The year she turned 18, Jane Butzner traveled from her hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, to the Appalachian hamlet of Higgins, North Carolina, where she encountered a mystery that haunted her for the rest of her life. It was 1934, the midpoint of the Great Depression, a difficult time to hold a job, even an unpaid one. Butzner—later Jacobs—had been laid off from The Scranton Republican after almost a year working without pay as a cub reporter. At her parents’ suggestion, she went to live in the mountains with her aunt Martha Robison, a Presbyterian missionary. Robison had come to Higgins 12 years earlier on a mission and was so staggered by its poverty that she refused to leave. There were no paved roads, school was rarely in session, the illiterate preacher believed the world was flat, and commerce was conducted by barter. Robison built a church and a community center, adopted children, and established classes in pottery, weaving, and woodwork. Nevertheless, the townspeople continued to live a primitive existence in which, as Robison’s niece later said, “the snapping of a pitchfork or the rusting of a plow posed a serious financial crisis.”

Jane Jacobs wrote about Higgins in Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984) and Dark Age Ahead (2004), but its negative example looms over her entire body of work. Higgins had not always been backwards. In the early 1700s, as Jacobs noted in Cities and the Wealth of Nations, its founders, three English brothers named Higgins and their families, possessed a wide range of knowledge and skills:

spinning and weaving, loom construction, cabinetmaking, corn milling, house and water-mill construction, dairying, poultry and hog raising, gardening, whiskey distilling, hound breeding, molasses making from sorghum cane, basket weaving, biscuit baking, music making with violins …

By the 1920s, the brothers’ descendants had lost nearly all of these, apart from making molasses, which was sold in the county seat, Burnsville, 12 miles away. Most residents had never traveled that far, however, because the only way to get there was by mule on a rough mountain track. Candles were a vanishing luxury. After the few remaining cows died, there would be no more milk or butter. One woman still remembered how to weave baskets, but she was close to death. When Robison suggested building the church with large stones from the creek, the community elders rebuked her. Over generations the townspeople had not only forgotten how to build with stone. They had lost the knowledge that such a thing was possible.

How had Higgins fallen so low? Mountain isolation contributed, but it was not the only factor. The same fate, after all, had befallen much larger cities, and even empires—Rome, the Olmecs, the New Kingdom of Egypt, and perhaps other civilizations, like the people who painted the Lascaux caves, for which we don’t even have names. “Suppose, hypothetically, that the world were to behave like a single sluggish empire in decline,” wrote Jacobs.

Such a thing could happen if cities in too many places stagnated simultaneously or in quick succession. Or it could happen if the world were to become, in fact, one single sluggish empire … We all have our nightmares about the future of economic life; that one is mine.

In the centenary of her birth, Jacobs has been remembered as our Solon of cities: a shrewd theorist who revealed how cities work, why they thrive, and why they fail. Jacobs lived to the age of 89, long enough to see her renegade theories become conventional wisdom. No one questions anymore that lively neighborhoods require diversity of use and function, that more roads lead to more cars, that historic buildings should be preserved, that investment in public transportation reduces traffic and promotes neighborhood activity, that “flexible and gradual change” is almost always preferable to “cataclysmic,” broad-stroke redevelopment.

Urban life was Jacobs’s great subject. But her great theme was the fragility of democracy—how difficult it is to maintain, how easily it can crumble. A city offered the perfect laboratory in which to study democracy’s intricate, interconnected gears and ballistics. “When we deal with cities,” she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), “we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense.” When cities succeed, they represent the purest manifestation of democratic ideals: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” When cities fail, they fail for the same reasons democracies fail: corruption, tyranny, homogenization, overspecialization, cultural drift and atrophy.

In a year when American democracy has courted despotism, Jacobs’s work offers a warning and a challenge. Her goal was never merely to enlighten urban planners. In her work she argued, with increasing urgency, that the distance between New York City and Higgins is not as great as it seems. It is not very great at all, and it is shrinking.

Four new books are united in their determination to undermine the seductive myth that Jacobs, as her biographer Peter L. Laurence puts it, “was primarily a housewife with unusual abilities to observe and defend the domestic surroundings of her Greenwich Village home.” This line was codified in 1962 by The New Yorker’s architecture critic Lewis Mumford in a 30-page review of Death and Life that called the book “a mingling of sense and sentimentality, of mature judgments and schoolgirl howlers.” (If Mumford was responsible for the article’s headline, “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies,” he seems to have regretted it. In his 1968 collection, The Urban Prospect, it appears under the moderately less chauvinistic “Home Remedies for Urban Cancer.”) The allegation of amateurism often went unchallenged because most of Jacobs’s considerable body of writing before The Death and Life of Great American Cities had been published without a byline.

