'So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.' ― George Orwell

Category: Non Fiction

Henry David Thoreau – a consideration

Walden Pond

My article in The Irish Times.

For someone who worshipped trees, the writer Henry David Thoreau certainly made good use of them: his journal, increasingly thought to be his most important work, ran to two million words, collated across 24 years in 14 volumes. There’s also a sweet irony in that Thoreau came from a family that accrued its wealth through pencil manufacturing, for Henry was often accused of “swinging the lead” in the worst possible sense when it came to his own life.

Last year was the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth, resulting in a number of new titles on one of the giants of the American literary canon. There is a new biography Henry David Thoreau – A Life by Laura Dassow Walls (University of Chicago Press), while more targeted takes on the author of Walden come in the forms of The Boatman – Henry David Thoreau’s River Years by Robert M Thorson (Harvard University Press) and Thoreau and the Language of Trees by Richard Higgins (University of California Press).

Up to now, any consideration of Thoreau’s life has usually been poured through a mystical sieve. Anyone with a passing familiarity of Thoreau will think of a hermetic, ascetic environmental philosopher who penned Walden, that great work on nature and the self and its related ideas of regrounding, renewal and rebirth. This is a decent transcription of the most important loop of the writer’s life. But there’s much more to Thoreau, and what we already know is not always read in the proper light either – something that Dassow Walls strives to put right in her excellent biography.

Living at Walden Pond gave rise to the notion of Thoreau leading a hermetic life. But this supposition can be debunked by the fact that the only time he lived alone was the two years he spent at this now world-famous landmark (Thoreau’s was a short life, dying aged 44 of TB). The charge of seclusion from society can be thrown out, too, as Dassow Walls describes Thoreau’s large social circle of fellow pioneers, some closer to him than others: (erstwhile mentor) Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, Margaret Fuller and John Brown, the sheep herder-surveyor who tried to form an army to counter pro-slavery insurgents who were forcibly taking control of the government of Kansas. The book also outlines Thoreau’s many trips to Boston, New York City, Canada and other places; how he would give regular lectures; speak publicly against slavery; spend time with Native American families; protest against unjust taxes (Thoreau thought a man’s duty is to break any law that’s immoral). He also, earlier in life, set up a school with his brother John based on progressive ideals, while being a skilled handyman meant Thoreau was constantly helping friends and family around his hometown of Concord. If “reclusiveness” shares such richness to society, then perhaps we should all utilise our great genius for staying at home.


Thoreau encountered plenty of Irish people during his lifetime. There were the famous encounters in Walden (which we shall not spoil for new readers by mentioning here) and due to the railroad expansion through Concord he met many families who arrived in town seeking work. His friends and family fretted over the Irish invasion of workers, but Thoreau soon rebuked them, saying: “The sturdy Irish arms that do the work are of more worth than oak or maple. Methinks I could look with equanimity upon a long street of Irish cabins and pigs and children revelling in the genial Concord dirt, and I should find my Walden wood and Fair Haven in their tanned and happy faces.”

Thoreau also happened to be at Cape Cod when, in nearby Cohasset, the famine ship St John, sailing from Galway, had foundered in heavy seas and high winds, breaking on the rocks just south of Boston in 1849. Only 23 of the 120 onboard were rescued and later Thoreau would use these unforgettable scenes to open his book Cape Cod after his visit to the disaster site. As he came to know the three generations of the Riordan family who settled in his home town, Thoreau wondered if they were living his ideals better than he was – dirt poor, yes, but living independent lives on the land, with little regard for “Yankee markers of success”.

Ever railing against injustice, Henry also intervened after hearing that Kerryman Mick Flannery won a spading contest at a county fair, only to see his boss claim the prize money. Thoreau drafted a petition collecting money to make up for the theft, while he also went door-to-door to raise the 50 dollars needed to bring Flannery’s family from Ireland, lending much of the money himself.

