What Would Jane Do?

A new book of essays and an exhibition examine the legacy of Jane Jacobs.

Perhaps the truest mark of genius is lasting impact. Nearly 50 years after its publication, Jane Jacobs’s seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities continues to inform and inspire urban planners and city dwellers alike. When Jacobs passed away last year at the age of 89, scholars and friends honored her legacy through numerous articles and obituaries. In September, Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation went a step further by presenting Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York, an exhibition that examines both Jacobs’s past and her continued influence on contemporary urban life (on display through January 5 at MAS).

Princeton Architectural Press recently released Block by Block: Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York, a book of short essays meant to complement the exhibit. Exhibition co-curator Christopher Klemek helped edit the book with Timothy Mennel and Jo Steffens. “It’s very common today to invoke Jane Jacobs, to cite her without really having engaged her ideas or the lessons of her own activism in any kind of substantive way,” Klemek says. “We believe that educating the public about her and engaging them in her ideas will potentially yield dividends and that is a major motivation behind the exhibition and the book.”

Contributors to Block by Block come from a myriad of backgrounds, representing the diverse fields that Jacobs tapped through her scholarship and activism. There are architects and planners, like Michael McDonough and Thomas de Monchaux, writers and critics, like Tom Wolfe and Paul Goldberger, and activists and community leaders like Majora Carter and Roberta Brandes Gratz. Poets, photographers, and scholars weigh in; there is even a recipe for her grandmother’s fried tomatoes with gravy (eaten only at the height of tomato season, of course).

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For readers of all things Jacobs, a few of these essays will seem familiar. Several are excerpted from previously printed pieces, including an article by Karrie Jacobs and comic strip by Ben Katchor that first ran in Metropolis. Some essays are literal translations of her work. Others are musings on urban life, reveries of a particular shop, or street or moment in—to borrow a phrase from Jacobs—the “ballet” of the city sidewalk. The essays are short and, individually, they can feel like rocks skimming across the surface of deeper ideas. But taken as a whole, the book offers a fresh perspective and serves to stimulate a new appreciation for the wisdom of Jacobs. At a time when activism seems woefully stagnant in America, when unchecked wars, environmental and human degradation, and the rebirth of geography-altering, developer-driven urban renewal can barely elicit demonstration crowds, Block by Block compels readers to act. The book (and the exhibition) hopes to remind us of the continued relevance of Jacobs’s ideas and of the activism that drove her. The front and back book flaps read respectively: “Action makes an activist” and “You are a part of it.”

Above all else, Block by Block is an invitation to think about life in a city. It reminds us, in the words of author Robert Neuwirth, that Jane Jacobs is still very much alive. He writes, “Her vital ideas continue to inflame and animate debates and to propel us toward that better city that we all hope is possible.”


For more sample essays by Nathan Glaser and Metropolis contributor Andrew Blum, click here.

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