The Neoliberal Marginalization of Jane Jacobs

It’s always a good day when the beloved Jane Jacobs gets mentioned in the news. The writer and urban observer has been getting her much deserved revival recently via a lush graphic novel and even an opera chronicling her legendary toppling of development dictator Robert Moses.

With all this hype around Jacobs, it’s hard not to notice how much co-opting and perverting of her ideas happens by urbanists pushing the very high-rise condos Jacobs despised.

Jacobs also hated the damage wrought by cars and auto-centric infrastructure – and she adored the bicycle as an equitable mode of transport. That’s where today’s urbanists are correct to emulate her. Tearing down human-scaled historic buildings to make room for parking lots was an aberration that can’t be fixed fast enough. But when it’s a matter of tearing down the old purely to increase ‘density (the current coded buzzword for more money), today’s Jacobs’ fans have no problem turning their back on her.

They forget Jacobs was a critic of capital, knowing that short-term profiteering by developers and city governments destroy the very creative neighborhoods artists and musicians rely on to live. She knew that by not investing in its own labor force that homelessness would increase, that it is the working class that makes cities thrive.

From Jacobin: “If you’re a hip urban dweller, liberal pundits figure you’re ready to hit the swingset now that it’s fall. “Wait Your Turn for the Swings at Boston’s Adult Playground,” admonishes a recent headline in CityLab, an outlet both symptomatic of and beholden to the neoliberalization of the city whose vision of urban life is more concerned with disruptive “solutions” than class struggle. Jane Jacobs-style urbanism has become all too adaptable to liberal appropriation. Her celebration of mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods has been used in the service of gentrifying, high-income developments. Jacobs’s praise of the human connection in small-scale communities has likewise been assimilated into theories of the city as creative, productive, and prosperous – prime territory for the growth of capital.

Jacobs wasn’t just a writer. Like Saul Alinsky and Ella Baker, she was a pioneering community activist who broke laws and disrespected sham political process. It’s hard to image today’s obedient liberal class celebrating Jane Jacobs for shredding public hearing documents, getting arrested and being charged with criminal mischief and second degree rioting. “I hate the government for making my life absurd,” she told the journal Government Technology in 1998.

In 1980 Jacobs wrote in The Question of Separatism: “While it is quite possible that Quebec would do no better on its own than as a province of Canada, there is little reason to suppose that it would do worse, and there are even some practical reasons for supposing that it might do better…. Dependence is stultifying, and sometimes the obverse is true. That is, sometimes independence releases new kinds of effort, opens up formerly untapped funds of energy, initiative, originality, and self confidence.

But like any dead visionary, once they’re gone, a radical’s words can be dissected and watered down. Just this month Grace Lee Boggs was eulogized by Detroit Free Press reporters at the same time they diminished her life’s work in Marxism and Black Nationalism.

Like Boggs, like so many other historic figures, the observations of Jacobs are being eroded by the likes of CityLab in order to serve a political purpose. She is paraded as inspiration by a clan of real estate promoters who operate with much of the same destructive ambition as Robert Moses.

It’s a testament to the true legacy of Jane Jacobs that neoliberals covet her image to con the public. It’s a sad mark against the public that she’s been marginalized so easily.

The New Urbanists want to have lively centers in the places they develop, where people run into each other doing errands, that sort of thing. Yet from what I’ve seen of their plans and the places they have built, they don’t seem to have a sense of the anatomy of these hearts, these centers. They’ve placed them as if they were shopping centers that don’t connect.” JJ.

For more of Jacobs’ urban analysis, watch the short film below.

City Limits by Laurence Hyde, National Film Board of Canada

This short documentary features acclaimed author and activist Jane Jacobs‘ forthright, critical analysis of the problems and virtues of North American cities.