Thoreau – A Life is a brilliant, big-hearted, definitive and sympathetic biography that carries the original nature boy through a time of considerable flux in American life. It helpfully carries the reader to a different shore, too, for a refreshed view of this otherworldly, and yet truly American, writer and visionary. The writing always keeps a lightness of touch, yet is constantly weighted with scholarly research. Mirroring Thoreau’s eternal symbol of Walden Pond, Dassow Walls presents the reader with the strange, beautiful ripples of Thoreau’s personality that makes his life so fascinating, while at the same time she plumbs the documents of his journals, books, and letters to dredge up new ideas on his thinking and motivations. She is a confessed Thoreauvian, and this rewarding book is a testament to her, and its sometimes-maligned subject.

An idea Richard Higgins is keen to emphasise in his book is Thoreau’s – and our – relationship with trees. Readers of Walden are already aware that Thoreau held an unwavering faith in nature, and found solace in trying to comprehend his place within it. Thoreau realised that we sit within nature’s embrace, not the other way around; as though nature were mere window dressing to our everyday lives. He studied the fragility of nature, but was also aware of its force, and how it could consign humanity to the dustbin of extinction if need be. Thoreau watched the natural world as a realm of time, and as Higgins points out in this engaging book, he trusted his instincts: “we will sooner overtake the dawn by remaining here, where we are, than by chasing the sun across the western hills,” Thoreau observed.


From reading this book it is easy to imagine that Thoreau loved trees more than humans – to begin with, he believed trees did their duty more than his fellow citizens. “Thank God they (humans) cannot cut down the clouds,” he once wrote despairingly. This symbiotic love of his sylvan surroundings goes some way in explaining why some commentators now write him off as a crank; they view his abiding affection for nature as unhealthy, misanthropic. But his love of trees allows us to see his environmental prescience: he was writing of trees as purifiers of air and fountains of water long before terms like carbon sinks, or the word ecology even, were understood or defined. (Incidentally, Thoreau used the term “nature’s economy” in his writing.)

Writing on trees requires a special talent to make the subject come alive: Thoreau achieved this with aplomb, but Higgins’ prose sometimes fails to deliver. In compensation the book contains a number of impressive photographs of Henry’s “local world”, taken either by Higgins or from the historic plates of Herbert Wendell Gleason. It is a book to savour lightly and slowly, just as the subject himself might have prescribed.

Thoreau’s river years are covered in The Boatman, which is an admirable book, if less enjoyable compared with the others due to the narrowness of the subject and its academic anchor of style. Nevertheless, Robert M Thorson keeps his approach breezy enough to carry the reader downstream, and if the central current is a thin one, the author still manages to give a clear direction of Thoreau’s life and his links to the local waterways of Concord River Valley.

Inspiration for the title came from Thoreau’s file map of the Concord River – it runs seven feet in length – which he drafted a few years before his death in 1862. Emerson described Thoreau’s passion for the waterways in a letter: “Henry T Occupies himself with the history of the river, measures it, weighs it, and strains it through a colander of all eternity.” The Boatman leaves Thoreau’s woody persona on the shore without regret, and instead gets the reader’s feet wet with forensically detailed adventures in “Henry T” country.

Thoreau went to Walden Pond to live life on his own terms, and he wrote Walden in order to show the rest of us that it could be done. These books add worthy voices to the intention. Finding the opportunity to read the many titles on Thoreau is something to ponder all the same. In Dassow Walls’ selected bibliography there are 16 pages of writing linked to the writer-philosopher. How to find the time? We may need our own Walden after all.



A weekend with Hemingway

Beat – the true story of a suicide bomb and a heart transplant 

My article in The Irish Times.


Marwa al-Sabouni, Syria 

My article in The Sunday Times.


