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BOOK REVIEW

Celebrating a woman who saved our cities

By Robert Campbell
September 24, 2009

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In July of this year, a block of Hudson Street in New York’s Greenwich Village was named Jane Jacobs Way.

Jacobs, who died in 2006, lived for years with her family in an apartment above a candy store on that block. From there, she fought the battles and wrote her classic book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,’’ which appeared in 1961 and has never been out of print. Millions of copies in dozens of languages have been sold. The book revolutionized the way planners and architects, as well as the rest of us, think about cities and what makes them good or bad places to live.

Written by two Boston women who are also illustrators, “Genius of Common Sense’’ is a readable and well-researched biography that succeeds in capturing Jacobs and her world, not only in words but in drawings and period photos. It’s promoted as a “book for young readers,’’ which it certainly is, but it’s better than that. It’s the best short introduction yet to the life and work of one of the most influential Americans of her generation.

It presents Jacobs as a woman in full, growing up happy but restless in Scranton, Pa., moving to New York, skipping college, getting married, having kids, trying different jobs, visiting and learning from many places, always observing, comparing, thinking. We know where she’s coming from when she emerges as the woman who takes the lead in saving her own and other neighborhoods from the ideas of self-serving developers and arrogant public officials - people who, if they’d been allowed to get away with it, would have destroyed some of New York’s most cherished places.

One of this reviewer’s favorite lines is by Nobel Prize author Doris Lessing: “When principles are invoked, common sense flies out the window.’’ Jacobs would have endorsed that view. She had little patience with abstract thinkers and academic theories. She looked closely at the real world with her own eyes and drew her own conclusions, always asking the same question: “What works?’’

Jacobs moved to Hudson Street in the first place because she loved the busy, diverse city life she found there in the neighborhood known as the West Village. The lessons she learned from her street became the basis of her famous book. In that era of so-called urban renewal, older, poorer neighborhoods like hers were too often viewed as slums. Using federal funding, planners and developers simply wiped them out. Streets filled with people were replaced by lifeless towers and plazas. Boston’s old West End neighborhood, now the bland, isolated Charles River Park, is a notorious example.

Good as this book is, I’d like to have seen a little more tough journalism. It’s true, for instance, that Americans fled to the suburbs in the 1940s and ’50s, leaving cities wide open for predatory redevelopers. But they didn’t go just because they loved cars and lawns. They were enticed by foolish, often bigoted government highway and lending policies that subsidized suburbs at the expense of cities.

In the most famous passage of her book, Jacobs wrote of the Hudson Street sidewalk as the scene of a daily “ballet,’’ an ever-changing dance, as a variety of players came and went - merchants, shoppers, schoolchildren with lunch boxes, office workers with briefcases, taxis, bicyclists, dock workers, teens, lovers, a few colorful crazies.

It was this messy, vital dance of life, Jacobs argued, that planners wanted to clean up and sweep away. Until her, no one saw it with so clear an eye for its social vitality or its visual poetry.

Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

GENIUS OF COMMON SENSE: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities By Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch

Godine, 127 pp., illustrated, $17.95

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