanted us to be born, live and die in cars and had no respect for the city.

Ilya, thank you for this post. It reminds me of my last drinking days. The bartender in my favorite haunt was an urban planning hobbiest (he actually made maps in his free time for fun). Jane's book was one of his all time favorites and he could go on for hours about the evils of Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co.
5.3.2006 6:23pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
A DeSoto? With a hemi? Wow!
5.3.2006 6:40pm
As for Euclid v. Ambler Realty, evil does not equal unconstitutional.

Which is basically Justice Stevens' argument in the Kelo decision.
5.3.2006 6:57pm
By the way, Professor Somin, your brief for Jane Jacobs was very well done - it proved (along with several others submitted) that anti-Kelo critiques are not the exclusive province of property rights fundamentalists, but have compelling policy arguments to make as well.

It's a shame that my professional organization, the American Planning Association, took the wrong side on this issue. Which might explain why I am now in law school!
5.3.2006 7:07pm
David Sucher (mail) (www):
"Just how libertarian can we characterize Jane Jacobs?"

My take on Jacobs is that if she had had legal training, she would have argued for a "least intrusive means test" for land use regulations i.e. regulations are necessary but we should use the least burdensome methods possible to achieve particular goals.

As another ex-planner, I don't think that such an idea is even on the table in land use circles. Thus we get huge and complex zoning codes which in many instances don't do more than simple ones. Just compare the fine residential apartment buildings of the 1920s with the ones we build today. Part of the problem is that modernist architecture has inserted the notion that "design flexibility" and "creativity" are associated with good cities.
5.3.2006 8:29pm
David Sucher (mail) (www):
And Btw, that is a very fine brief.
I am honored to be in the same thread as its author.
5.3.2006 9:06pm
Gene Vilensky (mail) (www):
A couple of things about Soho.

Actually, Soho is now one of the centers in America of design (in particular, fashion and interior) as well as a mini-center of cutting edge advertising (MVBMS-Euro has its New York headquarters there). The store-fronts you see on the first floor only paint a partial picture of what is actuall going on there. So, to attack Soho for being merely a shopping destination is a tad silly.

I am a tad torn on the issue of whether communities ought be kept the way they are or whether change is in order. One example is Harlem. There was an article in the Real Estate section of the New York Times recently about the lack of restaurants in that area. It turns out that the reason is that Harlem has too many churches and too many community activists. New York state bans an establishment from serving or selling hard alcohol if its entrance is less than 200 feet from the entrance to a school or a place of religious worship.

These restrictive zoning rules, as well as opposition by community activists at liquor license board hearings, has kept Harlem without many fine dining choices. And on top of it, local activists have attempted to block redevelopment of Harlem buildings into Tribeca-style lofts. And even if the luxury apts. do get built, who would buy them since few decent dining options are around? This leaves Harlem permanently underdevelopped, with few economic opportunities for its residents.

So, while I do agree with the community activists on some issues like not using eminent domain for development, I think the preservationists who take many pages out of Jacobs' book tend to be wrong about the effect that development will have on their neighborhoods.
5.3.2006 10:11pm
Randy R. (mail):
Any one who says that Jane Jacob's fight to keep the expressway out of Greenwich Village and lower Manhatten resulted in urban blight is just nuts. The Village has always been a desireable place to live and work. Other parts of New York may have suffered, such as the Bronx, but that is due largely to Moses' failed policy. If you look at places where the big urban renewal programs were insitutited, THAT's where you find the failed programs, such as Cabrini Green in Chicago, or Prudhoe in St. Louis.

Jacob's was prescient in many ways, and her books still stand the test of time.
5.4.2006 2:00am