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A century after her birth, Jane Jacobs’s writing is still influencing the way we look at cities

JuneFeature_JaneJacobsA few years after Anne Collins joined Random House Canada as its editorial director, Jane Jacobs, the renowned urban thinker, embarked on what would become her final book, Dark Age Ahead. Early in her publishing career, Jacobs worked with legendary Random House editors Jason Epstein and David Ebershoff. But Collins felt Jacobs, a Toronto resident since the late 1960s, deserved a Canadian editor for her next project, which laid out her views on the deterioration of key social institutions. “I was determined that it would be a Canadian bestseller,” Collins says.

By then in her 80s, Jacobs – considered by many to be the single most influential urban writer, critic, and activist of the post-war era – walked with difficulty, and had taken to using an ear trumpet to compensate for hearing loss. But she’d lost none of her mental acuity, her curiosity, or her passion for ideas. As they worked on the manuscript, Collins would drop by Jacobs’s home in Toronto’s Annex and share a glass of Scotch as they talked. Jacobs, who had a strong sense of structure and produced pristine copy, didn’t require a lot of feedback. “She created worlds on the page and then tested them to see if they worked in reality,” Collins says.

The result of their collaboration did, in fact, become a Canadian bestseller upon its release in 2004, and also won the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. Despite Jacobs’s advanced age, Collins didn’t hesitate to sign her to a two-book deal: “She was always looking forward. She was interested in what was in front of her.”

Jacobs didn’t manage to write those next two volumes, dying in 2006, at the age of 89. This May marked the centennial of her birth, and the occasion was celebrated extensively, with everything from bike tours to photo exhibits to a special edition of Jane’s Walk, a series of locally organized walking tours begun in Toronto in 2007 and now held in cities around the world. This fall, Random House Canada will publish the first new volume of Jacobs’s writing in 12 years, an anthology titled Vital Little Plans, co-edited by Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring. The collection, says PRH editor Amanda Lewis, aims to show the evolution of Jacobs’s thinking, and includes articles from her early days as a writer and editor for such publications as Vogue and Architectural Forum to more extended essays, as well as some unpublished work. Knopf this year will also release a major biography of Jacobs, Eyes on the Street, by Robert Kanigel. Her backlist, in particular her influential 1961 debut, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, continues to sell, and several volumes
remain fixtures on urban-affairs reading lists.

Jacobs’s political achievements – most notably her campaign, beginning in 1958, to block a highway proposed by New York roads czar Robert Moses that would have cut through the city’s Greenwich Village, where Jacobs was living at the time – have become the stuff of urban legend. She has inspired countless civic activists and even planners – a profession she didn’t much respect. Her name remains a touchstone for a form of city building that situates the needs of ordinary people and their neighbourhoods above the technocratic demands of bureaucrats, developers, and agencies tasked with building civic infrastructure. Her most trenchant observations – the importance of “eyes upon the street,” older buildings, and short blocks, as well as the proposition that downtowns are for people – have become deeply embedded in planning.

While Jacobs scarcely merited a mention in Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 1974 biography of Moses, The Power Broker, their respective destinies and reputations remain intertwined, even leapfrogging into other forms, such as the opera A Marvelous Order, by Judd Greenstein and poet Tracy K. Smith. More recently, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg slyly described his crusading transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan – a cycling advocate credited with creating the popular pedestrian plazas along Broadway and elsewhere in Manhattan – as the offspring Moses and Jacobs never had (the comment can be found on the cover of Sadik-Khan’s new book, Street Fight).

“Her influence,” observes Toronto architect Jack Diamond of Jacobs, “was far and wide.” As an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, Diamond recalls first encountering Jacobs at a lecture in 1963. “What she said was devastatingly different than orthodox city planning,” he says.

Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Jacobs moved to New York and set herself up as a freelance writer. From her apartment at 555 Hudson Street, in Greenwich Village, she observed the “ballet” of the sidewalk and published articles challenging dominant planning ideas about slum clearance, highways and giant redevelopment projects, like Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town.

Diamond recalls that Jacobs sparked grassroots efforts in Philadelphia to preserve the historic Society Hill district, which was then the target of large-scale redevelopment plans.

At about the same time, a young Toronto political science instructor named David Crombie, then teaching at the Ryerson Institute of Technology, found himself facing questions from his students about Jacobs. Toying with a run for alderman, Crombie went to city hall to collect planning reports and then bought himself both Death and Life and Rachel Carson’s 1962 environmental science book Silent Spring. “Out of these materials,” Crombie says, “I fashioned some lectures.”