Out of step in France 

No Way Out: The Irish in Wartime France 1939-1945 by Isadore Ryan 
Mercier Press £19.99 pp351

The cover of Isadore Ryan’s book suggests a pacy, historical thriller might lie within. It looks like a film poster, with “No Way Out” emblazoned across a monochrome photograph of a cobbled street looking towards the Eiffel Tower. Nazi insignia flags draped along a wall give an atmospheric effect. Instead of a Thomas Keneally-style tale, however, readers get the product of some exhaustive research by Ryan into the lives of Irish people living in France during the Second World War.
One of the most interesting revelations is that Ireland’s diplomatic representative in Paris, Gerald O’Kelly de Gallagh, sold booze from his wine business to Hermann Göring. There were far worse crimes and misdemeanours carried out in occupied France, and O’Kelly did claim, after France was liberated, that he never sold “the good stuff” to the Nazis.
By contrast, Killarney-born Janie McCarthy was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her work with resistance networks in sending reports to London during the occupation. When not dodging the Germans, McCarthy taught English in Paris. Dubliner Robert Vernon played a valuable role as a radio operator for a resistance network in the south of France. On the other side of the conflict, Michael Farmer and Dennis Corr are the only known Irish residents in France who ended up in court after the liberation. Corr, from Dundalk, and his French wife were said to have shown collaborationist tendencies while living in Biarritz. He was eventually found guilty of damaging national defence, sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and fined 3,000 francs.

Farmer sounds like a character from an F Scott Fitzgerald novel. A handsome fellow, originally from Cork, he was left $9m by an elderly American lady who had “wished to adopt him as a son”. There followed some deluded dabbling in the film industry, a tempestuous marriage to Hollywood star Gloria Swanson, and alleged consorting with the Nazis. After the war Farmer convinced French authorities that he had done nothing more than partake in debauched drinking sessions with the local gestapo and charges against him were dropped.

Ryan highlights the role the Catholic church played in occupied France, especially St Joseph’s on the Avenue Hoche run by Irish Passionists, and a convent on Rue Murillo. Irish people were guaranteed food and a bed for the night, while St Joseph’s played a crucial part in getting downed airmen out of the country.

Among those stranded in France was the disinherited Irish nationalist Lord Ashbourne, who ended up housebound and surrounded by his favourite Irish paraphernalia, such as a Celtic cross and a flag of the Red Hand of Ulster. He died in 1942, and was laid out in a kilt with a “Sinn Fein ring on the collar of his shirt”. It was Ashbourne’s mentally ill sister Violet Gibson who tried to assassinate Mussolini in Rome in 1926, but her bullet merely grazed Il Duce’s nose.
This is a worthy book, properly indexed and with an impressive bibliography, but too much of the writing lacks flair. It can tend to feel like a long list of tiny factual details. Of course the writer can work only with what’s in the archives, and Ryan admits that among the Irish residents in France “examples of fully committed members of the armed resistance are hard to come by”. Meanwhile, the two collaborators’ contributions to the German war effort “can confidently be estimated at virtually nil”. Disheartening words to find at the beginning of a book on a specialist subject.

This does not diminish the stories collected here which are linked together — Farmer, aside — by penury, making them all the more moving. That Ireland had little heft, diplomatically or financially, to alleviate its citizens’ circumstances was to be expected. While revelations about Irish diplomats spending time on the golf course or at the racetrack cleave to the stereotype of the work ethic of the ambassadorial classes, it is disturbing to learn about Irish passports being issued so casually and liberally.
At one point it was mooted that 200 Jewish families in an internment camp at Vittel be granted Irish entry visas, and that a ship be chartered to bring Jewish children to Palestine. Both ideas came to nothing; not helped, as Ryan says, by “the cautious approach of Irish officialdom”. Ultimately the Irish in wartime France is a footnote in history, but it reminds us of where Ireland feared to tread in 1939-1945.

  •  Article first appeared in The Sunday Times

Made for a sunny summer Sunday 

The Russian Soul: Selections from a Writer’s Diary by Fyodor Dostoevsky/Rosamund Bartlett

(Notting Hill Editions)

Henry David Thoreau – A Life by Laura Dassow Walls 

(University of Chicago Press)

The Boatman – Henry David Thoreau’s River Years by Robert M. Thorson 

(Harvard University Press)

Thoreau and the Language of Trees by Richard Higgins 

(University of California Press)

Two hundred years since the birth of Henry David Thoreau. Fyodor Dostoevsky isn’t far behind him; the bicentennial of his birth is in 2021. I’m looking forward to starting these, and hope to review them soon enough. Chapeau to the publishers!


