Mar 5, 2016

Trip Report, Boston

This Friday, March 4, I traveled to Boston to spend a day with the papers and ephemera of one of my favorite authors, Jane Jacobs.  The entirety of her archives resides at Boston College’s Burns Library. (How her papers came to reside at Boston College is unclear.)[1]  I was able to spend a good portion of the day going through a fraction of her papers.  I concentrated on looking for new and unpublished ideas.  I ended up spending my time with some unpublished drafts of essays she had written, a lot of drafts and publications that were either summarizations or re-phrasings of theories that are her published works, some personal and professional correspondence, and some royalty statements from Random House.

The reason for my trip stems from an interview she gave in May 2005. The interview was conducted, in part, to get her remarks on the republishing of one of her less well-known books, The Question of Separatism, which deals with the subject of Quebec’s bid for independence in the 1980’s. In the interview, she alludes to the book that she is currently working on: Uncover the Economy.   She died in April 2006, almost a year later, with the book unpublished.  In the interview with Philpot, she makes a few allusions to the questions that this book will address, to wit: 

   “[C]ities never flourish alone.  They have to be trading with other cities. My new hypothesis shows why.”

   “An interesting thing about business cycles is that they don’t exist in small or backward economies.  They only exist in city economies, in advanced economies, and that’s an interesting thing. Why is it?  Another thing to[sic] Uncover the Economy to find out.”

  “I have an entirely new hypothesis on how economies, macro-economies, form themselves and organize themselves, and where this kind of life comes from.  But it’s so different from the standard idea of economic life.  But some people believe it because, for one thing, I haven’t made up my new hypothesis, which I call ‘uncovering the economy.’ Everything in the hypothesis is out there, happening, and it accounts for so many things that are just slid over and ignored in regular economics.”

I wasn’t able to find mention of the draft in the archive’s listings, nor did my hunting through her unmarked drafts, letters and papers turn up many clues to what this new theory was.  The closest I came to it was a letter to her editor, David Ebershoff, dated March 16, 2005, regarding her submission of “PART II” of the book.  In the letter, she talks about her struggle to avoid the allure of re-editing the work she’s submitting, and alludes having difficulty restating past topics, saying that she's “not tempermentally equipped to recycle my own writing. I want to make it re-thought writing, or I lose interest in it.”

I also spent some time perusing the derivative works that her writings had inspired.  In her archives, there was a box of papers, articles and dissertations that others had written based on her works, and subsequently sent to her.[2]  I was curious about what directions people had taken her work.  How much had her writings influenced economic thought?  What new avenues of research were being pursued as a result of her writings?

The answer was a bit disappointing.  A large portion of the work was derivative of her book Systems of Survival, in which she lays out a new framework for human ethic systems.  These were typically submitted by sociologists and philosophers — researchers that are interested in the rise and propagation of value systems.  Other avenues of inquiry came from designers and urban planners, they were mostly based around her ideas in Death and Life of American Cities.  One article, that seemed mis-filed, was a detailed explanation of the mechanics for the West Village Houses administration, rent and mortgage arrangements with HUD and the New York Housing Authrority.  There was a paper on the economics of waste recycling and an article by Malcolm Gladwell from the December 11, 2000 issue of the New Yorker, that used Jacob’s  Death and Life of American Cities as an extended analogy for the benefits of open offices.[3]

My interest in both her unpublished draft and derivative works is related.  I’m trying to discern what, if any, experimental work has been done to prove or disprove her theories of city economy.  I was hoping to find more concrete investigations in the set of academic papers she had been sent, but unfortunately none of them appeared to approach her theories from an experimental angle.  

As for her unpublished works, I was looking for new conclusions that updated or refined her theories of economy, first published in the 80s as two books, Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations. These books, now a few decades old, encompass the bulk of her thoughts on how economies work.  Specifically, I hoped that she might address the Internet, which was much more of a force in 2005 than in 1984, when Cities and the Wealth was first published.  She mentions it briefly in the interview, but doesn’t seem much impressed with it.[4]

My reason for this research is quite simple: I’m interested in real-world or simulated experiments that attempt to verify her ideas about import replacements, cities as the basic unit of economic wealth, how economies grow via city forces, and all the subsequent conclusions she draws based on these few precepts.  So far I’ve been unable to find anything concrete.  I’ll keep looking.

So where to from here?  I’m hoping to contact her editor and inquire about the fate of the drafts of Uncover the Economy.  I might spend a bit more time with the Google Scholar reverse search for research papers referencing Cities and the Wealth of Nations, to see what other derivative research I can uncover.


[1] Jane Jacobs, famously, did not attend college, but instead moved to New York City with her parent’s blessing and became a journalist.  Her connection to Boston College is unclear to me. 

[2] There were 17 files for derivative works in her archive.  If you do a search on Google Scholar, which will pull up a list of papers that reference another work, there are well over 1,000.  Her archive only contains derivative works that were sent to her, typically by their authors.  In that way, it's a small, self-selected fraction of all derivatives.

[3] I read an interesting article on Malcolm Gladwell a few days ago that called him out as an ‘undercover’ ultra-conservative who has been working tirelessly for the past few decades to promote conservative topics to liberal audiences. As someone who finds open office plans to be largely unfriendly to workers, I could see this article touting the benefits of open office plans via a very well regarded liberal’s ideas on city planning (Jacobs) as a left-ward slant on a conservative/pro-business subject. http://shameproject.com/report/malcolm-gladwell-unmasked-life-work-of-americas-most-successful-propagandist/

[4] In the 2005 interview, she addresses to the Internet saying: “[People] love to think that things have changed so that they can forget all their mistakes and not have to explain them any more: oh well because of globalization, the web, etc. [Interviewer: ] Do you think the web has the effect of bringing people together or keeping people apart?  It brings some people together … it’s not nearly as revolutionary as language itself.” 


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