 Jacobs reading in the backyard of her Hudson Street home in New York, 1966 (Photo: James Jacobs)

Jacobs reading in the backyard of her Hudson Street home in New York, 1966 (Photo: James Jacobs)

Jacobs moved to Toronto in 1968, not long after she’d been charged with inciting a riot during protests over subsequent attempts by New York officials to revive Moses’s expressway scheme. (She was also worried about her sons being drafted Vietnam War, which she strongly opposed.) She soon found herself in the midst of the epic fight by Toronto activists to halt the construction of the Spadina Expressway.

Crombie, elected mayor in 1972 as part of a reform movement that came to power after the Ontario government scuttled Spadina, stresses that Jacobs didn’t create the anti-Spadina movement, she “legitimized what we were already doing.”

Jacobs did, however, bring some sidewalk-tested ideas to Toronto’s civic progression. “She really loved political tactics and strategy and making presentations,” says Crombie, who adds that her imperious and commanding manner proved to be an important factor. “She was like an Old Testament prophet.”

Former mayor John Sewell, another member of that 1972 reform council, recounts one showdown that saw Jacobs take on high-rise apartment developers looking to demolish older row houses in a low-income area downtown. In early April 1973, demonstrators began to congregate each day in front of the property. One Friday, recalls Sewell, crews appeared and began demolishing the porch of one of the homes. As the activists scrambled to respond, Jacobs pointed out that construction couldn’t proceed unless the site was surrounded by hoardings. “We’ve got to tear down the hoardings,” she declared. A photographer captured Jacobs yanking off the boards, a cigarette dangling from her lips. “It was a brilliant example of Jane being very, very strategic and figuring out exactly what to do to turn the tide,” Sewell says.

Sewell didn’t just rely on Jacobs for her tactical advice. After he was elected mayor in 1978, he moved to implement ideas drawn directly from her book on the ways of urban commerce, The Economy of Cities, published in 1969. In it, Jacobs makes a case for “import replacement” – the idea that when cities consume large quantities of certain goods, it makes sense to manufacture these items locally to boost the labour force. Sewell says he was “very influenced” by the book, and sought to create an import replacement policy for Toronto. “What I wanted to do was look very seriously at the kinds of things we were importing.” (He never finished his work, losing his bid for re-election following public controversy over his support for gay men arrested in police raids.)

Jacobs’ writing also inspired Diamond’s architecture, prompting him to think about alternatives to the soaring modernist slab apartments then popular with municipal planners. Diamond developed a proposal for a low-rise affordable housing project that was, in effect, a tower lying on its side. He wanted to show it was possible to create apartment-building-style densities at the scale of the street. Most units had their own exterior doors, access to the street, porches, and other privacy features that Jacobs extolled. The city used his design to develop an affordable housing complex.

Jacobs’s most significant contribution to Toronto’s built form came later, during the mid-1990s when then mayor Barbara Hall invited Jacobs, urban designer and planning consultant Ken Greenberg, and chief planner Paul Bedford to devise ways to revitalize old downtown industrial districts full of mostly empty brick warehouses and factories.

Threatened with demolition, the structures had been occupied illegally by artists, who used the lofts as live-work studios. The squatters proved one of Jacobs’s most enduring observations, which is that rundown buildings are vital to urban economies because they provided inexpensive space for artists, entrepreneurs, and inventors: new ideas, she had postulated in Death and Life, need old buildings. Working with Hall, Bedford, and Greenberg, Jacobs proposed the city lift zoning restrictions and allow owners to lease space to whomever they wanted.

“She stared me in the face,” Bedford recalls, “and waved a finger and said, ‘You must not have it fail.’” Jacobs, he adds, “put the fear of God in me.”

In the late 1980s, after finishing university, I worked part-time for a few years at Book City in the Annex. During almost every shift, a somewhat stooped late-middle-aged woman in a shapeless brown wrap would drift in and browse near the front of the store. At the time, Book City owner Frans Donker was bringing in huge quantities of remainders, including a seemingly endless supply of a little cream-coloured paperback entitled The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I didn’t know anything about the book, except that it all but flew off the remainder tables. One day, manager John Snyder pulled me aside and motioned to that regular customer: Jane Jacobs, he said – the author of said remainder.

Thirty years later, and a decade after her death, Jacobs remains as much of a presence as she ever was, especially among the urban-minded young people who now make downtown their home – an unthinkable prospect when a feisty young freelancer from Scranton launched her attacks on the pieties of post-war planning. It’s no wonder Amanda Lewis expects a swell of interest in Vital Little Plans. “It’s the first new book from Jane Jacobs in several years,” she says. “It feels really fresh.”

Which is surely a highly fitting tribute to a thinker born a century ago.


May 26th, 2016

4:32 pm

Category: People

Issue Date: June 2016