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Jen Vafidis: Jane Jacobs Looks into the Gloom

December 18, 2012

In her last book, one of the country’s great thinkers lost her edge. Why the decline evidenced in Dark Age Ahead is about more than just Jacobs’s age.

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Image from Flickr via Sam Beebe, Ecotrust

By Jen Vafidis

When the name Jane Jacobs is evoked, out of necessity or desperation by academics and amateurs alike, heroic narratives emerge. A recently popular one has Jacobs, commonly known for her landmark book on urban planning The Death and Life of Great American Cities, as a beacon of economic theory, a salve for America’s current crisis, arguing as she did for interdependency and what the economist Robert Lucas identified in his writing about her as the concept of “human capital.” Another thread correctly has her predicting the eventual burst of the housing bubble in her final book, Dark Age Ahead (2004), long before Nouriel Roubini and others would. (That she does so in passing, as if it were obvious to anyone with eyes, is also remarkable, if only because in that respect she was wrong.)

Still, the catchiest of these stories about Jacobs is the oldest. It stars Robert Moses, the urban planner responsible for much of the way present-day New York City looks and gets into traffic jams, in the role of the antagonist in Jacobs’ just war against a Lower Manhattan Expressway. She was the primary rabble-rouser in that fight, and she won; The Death and Life of Great American Cities mentions Moses by name only five times, but clocks him anyway, most memorably in a passage that implicitly compares him to an old lady “cling[ing] to the fashions and coiffures of [her] exciting youth.” Of course Jacobs herself, while immensely important to twentieth-century thinking about cities, grew older and out of touch, and out of respect for her impact, none of these heroine’s tales speak to this.

Despite its occasional correctness, Dark Age Ahead, which Jacobs wrote at the age of 87, is full of sloppy thinking and silly prose, revealing and then repeatedly crossing the line between counsel and rave. “Although the chapters that follow are structured as a collection of warnings,” she wrote in the first chapter, “this book should not be mistaken for prophecy. Life is full of surprises—some of them good, with large, beneficial, totally unforeseen consequences. Prophecy is for people too ignorant of history to be aware of that, or for charlatans.” Having acknowledged how foolish it would be to sound too sure of society’s demise, Jacobs then excuses and contradicts herself: “However, by definition, we can’t rely on surprise rescues; mostly we must lie in the beds we make on the mattresses our culture provides.” With confused bedfellow metaphors among her typical no-nonsense tone, Jacobs comes across in her final work not as a prophet behind a keyboard, but as a heretic on a street corner at worst, and your grandmother without her bifocals at best.

Is it possible that, in her discussion of doom, Jacobs was being a realist? Is it the hard truth that we had (or have) nowhere to go but down.

I should say that the problems with North American society in Jacobs’s eyes are actual problems; she’s not hatching conspiracy theories about human flesh in your Chicken McNuggets. Her arguments aren’t too offensive in their dementia, not even the truly silly ones. She’s right, for instance, to point to a significant gap between what families can afford and what they are expected to buy. It takes a village, after all, and the nuclear family unit is ludicrous when you take into account how much is necessary to support children. “Two adults,” she says rather sanely, “who have too little adult companionship besides themselves can easily drift into isolation from society and become lonely, paranoid, resentful, stressed, depressed, and at their wits’ end.” But then, tireless as she is in her vision of locusts on wheels, she blames the automobile for the ills besetting the North American family. At least stay current, Jane; it’s the internet’s fault these days.

Not that this should disqualify a theory, but Dark Age Ahead at times reads like someone very intelligent telling you about the books she read over vacation. Among these beach reads for Jacobs: Karen Armstrong’s Islam; Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, because this was 2004, remember; one book in Michael Moore’s oeuvre that gives intense second-hand embarrassment merely upon reading its title; and her own work, which she quotes extensively in her notes section. In quoting others, she has some good taste. She wanders around Thomas Kuhn’s idea that paradigmatic thinking obstructs scientific achievement, but she loses the potency of Kuhn by introducing him like this: “Some thoughtful people complain that science has erased enchantment from the world. They have a point. Miracles, magic, and other fascinating impossibilities are no longer much encountered except in movies.” Who complains? Who has a point? She doesn’t name names.

Okay, so in her last work a prominent intellectual relied too much on her reputation for wise blood when she could have been building a case to draw new believers to the church of mindful development. But this is particularly disheartening because it was Jacobs who once posited that we were not in fact “so feckless as a people that we no longer care how things do work, but only what kind of quick, easy outer impression they give,” and her last book (with the exception of an odd broken-clock correctness once every chapter) is nothing but quick, easy, outer impressions.

Why should this matter? Don’t we all go soft? Yes, but Jacobs cared about detail and problems of organized complexity. The Economist‘s eulogy told an illustrative anecdote: she would walk down city streets in imaginary conversation with Benjamin Franklin. She explained: “I used to tell him how traffic lights worked.” Resorting to the broad brushstroke failed her at the end. She never, in Dark Age Ahead, gets as small as a traffic light. She’s too focused on the gathering darkness. It’s disheartening to hear a preacher of death and life eschew life altogether.

***

Is it possible that, in her discussion of doom, Jacobs was being a realist? Is it the hard truth that we had (or have) nowhere to go but down? Let’s look closer at Jacobs’s classic The Death and Life of American Cities for an indication of what Jacobs at her sharpest could spin out of despair.

