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.
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...
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