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Village People: Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs. Click photo for source.

(This post is part of a series called Village People: A Who’s Who of Greenwich Village, which will explore some of this intern’s favorite Village people and stories.)

During the Great Depression, Jane Jacobs moved with her sister to Brooklyn, and then to Greenwich Village, to which she took an immediate liking. She studied at Columbia University, and later moved with her husband and family to 555 Hudson Street, in the West Village. After the Second World War, she refused to move to the suburbs, condemning them as ‘parasitic.’

She had been a feature writer for the Office of War Information, then a reporter for Amerika. When it was announced that Amerika would move to Washington, DC, she found a new job at the Architectural Forum, where she began taking assignments on urban planning and ‘blight.’ She travelled to Philadelphia to see Edmund Bacon’s new development, and returned disillusioned. She was critical of the project, noticing a lack of care shown towards poor African Americans affected by the development, and upset that development seemed to end community life on streets where it occurred.

In 1956, she lectured on the subject of East Harlem at Harvard University. She argued that the ‘chaos’ that urban planners were so keen to get rid of had reason of its own, and should be respected. She continued her criticism and study with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, finally publishing The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961.

The Lower Manhattan Expressway, as it would have been built, shown in red.
The Lower Manhattan Expressway, as it would have been built, shown in red.

Soon, the fight came to her own neighborhood. Robert Moses, whom she had criticized before, had already built the Cross Bronx Expressway and other highways, often over fierce neighborhood opposition. He now planned to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway, to be funded as ‘slum clearance,’ right through Washington Square Park. The plan called for upscale high-rises to be built in place of multiple blocks where 132 families and 1000 small businesses also resided. Jacobs chaired the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, joined by members like Margaret Mead, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lewis Mumford, William H, Whyte, and Charles Abrams. They were successful in blocking the project in 1958, but Jacobs continued to fight the same battle when the plans resurfaced in 1962, 1965, and 1968.

She finally left the Village in 1968, tired of fighting the City of New York, and worried about her two sons, who might be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. She moved to Toronto, where she soon became a leading figure in her new community. In the 1970s, she helped to prevent the Spadina Expressway from being built through downtown Toronto.

Jacobs is now credited with inspiring the New Urbanist movement, and is remembered as a very important figure in urban planning and preservation. In New York, 28 June 2006 was announced as Jane Jacobs Day. In Toronto, 4 May 2007 was Jane Jacobs Day. Her two cities continue to celebrate her, as does the Rockefeller Foundation, which created the Jane Jacobs Medal to ‘recognize individuals who have made a significant contribution to thinking about urban design, specifically in New York City.’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities is still, of course, her best known work, and is possibly the most influential book on urban planning. In Greenwich Village, she has become something of a local hero, for her years dedicated to protecting the neighborhood.

You can listen to Jane Jacobs discuss various preservation battles on GVSHP’s Oral History Project.

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