Adam Gopnick in the New Yorker does a reflection on Jane Jacobs’s life and ideas in her centenary year, with so many astute observations that PT will pull out a selection and run one every hour today.


Jacobs seldom gives a good account of the place of politics in city-making. Politics for her is Robert Moses telling moms where the expressway should run. Politics is the planners, and exists as an afterthought to the natural order of cities. And it’s true: politics isn’t a self-organizing system. It’s not a ballet. It’s a battle. But it remains essential to reconcile goods, like free streets and fair housing, that will never reconcile themselves.

Most big ideas turn out to be half right, half wrong—and, as time goes on, the right bits look ever more obvious, while the wrong bits look really wrong. We read Marx and think, Well, of course men’s economic interests shape their ideologies—who didn’t know that? But what about his ignorance of markets and his contempt for mere democracy? This is true of the afterlife of Jacobs’s ideas, whatever flavor we take them in. Before her, a heroic register in writing about cities was completely commonplace: big buildings, big projects, big places were what made cities happen. (There were honorable exceptions, mostly on the right: Chesterton’s love of London villages comes to mind.) Mumford basically complained that in thinking about cities Jacobs loved the small Washington Squares so much that she couldn’t see the splendor of the great Central Parks.