Jane Jacobs. (Image: Municipal Art Society)

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum—no, not that one: The one sponsored by the Municipal Art Society of New York on November 8. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of  Jane Jacobs’ classic Death and Life of American Cities, the 2011 Jane Jacobs Forum proposed to examine the state of her legacy and those of two other giants: Rachel Carson and Betty Friedan.

The event brought out an overflow crowd, mostly women, and had to be moved to a larger venue. And while the evening was filled with affirmation of the three women’s achievements, the conversation was characterized by a thread of provocative questioning and critique. Not that the three icons wobbled on their well-earned pedestals, but they might have been dismayed to hear that the sweeping changes their ideas inspired were not yet sweeping enough.

The panel’s four speakers included two award-winning authors, journalist and urban critic Roberta Brandes Gratz and professor and television commentator Melissa V. Harris-Perry. They were joined by speaker, consultant, and author Sally Helgesen and Urvashi Vaid, longtime organizer in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and social justice movements. Robin Pogrebin of the New York Times moderated.

Without disputing the advances in urban planning, gender relations and ecological awareness sparked by the three pioneers, the panelists took issue with the premise that our world has changed fundamentally as a result of the books of Jacobs, Carson and Friedan.

Not surprisingly, race and gender colored their perceptions.

Photo: Diane Vacca

With her introductory remarks, Harris-Perry (left) stunned many in the audience. “Living in New Orleans these days, I feel a little bit like their impact is absolutely nothing, that I live in a world where they have all been thoroughly defeated,” she said. She then explained how the visions of each one are dying or dead in New Orleans.

With her then-idiosyncratic understanding of what makes a city livable, Jane Jacobs challenged the way the (all male) architects and city planners designed projects without taking into account the needs and desires of the individuals who would inhabit or visit them. Yet, said Harris-Perry, “whatever Jacobs’s contributions were,” the designers of the interstate that now rips through her once bustling neighborhood paid no heed to them at all. “Urban renewal,” she said, “was in fact Negro removal.”

Today, in New Orleans and on the Gulf coast, after the Katrina levee failures and the BP oil spill, even Rachel Carson would be hard-pressed to rouse enthusiasm for a green agenda. Despite the devastated environment, the harsh economic reality is that New Orleans and Louisiana—indeed the entire Gulf coast—are profoundly dependent on the oil industry.

Regarding Friedan, Harris-Perry reported that a strong majority of her female students at Tulane University, “which continues to have a bit of a plantation aesthetic,” have “a deep yearning to engage with the feminine mystique.” In other words, they want to experience domesticity as well as a professional life. They have no sense of being constrained by or wanting to escape from a future keeping house, she said.

“So I keep having the sense that all of these women have been soundly defeated,” Harris-Perry concluded.

Photo: Diane Vacca

As for women intellectuals, Urvashi Vaid (right) pointed out that they still don’t receive the same respect accorded to men. Like Harris-Perry, Vaid made some provocative points; she began by examining the title of the program, Women as Public Intellectuals, and questioning the very concept of woman as intellectual.

“‘As’ is a powerful word,” Vaid asserted. “Often it’s used to connect two startlingly different concepts: food as art, Republicans as compassionate, women as intellectuals.” What sense, Vaid pondered, does the word ‘as’ have here? “To imply that women, like men, can be intellectuals? That even a woman can be a mover and shaker of ideas? … Why not title the session ‘Jacobs, Carson and Friedan: Women Public Intellectuals’ with no ‘as’ in the mix?” She answered her own question. “A woman performing a role that has nothing to do with mother or wife once, and perhaps still, needs a modifying term to comprehend.” Vaid said she often finds herself the only woman in the room at a table of decision-making power.

It’s not just the woman intellectual who still struggles to make herself heard. Even today, Harris-Perry noted, we erect a monument to Martin Luther King on the National Mall, but we continue to remember Rosa Parks as a woman who was “tired, and who launched a movement through her sheer exhaustion.”

Carson, Jacobs, and Friedan published their groundbreaking books between 1961 and 1963. All three were outsiders who threw a harsh light on what they noticed was missing or wrong in a culture that was shaped mostly by men. The women were maligned for defying the status quo.

Today women in the upper reaches of society have gained respect and recognition, but the lives of the other 80 percent haven’t changed very much. The women who have accused Herman Cain of sexual harassment are being scorned and vilified by his defenders. Sexual harassment may be recognized by law—a significant change—but the treatment of these women hardly differs from that inflicted on Anita Hill 20 years ago.

Jane Jacobs was instrumental in defeating three major projects of Robert Moses. The epic rivalry between the master builder and the defender of neighborhoods was notorious in New York City. “Her efforts accelerated his demise,” said Roberta Brandes Gratz. She noted that women hold jobs in the field of city planning, but few of the field’s critics are women. “The female voice is not invited to the table easily,” she said.

(Intrigued by Gratz’s comments, when I returned home I opened The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s masterly biography of Robert Moses, and searched the 34-page index in vain for a reference to Jane Jacobs. Caro called Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities the strongest influence on his own book, yet the esteemed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author didn’t see fit to mention Jacobs or her work on any of the 1,283 pages.)

Author and consultant Sally Helgesen was the most sanguine of the panelists. “I think there are extraordinary aspects of this legacy which need to be honored and pursued,” she said, and in fact, she herself takes Jacobs as a model. “I have been inspired by her example for at least 30 years,” said Helgesen, calling Jacobs a “public intellectual without portfolio.”

The evening wasn’t without its light moments. Harris-Perry and Vaid in particular often elicited roars of laughter with their pungent, funny remarks. And all four speakers saluted the significance, personal achievements, and influence of Jacobs, Carson, and Friedan. Those women changed the conversation and challenged established tradition. But, argued the panelists, their work still isn’t finished. It was a spirited, thought-provoking, and intellectually expansive evening—perhaps the most fitting tribute that these three challenging thinkers of the 1960s could have had.