The-Death-and-Life-of-Great-American-Cities-Jane-JacobsSecond Look Books: Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics by Jane Jacobs; The Death and Life of American Cities by Jane Jacobs. This comprehensive look at the later work of urban moralist and city planner Jane Jacobs was first published on Sunday, April 18, 1993.

Perspectives: Moral Systems in the Life of the American Republic. This perspective takes in the moral and ethical thought of Jane Jacobs, a famous American editor whose work at the magazine “Architectural Forum” was done at a time of great social and cultural ferment in American life. These days (the 21st century) here thoughts are even more important as we enter an age of fractured political structures, economic stagnation, over-population, terrorism and moral decay. In her late work, Jacobs looked at urban renewal, greed, commercial fraud and poverty. These themes have not left the American scene.


In the early 1960s, Jane Jacobs was living in Greenwich Village and working as an associate editor of the magazine ‘Architectural Forum.’ In New York, as most everywhere in the United States, the early 60s were a time of great social ferment. Along with the new Kennedy administration came a heightened awareness of the need for a focused civil rights commitment from a government that had slumbered through segregation and Jim Crow, walking up barely in time to get to Little Rock with federal marshals. Suddenly, society became collectively, and painfully aware that there were millions of Americans living separate and unequal lives.

One of the main results of this sudden awareness, aside from the monumental civil rights legislation, was urban renewal. Conceived against the backdrop of city planning theories like the City Beautiful Movement in Chicago, and Lewis Mumford’s Garden City ideas, urban renewal came along just as the great inner cities of New York, Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis were crumbling into rat-infested junk. It was Jacobs’ great distinction to oppose urban renewal and its emphasis on the destruction of huge areas of “downtown districts,” and their replacement by ubiquitous, gray, dehumanizing housing projects.

In 1962 Jacobs came from nowhere to publish her first book, “The Death and Life of American Cities,” which has since become a modern American classic. Based upon close observation and attention to detail, “The Death and Life of American Cities” argued persuasively that diversity of use and concentration of people were the keys to a city’s economic, social and cultural survival, and that planned “monolithism” led to strangulation. Having gained recognition, and a certain measure of fame and influence, Jacobs went on to publish “The Economy of Cities” and “Cities and the Wealth of Nations”, less influential works to be sure, but compelling all the same.

“Systems of Survival” is Jacobs’ first book in more than a decade. Just as she was moved in the early 1960s to write about urban renewal, one of the most important social problems of the times, it isn’t hard to sere that Jacobs looked around the Regan terrain of the 1980s and didn’t like what she saw. Her new book is a direct result of the constant themes of that era, greed and selfishness, arbitraging and junk bonds, leveraged buyouts, savings and loan failures, cover-ups and scandals, and the ever-present cynicism of ordinary citizens about business and politics. It is no surprise that the subtitle—‘A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics’—adequately sums up the purpose of the author. The first premise of this “dialogue” is that there are two moral precepts that guide, respectively, government and business. One precept, called the guardian syndrome (after Plato’s ‘Republic’), is the set of values and directives that ought to guide our legislators, judges, police and local politicians. This syndrome is characterized by such directives as: shun trading, respect hierarchy, be fatalistic, treasure honor, adhere to tradition and deceive for the sake of the task. The commercial syndrome is characterized by such directives as: shun force, come to voluntary agreements, be efficient, be open to novelty, be thrifty and optimistic. Jacobs’ chief purpose is to argue that the prime cause of our current American ethical—and consequential economic and social—decay is the confusion admixture and overlapping of these two syndromes.

A prime example is the savings and loan debacle. For years, lobbyists and congressmen have been nearly indistinguishable in their efforts to free the industry from certain legal constraints on commercial lending and deposit requirements. By the time most savings and loans had been gutted, it was clear that the people who ran them no longer were concerned about thrift, competitiveness and industry, but solely about largesse and luxury. And it was equally clear that the regulators and congressmen whose job it was to oversee the industry were no longer interested in honor or in shunning trading, but largely in in profit and influence. The guardians had become profiteers, and the businessmen had stepped into the shoes of the guardians.

It isn’t hard to se the historical genesis of our current ethical malaise in the vast military-industrial complex that is fundamentally an interweave of guardians and businessmen. Jacobs points out that American engineers are at a disadvantage in competition with their Japanese and German counterparts because the American engineers for 40 years, have not had to engineer their projects with cost in mind—thus, $600 toilet seats and the habitual overruns on every project.

The breadth of discussion encompassed by Jacobs is surprising. In included in “Systems of Survival” is an overview of feudal European social mores, caste systems worldwide, Norse myth, and “regional economies,” one of Jacobs’ pet ideas. But what is unfortunate here is the choice of the ‘dialogue’ method of presentation. Jacobs presents five or six representative types (mystery writer, banker, biologist, ecologist, lawyer) and pretends to set them off in a discussion of ethics in America. Sadly, this technique is a dismal failure, consisting as it does of one “speech” after another, with neither critical dramatic tension nor any stylistic nuance. It is, in a word, boring. And it is a shame at that.

Perhaps the best place to start with Jane Jacobs is at the beginning, with her enduring classic, “Death and Life of American Cities.”