Jane Butzner Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities upset many city planners by ridiculing their dreams of radiant cities with broad swaths of green and picking apart the profession’s most cherished axioms. Jane Jacobs subsequently moved on to become a preeminent urbanologist and one of the most original thinkers of the twentieth century, one who challenged assumptions in a contentious, commonsensical way—as architect J. M. Fitch once put it, by “clinging as closely to reality as a squirrel to a nut.” City planning, in contrast, has yet to recover.

Jane Jacobs was born Jane Butzner in 1916 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Her father was a physician and her mother a housewife. After graduating from high school, she got a job as a reporter at the Scranton Tribune. She moved to New York City in 1934, where she worked as a stenographer and a freelance writer. Ten years later, she married Robert Hyde Jacobs, Jr., an architect, with whom she had three children. She became an associate editor at Architectural Forum in 1952 and remained there for a decade.

Using secondhand anecdotes as well as her own encounters in such neighborhoods as Boston’s North End and the West Village in New York City (where she lived), Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities as a narrative of people connected to one another through their experience of place. She argued that small-scale improvements and diversity—in terms of use and housing stock—are the keys to successful neighborhoods. This contradicted the received wisdom of city planning, which saw slum clearance and large housing projects as the path to improvement. “The practitioners and teachers of this discipline (if such it can be called),” Jacobs wrote, “have ignored the study of success and failure in real life, have been incurious about the reasons for unexpected success, and are guided instead by principles derived from the behavior and appearance of towns, suburbs, tuberculosis sanatoria, fairs, and imaginary dream cities—from anything but cities themselves.”

For the most part, urban specialists circled their wagons and pointed out that Jacobs’s research was not rigorous. Philosopher and critic Lewis Mumford responded, in a surprisingly...

(The entire section is 932 words.)