U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On Jane Jacobs (Guest Post by Holly Genovese)

[Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of six guest posts by Holly Genovese, which will be appearing every other Sunday. — Ben Alpers]

I started college as a bright eyed 17-year old, intent on becoming a Civil War historian. Not a social historian of the Civil War era or a scholar of Civil War memory, but a war historian. I took a 3 week long course on the Revolutionary and Civil War at Johns Hopkins when I was 15. My Momma and I took many a summer trip to nearby battlefields. And I tried in vain to become a reenactor-but I wanted to reenact a solider and that wasn’t allowed. Friends who knew me before around age 20 won’t find this surprising-but others might wonder how a budding military historian became a social/cultural historian of race and incarceration?

It was a process. But in my sophomore year at Temple, I took a required humanities seminar, colloquially referred to as MOSAIC. Most of my classmates were education, business, and science majors-students who were frustrated with the course. But for me, a double major in History and Philosophy at the time (I changed it 5 times), I was in love. It was the first time I read Marx and Freire, the first time I was asked to annotate a text. It was my becoming.

But the most important text I read in that class was Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Before I took this course I knew there were people studying history and sociology in cities, but I didn’t understand the study of the city as a discipline in itself. That book blew open my mind.

The notes I left in the book, on pink and orange post it notes, are very bad. They are factual summary, nothing more. Or they are answers to the reading questions my professor had assigned. But looking at these notes, I can see the beginnings of my intellectual formation. I read this book long before I read Michelle Alexander’s work or talked to Dr. Heather Thompson about incarceration, but the statements I highlighted were all about crime and incarceration. My interests, and my future, are revealed in the notes and highlights of this book in a way that I had never recognized. My tattered copy of The Death and Life of Great American Cities knew long before I did that my interests lie in race, incarceration, and cities.

I remembered excitedly telling my then boyfriend about how much I loved the book and how engaged I felt when reading it. His response was to tell me that I wasn’t actually interested in Jane Jacobs and urban studies because I had never mentioned it before, because I studied war and philosophy. He couldn’t conceive of it as being my first introduction to the city as a category of analysis or a moment in time that would change my intellectual path. But here I am, six years later, an urbanist.

Reading it now, for comprehensive exams, with new eyes, is a very different experience. I am thinking about Jacobs in the context of the historiography, in the context of the hundreds of books I have read since my Sophomore year in college. But in many ways this book transported me back to my bright eyed 19-year old self, discovering urban history for the first time. I hope it always will.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. It’s nice to be able to identify that kind of moment when one realizes what one wants to study or focus on. While there have been books that I’m glad to have read (or been required to read), I think more of my moments, esp. when I was younger, were of the “Oh, I don’t like this” variety.

    As I’ve gotten older I’ve perhaps gotten a little better at trying to see some value in styles/approaches/subjects/etc. that I probably previously would have dismissed or been bored by or exasperated by or found incomprehensible. Of course I can still be dismissive etc., but when I find that happening I at least sometimes try to pause and ask myself whether I’m not missing something or whether the problem is mine and not the author’s (admittedly, that doesn’t always work). Well, this has meandered off topic (if it ever was on topic), so I’ll stop.

  2. Great story, Holly! As Louis said above, it’s a treat when you can recognize one text, or reading, that helped crystalize your interests. For me it was a series of readings over a few years in college: Bill Cronon’s Changes in the Land, MJ Adler’s How to Read a Book, and several other works of philosophy, history, and theology. – TL

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