The Faithful Departed: Jane Jacobs (1916-2006)

The Secular Prophet of American Cities

When Jane Jacobs, the 20th Century urban activist and pro-city theorist died in May at the age of 89, we lost a secular prophet. Reading Jacobs’ landmark resistance to modern city planning methods, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was one of the seminal experiences of my college years. It was an academic experience, but also a spiritual one.

Jacobs’ work trumpeted the city not as a problem to be solved but as a life-affirming manifestation of creativity. A city allowed to function properly has a soul, she argued. Her work resonated with me, a bookish suburbanite transformed into an urban studies major at Fordham University in the Bronx. The book put into words that awe the living city ignited in me. This place was hawking and swirling and booming in a dozen languages, and it was great. There was life here and life abundant.

Christ in All His Disguises
Consider the difference between the neighborhood in which I now live— where a hodgepodge of pedestrian-centered, independently-owned shops and high density housing initiates dozens of informal sidewalk encounters with Christ in all his disguises—and the sense of dislocated ennui, the loneliness, engendered by the ex-urban big box parking lot. It is the difference between being a linked-in part of the Body of Christ and being an atom adrift in what Jacobs called Noplace. To me it is the difference between life and death.

This living city has always seemed to me a basically religious, Incarnational, notion. Or maybe the Hindu god Shiva is a better example. Shiva’s regenerative dance keeps the earth spinning. It is the very disquiet of a city that is holy. In it we live and move and have our being, our very presence giving testament to and creating a new organism.

Jacobs defended the deep sense of place, the human naturalness of the urban environment against post-war planners who wanted to rationalize the city, to make it as orderly and dead as Levittown. In the forty years since she wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, vast tracts of America have been consumed by the atomizing soul-lessness of suburban sprawl. Jacobs’ book was and is a pro-city primary text, a bible for small-scale, organic development and mixed-use planning.

But beyond the critique of anti-urban conformity and corseting of public space, I have always read The Death and Life of Great American Cities as a spiritual classic.

It argued that a city is so much more than the sum of its parts. Not merely a collection of business zones and high-density housing and cultural districts, but a living being, incessantly rebirthing itself. Jacobs’ understanding of the power of the urban environment seemed to echo that under- appreciated early Genesis verse: “God saw it all and it was good.” Before the fall and the imposition of law there was activity and it was good.

If God became human and dwelt amongst us, surely he lived here, jostling with strangers on the subway, nodding at neighbors on the corner, running into the bodega a dozen times a day. Christ didn’t come so that we would be lonely and in our cars, did he? A city is a creative project, one made by our uniqueness. It is at least as sacred as a mountain top or a virgin forest.

An Optimistic Endeavor
What is holy is the implicit faith in living with difference that cities demand of their residents. Cities are at root an optimistic endeavor, operating as they do from the belief that we are better off together.

Americans have always been uneasy with cities. From Thomas Jefferson’s pastoralism to the exurban McMansion, American consciousness has been about getting out of cities. The sources of this distrust are manifold and may be rooted in fear of disorder and miscegenation. But cities also clash with the American pioneer myth. Instead of my home, my fortress, my individual stake in the wilderness, city living is a communal exercise. We have shared sidewalks, not private driveways; public buses, not personal SUVs; neighborhood parks, not gated backyards.

We live in communion, a daily manifestation of Eucharist.

We Are Linked
Sure, the guy rattling my windows with his booming bass at 2 a.m. may not have gotten the memo about shared destiny, but even deciding how to deal him is evidence that we are linked.

Responding to the idea that high density was by definition undesirable, Jacobs wrote,

On the other hand, people gathered in large concentrations of city size and density can be considered a positive good, in the faith that they are desirable because they are the source of immense vitality, and because they do represent, in small geographic compass, a great and exuberant richness of differences and possibilities, many of these differences unique and unpredictable and all the more valuable because they are.
–pages 220-222 Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs

Jacobs’ analysis of the social physics of urban life was essentially spiritual. Her text posits that so many disparate ions going about their tasks do so together. We need each other. We are engaged in the creation of a living energy.

A less sentimental person might argue that it is just the subway we feel coursing beneath our feet, but I think it is the soul of the city.

I wish Jane Jacobs had lived on my block.