Jane Jacobs was born in 1916 with a decidedly less euphonious name—Jane Butzner—in the coal town of Scranton, Pennsylvania. The third child of a doctor and a teacher, she was delivered by her own father. In her childhood home, her parents encouraged her inquisitive mind and accepted her rebellious streak. Jacobs read widely, wrote poems, and held imaginary conversations with interlocutors like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
Despite her precocity—or more likely because of it—the young Jane was never a good fit for school. She barely made it through high school and, instead of college, took a course in stenography. Her parents had instilled in her the importance of both learning a practical trade and pursuing her calling, which she determined early on would be writing.
In 1934, during the depths of the Depression, Jacobs moved to New York, where she lived with her elder sister Betty in Brooklyn Heights. In the mornings, she took the subway to Manhattan to interview for secretarial work; in the afternoons, she wandered around the city. On one outing, she discovered Christopher Street in Greenwich Village and promptly informed Betty that they’d be relocating to that neighborhood.