This week we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Jane Jacobs’s epochal Death and Life of Great American Cities.
There is so much about this book that speaks to our time. To begin with, the very neighborhood that Jacobs defended from Robert Moses is struggling to preserve its streets from another giant institution (New York University) settling its bulk into the big footprint he left behind. For another, the struggle of Manhattan readers to save the St. Marks Bookshop reminds us of the fragile economy of neighborhood life that Jacobs sought to protect. Jason Epstein’s introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, out this week, also reminds us of a time when publishing was on a human scale, and a publisher and a writer who shared enthusiasm for an idea could change the course of cities and the fabric of daily life. Finally, Jacobs herself, a humble Village mom like oneself, reminds us that passion and dedication both can and should protect what we value most in our world; and that money and power do not always have the last word; and that great writing can arise from our humble streets and our deeply felt commitments. The electronic age seems to promise both new nourishment for the human-made society she championed, and also new threats to it. We could do worse than to adopt her as a patron saint of electronic culture—as well as city life.