University of Pennsylvania Press

Two new biographies—Laurence’s Becoming Jane Jacobs, a close, vivid study of Jacobs’s intellectual development, and Robert Kanigel’s broader Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs—as well as an anthology of previously uncollected articles and speeches, Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs, and Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations correct the record. By the time she published her masterpiece, at the age of 45, she had been writing about urban redevelopment for nearly a decade in dozens of lengthy articles for Architectural Forum. Before that she had written about, and in direct service of, American democracy.

After her six-month purgatory in Higgins, Jacobs moved to Brooklyn with the goal of becoming a writer. Within a year, she began writing a succession of Lieblingesque columns for Vogue about New York’s fur, diamond, leather, and flower districts: “All the ingredients of a lavender-and-old-lace story, with a rip-roaring, contrasting background, are in New York’s wholesale flower district.” She signed up for classes at Columbia’s University Extension Program, many of them in economic geography, the interdisciplinary study of economics, history, culture, and the environment. (She would later call herself a “city naturalist.”) In one of these courses, Jacobs likely encountered Henri Pirenne’s Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade (1925), which explained how cities promoted democratic values, and which she cited frequently throughout her career. But it was a pair of classes in American constitutional law that inspired her first book.

Constitutional Chaff was published by Columbia University Press despite the author’s age (24) and lack of a college degree. It is a compilation of failed proposals from the Constitutional Convention of 1787, such as a third house of Congress and direct election of a Senate that never went out of session. In her introduction, Jacobs argued that the vigorous debate over the text of the Constitution reflected the soul of American democracy as vividly as the ratified document itself did. The losers deserved to be heard, even a century and a half after their arguments had been defeated. It was a sentiment the Founders, at pains to protect the rights of minority factions, would have cheered.

Knopf

After writing about the United States government, Jacobs went to work for it. She spent most of the next decade as a professional propagandist. At the U.S. Office of War Information, which she joined in the fall of 1943, she wrote articles about American history, industry, and politics for placement in the foreign press. Her bureau chief praised “her quick grasp of the propaganda job to be done.” After the war, she was hired by the State Department to join the staff of Amerika, one of the more glorious efforts in auto-mythopoeia that the nation has produced.

The publication, which originated in an agreement between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at Yalta to expand cultural diplomacy between the two nations, was designed to resemble Life magazine, with illustrated features about Radio City Music Hall, Benjamin Franklin, Arizona deserts, and the Senate. The circulation was initially limited to 10,000 copies, not nearly enough to satisfy demand; Laurence writes that though the official price in 1946 was 10 rubles (83 cents), it sold on the black market for 1,000. (The Soviets produced a counterpart publication, Soviet Life, but despite its editors’ best efforts—“Leonid I. Brezhnev’s Reminiscences,” “A Guide to the 15 Union Republics,” “Tashkent, Seattle’s Sister City”—it somehow failed to attract a commensurate following in the U.S.) In a Manhattan office building near Columbus Circle, Jacobs wrote articles about American cafeterias, the World Series, and modern art, and modeled maternity clothes for a feature on women’s fashion.

She was sensitive to reader opinion. Kanigel mentions one criticism that may have helped shape her later career. In 1949, V. Kusakov of the Academy of Architecture in the U.S.S.R. complained in a Soviet publication about two articles, uncredited but written by Jacobs, praising the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and other modern architects. Kusakov attacked Amerika for neglecting to cover the more important story: “the ever increasing housing crisis which the cities of America are experiencing.” American capitalism, Kusakov wrote, “dooms the majority of the population to a negative existence and death in ill-smelling cesspools, in slums deprived of air, sunlight, and trees or shrubs.”

The column unsettled Jacobs, who responded with a thorough investigation of life in America’s inner-city neighborhoods. In her article, she proposed slum-clearing and the construction of high-rise apartment towers, remedies she would later excoriate. Kanigel suggests that Jacobs was even then not entirely satisfied with these arguments. “This seemingly narrow question would slip out of its original borders,” he writes, “become something big to chew on, broaden into one of the biggest questions of all: What, really, was the Good Life?” How, in other words, could urban policy promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Random House

For her devoted, thoughtful work in service of American mythos, Jacobs came under federal investigation for suspected ties to the Soviet Union. At the State Department, she’d had the misfortune of serving under Alger Hiss. When she tried to travel to Siberia in 1945 to report a freelance article, she asked Hiss for help securing a visa. As Hiss was already under secret investigation for espionage, the request roused the suspicion of the FBI. Jacobs, Laurence writes, was likely one of the names on Joseph McCarthy’s infamous list of known Communists “working in and shaping policy in the State Department.” J. Edgar Hoover demanded to oversee her investigation himself. During the course of four years, Jacobs was required to sign multiple Oaths of Office, declare that she was not a Communist or a Fascist, and endure a series of interrogations by the State Department’s Loyalty Security Board. At least 13 of her friends, family members, and colleagues were interviewed by FBI agents. One informant said that he believed her to be a Communist sympathizer because she lived in Greenwich Village.

