Q&A with Jane Jacobs biographer Robert Kanigel

This is the year of Jane Jacobs, or at least the year of books about her. 2016 is the 100th Anniversary of her birth and there has been a resultant crush of books published on her legacy this year. These range from more academic tracts life Peter Laurence’s “Becoming Jane Jacobs, to Melville House’s book of Q&As with her, to the new Robert Kanigel biography: “Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs.

Kanigel is an experienced biographer and the author of well-respected books on such figures as Frederick Taylor and Srinivasa Ramanujan (now adapted into a major motion picture). Today, “Eyes on the Street” has already generated more debate than any other book published on Jane Jacobs since the urbanist was still alive.

On Thursday Kanigel will speak at the Main Branch of the Free Library on the Ben Franklin Parkway—much hated by Jacobs—starting at 7:30. Jake Blumgart caught up with Kanigel for a Q&A earlier this week. This exchange has been edited and condensed for clarity:

Jake Blumgart: Philadelphia is awarded a prominent place in “Eyes on the Street”. You have a set piece where Ed Bacon is giving Jacobs a tour of a redeveloped area. She sees no one but a little boy kicking a tire and the scales fall from her eyes. What made you highlight this experience as the turning point where Jacobs began to seriously question urban renewal?

Robert Kanigel: Because she did. Bacon was showing her around areas of Philadelphia that he was proud of, that seemed to represent the Philadelphia of the future. He was taking her around before and after plots of Philadelphia, plots that still showed the old ways, crowded and old and decrepit and then the new Philadelphia he felt he was creating.

She looks and admires and thinks it’s lovely, just as he suggested, but she wonders where the people are. There were no people on the streets, whereas the old neighborhood seemed full of activity. People on the streets and the stoops, talking to one another.

There were two aspects to Jane’s response to Bacon’s account, the way she told it. One was that he really couldn’t furnish an answer. He didn’t say ‘in a few years it’ll be better,’ rather it was that he didn’t really seem interested in the question in the first place. That troubled her. From her point of view, he seemed to have a lack of curiosity about the human rather than the aesthetic perspective on the city. I think that what one of the seminal moments of her alteration of thinking.

Philadelphia was hardly unique in the indulgence of the large scale urban renewal projects of the kinds that Jacobs would become one of the defining critic of. Why did this encounter seem to you to be so revelatory as opposed to, say, similar tours she would have taken other cities around that time?

I think it was the lack of curiosity that she was reading into Ed Bacon’s reaction. She was an almost pathologically curious person, interested in every facet of what she was writing about.

When we look back on our own lives, sometimes events will happen that just click and leads to rethinking our lives, our personal beliefs, our convictions. This is a story that Jane told on many occasions, in many variations, but what I relayed was the essential story of it.  

I’ve read in other accounts of her relationship with Bacon over the years that she learned important lessons from him. Was there anything else that jumped out at you about her relationship with him that you weren’t able to include in the book?

For Jane, this was the moment that things changed. It’s really important to remember from the overall story of Jane, that she didn’t come into her views, they weren’t fully grown and in the early years she was working at Architectural Forum through 1952 to 1955 she was kind of accepting of the conventional wisdom. I think Bacon, generally speaking, represented the conventional wisdom on how to make cities better. This represented a step away from that conventional wisdom.

What do you say to the identification of her as a libertarian of sorts—a claim embraced both by some leftists and by libertarians?

I think she certainly had what me might very crudely and rightly value a libertarian streak. She did have an abhorrence of big institutions of all kinds—whether public or private. But to call her a libertarian herself though I think would be a mistake. …She preferred to stay away from any of those labels [or systemic thinking].

For example, she’s often seen as being against high rises. But late in her life she went to Hong Kong, which is of course known for its high rises dominating the landscape. She came away very surprised to see small hotels operating at one or two levels high up in a high rise. Or small manufacturing in those high rises that duplicated in a vertical way some of what she admired about a typical old fashioned streetscape. She was alive to that and willing to change her ideas.

Speaking of high rises, you note that she would have preferred to see the famous Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex reformed rather than demolished.

She thought it was a shame to knock it down. Maybe we should do something inventive and clever rather than tearing it down. Although she said that after it was already torn down.

She didn’t like Pruitt-Igoe, but she was against [tear downs] in principle…some people hold onto their clothes, it’s a perfectly good shirt, why throw it out just because it’s out of fashion? It’s an old-fashioned, conservative small-town attitude she was applying to these great, but terrible buildings. Let’s hold onto them and do something intelligent and clever with them.

Why were the rest of her books so poorly received? She never had another book close to as influential as The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

The question is best answered: how could it? I’ve written seven books and some of them do better, some of them do worse. That’s true of any author. You pursue the directions that are important to you and sometimes they connect better than others. Certainly, The Economy of Cities connected with a lot of people, and Cities and the Wealth of Nations won a Los Angeles Times Book prize. These were respected, serious books that connected with their audiences and I believe they are all in print.

But to expect any other book to have the hold on readers that Death and Life did is probably asking too much.  

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