________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 22 . . . . February 12, 2010


Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Glenna Lang & Marjory Wunsch.
Boston, MA: David R. Godine (Distributed in Canada by Georgetown Publications), 2009.
127 pp., hardcover, $22.95.
ISBN 978-1-56792-384-1.

Subject Headings:
Jacobs, Jane, 1916-2006-Juvenile literature.
Women city planners-United States-Biography-Juvenile literature.

Grades 5-11 / Ages 10-16.

Review by Val Ken Lem.

**** /4


Many city planners, Jane wrote, were actually anti-city. In their admiration for all that was modern, they wanted to erase the messy old districts that actually worked. Instead, they yearned for projects with the dramatic, clean lines of the tall buildings in Le Corbusier's models. Or they supported Garden Cities that drew people away from urban centers. Jane argued that these planners were "interested only in failures' of cities and not curious about what made them successful. The Death and Life of Great American Cities made a compelling case for learning from what was in fact working in cities.

Many Canadians will be vaguely familiar with Jane Jacob's story. I first heard about her in an upper level high school geography class when we were introduced to her seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In Toronto, where this reviewer lives and where Jacobs lived from 1968 until her death in 2006, Jacobs has long been lionized as an urban thinker, writer, and activist who participated in landmark battles to prevent the Spadina expressway from ripping apart the city and in other struggles to prevent large-scale demolition of neighbourhoods and historic landmarks in favour of questionable urban renewal schemes. Canadians may not know much about Jacob's early life in the United States where she honed her skills as a writer, innovative thinker and urban activist Young readers (and the not so young) will find Genius of Common Sense a welcome introduction to the early life of this remarkable woman whose ideas about the importance of mixed use neighbourhoods where people live beside businesses and entertainment facilities, frequent the sidewalks in daylight and evening shifts, thereby contributing to safe and livable cities.

     Jane Isabel Butzner was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1916. Her father, a family physician, encouraged Jane to be an independent, inquisitive thinker, and this sometimes led to conflict with her teachers who did not like to be corrected or challenged. Later in life, politicians, urban planners, developers and some of her employers would also regard her as a troublemaker. She was interested in writing, but upon completion of high school, she declined her parents' offer to send her to post-secondary schooling. Instead, she studied a short course in stenography, acquiring a skill that would serve her well in her future jobs as secretaries and later newspaper journalist.

     When Jane moved in with her sister in Brooklyn in 1934, the Great Depression had left many in New York City unemployed or underemployed. Nevertheless, Jane used her skills to secure a good secretarial job that paid enough to allow her and her older sister to move into Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan. She also began to publish freelance articles about working neighborhoods in a major newspaper and in the fashion magazine Vogue. She began to take extension courses at Columbia University and explored fields as diverse as chemistry, law, political science and economics. At the age of 25, she published her first book, an examination of the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787.

     By the early 1950s, Jane had married Robert Jacobs and become a wife and mother. She continued working, landing a job in 1952 with the influential magazine Architectural Forum where she wrote articles almost every month and edited others. Her husband was a trained architect, and he helped her gain knowledge about architecture itself, but she also wrote about city planning. In 1958, she published a major article in Fortune magazine titled "Downtown is for People." This led to a grant that allowed her to take a leave from her employer and write what is arguably her most important book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she challenged the contemporary views about urban design and redevelopment.

     Lang and Wunsch, both talented authors and illustrators of books for young readers, neatly demonstrate how Jacobs supported the ideas in her books as she became a leading activist in opposition to a series of urban renewal schemes and freeway expansion plans in New York City that were often supported by some of the most prominent local politicians, planners, and developers who stood to make handsome profits. From her own experience, she came to the conclusion that "you have to kill expressways three times before they die."

     Each of the 12 chapters begins with a full-page illustration depicting a scene from the chapter. Almost every page includes one or more carefully chosen photographs of people in Jacobs' life or showing scenes from New York as they exist today or at the time described in the biography. Quotations from Jacobs' writings or interviews are used judiciously throughout the text. A brief epilogue summarizes Jacobs' life in Canada from 1968-2006 where she fought expressways, wrote more books, and in 1998 was made a member of the Order of Canada. Other useful features include a chronology of Jacob's life, a list of books that she published, extensive notes on the sources of quotations (often culled from primary sources in the Jane Jacobs Papers at Boston College), a selected bibliography highlighting important books, interviews, magazine articles, newspaper articles, and films and videos about Jacobs and her times, all with web addresses if available. Extensive picture credits, a detailed index, and two maps of the island of Manhattan, and of lower Manhattan are also present. The index includes sub-entries and uses asterisks to indicate illustrations. Curiously, the indexers decided not to include detailed entries for Jane Jacobs herself, referring the reader/researcher instead to the Chronology for major events in her personal and professional life. The only other minor fault worth noting is the authors' failure to honestly recognize as propaganda the writing that she did for Amerika Illustrated in 1945 when employed by the U.S. State Department.

Highly Recommended.

Val Ken Lem is the Collections Evaluation and Donations Librarian at Ryerson Universityin Toronto, ON, where The Death and Life of Great American Cities continues to circulate.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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