Little Jane Jacobs Had Ben Franklin As an Imaginary Friend; All Kids Should Be So Lucky

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Jane Jacobs, all grown up.Photo: Ron Bull/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Jane Jacobs saved Greenwich Village from being turned into a freeway, and wrote books — namely The Death and Life of Great American Cities — that forever changed the way the U.S. thinks about the agglomerations of humans, brick, glass, pavement, and steel that we call urban centers.

It’s a delight to discover the formations of personalities as powerful as hers, and the new biography Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, is chock-full of clues to her character. I had the pleasure of digging into it recently, and one anecdote spoke to the interior life that Jacobs had as a kid, and what surely formed her into adulthood.

The young Jane Butzner (her maiden name), growing up in and around Scranton, Pennsylvania, read voraciously, spoke freely at home, and had the benefit of a very esteemed cast of characters as imaginary friends. The first was Thomas Jefferson, reports biographer Robert Kanigel, though Jane grew weary of his company; the Declarer of Independence was always drifting off to abstraction, Jane remembers, and she was much more interested in the brass tacks.

That’s why, Kanigel reports, Jane found a fast friend in a certain colonial renaissance man: her fellow Pennsylvanian, the esteemed Mr. Benjamin Franklin. Ol’ Ben was into “nitty-gritty, down-to-earth details, such as why the alley we were walking through wasn’t paved, and who would pave it if it were paved,” Jane is quoted as recalling. “He was interested in everything.”

That attending to detail, appreciating the nooks and crannies of urban life would animate Jacobs’s legendary quests in adult life. As Cari Romm has reported for Science of Us, some 65 percent of American (they’re more common here, which is delightful) kids have imaginary friends, and researchers think they help kids develop their social skills. In the case of our young Jane, it looks like Franklin’s personification was a sort of tutor for habits of mind: noticing the world around her, and loving it.