By 1952, she’d had enough. After yet another inquiry—requesting her views on, among other things, the Marshall Plan, the United Public Workers of America, and atomic energy—she sent the board an 8,000-word defense that remains the most powerful declaration of her moral convictions. “I was brought up to believe that there is no virtue in conforming meekly to the dominant opinion of the moment,” she wrote, defending her integrity and shaming her inquisitors.

I was encouraged to believe that simple conformity results in stagnation for a society, and that American progress has been largely owing to the opportunity for experimentation, the leeway given initiative, and to a gusto and a freedom for chewing over odd ideas. I was taught that the American’s right to be a free individual, not at the mercy of the state, was hard-won and that its price was eternal vigilance, that I too would have to be vigilant.

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs sought to translate these principles of individual liberty into urban design.

This was not an intuitive process. What ratio of green space to residential acreage was most conducive to individual liberty? Did tenement buildings or high-rise towers create better opportunities for experimentation? What block length, what width of sidewalk, what frequency of stoplights best encouraged the chewing-over of odd ideas?

She pursued this line of questioning at Architectural Forum, the leading architectural publication of its day, after resigning from the State Department in 1952. The magazine was edited by Douglas Haskell, whom Laurence identifies as the crucial figure in Jacobs’s intellectual maturation. Like Jacobs, Haskell lacked an academic pedigree and paired “an anti-utopian streak” with a faith in the power of architecture to bring about social change, for better and for worse. Shortly after her hire, Haskell announced that Forum would intensify its emphasis, already significant, on “the problems of cities.” Was urban renewal—which James Baldwin would later call “Negro removal”—improving the slums of America’s great cities? If not, what else should be done?

Melville House

Jacobs wrote numerous un-bylined articles in favor of theories she would later ridicule. She lionized her future nemeses, the city planners, writing that “the first—the most elementary—lesson for downtown is simply the importance of planning.” She continued to argue in favor of superblocks and for demolishing entire neighborhoods of blighted buildings. In a 24-page feature about shopping centers, she called for downtowns to model themselves after suburban malls. The flaw in her thinking was not purely ideological; she did write critically of the “homogenized simplicity” of new developments and praised planners who made a token effort to preserve older buildings. But poor journalistic habits cost her. She didn’t always travel to see the cities and building projects she wrote about, relying instead on the sketches, photographs, prospectuses, and blueprints sent by architects to the magazine. She violated one of the eventual maxims of Death and Life, that “no other expertise can substitute for locality knowledge in planning.”

A revelation came during a tour of Philadelphia—a tour she may well have taken only after she published a laudatory essay about the city’s redevelopment efforts in 1955. Her guide was Philadelphia’s planning-commission director, Edmund Bacon, “the grand poobah” of American planning, who would later appear on the cover of Time as the face of urban renewal. Bacon took Jacobs on a before-and-after tour of his city. “Before” was represented by a street in a condemned black neighborhood; “after” was a towering new housing project. Before Street, Kanigel writes, “was crowded with people, people spilling out onto the sidewalk, sitting on stoops, running errands, leaning out of windows.” After Street was flat and deserted, with the exception of a lone boy kicking a tire.

“Not only did [Bacon] and the people he directed not know how to make an interesting or a humane street,” Jacobs later said, “but they didn’t even notice such things and didn’t care.” In early 1956 she took a series of tours of East Harlem led by William Kirk, a community activist and the director of the Union Settlement Association. He showed her how the construction of 10 housing projects had destroyed not only the neighborhood’s small businesses but the communities they had sustained. A more personal incitement came from Robert Moses’s long-standing plans to redevelop Jacobs’s own beloved neighborhood of Greenwich Village. Moses proposed extending Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park in the form of a sunken highway, and razing 26 blocks to clear space for a pair of gargantuan housing projects. When Douglas Haskell asked Jacobs to take his speaking slot at an urban-design conference at Harvard in April 1956, before an audience of the nation’s most powerful planners and critics, she let them have it.

Her 1,500-word speech, a version of which appears in Vital Little Plans, became the basis for The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Her main argument was Kirk’s: Small neighborhood stores, ignored by the planners in their grim demolition derby, were essential social hubs. She added that sidewalks, stoops, laundries, and mailbox areas were also indispensable centers of community activity, and that sterile, vacant outdoor space served nobody. “The least we can do,” she said, “is to respect—in the deepest sense—strips of chaos that have a weird wisdom of their own.”

That “weird wisdom” was the wisdom of crowds: the customs and habits that people in cities, left to their own devices, developed while living in close proximity to one another. The planners had been guided by aesthetic concerns, favoring clean lines, geometric shapes, and vast boulevards that were beautiful so long as they were seen from the window of an airplane. But Americans didn’t need a new utopia. They already had a system that, while messy and imperfect, produced a thriving society.

