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Jane Jacobs, author of classic 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities,' dead at 89
AP National Writer
NEW YORK — Jane Jacobs, an author and community activist of singular influence whose classic "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" transformed ideas about urban planning, died Tuesday, her publisher said. Jacobs, a longtime resident of Toronto, was 89.
Jacobs died in her sleep Tuesday morning at a Toronto hospital, which she entered a few days ago, according to Random House publicist Sally Marvin. Jacobs' son, James, was with her at the time. The author, who would have turned 90 on May 4, had been in poor health.
A native of Scranton, Pa., Jacobs lived for many years in New York before moving to Toronto in the late 1960s. She and her husband, architect Robert Jacobs Jr., were unhappy that their taxes supported the Vietnam War and turned to Canada as their permanent home. Robert Jacobs died in 1996.
Jacobs, who based her findings on deep, eclectic reading and firsthand observation, challenged assumptions she believed damaged modern cities — that neighborhoods should be isolated from each other, that an empty street was safer than a crowded one, that the car represented progress over the pedestrian.
Her priorities were for integrated, manageable communities, for diversity of people, transportation, architecture and commerce. She also believed that economies need to be self-sustaining and self-renewing, relying on local initiative instead of centralized bureaucracies.
"She inspired a kind of quiet revolution," her longtime editor, Jacob Epstein, said Tuesday. "Every time you see people rise up and oppose a developer, you think of Jane Jacobs."
"Death and Life," published in 1961, evolved from opposing the standards of the time to becoming a standard itself. It was taught in urban studies classes throughout North America and sold more than half a million copies. City planners in New York and Toronto were among those who cited its importance and her book became an essential text for "New Urban" communities such as Hercules, Calif., and Civano, Ariz.
Jacobs also received a number of prizes, including a lifetime achievement award in 2000 from the National Building Foundation in Washington, D.C.
With her bangs and owlish glasses, and her look of cheerful curiosity, it was easy to mistake Jacobs for an idle eccentric, the kind of woman to be found late at night in the research room of the public library.
But Jacobs was a dedicated, even iconic activist. In the 1950s, her loyalty was questioned by the U.S. government, and in the 1960s, she was arrested for protesting Vietnam. She successfully opposed a Toronto highway project not long after moving there and was a distinctive presence at public hearings.
Her most famous confrontation came in the early '60s, when she helped defeat a plan by New York City park commissioner Robert Moses to build an expressway through Washington Square. During a 2000 interview with The Associated Press, Jacobs recalled the city hearing where she first laid eyes on the mighty Moses.
"He was one of the first speakers," she said. "He was furious and he stood up there, inside the railed enclosure, and not where most speakers spoke — outside where the public microphone was. He was privileged.
"He gripped this railing and he said, in dismissing scornfully our plan to have no more than the existing road and better not even that, he said, 'These protests are just by a bunch of ... a bunch of mothers!"'
Robert Caro, whose classic biography of Moses, "The Power Broker," was often taught alongside "Death and Life," said Tuesday that Jacobs was a "far-sighted genius who guided cities in new directions." He called her battle with Moses "one of the truly heroic sagas in the history of New York."
Jacobs, born in 1916, was a doctor's daughter with a compulsion to question authority and find answers for herself. During the Depression, on days when job hunts went nowhere, she would invest a nickel in the subway and explore a neighborhood: the diamond district, the garment district, the meatpacking district. Soon, she made money out of her passion, writing articles for various magazines.
"Death and Life" emerged from her reporting. Not only did it attack canonical beliefs in city planning, it attacked such canonical figures as Moses, for his dogmatic attachment to the automobile, and historian Lewis Mumford, author of "The Culture of Cities," for his misguided attachment to the anti-city philosophy.
Jacobs thought cities suffered from an anti-city bias among planners, the romanticization of a more rural way of life. Because of this, she wrote, vital communities were being torn down simply because they were "crowded," other neighborhoods were fatally isolated and parks were being constructed without regard to their surrounding environment.
In later works, she examined the ideas outlined in "Death and Life" from other perspectives: "Cities and the Wealth of Nations," the economy; "Systems of Survival," morals; "The Nature of Economies," science and ecology. Her final book was "Dark Age Ahead" in 2004.
Jacobs is survived by three children, James, Edward and Mary.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company