Godmother of the American City
Jacobs talked extensively with Metropolis contributor James Howard Kunstler at her kitchen table in Toronto on September 6, 2000. For the full-length article by Kunstler, click here.
JHK: In The Death and Life of Great American Cities you wrote: “It may be that we have become so feckless as a people that we no longer care how things work, but only what kind of quick, easy outer impression they give.” What was your state of mind back then? Were you ticked off at American culture? What was it that was getting under your skin in those days?
JJ: What was getting immediately under my skin was this mad spree of deceptions and vandalism and waste that was called urban renewal. And the way it had been adopted like a fad. People were so mindless about it—and so dishonest about what was being done. That’s what ticked me off; because I was working for an architectural magazine, and I saw all this first-hand—how the most awful things were being excused.
JHK: You must have already been acquainted with things like Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” and some of the schemes from the 1920s and the Bauhaus?
JJ: Yes, but I didn’t have any feelings about these things one way or another. I didn’t have any abstractions about American culture. I had no ideology. But I’ll tell you something else that had been worrying me. I liked visiting museums that showed old-time machines and tools. I was struck with the way these old machines were painted. They were done in a way that showed you how they worked. The makers cared about how these things were put together. I used to go to the railroad station in Scranton and watch the locomotives. I got a big bang out of seeing how those pistons moved the wheels, and then the connection of that with the steam inside. In the meantime, along came these locomotives that had skirts on them. Suddenly you couldn’t see how the wheels moved, and that disturbed me. It was supposed to be for some aerodynamic reason, but that didn’t make sense. And I began to notice how everything was being covered up, and I thought that was kind of sick.
JHK: So the whole streamlining thing bugged you?
JJ: That’s right. So I remember very well what was in my mind when I wrote, “We have become so feckless.” It was those skirts on the locomotives I was thinking about and how this had extended to “we didn’t care how our cities worked anymore.” We didn’t care to show where the en-trances were in buildings—that’s all I meant. It was not some enormous comment on Ameri-can society. I just thought this was a real decadence.
JHK: How were the proponents of urban renewal dishonest?
JJ: Well, I talked to an architect in 1958 who helped justify the destruction of the West End of Boston. And he told me that he had had to go on his hands and knees with a photographer through utility crawl spaces so they could get pictures of sufficiently dark and noisome spaces to justify that it was a slum. Now that is real dishonesty.
JHK: But isn’t that the whole tale of the mid-twentieth century? That scores of architects and planning officials went along with something that was really pernicious?
JJ: That’s right. And how did they justify it? Urban renewal was a greater good, so they would bear false witness for this greater good. Why was this a greater good? Because slums were bad. And I’d say, “But this isn’t a slum!” They didn’t care how things worked anymore. That was part of what was making me so angry. They also didn’t seem to care what part truth and untruths had in these things. And that’s part of how things work too.
JHK: Did you ever meet the infamous Robert Moses?
JJ: No, I saw him only once, at a hearing about the proposed road through Washington Square, which was to lead to an entrance ramp to the lower Manhattan expressway. He was there briefly to speak his piece. But nobody was told that at the time. None of us had spoken yet, because they always had the officials speak first and then they would go away and they wouldn’t listen to the people. Anyway, he stood up there gripping the railing, and he was furious at the effrontery of this. I guess he could already see that his plan was in danger, because he was saying, “There is nobody against this—NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY—but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers!” And then he stomped out.
JHK: Did he do more damage to New York than Albert Speer did to Berlin?
JJ: Well, I haven’t been to Berlin. And I don’t think we have to compare them. He did an awful lot of damage. Yes, he did. And I think New York is just now healing itself.
JHK: Why did you move to Canada in the late 1960s?
JJ: We came in protest of the Vietnam War. We had two draft-age sons. Both preferred going to jail to going to war. And my husband said, “You know, we didn’t raise these boys to go to jail.” In any case we didn’t like the war. We sympathized with their antagonism to it, so we decided to come to another country. We were just not cut out to be citizens of an empire.
JHK: It must have been very disruptive.
JJ: It would have been disruptive if we had thought of ourselves as exiles. People who think of themselves as exiles, I find, can never really put their lives together. We thought of ourselves as immigrants. It was an adventure, and we were all in it together.
JHK: But you were leaving quite a lot behind.
JJ: Yes, but we discovered another thing when we got here. Americans don’t think that other places are as real as America. We were leaving things behind. Well, we were coming to other things that were just as real, just as interesting, just as exciting. And people would ask me after we’d decided to stay, “When are you coming back?” “We’re not.” “Oh, but you can’t just—you’ve got to come back to real life.” And I would say, “It’s just as real.” This is very hard for Americans to understand. I think that may be the biggest difference between Americans and people elsewhere. Canadians know that there are places just as real as Canada. This self-centeredness is a very strange thing. I came here for positive reasons; we stayed for positive reasons—we liked it. Why did I become a Canadian citizen? Not because I was rejecting being a U.S. citizen. When I became a Canadian citizen, you couldn’t be a dual citizen—now you can—so I had to be one or the other. But the reason I became a Canadian citizen was because it seemed abnormal to me not to be able to vote.