A soupçon of Ian Nairn – review of Nairn’s Paris 

To call Ian Nairn a great architectural writer is too restrictive; he was a great writer who happened to write about buildings and places. If your preconception of writing on architecture is one of fusty, jargonistic, dandruff-dull prose, then Nairn brushes off any shouldered burden that may concern a reader. With brisk pen and plenty of shoe leather, he does all the work. It’s a given now that any publication by Notting Hill Editions is pleasing to the eye (this one features a warm and affectionate introduction by Paris resident Andrew Hussey). What gives this title extra sheen is that it has been out of print since 1968, with originals fetching £50. Cities change, but the quality of Nairn’s writing will always hold. He will take you to unexpected places, make you look at the familiar anew, or at least poke you into thinking about them again (For example, Nairn describes the basilica of Sacré-Coeur as “a waste of talent”.) But as he says, “this book is not an invitation to argument but to discovery… go and decide for yourself”.

* Article first appeared in The Irish Times


The Green Ghost Town


Masdar City (picture Foster and Partners)

‘If you build it, he will come’ is the castles-in-the-air catchline of the 1989 film ‘Field of Dreams’, where the regular Joe character played by Kevin Costner pursues his quixotic plan of building a baseball diamond after hearing voices emanating from his crop field in Iowa.

The (fictional) idea of building a small folly based on Midwestern murmurs coming from your meadows is a disturbing prospect to most rational beings. So where does the construction of the world’s first (real) zero-carbon city – and in the desert, no less – rank on the scale of delusion and downright daftness? Pretty high, it seems.

In 2006 work began on a masterplan drawn up by Foster and Partners for Masdar City, which was trumpeted as a carbon neutral ‘eco-city’ near Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Its completion date is meant to be this year, but things don’t look good.

The city was intended to accommodate 50,000 residents and be powered by a 22-hectare field of almost 90,000 solar panels. Usage of electricity and water was to be controlled by sensors, and Masdar was supposed to be car-free: residents and workers would journey in futuristic pods programmed to go where commanded, while the compact urban scale would easily allow travel on foot or bicycle. It was hoped this utopian vision could be something of a Silicon Valley of renewable energy, and as a result attract global businesses to locate there.

However, the permanent residents that live in Masdar are all students at the Institute of Science and Technology – just 300 of them – and design manager of the city, Chris Wan, admits that Masdar is unlikely to ever pass 50 per cent carbon neutrality. The travel pod scheme was abandoned after two stops were built: the emergence of low-emission cars quickly put paid to that plan. Only a few international companies meanwhile have registered a base at Masdar, such as General Electric, Mitsubishi, and Siemens (which says it has 800 employees there) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) has taken over one of the major buildings, in what seems little more than a symbol of solidarity with the ruling powers. Much of the city remains empty, unloved, and unused.

Masdar City being on the fringes of Abu Dhabi means many workers commute, and it is said there is little in the way of human activity (aside from the students) after office hours. Abu Dhabi International Airport is nearby too, so many workers shuttle in and out of the city, making the travel agents in Masdar one of the few places where there’s a thrum of activity.

Other facilities on offer to any prospective citizen sound uninspiring. It reads like a bog-standard gated-community checklist: a medium-sized supermarket; a couple of cafes; a cinema, and so on; not very exciting for a place where people will be looking to escape usual  temperatures of forty to fifty degrees on a regular basis. If people do venture outdoors, the streets are made narrow and short to reduce heat, and pathways between buildings are shaded. But still, the plans all sound rather lacklustre for the major challenge of weaving a social fabric in a new community ensconced in the desert.

So why build a city here to begin with?