In Death and Life, Jacobs converted democratic values into design policy. This was no magic trick—it was achieved through close observation. Through better reporting, she became a better theorist. The vitality that planners like Bacon and Moses hoped to create already existed. She had seen it herself, not only in the tenements of East Harlem but in Greenwich Village. The two neighborhoods—one doomed, one celebrated for its bohemian spirit—were more alike than not, just as the blocky brick towers of Stuyvesant Town, the celebrated middle-class development where Jacobs’s sister lived, were as dreary as Harlem’s carceral George Washington Houses.

Reduced to a word, Jacobs’s argument is that a city, or neighborhood, or block, cannot succeed without diversity: diversity of residential and commercial use, racial and socioeconomic diversity, diversity of governing bodies (from local wards to state agencies), diverse modes of transportation, diversity of public and private institutional support, diversity of architectural style. Great numbers of people concentrated in relatively small areas should not be considered a health or safety hazard; they are the foundation of a healthy community. Dense, varied populations are “desirable,” Jacobs wrote,

because they are the source of immense vitality, and because they do represent, in small geographic compass, a great and exuberant richness of differences and possibilities, many of these differences unique and unpredictable and all the more valuable because they are.

James Madison couldn’t have put it better, though he tried. He addressed the issue in Federalist Paper No. 9, his effort to answer one of the most vexing problems facing the Framers of the Constitution: how to safeguard their new democracy against insurrection or despotism. Madison argued that as you increase the “variety of parties and interests” contained within a republic, “you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.” Jacobs saw that the same principle held in cities. It is not a coincidence that she described city planners, and the businessmen and politicians who enabled them, as tyrants: “neurotic,” “destructive,” and “impossibly arrogant.”

“We need all kinds of diversity,” Jacobs concluded in Death and Life, “so the people of cities can sustain (and further develop) their society and civilization.” In later books, particularly The Economy of Cities (1969) and Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984), she expanded this point, arguing that the fate of a civilization rested on the vitality of its major cities. In her final book, published in 2004, she applied her analysis to our own civilization. What was the current condition of our great cities? How did America stack up against Rome, Mesopotamia, Babylon? What future could we expect if we continued on our current path? She called the book Dark Age Ahead.

Her Cassandra tale is given greater credibility by the fact that many of her direst predictions have already been realized. Within three years of publication, “the miracle of money growing on houses” was revealed to be a mirage that threatened to take down much of the financial system with it. Gentrification, which Jacobs first warned against in Death and Life, was exacerbated in New York City and elsewhere when local governments failed to set aside sufficient affordable public housing. The Total Information Awareness program, a government data-mining surveillance system that she warned against on the book’s final page, morphed into prism, the classified surveillance program exposed by Edward Snowden. These seemingly disparate dangers, Jacobs argued, rose from a common cause: a moral weakening, or drift, accelerated by cultural rot.

In her comparative study of fallen empires, Jacobs identifies common early indicators of decline: “cultural xenophobia,” “self-imposed isolation,” and “a shift from faith in logos, reason, with its future-oriented spirit … to mythos, meaning conservatism that looks backwards to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview.” She warns of the profligate use of plausible denial in American politics, the idea that “a presentable image makes substance immaterial,” allowing political campaigns “to construct new reality.” She finds further evidence of our hardening cultural sclerosis in the rise of the prison-industrial complex, the prioritization of credentials over critical thinking in the educational system, low voter turnout, and the reluctance to develop renewable forms of energy in the face of global ecological collapse.

No reader of Jacobs’s work would be surprised by the recent finding by a Gallup researcher that Donald Trump’s supporters “are disproportionately living in racially and culturally isolated zip codes and commuting zones.” These zones are latter-day incarnations of Higgins: marooned, amnesiac, homogenous, gutted by the diminishment of skills and opportunities. One Higgins is dangerous enough, for both its residents and the republic to which it belongs. But the nation’s Higginses have proliferated to the point that their residents have assumed control of a major political party.

In the foreword to the 1992 Modern Library edition of Death and Life, Jacobs likens cities to natural ecosystems. “Both types of ecosystems,” she writes, “require much diversity to sustain themselves … and because of their complex interdependencies of components, both kinds of ecosystems are vulnerable and fragile, easily disrupted or destroyed.” Dark Age Ahead reminds us how many powerful, technologically advanced cities—and empires—have come before us, only to fade to dust. When they fall, they do not recover. The vanished way of life “slides into an abyss of forgetfulness, almost as decisively as if it had not existed.” Karl Marx, who spent his life studying the subject, observed that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. This topsy-turvy election year makes one wonder whether he might have gotten that backwards. We’ve had farce, that much is certain. What will the next time bring?