A Tribute to Jane Jacobs on the 100th Anniversary of Her Birth

Jane Jacobs was born on May 4, 1916 — 100 years ago today. Shortly after she died in 2006 I wrote this piece about her, her ideas, and the book she was writing at the time. It was to be our third book together, but she never completed it. I live in the Greenwich Village she described in The Death and Life of Great American Cities and I think about her every day.

Jane Jacobs — Writer

by David Ebershoff

When she died last week at the age of eighty-nine, Jane Jacobs was writing a new book. Jacobs, of course, was the author of the groundbreaking Death and Life of Great American Cities. For more than forty years she wrote iconoclastically on cities and economies. At the time of her death she was a legend – revered for her humane vision of urban and economic life and her fights to preserve our greatest cities. She hated being thought of as a legend, however. “I don’t want any disciples,” she used to say. She liked people reading her books, thinking about her ideas, and, most especially, advancing them. Many people described her as an intellectual, an economist, an urban specialist, a public thinker; often they assumed she had a PhD and mistakenly called her Dr. Jacobs. But she didn’t think of herself like this. When she sent me her manuscript pages in a FedEx packet, she typed out on the shipping label, “Jacobs, Jane – Writer.”

Her vision for her new book was large: “A new way of understanding macroeconomic behavior,” she said in one of the many drafts of the early chapters I edited in the first half of 2005. The book was called Uncovering the Economy. She referred to it as an Economics textbook. It wasn’t (or wasn’t going to be) a textbook in the standard sense. She was never part of the Economics establishment – the professors and policy makers at universities, think tanks, and government bodies who influence research, grants, tenure positions, and government policy. She thought a lot of Economics was “a bunch of phony-baloney.” Even so, she was writing a textbook that she hoped would transform the discipline that she had little regard for, but also loved. “I realized I had something I much wanted to say,” she said. “A new hypothesis to present to fill the theory vacuum in Economics.”

In January 2005 the Federal Reserve Board of New York invited her to be a keynote speaker at a conference on cities. She was skeptical of the invitation. “My first reaction (‘blink’) was to write declining,” she wrote me. But then she thought it might be an opportunity to test out her new ideas, if even in an establishment setting: “To put forth a hypothesis for explaining why macro-economies even exist, and to account for major and orderly and regularized generalities, is a very daring thing to do – particularly when the audience is not prepared to hear it. To propose such a radical bifurcation as this may also put at risk my slowly rising reputation. I need to decide whether to be daring and take the risk, or to lie low. What do you think, David? I am about ¾ in favor of risk.” She went on to say that if she made the trip to New York she wouldn’t have time for any other interviews, “just in and out, whoosh.”

She decided if she could rework the first chapter of Uncovering the Economy into a fifteen- or twenty-minute speech she would accept the invitation. In the meantime she received more information on the conference and the nature of the presentations. She came to realize that much of what was to be discussed were ideas she had worked on a decade earlier. She sensed that they would have been just as happy to hear her discuss her old books as her new material. And so she declined. “I was so happy when I told this to [the conference organizer’s] voicemail, and ever since, that I know it is the right decision.” It never occurred to Jane to take the podium to present ideas she had already launched into the world. (This became more than apparent in 2004 when Random House sent her on tour for what would be her final book, Dark Age Ahead, and she often spoke about the book she was writing rather than the one she was promoting.)

But even during all this, her health was beginning to decline. There were short hospital stays. She was having trouble with her eyes. “Last week I was honorably discharged from the rehabilitation hospital and am at home which feels normal and glorious. Yesterday I got my new bifocals which are going to take a lot of getting used to, but brains are wonderfully adaptive to making sense out of nonsense reported to them, and I’m counting on it.” She remained cheerful, inquisitive, eager to return to her typewriter. In April of last year she sent me the first two parts of the book; there were to be nine. She decided to open each part with a descriptive, formal, and slightly ironic paragraph summarizing the subsequent pages. Her model for this was Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Thus Jane describes Uncovering the Economy as being “Of the curious economic helplessness of the powerful and influential nations of the West, and the equally curious lack of a theoretical grounding for the discipline of Economics.”

She didn’t want to write a new Economics book. She wanted to create a new Economics. She believed the old school had failed not her, but us – human beings. “If there is such a thing as original sin, I would nominate for that pre-eminence the objectification of human beings as items divisible into supply and demand,” she wrote in the last paragraph she sent me. Theory, ideology, jargon – the empty ideas of established thinking and conventional wisdom – needed to be exposed for what they were. This is what she had done for more than forty years, and what she was continuing to do until she could no longer. Empty, unchallenged ideas “divert otherwise intelligent people from looking for the good sense in the complex economies we have,” she said, “and from thinking of how to make the most and the best of what is already here.”

May, 2006