JHK: How many years did it take you to compose your classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities?
JJ: Not very long. I started it in the fall of ‘58 and I finished it in January of ‘61. But I had been thinking about it for a long time. And although I didn’t know what I was gathering information for, I was gathering information for it.
JHK: Ed Logue, who passed away earlier this year, was kind of an emblematic figure of his time. He was a product of Yale and went on to inadvertently destroy both New Haven and much of central Boston by directing urban-renewal campaigns in the 1960s. Did you watch these schemes unfold? What did you think of them?
JJ: I thought they were awful. I thought he was a very destructive man—and I came to that opinion the first time I met him, which was in New Haven. He was telling me all the wonderful things he was doing. I had started working on my book, and I went to see him to find out what was happening. He did tell me some useful things. In particular he told me something very revealing: he said the best thing that could happen to San Francisco would be another earthquake and fire, like the one in 1904. And I was appalled at this. I had been to San Francisco and thought it was a wonderful place. He was serious about it—he thought it should all be wiped out and built new. Boy, in my books, he went down as a maniac.
JHK: What are your thoughts on what has happened to American cities?
JJ: It’s a tragedy—a totally unnecessary tragedy.
JHK: The destruction continues.
JJ: Yes, because nothing has really changed. Talk has changed, but regulations haven’t; lending systems for these things haven’t changed. The notion—and I tell you this one even worries me that it extends into New Urbanism—the notion of the shopping center as a valid kind of downtown has taken over. It’s very hard for architects of this generation even to think in terms of a downtown or a center that is owned by different people with different ideas.
JHK: But that’s one of the other directions the New Urbanists are going in. I think we’re leaving the age of the megaproject.
JJ: Here’s what I think is happening. I look at what happened at the end of Victorianism. Modernism really started with people getting infatuated with the idea of “It’s the twentieth century—is this suitable for the future?” This started happening before the First World War, and it wasn’t just the soldiers. You can see it happening if you read the Bloomsbury biographies. It was a reaction to a great extent against Victorianism; there was so much that was repressive and stuffy. Victorian buildings were associated with it, and they were regarded as very ugly. Even when they weren’t ugly, people made them ugly. They were painted hideously.
JHK: You were particularly harsh on Ebenezer Howard and Patrick Geddes and the Garden City movement of the early twentieth century. It was in some ways another one of those really bad ideas that a lot of intelligent people fell for—including Mumford, who got sucked in really big.
JJ: What was bad about the Garden City movement was the idea that you could take a clean slate and make a new world. That’s basically artificial. There is no new world that you make without the old world. And Mumford fell for the whole “this is the twentieth century” thing—the notion that you could discard the old world completely. This is what was so bad about Modernism.
JHK: Were you friendly with Mumford, or were you adversaries?
JJ: As far as I was concerned we were friendly. It was very funny: he was furious at The Death and Life of Great American Cities—absolutely furious. He thought—and I never gave him any reason to think this—he thought that I was a protégée of his, a disciple. Because he thought that all young people who were friendly must be his disciples.
JHK: And he was furious that you turned on him?
JJ: I think that’s what he thought. I first met him when I gave a talk at Harvard in 1956. I was substituting for my boss and had awful stage fright. But I gave a speech in which I attacked urban renewal. Mumford was in the audience. It was a real ordeal for me. I have no memory of giving it. I just went into a trance and recited this thing that I had memorized, then sat down. And it was a big hit. Nobody had heard anybody saying these things before. This is why Holly Whyte got me to write that article for The Exploding Metropolis—because of this speech. Anyway, Mumford was in the audience, and he very enthusiastically welcomed me, and we shook hands. I’d hypnotized myself, but I had apparently hypnotized them, too.
JHK: But then a few years later Mumford attacked you?
JJ: I met him some more times, and everything was amiable. I had my doubts about him, because we rode into the city together in a car and I watched how he acted as soon as he began to get into the city. He had been talking and all pleasant, but as soon as we got into the city he got grim, withdrawn, distressed. And it was so clear that he just hated the city, and hated being in it. And I was thinking, you know, this is the most interesting part.
JHK: I’d like to turn to economics. It seems to me that the American living arrangement, the “fiasco of suburbia” as Leon Krier calls it, is approaching a point beyond which it might be difficult to carry on. All that’s necessary is a mild to moderate chronic instability in the world oil markets to throw places like Houston, Phoenix, San Jose, Miami, Las Vegas, and Atlanta into terrible trouble. We seem to be sleepwalking into an economic train wreck.
