Friday, September 23, 2011

As Death and Life Turns Fifty, Jason Epstein Tips His Hat to Genius

Commemorating a half-century since the publication of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Random House’s fiftieth-anniversary edition of the influential book bestows special recognition on Genius of Common Sense, which was published by David R. Godine in 2009. Jason Epstein, renowned man of letters in the publishing world and Jane’s longtime editor, has written a new introduction for this celebratory volume. He chronicles his working relationship with Jacobs and her activism in New York, and ponders her distinctive nature. In searching for words to describe the impossible-to-categorize freethinker, Epstein selected “genius of common sense” and singled out Godine’s young adult biography of Jane Jacobs, whose title popularized the phrase.

In his introduction Jane’s esteemed editor alludes to anecdotes in Genius that seek to inspire the younger generation to emulate the youthful Jane. “I was not surprised to learn later from a biographer,” Epstein muses, “that she had been a defiant high school student with a sense of humor, a sharp eye for cant, and a problem for uninspiring teachers: a contrarian even then.” We take great pride in Epstein’s choosing to draw from Genius of Common Sense, given the many recent books and articles elucidating and assessing Jane’s oeuvre.

In Jane Jacobs’s last hometown of Toronto, the Centre for City Ecology – itself an outgrowth of her ideas – honored Death and Life’s golden anniversary and the new edition’s release this week by presenting a panel of four of the city’s former mayors. Mayors John Sewell, Art Eggleton, David Crombie, and Barbara Hall, all of whom had interacted with Jane during her four decades in Canada’s largest city, discussed Jane’s contributions to urban life there. Five hundred people scooped up the free tickets and filled the hall to capacity. Judging from the tweets, a lively exchange ensued. Would that the “Genius of Common Sense” herself were there to witness the ongoing dialog in response to her ideas and in keeping with her spirit. Her groundbreaking book published fifty years ago this fall is as important as ever.

The author of this post is Glenna Lang, co-author of Godine's Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of the Death & Life of Great American Cities along with Marjory Wunsch.

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