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Joshua Frankel

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Imagining Jane Jacobs

From the opera to Twitter, Jane Jacobs's cultural afterlife

What would Jane Jacobs sing? That was the question that gripped me in the minutes before the March pre-premiere of A Marvelous Order, a.k.a. the Moses-Jacobs Opera, a.k.a. the latest leap for urban planning off the page and onto the stage. A variety of images flashed through my mind. Would she wear glasses? Would she wear gloves? Would she be hanging out at the White Horse Tavern?

The lights go up and she is alone on stage. She is wearing glasses. She sings the ballet of the street, her street, Hudson Street. Of course.

JANE JACOBS coming down her steps:

Every day I wake

And make my little clang.

[drops her garbage into a can]

"She’s the David in this story," says Tracy K. Smith, author of the libretto for A Marvelous Order and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. "Keeping her in that human scale is important. Her voice becomes a kind of power because her writing is so nimble. She was watching the city and listening in a way it doesn’t feel like anyone else was."

First the sun inches up

like a secret between me

and whatever is the god

of New York City.

Smith knew little about Jacobs or Moses when she was invited by composer Judd Greenstein and director Joshua Frankel to write the words to their opera. What she did know was from personal experience. "I lived in Cobble Hill, and I knew what the BQE has done to that part of Brooklyn when it divided it from the waterfront," she says. So she did the reading anyone might do: Robert Caro’s The Power Broker and Jacobs’s own The Death and Life of Great American Cities, plus the more recent Wrestling with Moses, by Anthony Flint, a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, who was the first to put Moses and Jacobs together. (Jacobs was a source for Caro, but does not appear in The Power Broker.) Smith also absorbed the language of articles Jacobs herself read about the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, and the rhetoric of protest signs that Jacobs herself carried, as seen in period photos.

A scene from A Marvelous Order.
Roman Iwasiwka


[...] You shame him with words

That everyone can read and hear

And see: "Little Italy—Killed by Progress."

Skull-and-crossbones. "Death of a neighborhood."

The signs, "that’s Jacobs too," Smith says. "It’s the 1950s and the protesters are well-groomed, so there is something that feels different from the discourse of protest even 10 years later." The images, collected by Frankel, are also incorporated into the urban animations he created to back the opera’s players, overlaying grainy black-and-white photos with scene-stealing bursts of pure color. Some direct quotes made it into the libretto, echoes of Death and Life, like that "little clang" in the opening song, titled "Ballet of the City." Other quotations appear later, in the mouths of other characters.


Uptown, they called us a slum.

They built us a project.

A brand new big blocky prison.

"They are brief things that punctuate the libretto, but they are some of the most memorable lines," Smith says, modestly.

Joshua Frankel

A Marvelous Order is only one of a number of contemporary projects, graphic, documentary, and social, that call upon Jane in a variety of ways beyond simple biography. Jane Jacobs is a historical figure, of course, and this fall Knopf will publish Robert Kanigel’s Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs. But as someone who wrote a version of the now commonplace coupling of Bob (Moses) and Jane (Jacobs) 10 years ago, I would argue that she is now also an avatar, a figure onto which urban advocates project their desires for a different kind of dialogue, a different kind of planning, a different kind of hero. Many of us have a Jane in our imagination: a Jane who fights the power, a Jane who explains the city, a Jane who parents, a Jane who sings.

For journalist-turned-director Matt Tyrnauer, Jacobs is less a soloist and more of a claxon, as we will see when his documentary on Jacobs is released later this year. "The message of the film is, it is up to you. That’s what she would say: every city is different, and you’ve got to understand your neighborhood. It is a movie about her ideas, really, and how they still apply," he says. Tyrnauer cooked up the idea of a documentary on Jacobs four years ago, after completing his successful feature Valentino: The Last Emperor. He met Robert Hammond, one of the founders of Friends of the High Line, in Rome. "We got together in Rome and began talking about our mutual obsession over Death and Life," Tyrnauer says. "I wanted to make a movie about architecture and design, and we realized there had never been a documentary of the highest quality on Jane Jacobs." Hammond, along with several others, signed on as a producer.

The documentary tells the story we think we know, of Jacobs as a herald of the destructive power of urban renewal, as well as a street-level activist. "The movie tells that story and then it frames the story in context of the world today," Tyrnauer says. "We explain why an audience should be aware and interested in cities and have an understanding, as she wrote, ‘of the kind of problem a city is.’" He filmed in New York, India, and China, and spoke to many people who worked with Jacobs, including Jason Epstein, her editor at Random House, and the late Mayor Ed Koch, who also got his start trying to save the Village.