First, there’s the epigraph, a quote from a speech made by the jurist and prominent legal realist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., at a banquet held in his honor by the Suffolk Bar Association. I’ve seen it appear in books with several titles, ranging from the insipid (“The Joy of Life”) to the more serious (“Life as Joy, Duty, End”) but always getting at Holmes’s grandiosity. The man contained multitudes; after all, this joy-lover is the same judge who voted to uphold the state of Virginia’s right to sterilize a mentally disabled inmate. (Classic Holmes right here: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”) In spite of that eugenicist streak, you’ll find in his speech a message that would be equally at home on a football field with ten seconds to go and the star quarterback being carried off the field:

    We are all very near despair. The sheathing that floats us over its waves is compounded of hope, faith in the unexplainable worth and sure issue of effort, and the deep, sub-conscious content which comes from the exercise of our powers.

That part makes it into Jacobs’s epigraph, and it’s rousing, to say the least. But wait: this book that quotes Holmes in histrionics is not about philosophy or God or art, but city planning. And if you read The Death and Life of American Cities, this isn’t surprising in the slightest. Her attitude in her most remembered work builds off the foundation of that Holmes epigraph: “Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it.” Among the chapters on sidewalks and the foolishness of Le Corbusier, you’ll find in Jacobs’s prose and ideas a yearning for life and more of it.

There’s that Jacobs directness: let’s stop screwing around and ask ourselves what the purpose of life is.

Take, for example, this mini-lesson on art and its importance:

    We need art, in the arrangements of cities as well as in the other realms of life, to help explain life to us, to show us meanings, to illuminate the relationship between the life that each of us embodies and the life outside us. We need art most, perhaps, to reassure us of our own humanity.

Or breathe in this description of a city scene:

    I know the deep night ballet and its seasons best from waking long after midnight to tend a baby and, sitting in the dark, seeing the shadows and hearing the sounds of the sidewalk. Mostly it is a sound like infinitely pattering snatches of party conversation and, about three in the morning, singing, very good singing. Sometimes there is sharpness and anger or sad, sad weeping, or a flurry of search for a string of beads broken.

This is Jacobs at her finest: capturing significant and forgotten moments of small lives. I’m not saying she’s Virginia Woolf or anything—she aimed not for literary immortality but rather for social change. Her powers were in observation translated to action. There is no flourish quite like this passage in Death and Life, where Jacobs is railing against the erosion of culture brought on by Moses and his highways.

    What if we fail to stop the erosion of cities by automobiles? What if we are prevented from catalyzing workable and vital cities because the practical steps needed to do so are in conflict with the practical steps demanded by erosion? There is a silver lining to everything.

She continues, and after paragraphs of well-reasoned argument against common policies, the passage’s raw nerve and black humor are stunning:

    In that case we Americans will hardly need to ponder a mystery that has troubled men for millennia: What is the purpose of life? For us, the answer will be clear, established and for all practical purposes indisputable: The purpose of life is to produce and consume automobiles.

There’s that Jacobs directness: let’s stop screwing around and ask ourselves what the purpose of life is. In Death and Life, from the epigraph to the last chapter, it’s clear that Jacobs was fighting against the wrong answers to that question, answers like technology for its own sake and ideology over common sense. She feared that people would inevitably accept these wrong ideas unless she fought against them.

She was still fighting for the idea of communities in Dark Age Ahead, this time blaming the whole concept of individualism and ideology for their spiraling demise, but the “deep, sub-conscious” point of her observations is lost. To borrow from Holmes, she had lost the sheathing floating her over the waves. There’s no humor to her mutterings about the evils of General Motors, no dance in her prose about taxes, no authority in her talk of the Fertile Crescent.

Reminding her readers, for example, that cities were not art projects just because they also could be beautiful, Jacobs made the effort rigorously and often to say when x was not y, even if they seemed to be so.

It’s not that Jacobs’s deterioration is a tragedy unlike any other; it’s that there is a sad irony in her theories expanding beyond their reach. In an interview with Reason in 2001, Jacobs expressed a desire to be remembered most for her economic theory of growth, not for her refusal to move out of Robert Moses’ way. This theory of hers is not based on development, which she saw as something that already existed but in a different form. She preferred expansion, what she saw as “actual growth in size or volume of activity”:

    As a city replaces imports, it shifts its imports. It doesn’t import less. And yet it has everything it had before. … I equate it to what happens with biomass, the sum total of all flora and fauna in an area. The energy, the material that’s involved in this, doesn’t just escape the community as an export. It continues being used in a community, just as in a rainforest the waste from certain organisms and various plants and animals gets used by other ones in the place.

Reminding her readers, for example, that cities were not art projects just because they also could be beautiful, Jacobs made the effort rigorously and often to say when x was not y, even if they seemed to be so. But the relation between x and y—in this case, Jacobs’s mind and her subjects—cannot be ignored. Her mind shifted and continued to be used while plenty else changed. Her insistence that there were dull cities and lively ones, growth and destruction, death and life, x and y, did not and does not work with the problems she saw fit to study in Dark Age Ahead, where x not only leads to y in some cases, but also must take into account other variables, those unknown unknowns that Jacobs could not see.

Sometimes we have the luxury of not knowing how a great mind would have tackled current issues, but we cannot know how comfortable ignorance in this case would be. Her answer to an impending dark age is dim in her last work. You can barely see it. If I were in imaginary conversation with Jane Jacobs, I would not have to explain a traffic light to her. But I wouldn’t know how to explain what she couldn’t see either, what instead of “energy enough to carry over for problems” looks like a light exploding and going out with sparks. And she wouldn’t have been able to explain it either.

Jen Vafidis is a writer and an editor. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Vice, The Rumpus, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, where she is the deputy editor. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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