Book Review: Eyes on the Street
Eyes on the Street:
The Life of Jane Jacobs
by Robert Kanigel
“Eyes on the Street,” the title of Robert Kanigel’s effusive and immensely affectionate new biography of Jane Jacobs, refers to a concept she introduced in her groundbreaking 1961 book The Life and Death of Great American Cities, in which she laid out what should never have been a controversial argument: that since cities are built by people, cities should be for people, and that streets and neighborhoods succeed or fail in direct proportion to how useful they are not as settings for businesses or locations for parking lots but as places for people to be. The more eyes on on the street, the line of reasoning went, the more the street was worth seeing.
The concept was under heavy assault at the time the book first appeared; the sweeping ‘urban renewal’ campaigns of municipal visigoths like Robert Moses were flattening vibrant neighborhoods and dispossessing thriving communities all up and down the Eastern seacoast in the name of progress. Indeed, the ink was hardly dry on Jacobs’ masterpiece before the wrecking balls started turning Boston’s Scollay Square into the flat, cold, featureless, unwelcoming, wasteland City Hall Plaza has been ever since, a place that shrinks the soul even to pass in haste on a lunch hour, a place where even tourists even in the middle of summer feel compelled to turn up their collars against a sudden finger of chill, a place where even stray dogs feel suddenly too lonely to urinate, a place where ice patches can be found even on the 4th of July.
The fact that a sprawling, insolent eyesore like City Hall Plaza could ever have amassed enough backing and support to foist itself into existence has always stood in mute tribute to the need that societies have for people like Jane Jacobs, and the salutary nature of that need informs the gushing, yapping energy of Kanigel’s biography, which manages the whiplash feat of being both the best informed and the least discriminating life & times Jacobs is ever likely to receive. He assures us right up front that everybody referred to his subject as “Jane,” he’s certainly not going to buck consensus – and the result is warming just the same, made all the more so by Kanigel’s absolutely unfailing nose for the perfect quote and anecdote:
Jane – which is what everyone called her, including her three children – wrote seven books, saved neighborhoods, stopped expressways, was arrested twice, basked in the glow of legions of admirers, and had a million discussions and debates around the kitchen table, which she always won. At least in her later years – though there’s reason to think it went all the way back to grade school – she invariably dominated the conversation. She listened, she responded, she challenged. She thought about what she wanted to say and said it. Not honey coated, not smoothed over. It just came out. Call her brutal, call her honest. Someone once said of her, “What a dear, sweet grandmother she isn’t.”
Kanigel follows Jacobs from grade school to hustling freelancer days to the writing of her books to the increasing visibility as a public speaker and cultural critic (both in America and Canada), and he fuses it all into a narrative of terrific readability and earnest – though often breathless – admiration:
But in the end, Jane stands as icon of unfettered, incorruptible intelligence. Formally uneducated, virtually any field she stepped into would have at first seemed unfamiliar and alien to her. Yet by the time she was through with it, it was as if she had rediscovered the world, seen it fresh and for the first time, the dark side of the moon cast in a new light. “She is a revolutionary writer in the full sense of the word,” Peter Taylor once said of her. “She does not enter a field of study to revise or reform it; she turns it upside down”; by his count, she had done this at least three times. “When reading her books I always have the most unprofessional thought lurking at the back of my mind: ‘Sock it to ’em, Jane!’”
Later this month, Eyes on the Street is joined in bookstores by Vital Little Plans, an anthology edited by Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring that collects many of Jacobs’ shorter writings. And of course The Death and Life of Great American Cities has been selling well and changing minds for over 50 years. It’s a distinctly healthy thing, having this much Jane Jacobs on hand, and Kanigel’s book does a superb job of grounding that phenomenon in the streets of Toronto and Greenwich Village.