September 2, 2020

Understanding Jane Jacobs: Q&A with Roberta Brandes Gratz

To those who work in historic preservation, Roberta Brandes Gratz is well known as the author of several books examining how neighborhoods and cities have revived over time. Her most recent book, We're Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City, takes a deep dive into New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, outlining how local people, more than government officials or policy experts, led the rebirth of that city. She is also the author of The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, which made her the perfect person to ask about her work and the legacy of Jane Jacobs as part of our series on women in historic preservation.

Throughout our conversation, Gratz emphasized the importance of Jane Jacobs’ philosophy in thinking about the places in which we live, a philosophy Gratz continues to advocate as a co-founder and governing board member of the Center for the Living City. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Students piece together the Janu(e) Jigsaw puzzle as part of the story telling discussion activity from the Observe program. Vellore 2018.

photo by: Jane Jacobs Fellow Abinaya Rajavelu

Students piece together the Janu(e) Jigsaw puzzle as part of the story telling discussion activity from the Observe program. Vellore, India 2018.

How did you become interested in the work of Jane Jacobs?

I was a New York Post reporter from 1963-1978, and through that job I learned on the streets of New York many of the principles that Jane wrote about. I had not yet read her book, and no one was really talking about Jane, even though her book had made an enormous impact in the 1960s. I was covering neighborhoods that were fighting against urban renewal and the threats to their neighborhoods from both the public and private sectors.

Then in 1978, Rupert Murdoch bought the New York Post. I left the paper to write my first book, The Living City, and wound up with the same editor as Jane, Jason Epstein at Random House. He recommended that I travel to Toronto to meet her. We hit it off immediately. Here was someone writing all the things I was observing. Jane has long made the point that you don’t have to read any of her work to understand what’s right and wrong in urban change, you just have to “observe, observe, observe.” And essentially that is what I was doing as a reporter. So, I Instinctively was learning what she was teaching.

At the time, there weren’t a lot of people I could talk to about what I was seeing in a rapidly changing New York City, the small positive things that would add up to big change. We had an immediate connection. We talked about books and issues, and she took me around Toronto to show me examples of what we were talking about. We became fast friends; I would go back to visit her every couple months and talked on the phone often. We remained close friends and collaborators until her death. By then I was thoroughly imbued with her way of thinking.

Students from Shrishti Vidyashram Higher Secondary school explore their community during an activity from the Observe program." Vellore India. 2018.

photo by: Jane Jacobs Fellow Abinaya Rajavelu

Students from Shrishti Vidyashram Higher Secondary school explore their community during an activity from the Observe program in Vellore, India. 2018.

Often when one discusses the work of Jane Jacobs, New York’s “master builder” Robert Moses inevitably comes up. You adamantly oppose the sentiment that “there can be a little bit of Moses and a little bit of Jacobs.” What are some of the misconceptions of Jane Jacobs and her work?

There is nothing about Moses that can accommodate a Jacobs’ approach and vice versa. He [was] for take down, replacement, car-oriented development—totally. He didn’t care about people or value communities that grew over time. He declared a slum anything he wanted to replace. Many people say that you can do a little bit of both Jacobs and Moses, because they want to be on both sides. Impossible. You have to choose one or the other.

Some argue Moses was a big ideas man while Jane was focused only on the small. That is not correct. Jane was for big infrastructure when it comes to transit, school systems, any infrastructure appropriate for the city. She was against big highways, clearance projects, top down change. Many of her ideas appear small because they are local, in context, incremental, and modest in scale. But they are big in impact, in thinking, and in change. They are replicable and scalable.

Historic preservationists revere Jacobs and her approach, and recently her name comes up when it comes to equitable city planning. Why do you think that is?

Jane never identified herself as a historic preservationist. There is the famous line that “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings,” and that clearly is referring to neighborhoods that barely exist anymore because they are the old industrial neighborhoods with buildings that have become expensive condos. But when she was writing this, they were sitting empty.

Her ideas embraced many of the fundamentals of preservation organically. She didn’t believe in massive demolition, in going against the will of the community, in demolishing a building to build, new, bigger, out of scale buildings. A lot of the fundamentals of preservation thought were very much a part of Jane’s thinking, just not with the label.

Many of her ideas appear small because they are local, in context, incremental, and modest in scale. But they are big in impact, in thinking, and in change.

This year we’re celebrating where women made history. What would you identify as a place where Jacobs made her most impact?

The world. It’s true. I often say that Jane Jacobs changed the way people around the world view cities. Her books are translated into every language.

I started the Center for the Living City with Jane. We have a program called Observe that is very big in Asia, particularly in India, where small groups of young women walk their neighborhoods, observe what is good or bad, and determine how to advocate for change. That is pure Jane.

There are Jane Jacobs walks all over the world—just walking a neighborhood and observing what is right and wrong and doing something about it. There isn’t just one thing that illustrates her thinking because it is universal.

The cards pictured in the first photo were designed by Abinaya Rajavelu during her Jane Jacobs Fellowship with the Center for the Living City. Download the cards here.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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