The UAE is one of the world’s major oil producers (globally, their reserve is the seventh-largest) but the remarkable drop in prices in the last few years has seen moves to ween their economy away from its dependency on fossil fuels. Masdar City was seen as the antidote. The President of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, backed the idea of a smart city, but the most recent estimated cost of $22bn (which naturally will rise if they ever do complete the project) it is quite a tab to pick up, even for him.

Ten years in to the project, and behind schedule, is this the ultimate hubristic gesture of our egotistic mismanagement of the natural environment? Time will tell. We have to question Masdar City’s environmental impact for good in a part of the world that hosts an annual Formula One race, that builds snow-caked ski slopes in its deserts, and constructs golf courses or islands in the sea. We also have to decide if this smart city model has any practical value for the rest of the world, considering its dependency on extreme levels of sunshine that are the norm in the Gulf states, but found few places elsewhere.

At the time of writing only five per cent of the city has been built and the resident count of a few hundred seems unlikely to grow. The completion date has been pushed back to 2030. Masdar City was meant to lead the way in smart, sustainable cities. But now that the idea of a zero-carbon city has gone up in smoke, it may have to check its ambitions and reluctantly reconfigure itself as a large modern education campus: with a very costly first lesson built in.


Dongtan, China

It was to be built on a giant island on the Yangtze River and to eventually accommodate half a million people, with the slogan ‘Better city; better life’, Dongtan was to be unveiled as a joint-project between engineering company Arup and Chinese developers at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. But dreams of a green city with water taxis, state-of-the-art recycling and energy renewal has seemingly sank without trace.

Auroville, India

Envisioned as an international community free of money, religion, and government. It was designed by French architect Roger Anger on a former French colonial area on the coast of south-east India. Its visionary founder was Mirra Alfassa, a French expat known as ‘The Mother’, who saw it as a ‘community without nations’. It was built for 50,000 inhabitants, but only 2,000 have settled there. It has struggled with crime and allegations of child abuse and corruption.


Books which set the standards for journalism


The Fields family, Alabama 1936 (Photograph: Walker Evans)


Nothing dates so decidedly as journalism. This is probably one of the most solipsistic statements to begin any article, but it’s true: so much spilt ink is soon swept out from the attic of memory; very little journalism is read twice. I refer to traditional journalism in this case, as new media listicles and click-bait copy are rarely read through at all, despite the increasing volume foisted upon our mental space.

Reportage remains a style of journalism which can lift itself above the frivolous freeway of traffic-generating content that obsesses modern media. In such form, the strange hinterlands of a good story can be transformed from journalism into literature. The continuing success of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review proves that there is still a place for long-form writing even in our increasingly time-starved lives. The United States seems to cherish its indepth journalistic tradition somewhat more than we do in Europe. This noble lineage was brought into mind reading the posthumously-published Cotton Tenants by James Agee. The 30,000-word book – punctuated with remarkable photographs by Walker Evans – originally was an article for Fortune magazine from 1936, documenting the lives of three families struggling through desperate times in Alabama. Fortune chose not to run it at the time of its writing for reasons that are still unknown. The book portrays a world that essentially doesn’t exist any more, a snapshot of impoverished cotton farmers, and I could not put it down until I had finished it.

Agee is best-known for his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (written later, it’s a much broader canvas for his work in Cotton Tenants; one is meant to be sung, one is meant to be preached, said the author) and as a screenwriter of two classic films The Night of the Hunter and The African Queen. Despite this, Agee always felt a sense of dread of squandering his talent, which he carried with him to his early death from a fatal second heart attack at the age of 45 in 1955. He died in the back of a New York City cab on his way to a doctor’s appointment.

Cotton Tenants is a small book but it packs a heavy punch with its clinical details of the families’ subsistence, where the weight of living is crushing them slowly, grinding them into the very ground they furrow. The three families are inescapably locked into capitalism’s cruel cycle; their only release will be death, the finality of their laborious existence is their only escape from the abject misery of poverty.

