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Forty-six years ago a housewife who'd barely graduated from high school hurled an intellectual grenade into the dark heart of modernist city planning, Robert Moses's New York City. Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities remains readable today, more so perhaps than its contemporary blockbusters, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
Alice Sparberg Alexiou's new biography can't match Jacobs's own knife-sharp prose, but it does put Jacobs's books in the context of a consistently rebellious life. Jacobs reminds me of another "undereducated" contrarian, George Orwell. Ideological jackals will be fighting for a long time over both authors' work. Jacobs's insistence on spontaneous order -- the city, she said, cannot be a work of art -- makes her sound libertarian, but she told off a reporter who tried to put antigovernment cant into her mouth.
What sticks in my mind is her takedown of onetime ally and later critic Lewis Mumford: "Maybe if he'd lived at a different time," she said long after his death and shortly before her own, "he would have understood that women didn't necessarily aspire to be patronized. He believed that women were a sort of a ladies' auxiliary of the human race."