Christopher Klemek: Remembering Jane Jacobs

Roundup: Talking About History

On Wednesday The Chronicle spoke about Ms. Jacobs's complicated legacies with Christopher Klemek, an assistant professor of history at Florida International University. (This fall, he will move to George Washington University.)

Mr. Klemek conducted several long interviews with Ms. Jacobs around 2001, when he was writing a dissertation on popular movements against "urban renewal" in Berlin, Boston, London, New York, Philadelphia, and Toronto. The University of Chicago Press will publish a revised version of that dissertation in 2007 or 2008. The book's working title is Urbanism as Reform: Modernism and the Crisis of Urban Liberalism in Europe and North America, 1945-1975.

Q. How do you believe Jane Jacobs will be remembered decades from now?

A. First, and most obviously, she was a critic of urban renewal, and really of urbanism, generally, in the mid-20th century. She was a critic of all the established trends in architecture, planning, zoning.

Second, she has a significance that is less well appreciated. This is something that can be seen in the whole body of her work, beginning with The Death and Life. And that is Jacobs as an economist-slash-sociologist-slash-philosopher of cities and also, by extension, of contemporary civic life. She was profoundly interested in how communities work. Cities were interesting to her because of the way that they take advantage of the best human attributes and simultaneously compensate for human shortcomings.

And in this area -- Jacobs as philosopher of community life -- she attacked shibboleths in a whole range of disciplines. And she often came to influence ideas in those fields very profoundly. Figures like Saskia Sassen in sociology, Robert Lucas in economics, Kenneth Jackson in history, will all testify that they were deeply influenced by her work.

She was very much an outsider intellectual. She had only a high-school diploma. So she was outside the traditional confines of academic disciplinarity, and yet -- or perhaps for that very reason -- she's exerted a very broad influence across a number of fields.

And then the final area, which I think is somewhat overlooked, is her importance as a neighborhood organizer and a potent political leader in her own right. She managed to exert leadership in both New York and Toronto. ... It's said that she was a stunning orator in council hearings. And she was also quite fiery -- on numerous occasions she had to be carried out, and once she was charged with incitement to riot.

And I think that that's important to put alongside Jacobs the intellectual because it sheds important light on her ideas and on the way those ideas cash out in specific political contexts. Which is, of course, something that she would care about because specific urban contexts were at the core of all of her inquiry. ...

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