The Triumph of Jane Jacobs

Monday, September 24th, 2007

Francis Morrone looks at The Triumph of Jane Jacobs, not just her works, but the phenomenon surrounding them:

Troll the Internet for interviews with Jacobs (you’ll find several) and you can’t help being struck by the subtle ways she alters her apparent message for her audience. How else to explain why such diverse people and groups have claimed her for their own? Two of her books appear on the National Review’s list of the 100 most important books of the 20th century. Yet she’s hailed by *Tikkun,* a Jewish magazine. James Howard Kunstler, who believes our economy shall soon implode as a result of our being on the downward slope of “peak oil,” reveres Jacobs; so does Virginia Postrel of “Dynamism” fame, who believes in the extraordinary capacities of technology and human ingenuity to make the future ever a better and a brighter place. Rod Dreher, a counter-culturally cultural-conservative Christian writer who wrote the book “Crunchy Cons,” about “Birkenstock-wearing Burkeans,” cites Jacobs as a principal influence, along with the agrarian poet and essayist Wendell Berry, whom Jacobs chastised in her last and perhaps most profound book, “Dark Age Ahead.” When Jacobs’s book “Cities and the Wealth of Nations” came out in 1984, with its blistering critique of transfer payments from rich to poor, the writer Richard Barnett, reviewing the book on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, bizarrely hailed it as a call for full-employment legislation. He so wanted to like the book, to like Mrs. Jacobs, that he heard her say things she did not say. What kind of writer has such an odd impact on her readers? How many books such as “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” come along that so many people think they’ve read but haven’t, have read but misunderstood, or claim they’ve read though they haven’t? How many writers write one big book (in this case, “Death and Life”) that makes a huge splash, then follow it up with several books that brilliantly refine its central points, books that not even the writer’s putatively most faithful followers have ever even heard of, let alone read?

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