This brutal archaic agriculture system is no longer part of American life, yet it remains heartbreaking to read their stories all the same. The book is compelling, largely thanks to Agee’s machine-gun fire prose, as he rattles out descriptions of the families’ lives: diet, clothes, education and so on. The fact he never lays it on thick is part of the book’s appeal; then again, he doesn’t have to. The suffering is there in black and white, and in the photographs too, even if they do have a compassionate dignity to them. That being said, a page never slips by Agee where he’s not lifting the prosaic day-to-day into poetry: the families’ disenfranchisement always finds an unsettling death dance under his pen. The writer Adam Haslett describes Agee’s prose style perfectly as “Jesus strained through Marx”. For example: “A civilization which for any reason puts a human life at a disadvantage; or a civilization which can exist only by putting human life at a disadvantage, is worthy neither of the name nor of continuance.”

Some may ask why we should read a piece of journalism that’s 80 years old and recounts an age that’s long since disappeared. One reason is because the likes of Agee’s work sets the bar as to what journalistic inquiry should be. Another reason is that dehumanization can take different forms and remains with us today, be it in sweat shops in Bangladesh, tourist hustlers in Thailand, or the absurd debt trap culture forced upon ordinary working people in western society. In the modern age, progress is always pitched in positive terms under the yoke of capitalism. However you will be hard pressed to find many positives from such a consensus in David Bandurski’s valuable account of rural resistance to economic regeneration in China.

China’s seemingly unrelenting growth figures – which are readily cast in doubt by economists – has resulted in voracious demand for land and natural resources, meaning much of the ground rural villagers stand on is as valuable as diamond jewels. Hence the book’s title, Dragons in Diamond Village, from Bandurski who is an American journalist and film-maker. Being a fluent Mandarin speaker and having extensive experience of Chinese culture allows Bandurski to take us into the heart of the matter, and in meticulous detail he tells the human stories involved in the battle against corruption, cronyism and intimidation perpetrated by a faceless ruling class.

China had 320 cities when it put in place its economic reforms in 1978; as of this year the country has 660 cities, many of which have ruthlessly swallowed up urban villages, which traditionally were farmed and developed by rural communities. The Chinese state now wants even more of this land, at any cost, to continue the drive for economic growth, and (similar to the cotton tenants of 1930s Alabama) many poor people are at the mercy of the political establishment. There is no private land ownership in China; it belongs to the state. “State-held” land can be developed for commercial reasons, while “collectively held” land is controlled by village communities, and rural Chinese people consider this land their birth right. The latter is what the developers want to take hold of, by any means.

The villagers are organising and fighting back though, and Dragons in Diamond Village paints a painful, but brave, picture of their struggles against an unchecked ideology of communism on one hand, and capitalism on the other. (To give an idea of China’s development and monocratic political makeup, between 2011-2013 the country consumed more concrete than the United States consumed in the entire 20th century; as Bandurski notes, rural China is being paved out of existence. According to Forbes magazine more than 90 per cent of the richest people in the country are members of the ruling Communist Party). Bandurski makes a good fist of simplifying a complex land system and tradition, and densely details the plight of many individuals, while holding a light to the hypocrisy of the Chinese Communist Party. It is a just account of social struggle well worth reading.

Someone who had little time for any Communist party was George Orwell, a master of long-form reportage with such timeless non-fiction as Homage to Catalonia, Down and Out in Paris and London, and The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell’s account of the working class in north England has often (depressingly) been used to give him an intellectual kicking post factum, especially due to a particular sentence he included in the book: “. . . the lower classes smell”. A simple statement of truth never got in the way of a revisionist ideologue’s opinion when it comes to a minor critic bashing a major reputation.

Thankfully the English academic John Sutherland resides nowhere near this cul-de-sac of cranks, but instead uses this sentence of Orwell’s as a jumping off point to write a biography of one of his literary heroes, warts and all considered. Having lost his sense of smell recently, Sutherland decided to re-read Orwell’s oeuvre and was struck by the importance the author placed on odour throughout his writing, be it shag tobacco, or furtive rolls in the summer grass with a lady friend (Sutherland does seem disconcertingly fixated on Orwell’s “rutting” throughout the book).

