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A Conversation With Jane Jacobs

Fascinating interview with Jane Jacobs. Jacobs is the author of one of the most important books to be written on American urban life.

EW: You wrote your 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities when you were living in New York. You said, “Most of the material for these musings was at my front door.” In your case, I think the front door was, and still is, more than a metaphor. It neatly captures your own special qualities as a thinker and a writer because it’s open, it’s curious, it’s down-to-earth. You’re famous for helping us look at familiar things in a new way. I think one critic said your books are principally about what one could see if one opened one’s eyes. How did you come by that attitude, do you think, to be so observant or naturally inquisitive?

JJ: A couple of weeks ago, I finished writing an introduction to one of Mark Twain’s books, The Innocents Abroad, which is being reissued by the Modern Library. One thing I was struck by in reading it, was how much Twain emphasized that what he was trying to do was tell readers what they might see if they looked with their own eyes. He inveighed at great length against guidebooks and people who believed the guidebooks instead of what they were seeing. So this is an old problem. I suppose it comes from people wanting to be correct and not trusting themselves, fearing they’ll seem like uneducated country bumpkins in his day, if they told what they saw and how it struck them. I don’t remember ever being forced to wear those sorts of blinders when I was a child. Children do report what they see. If they’re not pooh-poohed and are listened to respectfully, grown-ups usually hear something interesting. That’s a way of encouraging people to look with their own eyes.

Still curious? In the more than forty years since the publication of her groundbreaking book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her influence has been extraordinary—not only on architects, community workers, and planners but also on Nobel Prize–winning economists and ecologists.