Becoming Jane Jacobs
Peter L. Laurence
Penn Press
3905 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104;
Jan 2016. 376 pages. Hardcover $34.95.

Jane Jacobs, best known as the author of Death and Life of American Cities, would have celebrated her 100th birthday this year. A new biography, Becoming Jane Jacobs, by Clemson University professor Peter Laurence, purports that the most venerated figure in urban planning today is also among the most underappreciated and misunderstood, even by her staunchest supporters.

Laurence’s book, published by the University of Pennsylvania, makes the popular conception of Jacobs out to be comically simplified and borderline mythological. The author puts forward a compelling case that the media coverage of her day was somewhat sexist and politically motivated; painting Jacobs as a misguided “housewife” tearing apart a science she was incapable of perceiving as correct.

Today, these notions seem as contrived and outmoded as Moses’s fixation on disruptive urban freeways. Yet the popular timeline of Jacobs’s life persists despite the considerable fact that she lived a full professional life before the decade with which she is now most closely associated. Laurence argues that this flattened perspective of her life unintentionally validates the chauvinistic regard she was subjected to following the controversial publication of Death and Life.

To be fair to both Jacobs’s modern-day critics and supporters, this is partly because Jacobs’s full life and evolution have been poorly analyzed. In a striking and aptly named introductory chapter titled “Unknown Jane Jacobs,” Laurence notes that even some of her closest associates in the 1950s were unaware that she had authored a book on constitutional law, spent years writing for the metallurgy trade magazine Iron Age, or her sometimes-classified wartime work for the Office of War Intelligence (OWI).

The last detail is particularly important, given that the investigation of Jacobs and her colleagues by then–FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and the House Un-American Activities Committee would lead directly to her time at Architectural Forum, which heavily influenced her planning philosophy and Death and Life.

As a New York City–based propaganda writer assigned to publications targeting the U.S.S.R., Jacobs developed significant connections to the U.S.’s Cold War adversary, even (unsuccessfully) applying for a visa with the help of the then-unknown bureaucrat Alger Hiss. The OWI would be folded into the U.S. State Department and Hiss would be investigated for spying, along with many other employees with connections to the Soviet Union, like Jacobs.

Cleared of any wrongdoing, these trials certainly informed Jacobs’s later mistrust of heavy-handed central authority figures. But, of greater importance, the inquest would end with the New York publishing branches of the State Department being merged into its D.C. offices—for closer scrutiny by McCarthyists—leading Jacobs and others to resign in protest in 1952.

Unemployed and newly married with young children, her architect husband’s subscription to Forum and a passing acquaintance with its trendsetting editor, Bob Haskell, would lead Jacobs to begin contributing to the magazine as a free-lancer and eventually contributing full-time.

Even the better-known detail that she contributed to Forum is often undersold—she was featured in nearly every issue published between 1952 and 1958 and helped reinvigorate a form of architectural criticism that had nearly vanished by the 1950s.

Her critics at the time nevertheless excoriated her perceived lack of formal education (she took classes at Columbia and New York University but did not graduate) and professional experience within the fields of architecture and planning. Even friends, like fellow urbanist William H. Whyte, marveled that Jacobs had apparently produced a blockbuster like Death and Life out of thin air, as if she were some literary savant.

Laurence’s book is immaculately researched and provides illuminating context for the battle between the New Empiricist and Modernist architectural movements that were the backdrop for Jacobs’s writing and evolution as an urbanist. But the book’s thesis is its most compelling aspect: that how Jacobs is revered is even more important than the reverence itself.

In short, there was nothing miraculous about “Saint Jane.” Laurence argues that she was an extremely intelligent and hardworking woman who revolutionized planning through decades of life, work, and study in cities. By ignoring the many forces that shaped her and the great, belabored effort she put into overturning the planning conceits of her day, even those she once supported, the creation myth that surrounds Jacobs deprives her of the credit she deserves.