Having read three biographies on Orwell before, I wondered what more could be excavated from the bones of Eric Blair and his alter ego George with Orwell’s Nose. Sutherland’s book is an excellent read though. Written with a breezy and freewheeling style, he skilfully manages to encapsulate the life of one of the 20th century’s most important writers in about a third of the word count of other books. The prose is infused with wry humour and apt judgment on George’s endeavours. If you’ve yet to read an Orwell biography, it is a fine starting point. If you can’t resist all things Orwell, like me, then pinch your nose and dive in on this admirable portrait of a deeply flawed man with faultless prose.

Orwell’s Nose by John Sutherland (Reaktion Books)

Dragons in Diamond Village by David Bandurski (Melville House)

Cotton Tenants by James Agee & Walker Evans (The Baffler)

* Article first appeared in The Irish Times


Street life: visionary who changed how we think about cities


Jane Jacobs (photo: The Center for the Living City)

This year cannot be allowed to pass by without reference to its being the centenary of Jane Jacobs, the renowned American thinker and writer on cities and urban spaces. Jacobs was an activist who emboldened many to challenge the established order when it came to public planning, someone who said of the metropolis: “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

We should hold on to her ideas: Jacobs was a common-sense champion of how places should be allowed to grow and shape themselves around us, not the other way around.

Down the years her work has been a source of elucidation for many people who have cared for the environment surrounding them, but who perhaps have been unsure about how to mobilise their thoughts against the abstraction of civil bureaucracy, something which often seeks to depersonalise – disengage us from – our living space.

Understandably a raft of books have appeared to coincide with the centenary of her birth. Becoming Jane Jacobs by Peter L Laurence (University of Pennsylvania Press), Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (Melville House Books) and Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, the biography by Robert Kanigel (Knopf) look like notable additions to the canon.

However, it is a masterwork from her own pen for which Jacobs will be best remembered. The Death and Life of Great American Cities was first published in 1961 – a reprint is available from Vintage – after an article by Jacobs three years earlier in Fortune magazine was noticed by the Rockefeller Foundation, which offered her funding to write about cities.

A postage-stamp synopsis of the book is that Jacobs felt cities to be organic, that they evolve and develop over time depending on how the people living in the space use it; cities would not be formed with some painting-by-colours methodology of planning.

The streets are what make the city, wrote Jacobs, which was contra-modernism and its fashionable Corbusien ideas at the time of neat grids and high-rise towers lifting people off the streets. These ideas would have resulted in a place where people are looking inwards at courtyards, rather than outwards to what Jacobs called the ballet of the daily workings of the street.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” said Jacobs, in her ardent opposition to one-size fits all planning. She wanted diversity, density and engagement and maintained that cities were safer with “eyes on the street”.

Jacobs was an autodidact and an outsider, just like that other great poet of place Ian Nairn. She was not some sleek metropolitan and The Death and Life of Great American Cities rocked the establishment and rattled architecture’s gilded cage.

Quite an achievement for someone born in the unfashionable coal-mining town of Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1916, and who had no college education or formal training.

It is also worth bearing in mind the general attitudes to a strong-willed woman in that era; all these facts probably added to the shock felt by Jacobs’s temerity; the New Yorker critic Lewis Mumford dismissed her reflections as naive while reviewing the book under the headline Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies, for example).

Born Butzner to a doctor father and school teacher mother, it seemed young Jane was something of a firebrand from early on: playing pranks at school, showing little concern for authority by secretly reading books during lessons and holding imaginary conversations with Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin (depending on who was lodging in her imagination at the time).

She chose an unpaid internship at the Scranton Tribune instead of going to college, before moving to join her sister in New York in 1934. She worked various jobs, all the while immersing herself in the big city, before her first writing opportunity came. It was an unglamorous one in a metal trades paper, but it got her started, leading to a series of commissions from Vogue magazine.

