Astute urban observer and activist Jane Jacobs died this week at the age of 89.
Among her many accomplishments, she mobilized her neighbors and led several successful grassroots fights in the 1960s that saved Greenwich Village, Soho, Little Italy, and the Lower East Side from being leveled for glass towers and an eight-lane highway dubbed the Lower Manhattan Expressway.
In 1961, she published her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which drew on her own observations of neighborhood life in Manhattan to deliver a devastating critique of dominant urban planning practices and a brilliant analysis of what makes cities healthy and vibrant. It remains remarkably relevant forty-five years later.
Jacobs wrote wonderfully about the vital role that locally owned businesses play in nurturing community:
“The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts. It grows out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop, hearing about a job from the hardware man and borrowing a dollar from the druggist?
“Most of it is ostensibly utterly trivial but the sum is not trivial at all. The sum of such casual, public contact at a local level—most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands, all of it metered by the person concerned and not thrust upon him by anyone—is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need.”