A scene from A Marvelous Order.
Roman Iwasiwka

Just as I was curious to hear Jane Jacobs sing, I am excited to hear Jacobs’s actual voice in vintage footage the team found by digging deep at city agencies and archival houses. Some of it, Tyrnauer says, has never been seen. "She says in one of the film clips, when she began to look at urban renewal she began to see it was absurd, insane. To some it was very vexing that this outsider, much less a woman, pointed to the disastrous course we were taking in the history of the design of cities." Their hope is that people are incited to the kind of activism she was through an understanding of cities as networks rather than hierarchies: "A free and vibrant city comes from the bottom up. You as a citizen can help to change your city."

Jacobs’s popularity itself is a reflection of our time—as well as her 100th birthday. Peter L. Laurence, a professor at the Clemson University School of Architecture and author of the recent Becoming Jane Jacobs, says, "When I started reading her and writing about her in the mid 1990s, her reputation was at a low tide, and she was only marginally incorporated into architectural history and theory." Her rediscovery coincides with the growth of cities, and in pop culture and theory thereof. A younger generation of scholars sees the 1960s, and modernism, differently than those who lived through ’68. Jacobs as outsider, Jacobs as a theorist of cities from the bottom up, Jacobs as either for or against gentrification—her writings fit, or can be made to fit, a variety of contemporary agendas. "As I discuss in the conclusion to my book, the interest of conservatives and liberals in Jacobs’s writing, and their various claims of her ideological affiliation with them, is fascinating. I try to point out that even here context matters: urban (New York, in my examples) conservatives and liberals may have more in common (maybe "New York values"!) with each other than suburbanites."

An animation from A Marvelous Order.
Joshua Frankel

The filmmaker’s emphasis on Jacobs as someone speaking directly to the current urban condition jives with one of my favorite contemporary Janes, @jane_jacobs, "haunting the village," as her Twitter bio reads, with 691 followers. The account started as a joke: friends of its anonymous author started tweeting as Ed Logue, Boston’s Moses figure, and "needed to be taken down a notch, so I started answering as Jane. Ed eventually disappeared (I guess Jane won) and Jane took on a life of her own." People often tag her to promote Jane-related events, and the account also spreads the word about articles, books, and events held in her name. But her best trick is popping up where least expected, like the real Jane, and getting into it.

"She gets into great discussions, the best ones are when people aren’t expecting her and suddenly she shows up," @jane_jacobs emails me. "Sometimes I get in trouble with her big fans because I don’t follow her to the letter, I will post something that goes outside what they consider to be the 'Jane lines' so to speak. I think the only way we can respect her as an intellectual is by not setting her writing in stone, but understanding her position within her context in time and place."

@jane_jacobs sees Twitter, at least in earlier days, as a contemporary version of the street, Jacobs territory to be sure, and a place where real-world battles over who has authority are repeated. "My favorite passages are her speculations on transforming big civic spaces or modern blocks to make them more livable and friendly. I sense a bit of misogyny in the critique sometimes, particularly in the tone that minimizes traditionally ‘female’ concerns as child safety, playgrounds, schools. There’s this suggestion that the female is limited to the domestic realm, and that the civic or public is male."

Jacobs knew this well, of course, from Moses’s now infamous line, delivered in A Marvelous Order, that the forces arrayed against him at Washington Square Park were "Nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers." Yet this was a gross underestimation of his opponents’ sophisticated control of what we now call optics. Jacobs was a mother and a critic, a critic and a mother, and those roles fed each other in a way that seems more relatable now than it did then.

Many of us have a Jane in our imagination: a Jane who fights the power, a Jane who explains the city, a Jane who parents, a Jane who sings.

Smith, writing A Marvelous Order, found it more difficult to humanize Moses than to complicate Jacobs, eventually identifying with her as a writer and a mother. "How would I drag this story down to where I live? As a writer you are asking the work to exert so much of your own view of the world upon the reader. There’s so much ego in that. As a woman and as a mother there are things you struggle with to have time and space to make your art, and that was helpful for me to draw upon."

"She was frequently characterized as a housewife who wrote an important book about the city, but that’s inaccurate," says Tyrnauer. "She was a very important journalist: the associate editor of Architectural Forum, the pet project of Henry Luce. She was writing about cities for 20 years and we show how she was in the perfect position to see the flaws in new cities at midcentury. It was her beat."

Lewis Mumford’s 1962 New Yorker review of Death and Life was poisonously titled "Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies." (I wonder if the cartoon editor was having a bit of fun when he placed one with the line, "So this is the woman behind the man!" on the opening page.) "This able woman had used her eyes and, even more admirably, her heart to assay the human result of large-scale housing," but unfortunately, "her innocence of easily ascertainable facts is rather frequent." "Mrs. Jacobs is at her best in dealing with small, intimate urban areas." And so on.

Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

In Flint’s book, Wrestling With Moses, he describes how Jacobs marshaled kids—whom she called her "little elves"—to collect signatures and put up posters because they were catnip for newspaper photographers. Ned Jacobs, then seven, spent his weekends marching around Washington Square wearing a sandwich board reading "Save the Square!" "One day when she was shopping for long underwear at Macy’s for her sons, Ned and Jim, the clerk asked whether it was for hunting or for fishing. ‘It’s for picketing,’ she replied." Her daughter Mary is front and center, with bangs like her mother’s, in a June 1958 photo of a symbolic "ribbon-tying" in front of the arch.

This was the favorite Jane of Pierre Christin, co-author of the graphic novel Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City. Christin started the project with just Moses as his focus, overlaying history with the dramatic shadows of comic book portrayals of the urbs. "For about fifty years I have been regularly walking, cycling, using public transportation in New York. Slowly but surely, my eyes became more efficient when I realized that Moses was present in a way or another practically everywhere," Christin emailed me. Since Moses’s work was building, it seemed ideal for graphic novel treatment in collaboration with artist Olivier Balez. But after reading Flint’s book, he decided the story was much more interesting with a second main character.

"Jane embodied perfectly the change of mind about big cities, with the environmental preoccupations as well as the ever expanding gentrification," he wrote. "Like Haussmann in Paris who was for a long time admired and powerful before being hated and even forgotten, Jane Jacobs is ‘modern’ when Moses becomes an old fashioned ‘macho’. And a ‘weak’ woman knocks down some sort of a stone statue. Funny." @jane_jacobs says Robert Moses couldn’t (and doesn’t) have a Twitter account for similar reasons: "You can’t follow Robert Moses, he’s driven around in a big black car"—just as Christin and Balez show him. To humanize Moses in A Marvelous Order we see him at Jones Beach.

Another statement of Jacobs’s relative modernity, as well an update on her understanding of the visual language of protest, was graphic designer Mike Joyce’s 2009 postcard project, "More Jane Jacobs, Less Marc Jacobs." "It hit me one day when I was walking by the fifth or sixth Marc Jacobs store on Bleecker," says Joyce, who has lived nearby for 22 years. "Jane Jacobs has a portion of Hudson named for her where she used to live." He put the two together, printed up postcards, and dropped them off at local diners, cafes, and mom and pop stores. (People still email him weekly asking for the t-shirt version, which was limited run.) The typeface is Akzidenz-Grotesk, the black and yellow color scheme from 1970s New York street signs. "The copy I have of Death and Life is type-driven, very much my style," he says. "Sometimes the headline is better than the whole story." A professor at Princeton wrote to him. "He summed it up best: I said in six short words what he and his colleagues have been writing dissertations about."

Mike Joyce

The only aspect of Janeism I found fault with was the narrowness of its scope, which so often seems driven by Flint’s narrative, making what could be a solo into a duet. The ending to A Marvelous Order is still being worked out, but it may include a scene of Jacobs and Moses meeting in the afterlife, at last. It becomes the Bob and Jane show, in which she defeats the road through Washington Square Park only to find a larger threat, the Lower Manhattan Expressway, waiting around the corner. But she had other interests, and other important writings before and after The Death and Life of American Cities, not to mention her post-New York life in Toronto, where she helped to defeat another expressway, the Spadina, which would have run through her new neighborhood. That’s dramatic irony! The photo on the cover of Flint’s book shows her picketing the old Penn Station with Aline Saarinen and Philip Johnson. Those are characters!

Laurence cautions, "It is indeed possible the Washington Square, Save the West Village, and LOMEX fights would not have been won without her, but we need to be careful not to continue to fall for the 19th century concept of the Great Man theory of history." Jacobs’s activist successes were embedded in and aided by her community; she was a leader but she wasn’t alone in her efforts or insights. "My goal was to show that Jacobs was a sometimes fallible, but evolving, generally independent, and accomplished intellectual—in contrast to the various, and variously conflicting, interpretations of her as an infallible savant, goddess, saint, a housewife, and a woman fundamentally defined in opposition to a man (Robert Moses)," he says. Perhaps a chorus would be even better.

In the future, Jane may be a movie star. After Wrestling With Moses was published it was optioned by HBO, with James Gandolfini interested in playing Moses. After the actor’s untimely death the option lapsed, but Flint is in negotiations with a new set of producers. "If it is made into a movie it is going to be set in New York, an Erin Brockovich kind of story. It’s a lot of fun to think about the actress who might play that role," Flint says.

It is indeed. I agree with @jane_jacobs that the essential image is Jacobs, in giant pearls and giant glasses, backed by a set of postwar projects. "It reminds me of a Cindy Sherman picture," she told me. (This one.) "I also love how proper and tame she looks, yet with a knowing smile. So many people try to appear radical and revolutionary but yet are very conforming of the status quo, she was the opposite."

Editor: Sara Polsky


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