Walking around Seattle with Jane Jacobs

Paul Constant

November 14, 2017

A city never looks so noble, or so full of potential, as when you’re viewing it through Jane Jacobs’s eyes. For the last week or so, I’ve been walking through Seattle while listening to an audio recording of the 50th anniversary edition of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of American Cities. It’s an experience I’d recommend to anyone.

When you’re walking in downtown Seattle, Jacobs becomes your personal tour guide, pointing out areas (like the always-vibrant stretch of Pike and Pine north of Broadway) where pedestrians activate and enliven a space through work and play, and critiquing other areas (like the weird airy mall at 6th Ave & Union) that seem to push humans away with a vague sense of dread and alienation. Jacobs offers encouragement and criticism in equal portions, taking a red pen to the city like a particularly forceful editor.

It’s not my first time reading the book, nor do I expect it’ll be my last. Cities has gradually evolved into a sacred text for urban planners and YIMBYs and other fans of city spaces — and with good reason: Jacobs redefined what a city could be. It’s hard now to imagine a time before Jacobs, a time in which everyone just assumed that city-dwellers wanted the same thing that people who live in the country want: a lot of space, some privacy, and interactions with as few humans as possible on a daily basis.

Pulling from sources including Samuel Johnson and Dickens, Jacobs explains that people move to cities because they want to be around people. She encourages planners to build streets so that they are as welcoming to humans as possible. She inveighs against the “voracious and insatiable needs of automobiles” at every opportunity, opposing the fissures scratched into cities by freeways and encouraging the elimination of multi-lane roads whenever possible.

Perhaps now, Jacobs’s words don’t sound as revolutionary as they did over a half-century ago when they were first published. That’s a good thing; slowly, Jacobs has been absorbed into the culture in a way that feels entirely organic. We have shifted away from the conventional wisdom that the primary use of cities is to be amenable to automobiles; instead we’ve grown accustomed to Jacobs’s more human-sized views.

In fact, Jacobs is now the status quo. You’d be hard-pressed to find a mayor of a city in a large blue state who disagrees with much of Cities. In fact, I’m willing to wager that in the 2020 presidential primary cycle, we’ll likely see a mayor of at least one American city rise to the top tier of Democratic candidates. This means there’s a nonzero chance that the next American president could be an acolyte of Jacobs. I don’t know about you, but that’s change I can believe in.

Jacobs’s ideas are so attractive that the writing in Cities doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. This is a first-rate piece of persuasive writing, elaborate in structure and comprehensive in its arguments. And Jacobs entirely understood the nature of the book she was writing. When listening to Cities, the opening lines almost took my breath away.

“This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding,” Jacobs begins.

It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding, different and even opposite from those now taught in everything from schools of architecture and planning to the Sunday supplements and women’s magazines. My attack is not based on quibbles about rebuilding methods or hairsplitting about fashions in design. It is an attack, rather, on the principles and aims that have shaped modern, orthodox city planning and rebuilding.

What a first paragraph! Not only does Jacobs call her book an attack, but she repeats the word “attack” three times in six lines. It’s hard to imagine an author beginning a book like that now; our nonfiction books have become too polite, too unwilling to blow everything up in a quest to start over again. Imagine Malcolm Gladwell, say, beginning a book not with his usual chummy subversion of expectations but with an out-and-out assault on an entrenched system. It’s almost impossible to picture.

Would Cities have become the go-to text on urban planning had Jacobs not made those bold claims? Had she timidly insinuated herself into the conversation with a request for permission, Jacobs might have entirely disappeared from the field without making a mark. But with her threefold attack, she cleared a path for herself, laid claim to her worth as an author. And then with her persuasive arguments, she built her own legend.

Jacobs was ahead of her time as a visionary, but don’t be fooled: she was still of her time as an author. The moments in Cities when Jacobs refers to “colored people” and “negroes,” I respond with a deep, full-body cringe. A younger listener of color might respond by turning the damn audio book off entirely. I understand that Jacobs wrote the book in a different time and in a very different context, but the half-century-old racism still makes the book a difficult one to recommend.

That is especially unfortunate, because race is so important to the continuum of cities. In many ways, the International District is the heart of Seattle, and that heart is now suffering from the ailment of unfettered growth. How do we encourage development and density and change in the ID while still making sure the neighborhood maintains its historical and personal perspective?

I walk through the International District on my way to work in the mornings, and with Jacobs in my ear I tried mightily to picture the cranes and construction as a good thing. But the last two hundred years of Seattle history is a story of displacement and racism, and it’s hard not to view the construction there as another, less physically violent form of displacement. What would a modern Jacobs — one with a more inclusive understanding of race — have to say about preserving the ID? We’ll never know for sure, and that’s a shame.

It’s a shame, too, that Cities is clearly written for the audience of Jacobs’s time: this argument is directly aimed at wealthy white males. If Cities had a broader target audience, its lessons would likely be very different. Jacobs didn’t have the imagination, or the vision, to see the multicultural America of 2018. It’s up to the next author, with her next attack on established systems, to revise the record in a more equitable way and to figure out how to save the cultural character of the International District for future generations.

On the whole, I think Jacobs would be pleased with Seattle’s trajectory in 2017. Often while walking around the city with her words in my ear, I’d see a bus whizz by while she extolled the importance of public transit. She’d talk about enlivening neighborhoods by getting people into the streets as I’d pass a café with outdoor seating. At the best moments while listening to Cities, Jacobs would narrate the city streets as I walked them.

But there are plenty of places for improvement, of course. Jacobs would no doubt frown on the scar of I5, which divides the city’s densest neighborhood from its downtown core. The fact that city sidewalks just end when you walk far enough out of downtown is a shame. Construction interferes with sidewalk traffic too often. There aren’t enough trains, and the flow of the city to its suburbs is far too dependent on highways.

But these are surmountable problems. The one thing that Jacobs advocates relentlessly for in Cities is change. She believes that every city should honor its institutions, and she calls for every neighborhood to contain a blend of old and new buildings, but she understands that a city is always a work in progress. Like a good piece of writing, a city is never truly finished; it can only get to the point where an editor and a writer can decide to simply let it exist in the world.

Books in this review:
  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities
    by Jane Jacobs

    September 13, 2011
    Gifted by non-conflicting partner
    Buy from Libro.fm.

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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