Tuesday, May 16, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary by Alice Sparberg Alexiou

"Designing a dream city is easy, rebuilding a living one takes imagination." Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs coined the phrase “sidewalk ballet” to describe the chaos she believed created livable cities. An advocate for increased density and diversity in urban settings, she believed that nothing is safer than a city street that everybody uses, one that is not too long, with a mixture of workplaces and residences where “the eyes on the street” provide a secure environment. In Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary, Alice Sparberg Alexiou has created a lively portrait of one of the leading thinkers on cities and urban renewal.

Self-taught, Jacobs gained her ideas by questioning everything she observed and read. She spent long periods walking the streets of New York City, noting the bustle and rhythms of neighbourhoods and natural gathering points. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs’ seminal work, gathered these observations and shared her groundbreaking opinions on rebuilding cities. Fiercely opposed to the human toll caused by the bulldozing of America’s slums, Jacobs’ work challenged the establishment, as did many groundbreaking works of the Sixties.

Refusing to cooperate with Alexiou’s biography and asking her publisher not to facilitate the book, Jacobs claimed the biography distract from her writing. Alexiou displays obvious admiration for her subject; however, she is not blind to Jacobs’ shortcomings. One of the strongest criticisms of Death and Life was its failure to address the race question by analyzing communities where access to capital was impossible. Alexiou makes the case that Jacobs never did addressed race.

Jacob’s words and passion were the weapons that she marshaled in her battle, her razor-sharp language so at odds with her down-to-earth appearance. Opponents like Roger Starr, a former New York City housing administrator, found that her appearance was misleading; "What a dear, sweet character she isn't."

Right up until her death on April 25, 2006, at the age of 89, Jane Jacobs continued to work. Perhaps this tribute by New York Times best sums up her life and career: "Jacobs’s legacy can be seen in the New Urbanism, in the landmark-preservation movement and in the brain cells of architecture and city-planning students everywhere."

Alexiou’s work is timely. The battles Jacobs fought are still with us; the exodus to the suburbs continues while New Urbanists argue the benefits of intensification and SUVs replace pedestrians in ever increasing numbers. Alexiou’s writing style helps the reader feel comfortable with Jacobs’ message, one needed now more than ever, before the “sidewalk ballet” is lost forever.

See the review posted at Armchair Interviews: Jane Jacobs


Carrie K said...

This is in my TBR pile too. Darn. So many books. So little time

Janelle Martin said...

Yeah...well it's a quick and engaging read so won't take too long. And it's worth moving up the TBR pile.