Supposedly her pieces about the city were earning Jacobs $40 a time, while she was on $12 a week working as a secretary. While hosting a party in her apartment in April 1944, she met her husband, Robert Jacobs, an architect, and they married in May. Jacobs said later in life that she only wrote books due to his encouragement.

The Jacobs made their home above a sweet shop in 555 Hudson Street, in Greenwich Village, which these days can attract as many fans of architecture as any modernist masterpiece. Here she watched the dance of the street at dawn and dusk and evolved her ideas on urban planning even further by taking a position at the Architectural Forum.

The esteem bestowed on Jacobs after the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities saw her become involved in the protests against New York City planning chief Robert Moses’s proposals to build the Lower Manhattan expressway. This was to run through the heart of Greenwich Village and the very streets where Bob Dylan would scuff his shoes and polish his verse.

The tussle between Jacobs and Moses has already been well documented (there’s even an opera based on it) so there is no need to go into it here. But the victory and Jacobs’s organisation of like-minded citizens who fought to preserve the Village was the embodiment of citizen empowerment. It showed everyone else that planning was too important to be left to the planners.

The long-running dispute has become the stuff of legend, partly because “ordinary mom” Jacobs took the fight both on to the street and into the corridors of powers. She took on Moses, one of the most powerful figures in the US at the time, and won.

Many on the left saw her as an inspiration of how an organised community can take on capitalism and come out victorious. Of course, Moses’s haughty attitude to the public played a significant role in the project’s defeat as well: at a proposal hearing on the plans, he was quoted as saying: “There is nobody against this – nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of . . . a bunch of mothers!”

As time went on, and the proposed motorway’s momentum faded, one imagines Moses probably affixed another word to the merry band of “mothers”.

In the end those who fought to save Greenwich Village were triumphant, although the Jacobs moved on. They went to Canada in 1968 after their two sons said they would rather go to jail than be conscripted to fight in Vietnam.

Unsurprisingly, Jane Jacobs soon became involved in similar campaigns in Toronto. She remained there until her death in 2006, aged 89.

The historian Robert Caro, who has written a tome on Moses, said she was not the first person to stress the importance of neighbourhood, which is correct, but he went on to add: “But no one had ever said it so brilliantly before. She gave voice to something that needed a voice.”

What Jacobs would make of what we call “gentrification” today is hard to say. She believed in cities growing by themselves, so would her theories apply to the tech generation that has taken over San Francisco, squeezing out the diversity and freakbeat fabric that made the city one of the most distinctive in the world? Or to Paris, which is now mostly an urban centre for the wealthy, ringfenced by poverty and the rest of the population?

Organic developments can also embody undesired change and urban cleansing; it would have been nice to have heard her views on such places.

Ultimately, Jacobs helped change the way we think about cities, whether you believe her ideas stand or fall. She gave us another prism through which to consider how we plan our urban space: when we do intervene, it shouldn’t be just about making things new, it should be about making things better.

One hundred years on from her birth, we now have the necessary perspective to realise how perceptive she was. Those “eyes on the street” she talked about included her own, always framed by those striking owlish glasses. We were lucky to have them.

* Article first appeared in The Irish Times

Caelainn Hogan

Writer and multimedia journalist

Dialling The Past

Virtual meets real adventures in digital heritage, culture, community and place

Emma Yeomans

Freelance journalist


An archaeologist finds herself writing fiction — what stories will she unearth?

Heritage Calling

A Historic England Blog

's mise Ciara, seo mo bhlag!

scríobh | eat | sleep

Forms of Love: Readings in Poetry

Maria Johnston, Poetry Critic

Emma Jane Healey

Exploring the world of heritage, art and culture

London pub crawls

A blog on pub crawling, and beer generally, in London

On The Beak

Boxing News & Opinion

Joshi Daniel Photography

Images of People Photoblog


Musings from the North Country


Lauren Murphy on music


Words are my bag ...

The Dead Queen of Bohemia

The online site of poet and novelist Jenni Fagan