Jane Jacobs’s First City: Learning from Scranton, Pennsylvania
By Glenna Lang.
New Village Press, 2021.
Hardcover, 468 Pages, $39.95.

Reviewed by Josh Bowman.

Places, for better or worse, are a part of who we are and who we become. Along with our faith and families of origin, wherever we call “home” invariably leaves its mark on our imaginations. It shapes our expectations about architecture and economics, about neighbors and parks, and about what we come to think of as “normal,” comfortable, and safe. Experiences can shatter these expectations or reinforce them but knowing “where you come from” is part of what it means to know who you are and who you are not. To be sure, exploring where someone was born-and-raised is insufficient to explain everything about them, but we do not simply exist in some generic time and space, but in particular moments and places that are rich with meaning. 

The detachment of people in the digital age and the plight of those whom Brent Waters has called “modern nomads” makes this sense of place — of our place — increasingly precarious. For decades this rootlessness has been celebrated and, in a sense, promoted. One leaves home to go to a college hundreds of miles away from family with little expectation of returning home. The modern gig economy and the frequency with which we change jobs exacerbates the problem. The result has been increasing atomization, deep confusion about identity, a weakening of civil associations and religious communities, and a well-documented exporting of talent and energy from rural places especially. To have a sense of place, to “stay put,” or to “go home” are countercultural acts of resistance to a world that celebrates perpetual motion, acceleration, and thoughtless innovation. 

Millennials, such as yours truly, are as transient as ever. But modern infrastructure, employment practices, and city planning have encouraged this, as has our penchant for geographically sorting ourselves into ideologically homogenous neighborhoods. Whether intentionally or not, we have managed to physically structure our “worlds” in ways that foster isolation, homogenization, and what Russell Kirk summarized simply as “boredom.”

Few understood the fading sense of place and the unintended perils of economic and urban planning as well as the influential and iconoclastic journalist, author, and activist Jane Jacobs (1916-2006). Over a prolific writing career, Jacobs penned now classic criticisms of city planning, including The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), The Economy of Cities (1969), and Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1985). Jacobs’s target was the ahistorical abstraction that inspired top-down central planning of urban areas and local economies. The “pseudoscience” of city planning, in Jane’s words, was pursuing a relentless and superficial program of slum clearance, uniformity, and efficiency that failed to solve the issues of poverty and crime that they were ostensibly addressing. “Cities are made for people,” she reminded us, and so we would do well to place an emphasis on particularity, mixed primary usage, the development of social capital, and the encouragement of bottom-up innovation. 

In a world increasingly given to the ideology of scientism and central planning, Jacobs’s ideas and observations can seem less intuitive, if not jarring. We have been conditioned to see differently and, perhaps, wrongly. Yet Jane was an individual who knew who she was, where she was going, and what she believed. She was a profoundly independent thinker with minimal college education and an unusually perceptive faculty for observation. She knew how to see the world of cities differently. A new book demonstrates that these qualities were cultivated primarily in the context of Jane Jacobs’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania. 

Glenna Lang’s book on Scranton, Jane Jacobs’s First City, leaves no doubt that the “Electric City” played a formative role in Jane Jacobs’s most important ideas. Born Jane Butzner in 1916, Jane would eventually live in New York City, and later Toronto, but her hometown was always a part of her. It helped form the foundation of her imagination, her expectations, and how she saw the world. 

Jane Jacobs is arguably not the main “character” of the book, however. It is Scranton itself, whose struggle to develop and survive in an ever-changing global economy makes it emblematic of American economic history. It was once the center of the world’s anthracite coal mining industry and attracted a diverse set of workers and industries. During this era, immigrants from Europe and a growing community of African Americans lived and worked side-by-side. Scranton was Pennsylvania’s third largest city when Jacobs’s parents decided to settle there in 1906, choosing Scranton over Detroit. When deciding between the two cities, Jane’s parents focused on economics: “They tried to discern what city held the greatest promise for continuing growth and prosperity.” This was risky, since Scranton was losing its iron industry to cities with greater shipping capability, like Buffalo. But the coal industry endured for a time, and its textile business was growing rapidly.  As the city grew, it did so organically, with little planning. Lang describes the development of Green Ridge as paradigmatic:

Green Ridge, like other Scranton neighborhoods, came to be through a myriad of small decisions by many individuals looking to benefit from Scranton’s boom economy. No overarching plans or the concept of zoning restricted them. This process of incremental development and growth made for a population with a diversity of incomes, a built environment of mixed residential and commercial uses, and housing of varied types and styles in the same neighborhood. 

