I think of the writer and champion of cities Jane Jacobs every time I walk to work. I have a small office studio on the 200 block of Park Avenue. As I cross Saratoga heading south on Park, I pass International Fragrance, Blue Sky Diner, Jeanius Styles (closed), Dimensions In Music (closed), the old Sharp Dressed Man (that caught on fire), a place with no name above the door but a bunch of flower arrangements in the window and some barber chairs inside, a gaming store/ lounge called M.A.P. Technologies, Gift and Variety, U.S.A. Staffers, Accessories and More, Klymaxx Lounge (which was briefly Park Place, operated by Baltimore Club legend Rod Lee, and before that the great Isis Lounge), EMT Wholesale, an unnamed hookah place, Diamond Cut, and H&H Wholesale before I reach Psychic Annex, the building where I rent a studio space above two theater companies. Beside our building backing up onto Clay Street, the old church rectory has been converted to apartments.
All this would all have been part of the Superblock, where the city was working with a single investor to redevelop a vast swath of the Westside of downtown. The so-far endless delay has allowed shops like these to sprout up and thrive. They jostle up against one another. A block further up, where Park used to be Baltimore's Chinatown, you still have Zhongshan and Potung Trading, but the same block is also now Little Addis Ababa, with several Ethiopian businesses and the sidewalks are always full, even if with all-day drinkers.
And now, although the BDC still seems to be looking for a buyer, the future of the area is clear. Much of what was the Superblock is now the Bromo Arts District, which will likely lead to gentrification, but for now, it is the mad jumble of "mixed use" that Jacobs championed in her landmark 1961 book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." And the Superblock is exactly the kind of dunderheaded urban renewal scheme that she despised and fought against.
I'm not alone in thinking of Jacobs when I walk down the city street. She changed the way we think about cities and changed cities themselves. If you live in a city, Jacobs will bowl you over by articulating everything you love about it. Three chapters of her book are devoted to the functions of sidewalks and their centrality to city life and she beautifully articulates the joy of neighborhood relations—the years-long friendships that develop in public and never progress to the point that either party would enter the other's home. She is the poet of the socially constrained relations with shopkeepers and booksellers and barkeeps—all the people we know in passing.
"It is possible in a city street neighborhood to know all kinds of people without unwelcome entanglements, without boredom, necessity for excuses, explanations, fears of giving offense, embarrassments respecting impositions or commitments," Jacobs wrote in "Death and Life." "Such relationships can and do endure for many years, for decades."
This describes my relationship with Jane Jacobs until I read Robert Kanigel's "Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs" (Alfred A. Knopf)—which strained that relationship by introducing unwelcome entanglements. I ended up knowing a lot more details about Jane Jacobs than I needed to, while understanding her less than I do from picking a passage, almost at random, in "Death and Life" and reading her often spectacular, sparkling prose. In a sense, Kanigel does to Jacobs' life precisely what she argued against in city planning—he gives it too much order, stripping away the life for the sake of an ideal. In this case, the ideal, probably built into the book contract and the nature of the project, is that of The Life, the standard form biography—a form that, here, is exhaustive without being revealing.
As Kanigel dutifully moves from Jacobs' childhood in Scranton to her death in Toronto, spending, of course, an appropriate time on her years in Greenwich Village, which she helped save from disastrous highway developments on more than one occasion, he is at his best when he is narrating things that Jacobs did, said, or thought and worst when he guesses what she might have felt or tries to say what some action must have meant to her. And perhaps in the hands of a more dramatic writer some of the details of her daily life would have stood up and sung—the way they do when she writes about them—but the details have no discernible form and so the unimportant details block, rather than support, the things that are actually interesting about Jacobs.
The book would be far stronger if an editor had insisted, Robert Moses-like, that they cut the book by one hundred pages and focus more thoroughly on Jacobs' writing and intellectual development and if Kanigel had applied Jacobs' dictum about short blocks to chapters—if each would have been only a couple pages, revealing something dramatic about her life or thinking. Instead, Kanigel appears baffled by Jacobs' emotional life, remarking on more than one occasion on what seemed to come across to him as a lack of emotion. He reports that she and her husband could be heard laughing in the mornings, but he never lets us see what they might be laughing about. He tells us about their big warm family—which sometimes comes across like Salinger's Glass family—but he rarely shows it.
Some of this is probably colored by the terrible stuff that comes early in the book. "Much later, especially when health problems slowed her down, she grew fat and dumpy," Kanigel writes, straightly. "But photos and accounts from her young and middle adulthood radiate a poised self-possession that, all by itself, can transform and elevate even ordinary looks." That's pretty bad, right? But Kanigel goes on for another long paragraph about how "Jane was not a beautiful woman, nor had she been when young."
Contrast that with Kanigel's description of Bob Jacobs, Jane's husband, who is "a handsome fellow with a full head of curly dark hair and a winning smile." The picture (in the galleys) on the page beside this sentence does not depict a particularly handsome man. But in case we didn't get it, he also quotes a relative as saying: "He was conventionally good looking. She was conventionally not good looking." Jean Paul Sartre may be the only male writer I've ever heard described as ugly by official sources such as biographers. Kanigel acknowledges that "it was a cruel fact that women were so reflexively judged by their looks, but fact it was, and the readiness with which both men and women commented on Jane's attests to the truth of it."
This stuff, following a wretched introduction, made me want to throw the book on the street. But Kanigel is saved by his subject. Jacobs is fascinating, mostly as a writer–and Kanigel does a fine job discussing most of her seven books—and as an activist. There is still room for a top-notch biography of Jacobs that tries to deeply address the connection between her writing and her activism. But for now, even if you have read it a hundred times, you will learn more about Jane Jacobs from "Death and Life" than from a biography. At least from this one.