Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Imagining Jane Jacobs

Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

From the opera to Twitter, Jane Jacobs’s cultural afterlife.

What would Jane Jacobs sing? That was the question that gripped me in the minutes before the March pre-premiere of A Marvelous Order, a.k.a. the Moses-Jacobs Opera, a.k.a. the latest leap for urban planning off the page and onto the stage. A variety of images flashed through my mind. Would she wear glasses? Would she wear gloves? Would she be hanging out at the White Horse Tavern?

A Marvelous Order is only one of a number of contemporary projects, graphic, documentary, and social, that call upon Jane in a variety of ways beyond simple biography. Jane Jacobs is a historical figure, of course, and this fall Knopf will publish Robert Kanigel’s Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs. But as someone who wrote a version of the now commonplace coupling of Bob (Moses) and Jane (Jacobs) 10 years ago, I would argue that she is now also an avatar, a figure onto which urban advocates project their desires for a different kind of dialogue, a different kind of planning, a different kind of hero. Many of us have a Jane in our imagination: a Jane who fights the power, a Jane who explains the city, a Jane who parents, a Jane who sings.