Jane Jacobs Exhibition Explores BC’s Connections to Famed Urban Theorist and Activist

Jane Jacobs would have turned 101 today. She died just short of her 90th birthday following tours for her last book, Dark Age Ahead. Yet, as a letter on exhibit from her archives at Burns Library indicates, she had plans for at least two more books.


Jane Jacobs letter to editor David Ebershoff (11/26/2003) with ideas for her next book. Jane Jacobs Papers (MS.1995.029), John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Jacobs had a hard time letting go of her Remington typewriter, even after suffering a stroke and broken hip. And the world, it seems, just won’t let go of her. Or is it that her ideas about what makes cities successful and economies work won’t let go of us?


Poster for Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, released on April 21, 2017

On April 21, 2017, Altimeter Films/Sundance Selects released Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, a documentary that revisits the successful protests that Jacobs organized against New York City “master builder” Robert Moses and his efforts during the 1960s to replace older neighborhoods like Jacobs’s own Greenwich Village with multi-lane expressways and cookie-cutter high-rise apartments. Their legendary struggle will also be memorialized on Times Square billboards every night during the month of May with animations from Joshua Frankel’s forthcoming multimedia opera (yes, opera) A Marvelous Order, I LIVE HERE.

While the visual arts community continues to draw the world’s attention back to the David- vs.-Goliath showdown that played out on sidewalks and parks of Lower Manhattan, a far-flung network of Jacobs enthusiasts have been spawning “Jane’s Walks” around the world since 2007. The idea is to encourage people to become more familiar with each other and the streets where they live by walking and talking about them together. The Boston Globe has reported on several walks scheduled in the Boston neighborhoods of Roslindale and West Roxbury as well as surrounding cities.


Cover of Ethics in Making a Living: The Jane Jacobs Conference, proceedings of the 1987 BC symposium.

In Burns Library, we are running an exhibition on Jacobs that explores her close ties to Boston College and the ways these connections shaped her later writings. It opened on April 10, 2017 to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Jacobs’s first visit to campus to participate in a symposium devoted to her work. Jacobs gave a pair of talks on “Systems of Economic Ethics” that she subsequently reworked into her 1992 book Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, thanks in part to her continued engagement with several BC faculty and students.

Jacobs returned to the Heights several times during the next several years, the last for a November 2000 symposium “Jane Jacobs & The New Urban Ecology,” organized by the Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review.

Jane Jacobs exhibit - Burns Library - Case 2 - 03

Photo of Burns Library exhibit, showing section devoted to Jacobs’s activism

Our exhibition documents Jacob’s involvement with Boston College, the influence it had on her, and her impacts on our community. It is based on our extensive collection of her personal papers, which she began transferring to Burns Library in 1995. It focuses on the evolution and publication of Systems of Survival and Dark Age Ahead two key works in the Jacobs canon in which she outlines the ethical underpinnings of economic systems and how they shape societies. It also includes an overview of Jacobs’s careers as a journalist, activist, and writer. A concluding section contrasts the effects of urban renewal on Boston’s West End and neighborhood revitalization in its North End, illustrating the divergent outcomes Jacobs envisioned in her pioneering study The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It also highlights how BC’s PULSE Program and social enterprise agencies like Boston’s Haley House can embody the principles and values that surface in Jacobs’s writings.

Dark Age Ahead or Systems of Survival? Jane Jacobs and the Ethics of Economies” will remain on display in Burns Library through June 23, 2017. Check the hours and contact/directions pages on our website for details. We’re giving away buttons, bookmarks, posters, and even books, so come by for a visit and find out why Jacobs continues to have such a hold on us you won’t want to let her go!

  • Christian Dupont, Burns Librarian & Associate University Librarian, John J. Burns Library

Related Resources:

  • Read a review of the exhibition in the April 26 edition of The Heights, Boston College’s student newspaper.
  • A finding aid for the Jane Jacob’s Papers in Burns Library may be downloaded from our online catalog. The collection is open and available for research. Please contact our reference staff for assistance by writing burnsref@bc.edu or calling our reading room at 617-552-6489.
  • For further background on Jacob’s visits to Boston College, read the articles that appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Boston College Magazine and the Carroll Connection, an online publication of the Carroll School of Management at Boston College.
  • Ethics in Making a Living: The Jane Jacobs Conference, proceedings of the 1987 BC symposium.


About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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