This community, where Jane grew up, left its mark, as did the way the diverse city governed itself. Indeed, one of the most interesting facets of Lang’s book is her description of the many clubs and organizations that “fostered a sense of community and citizenship,” and which “expanded the universe of individuals in the city.” The Girl Scouts were particularly formative for Jane, but Scranton’s story overall recalls a bygone era of civic associations and “little platoons” in the spirit of Tocqueville and Burke. These groups helped foster cooperation across party lines and across ethnic, racial, and religious divisions as well. Together, these groups supported a generous “community chest” and a thriving system of integrated public schools. 

Childhood experiences and observation taught Jane that uniformity, homogeneity, and planning by those with sterile imaginations would be at odds with genuine diversity and more economically sustainable practices. Planning with the use of formulas and abstract ideas would violate the human scale needed for these communities to not merely live, but to live well. 

The story of Scranton is one of grit, sacrifice, excitement, and decline. It is emblematic of an ever-accelerating economy in which dynamics of supply and demand can shift with remarkable speed. By the time Jane left for New York City in 1934, her hometown’s population had begun to decrease and the local economy’s decline and increasing unemployment was emblematic of the Great Depression. After peaking in 1930, Scranton’s residential population would not see an increase again until 2016. 

Jane continued to care about her hometown throughout her life. As World War II loomed on the horizon, she successfully and anonymously lobbied through her former employer — The Scranton Republican (later The Scranton Tribune) — for the industries of a wartime economy to come to Scranton. While this would not be enough to arrest the city’s economic decline, new employment did renew some optimism. But Scranton’s plight and eventual embrace of “urban renewal” policies undoubtedly influenced Jane’s Death and Life of Great American Cities:

In the years immediately following World War II, Scranton fell prey to the common wisdom, especially prevalent among urban planners and city officials at the time, that urban neighborhoods appearing to be run-down were a blight and should be torn down and replaced with modern buildings, which were generally drab and monotonous. 

The planners of the mid-twentieth century, indifferent to human scale and inspired by government incentives, continued their assault on cities, which provoked Jane again in the 1980s to oppose Scranton’s government and chamber of commerce. The local government was advocating for the construction of a shopping mall in an increasingly abandoned central city at the expense of the Lackawanna Avenue historic district. Jane argued that the mall would do more harm than good, both economically and aesthetically. The mall opened in 1993, but in less than a decade Jane’s warnings proved prescient. Lang quotes columnist Joe Flannery, who remarked in 2001 that “’Given all the empty buildings now in the downtown, Mrs. Jacobs’ 1988 warning was eerily prophetic.’” 

Like Jane Jacobs’s books, Lang’s account has a way of provoking personal reflection on one’s past and place of origin. She describes in detail key members of the medical community, of which Jane’s father was a part, as well as the teachers and personalities involved in the school system. We learn about Jane’s childhood friends and the way the years between World War I and The Great Depression inspired Jane to see and think on a human scale. Lang’s book frequently brought to mind the stories of grandparents and the architecture of the small Midwestern town that shaped me. Indeed, Lang’s account is a beautiful example of primary-source historiography, storytelling, and scholarship animated by sincere affection. It is exemplary of the kind of public history and place-oriented research and memory that is too easily forgotten and seldom supported. Works like this show what we have left behind — for better or for worse — and remind us of what is worth preserving. 

Josh Bowman is Vice President of the Ciceronian Society and a former Russell Kirk Center Wilbur Fellow. He is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science at Hope College and is the author of Imagination and Environmental Political Thought (Lexington Books, 2018), most of which was written in the Kirk Center library.

Author’s website for the book: https://janejacobsfirstcity.com/ 

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