JJ: Well, I don’t know whether it will happen because of the oil markets. I do know things won’t go on as they are now. But people who try to predict the future by extrapolating in a line from what already exists—they’re always wrong. This is a continuation of what I was saying about the revolt against Victorianism. I think what’s coming is one of these great generational upheavals. Not simply because people care about community or even understand it, or because of the relationship of sprawl to the ruination of the natural world. They just don’t like what’s around—and they will be absolutely ruthless with the remnants of it.
JHK: In your book Cities and the Wealth of Nations you talked about “the master economic process called import replacement”—the idea that a city and its region would prosper over time only if it started to furnish for itself many of the goods or services that it formerly imported. With the so-called global economy, it appears that import replacement is no longer significant given that the overwhelming majority of the products sold in the United States are made elsewhere. Is this a dangerous situation?
JJ: [Chuckles.] I think a more dangerous situation is the standardization of what is being produced or reproduced everywhere—where you can see the same products, in the same malls, in the same chains, in every city. This goes even deeper than the trouble with import-replacing, because it means that new things are not being produced locally that can be improvements. There’s a sameness—this is one of the things that’s boring people. But this sameness has economic implications: you don’t get new products and services out of sameness. This means that somehow there’s no opportunity for these thousands of flowers to bloom anymore.
JHK: The million flowers are now blooming in China. Every product I pick up is made in China. I’m not against the Chinese, but it makes you wonder how long we can go on having an advanced civilization without making anything anymore. Can we?
JJ: I don’t think so. But you know we aren’t complete dolts in all of this. For example, we don’t manufacture our own computers. They’re made mostly in Taiwan, but they aren’t designed in Taiwan. Is it more important to design computers, or more important to manufacture them? I think it’s vital to do both; it’s fatal to specialize. And all kinds of things show us that the more diverse we are in what we can do, the better. But I don’t think you can dismiss the constructive and inventive things that America is doing—and say, “Oh, we aren’t making anything anymore. We are living off of what the poor Chinese do.” It’s more complicated than that. There is the example of Detroit. Look what happened when it specialized just in automobiles. Look at Manchester when it specialized in textiles, in those “dark satanic mills.” It was supposed to be the city of the future.
JHK: We have an awful lot of places in America that don’t specialize in anything anymore. In the region where I live—which is a kind of a mini- Rust Belt in upstate New York—one town after another has practically vanished. There is no more Utica, New York, really. No Amsterdam, New York, or Glens Falls. Economically they’re gone. Is the rest of America going to be like that?
JJ: Never underestimate the power of a city to regenerate. And things everywhere are not as bad as you are picturing it. For example, Portland—lots of constructive things are happening there.
JHK: I’d say Portland is in pretty good shape compared to lots of other American cities—but it ain’t France.
JJ: No, it ain’t. But there are lots of things about America that are better in their own way than France.
JHK: Are there other countries, other parts of the world that you particularly love or admire?
JJ: I am very fond of the Netherlands. I like the immense variety of it on a very small compass. The human scale of the whole thing and the density are far above what we are used to in North America, or anywhere. They prove that high density and human scale are not incompatible at all.
JHK: The Europeans seem to have a higher regard for city life than we do, and to do better with it. How do you account for that?
JJ: Well, you have to go back to something I don’t understand and can’t explain, which are these planning hysterias that went over America. I guess different kinds of hysterias swept over Europe.
JHK: They get Adolf Hitler, and we get Ed Logue.
JJ: So we are lucky. But something else amazes me about the United States versus Europe. When we are faced with the task of fixing up a riverbank—and many American cities are on rivers—we have to put in theme parks, ballparks, aquariums, all this stuff. In Europe they make granite embankments with a ramp or stairs down to the water, and it’s beautiful.
JHK: You’ve left urbanism behind somewhat and moved on to economics. What are you working on now? Is there an idea you’re galvanized by these days?
JJ: I am interested in the question of why time is such an enemy in American neighborhoods—what specific things does time threaten—and how time can be made an ally.
JHK: Are you suggesting that American neighborhoods don’t regenerate themselves?
JJ: No. I think they have a very poor track record with regard to time.
JHK: And how has Greenwich Village fared over the sixty years that you have known it?
JJ: Oh, it has done very well. If other city neighborhoods had done as well there would be no trouble in cities. There are too few neighborhoods like that right now. So they are just gentrifying in the most ridiculous way. They’re crowding out everybody except people with exorbitant amounts of money—which is a symptom of demand for such a neighborhood far outstripping the supply.
JHK: When I was a kid, Brooklyn was like another planet. Now it’s where a whole generation has moved to in New York City.
JJ: Parts of Brooklyn are now, you might say, the outliers of my old neighborhood.