Book review: Jane Jacobs’s First City


There are entire libraries full of books that analyze the current physical, demographic and social qualities of American cities, but fewer explain, with minimal jargon, how we reached this point. 

Jane Jacobs’s First City: Learning from Scranton, Pennsylvania by Glenna Lang is a major step in expanding public awareness of how Jane Jacobs came to write her groundbreaking books.  The most famous of these books is The Death and Life of Great American Cities, but Lang thoroughly links the influences and thought process in Jacobs’ other works, including The Economy of Cities and Cities and The Wealth of Nations, to Death and Life. This meticulously-documented work makes important contributions to the fields of American urban history and urban planning.

Reading about Jacob’s reactions to the complex physical, social and economic elements of her native city raises the question of how millions of other children have perceived their environments, but lacked the vocabulary to express these feelings aloud. Lang quotes Jacobs:

I was so interested in [center-city Scranton] that I liked it when I had a dental appointment—and believe me it was not painless dentistry in those days—but I liked it because I could go downtown. I thought it was fascinating.

A rhetorical question, perhaps: but how many children around the world have had insights into the communities in which they were growing up, but lacked the words to articulate how their environments stimulated their thoughts? Jacobs’ insight anticipated the relatively recent efforts to enhance the appreciation by children and young adults of the role that architecture and the built environment play in society.

Atop the 1896 Board of Trade building, Scranton’s 1926 sign, with its historic slogan, still shines over the city each night. Courtesy of the Lackawanna County Visitors Bureau. Source: Jane Jacobs’s First City

Lang emphasizes Jacobs’ attention to what the latter called “our country’s most serious social problem– segregation and discrimination.” Among Scranton’s large variety of ethnic groups, African-Americans “were an active and integral part of the fabric of everyday life… Perhaps the relatively small number of blacks made it easier for whites to get to know them and appreciate them as individuals,” which would have been a contrast to the pervasive public policies described in Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, published in 2017. Jacobs was writing about this “serious social problem” in Death and Life by 1961, and in The Economy of Cities in 1969.

Lang highlights the tight interrelationship of aspects of society and the economy that Jacobs observed in Scranton and that she then wrote about: how production, trade, services, capital and labor were deeply tied to a city’s scale, physical, cultural and social characteristics; and to its formal and informal resources.

Scranton Lace Curtain Company, built 1891, photo 1914. Courtesy of Margo Azzarelli. Source: Jane Jacobs’s First City

Death and Life runs to over 400 pages, and Jacobs wrote hundreds of pages more in her other books, so it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the depth of her arguments. 

Jane Jacobs possessed extraordinary alertness to the ensemble and subtleties of her native city, and Glenna Lang provides a primer into all of the aspects that made Jacobs’ perceptions so vivid.  If The Death and Life of Great American Cities seems like too big a project, start by reading Jane Jacobs’s First City instead.

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