Opinion

Alex Beam

The deification of urbanist Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs
TORONTO STAR SYNDICATE
Jane Jacobs.

Jane Jacobs is breaking out all over. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of her birth this month, more than 200 cities and towns the world over — Boston excepted — are staging “Jane’s Walks” in honor of the late urban activist. According to an organizer’s website, “Jane’s Walks are free, locally organized walking tours, in which people get together to explore, talk about, and celebrate their neighborhoods.”

There is more: Two new biographies are appearing this year, along with a documentary film, and even a hipster opera, “A Marvelous Order,” depicting Jacobs’s epic quarrels with Robert Moses, the New York City urban planner and “Power Broker” of Robert Caro’s famous 1974 biography.

Who was Jane Jacobs, and why is she getting all this attention? An influential author, social activist, and troublemaker, Jacobs was the 20th century’s Goddess of the Neighborhood. In an era of madcap urban renewal — policy shorthand for demolishing down-at-the-heel cityscapes and throwing up benighted public housing — Jacobs was often the lonely (and effective) voice crying in the desert, pleading for the messy and occasionally off-putting integrity of the neighborhood.

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Although her greatest triumphs occurred in New York City, where she helped resist freeway incursions and worse into her beloved Greenwich Village, she kept an eye on Boston, too. Jacobs celebrated the North End (“alive with children playing, people shopping, people strolling, people talking”) in her classic 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” and decried the postwar annihilation of our West End to make way for Charles River Park and other development.

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Jacobs called 1960s-era Boston planning czar Ed Logue “a maniac” responsible for sucking the life out of our downtown, specifically around City Hall Plaza. I call Logue the Butcher of New Haven — his pre-Boston assignment — but she and I are on the same page here.

OK, she’s a saint — or is she? Jacobs wasn’t stupid, and at the end of her life she witnessed what she called the “oversuccess” of her pro-neighborhood policies, which often resulted in gentrification. Park Slope in Brooklyn, Boston’s South End, and even swaths of Jacobs’s second home, Toronto, have become prettified Gold Coasts, essentially closed to citizens unlucky enough to earn five-figure salaries.

Oversuccess, she argued, stemmed from undersupply. If the suburbs didn’t keep sucking potential residents out of cities, more neighborhoods would blossom into desirable places to live.

Anthony Flint, the author of “Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City,” notes the irony that Jacobs, now the patron saint of New Urbanist planners around the world, was militantly antiplanning. Horror of horrors, Jacobs filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the controversial Supreme Court case Kelo v. New London, opposing the Connecticut city’s use of eminent domain.

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This endeared her to Tea Party types and libertarians, but not to her core following of goo-goo (good government) activists. “In the end she believed not only that top-down paternalistic closed-door planning was bad,” says Flint, “but very little planning was any good at all.”

“It’s true that there is almost a cult of Jane Jacobs and I’m a member,” says former MIT professor Robert Kanigel, author of the forthcoming Jacobs biography “Eyes on the Street.” “It’s dangerous to get caught up in the hype of Saint Jane, because it gets in the way of seeing what her books were about. Nowadays developers use her catch phrases, such as ‘mixed use’ or ‘eyes on the street,’ to advance ends she would have found abhorrent.”

There’s a job opening that needs to be filled: urban troublemaker. I wish we had more of them.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.