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Jane Jacobs’ Philadelphia

Site of Society Hill Towers, July 7, 1961 (PhillyHistory.org) with Frederick Pillsbury. “We viewed the acres of rubble that one day will be apartment house towers and new houses. ‘You see, the planners always want to make a big deal of everything they do,’ Mrs. Jacobs said. ‘In urban renewal you need new buildings—I have no quarrel with that—but there were plenty of good buildings here. Why tear them all down?'”

‘You’ve got to get out and walk!’ urban journalist Jane Jacobs implored her readers.

It was 1958 and her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, wouldn’t appear for another three years. Jacobs ideas were still forming, still considered “radical and outlandish.” In time, her approach would prevail and come to influence both urban theory and redevelopment.

So why not take the occasion of Jacobs’ 104th birthday, to share some of her thoughts on urban design in general, and Philadelphia in particular? Jane Jacobs had much to say about both.

“Look at some lively old parts of the city,” she wrote. “Notice the tenement with the stoop and sidewalk and how that stoop and sidewalk belong to the people there. … Notice the stores and the converted store fronts. …think about these examples of the plaza, the market place and the forum, all very ugly and makeshift but very much belonging to the inhabitants, very intimate and informal. … the least we can do is to respect—in the deepest sense—strips of chaos that have a weird wisdom of their own not yet encompassed in our concept of urban order.”

That “weird wisdom,” wrote Nathaniel Rich in The Atlantic, “was the wisdom of crowds: the customs and habits that people in cities, left to their own devices.” And it was often counter to what planners wanted. “The planners had been guided by aesthetic concerns, favoring clean lines, geometric shapes, and vast boulevards that were beautiful so long as they were seen from the window of an airplane. But Americans didn’t need a new utopia,” says Rich. “They already had a system that, while messy and imperfect, produced a thriving society.”

As Jacobs studied “the ecology of cities,” she would reveal “nothing less than a new ‘system of thought’ about the city.” And, when “compared to the bird’s-eye view and arm’s-length approach of professional theorists,” according to Peter L. Laurence, Jacobs’ “approach, like her activism, was eye level and hands on; her urban theory was the corollary of her activism, and vice versa.”

10th Street, Brown to Parrish Streets, December 4, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org) “We drove through a dreary, rundown area on North 11th Street.” Frederick Pillsbury “asked Mrs. Jacobs what she would do about it if she had the authority. ‘I don’t believe in panaceas,’ she said. ‘The problems in a place like this are too complicated for offhand suggestions. The first thing would be to learn about the life here.'”

Jacobs’ “great accomplishment, writes Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, “would be to translate that ‘weird wisdom’ into terms we could all understand.”

And, one might argue, it all started in 1954, when the editors of Architectural Forum assigned Jacobs’ to cover the legendary Philadelphia city planner Edmund N. Bacon. According to Alice Sparberg Alexiou, Bacon, “like everybody else at the time believed wholeheartedly in the bulldozer approach to urban renewal.”

According to Alexiou, Jacobs would later recall Bacon taking her “on a tour of a black neighborhood . . . to show her a recent renewal project. ‘He took me along a crowded street, where there were a lot of recent arrivals in the Great Migration, . . . Obviously they were very poor people, but enjoying themselves and each other. Then we went one street over [where there were the new high-rise projects]. Ed Bacon said, ‘Let me show you what we’re doing.’ He wanted me to see the lovely vista. There was no human being on the street except for a little boy kicking a tire. I said, ‘Where are the people?’ He didn’t answer. He only said, ‘They don’t appreciate these things.’”

In an instant, “Jacobs realized that the high-rise projects that Bacon was so proud of had been designed with total disregard for the people who inhabit them.”

“What a revelation that was to me!” said Jacobs of her encounter with Bacon. She returned to New York with the realization that “all the hyped new projects the planners and architects were building in cities… bore no relation to what people actually needed.”

Jacobs had learned the truth by trusting “what her own eyes told her, what she had seen in Philadelphia.”

[Sources: Alice Sparberg Alexiou, Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006); [Jane Jacobs], “A Lesson in Urban Redevelopment: Philadelphia’s Redevelopment, A Progress Report,” Architectural Forum (July 1955); [Jane Jacobs], “The Missing Link in City Redevelopment,” Architectural Forum (June 1956); Peter L. Laurence, “Jane Jacobs Before Death and Life,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, (March 2007); Frederick Pillsbury, ”’I Like Philadelphia with some big IFs and BUTs.’” An Interview with Jane Jacobs,” The Sunday Bulletin Magazine, June 24, 1962; Nathaniel Rich, “The Prophecies of Jane Jacobs,”, The Atlantic, November 2016; Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, “An Ad Hoc Affair: Jane Jacobs’s clear-eyed vision of humanity.” The Nation, February 3, 2017.]

Next Time: More of Jane Jacobs’ Philadelphia

3 replies on “Jane Jacobs’ Philadelphia”

Great piece. I wish I had been in the room to hear Ed’s reaction to her comments. Actually, I wouldn’t
have had to be in the room. I could have been down the street….

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