Sunday, February 12, 2017

Jane Jacobs News

I kind of faded out on Jane Jacobs' Dark Ages Ahead, now that we don't have to wait for one anymore.  Maybe I'll get back to it.  But there's a nice piece on Jane in the Nation from earlier this month by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow.  It's a nice primer on her life, work and importance as the author of "Life of Great American Cities (1961), one of the seminal books of the 20th century."

Such insights as: Jacobs’s unconventional politics grew out of her temperament. She was allergic to dogma; she followed not an ideology but a methodology. She did not assume, or imagine, or take things on faith; she observed. But she didn’t stop there: She accumulated observations and distilled them into general principles. For her, empiricism and theory were not opposites but complements.

This piece marks the occasion of a new collection of Jacobs' shorter essays and speeches, Vital Little Plans, and a new biography, Eyes on the Street.

Tuhus-Dubrow also notes that some of the characterizations and criticism of Jacobs comes from people who simply did not read her books very carefully--what they say she didn't critique, she certainly did, in detail.  An unfortunate but not in my experience rare tendency among the professional opinionati.

Towards the end of this piece, a Jacobs' essay or speech is quoted about the virtue of little plans rather than big ones in city planning.  It's quoted from a speech she gave in Germany but I vividly remember these sentences from a speech she gave on another occasion that was published in the American Scholar.  That speech, and a TV documentary on the city, were my introductions to her.  She became essential to my work on The Malling of America.

As for Dark Age Ahead, her last book, here's the only video of her talking about it at length, at a bookstore in Oregon.  This also preserves her priceless defense of anecdotal evidence and the most trenchant summary of the limitations of science that omits it.  When thinking about the future, Jane Jacobs is one of the indispensables.


zan said...

I wanted to email this to you but couldn't find an email address, so I'm leaving it as a comment on your blog, which I was pleased to discover. I felt a post on Jane Jacobs would be as good a place as any for it...

I'm almost to the end of your book, The Malling of America, and I wanted to tell you that it has become my favorite book in a long, long time. I'm prolonging finishing reading it because I'm enjoying it so much.

I've been fascinated by malls now for a few years; I moved from NYC to Cincinnati in 2011, and was instantly attracted to these liminal spaces and how they defined cities differently to what I was used to: their light, their architecture, their sounds, the variation between those malls that were thriving and those that were dying. (I'm less interested in "dead malls" and more interested in transitional malls that pay respect to Victor Gruen's original vision of malls as community centers, such as the one in Richland County, OH, where the anchor store has been turned into an urgent care medical facility.)

Malls are the perfect place for a writer: observing humanity both at its busiest and as it fades into twilight. I started going to malls as a form of meditation, started taking pictures there, tagging them with the hashtag "#mallzen" on Instagram. I tried to define "mallzen" as finding the beautiful in the everyday: seeing these behemoths for something other than commercial meccas, seeing them for their potential, their history, their vision, and their complexities.

Since the obsession arose, I'd contemplated writing a book about malls. I volunteer for the Friends of the Public Library sorting through bins of donations and library discards, and one Monday night I opened a bin and there was The Malling of America. I bought the ex-library hardcover for $2, and I'm so glad your book found me.

As soon as I read your book, I knew I never needed to write a book on malls because the book I'd wanted to write had been written. The time capsule narrative account of the sights of malls in their heyday, the deeply researched analysis of their history and their trajectory, the attention to the full breadth of their social impact, the philosophical introspection, the Jonathan Richman and Italo Calvino quotes, the respect for Jane Jacobs... just such an amazing book all round.

I wanted to write to let you know how much I appreciate its existence and thank you for creating such a great work of literature (not just about malls but more generally about society: how we organize ourselves and our cities, how we find comfort, how we treat nostalgia, how we confront progress). I've been spreading the word via Twitter ( several of my friends/followers have expressed interest in it and I hope you get some new attention from it.

Since I know used library books found in donation bins don't pay your bills, I also just ordered the 2002 edition from XLibris so that you will be recompensed for your great work.

Captain Future said...

Thanks so much for writing. I'm glad that this book is still finding its readers. Thanks for buying the paperback as well--I hope you enjoy what I added to that edition.