New York: The Prophet

Ruth Orkin
Jane Jacobs with her son Ned in front of a Greenwich Village building, designated for demolition by the City Planning Commission, 1961; photograph by Ruth Orkin from Anthony Flint’s Wrestling With Moses

In 2004, her eighty-eighth year, Jane Jacobs published her last book, Dark Age Ahead, in which she mentioned in passing that “sooner or later (the housing bubble) would burst…as all bubbles do when their surfaces are not supported by commensurate increases in economic production.” Dark Age Ahead was uncharacteristically gloomy and not widely read: a pity, for it would be two years before the economist Nouriel Roubini and others described an unstable housing bubble and warned of trouble.

Jacobs is an intellectual legatee of Benjamin Franklin, a genius of common sense, as her biographers, Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch, aptly call her. She saw through institutional walls to the malfunctions within. This facility, combined with a strong but gentle polemical style and a Napoleonic ability to recruit and deploy citizen armies, rescued vital Manhattan neighborhoods including Soho and much of Greenwich Village from ruin fifty years ago by city planners and developers saturated with high-rise ideology and ravenous for federal highway and slum clearance money. The frustrated tone of Dark Days Ahead is that of a virtuoso prophet near the end of her life during the Cheney-Bush years, trying to alert her readers to the oncoming darkness, more threatening by far than the attack on Manhattan by planners and developers a half-century ago.

Perhaps the problems she cites in her final book did not seem as menacing to others as they did to her—the indifference of government to the urgent needs of citizens; a university culture that awards credentials rather than encourages learning; the failure of professional self-regulation exemplified by fraudulent accounting practices. She wrote Dark Age Ahead in the aftermath of the Enron scandals before the crimes of the bond-rating agencies and the mortgage industry emerged and the financial arrangements between physicians and drug companies were exposed. Or perhaps these and other signs of rot that she mentions are now so embedded in everyday life as to seem normal.

A complacent public had not been a problem for Jacobs fifty years ago when she declared that New York City’s planning establishment led by the megaplanner Robert Moses was parading naked down Fifth Avenue to Washington Square Park, promoting “a plan” to extend Fifth Avenue “through” the Greenwich Village “park where Jacobs brought her own children to play.” “Moses,” writes Anthony Flint in his fine account of the opening skirmish of the Jacobs/Moses wars of the 1950s and 1960s, “wanted to provide better access” and a Fifth Avenue address “to his massive urban renewal project just south of the” historic park. Jacobs and her neighbors wanted to protect their patch of green, the vital center of Greenwich Village. “The collision course was set.”

Flint writes that the park “was steeped in history.” For…

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