Jane Jacobs, Urban Visionary

Yesterday evening, the Chief General Manager of the Toronto Transit Commission was fired by a 5-4 vote of the Commission’s board, as the Mayor’s acolytes there gave a little payback for Toronto City Council having reasserted an LRT-centred city transportation building plan in the face of the Mayor’s preference for rail-free streets. In many ways this makes me recall the battles of the 1960s and early 1970s in Toronto — yes, we were building the University and Bloor-Danforth subways, but the official plan was freeway-centric (through the middle of the city’s iconic neighbourhoods: Toronto, like London, is a city of them) and there was an on-going campaign to rip up our streetcar system “to make room for cars”. One of the giants who brought this to a stop, killing the freeways and causing public transit — as a mixed system of buses, streetcars/LRTs and subways — to take primacy of place while protecting neighbourhoods was a recent import to Toronto, Jane Jacobs. The south-east corner of Bloor St. W. and Spadina Ave. has three historical markers recalling the battles, the role she played, and the city that would have been, and is now.

This reflection was originally written in September 2007.

Having finished Alice Alexion’s biography, Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary, I find myself furious at some of Alexion’s presumptions. They remain (mostly) unstated, of course, but someone ought to speak out. Since, as Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am for myself alone, who am I? And, if not now, when?”, I shall so speak, and devil take the hindmost.

First presumption of worthlessness: “Jacobs was no academic”. No, she was not. We are used to the notion of needing qualifications to speak on an issue — and to the idea that public commentators are often resident in a university post. (The opinion pages of any newspaper will make this clear.) Why I call this a presumption of worthlessness is in that it was not necessary for Alexion to say, more than once, that she “only” had a high school education (coupled with some practical secretarial training). These things are true, of course, but are not necessary prefixes at every stage of Jacobs’ life. Once is a retelling of fact; repetition exists for a reason, and that reason is clearly one that “here is a rank amateur, you are entitled to disagree with her and ignore her views at will, without the need to argue your case”.

In Jacobs’ day (pre-World War II) her educational stopping point and her training to hold a job that might be available to her is hardly to be held against her — this was the norm, especially insofar as the culture and the Great Depression were concerned.

Part of Alexion’s presumption is contained in her thoughts on Jacobs’ writing style. Here the criticism is “catty” at best, and undeserved in general. Jacobs’ development as a writer was through long-form journalism, pieces for a monthly magazine. She proved herself, however, quite capable of theoretical construction when she turned to writing books, without (as happens for many academics) losing the power of the simple word and phrase in the process. To write, as she did, for Architectural Forum, she still needed to have some intellectual framework around which to “hang” the article; that she was able to create this and build upon it, year after year, out of her own thought should not be held against her, unless, of course, disagreement with conventional positions and “wisdom” is a prima facie indictment.

Jacobs’ lack of formal education is not a weakness. She proved herself quite capable of learning, and she had less, as a result, to unlearn. At a time, for instance, when “everyone knew” it was the surroundings that conditioned the poor — this led to the focus in the 1950s and 1960s on tearing down entire ranges of blocks to redevelop them into Le Corbusian “City Radiant” towers and open land without shops or services — Jacobs was able to use her eyes and mind to actually see the nature and working of the pre-existing communities, specifically in parts of New York City, and the lack of community in the redeveloped areas. As a result, her tour with Edmund Bacon in Philadelphia was productive both in furthering Jacobs toward her turn toward activism and book-length arguments, and in convincing Bacon to change his views on urban development. Yet she did not just go and report in order to be paid for an article. She spent her time questioning, coming to understand, both in her own neighbourhood of Greenwich Village and elsewhere. In other words, the question remained “alive” to her, and she continued to learn even when her positions seemed fixed. From this she was able to identify and locate the mass of detail she observed — and, quite unacademically, kept it from becoming abstract categories and abstractions. It was entirely empirical and phenomenological in approach, and true to each street, each neighbourhood.

As her field expanded into economics, this became a more difficult path — not to mention that the critique that she was untrained in “urban studies” ignores the fact that the discipline didn’t exist in 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written at a time when this field was ready to be born. Her later works on economics, however, came up against an established faculty [and one convinced that mathematisation under the rubric of social science research is the discipline] — and economists (as in any discipline, often educated but seldom learnèd) are often given a media outlet to express conventional wisdom. No wonder her new ideas (many of which have gained a grudging and slow acceptance, but an acceptance nontheless) received a cool reception in printed rebukes! Still and all, how many Nobel Prize winners win their prize (as happened in 1995) by ‘academising’ the theories of a lay person, as happened with Jacobs’ thesis in The Economies of Cities?

As for her lack of footnotes — are we reduced to this petty a criticism, that missing academic documentation makes the text of the main passage and the ideas it contains worthless by implication? — who and what might she have quoted when she was breaking new and very different ground? And what, pray tell, would have been the added value to the reader of all that apparatus? Jacobs was concerned to communicate her ideas: existing specialists would know the existing literature, and other types of readers would only have been thrown off course by following up a steady stream of “I disagree with so-and-so because…” notes.

Second Presumption of Worthlessness: Then she dared to move to Canada!: In Alexion’s posthumous biography, Jacobs’ life as a child in Scranton, PA, received as much space as all the years from 1968 to Jacobs’ death in 2006 did. All but one, however, of Jacobs’ works are published after 1968! — only Death and Life predates her move from New York City to Toronto. The biographer’s obvious and evident lack of interest in anyone who would leave the United States — and renounce their American citizenship — is palpable. It drips from the page. Evidently, as long as Jacobs was showing the lesser breeds how to fight expressway builders, there was something still to say about her. After helping to stop the Crosstown and Spadina expressways from ripping up the heart of Toronto shortly after her arrival in the city, she became a Canadian, and her subsequent work to avoid other types of urban neighbourhood destruction goes unmentioned. Her move caused her former day-by- day publicity as she fought developers and Robert Moses, the autocratic remaker of New York, to atrophy once she left Manhattan; in the eyes of Alexion, this lack of daily coverage is proof positive that nothing was going on. (We must not forget that Alexion is from Long Island; the New York metropolitan area is her home, and blindness to checking the Toronto media in her prose is just part of the package you get with her.) In any event, Alexion does believe from this that Jacobs was, at that point, of no further interest to Americans [and therefore, of no further interest to anyone].

That Jacobs turned down an honorary degree from the University of Toronto was considered acceptable [by Alexion], but to have snubbed Harvard’s honorary degree was unacceptable and proof that Jacobs had “lost it”. Jacobs, of course, declined honorary degrees not because of the institutions, but for her own reasons — but turning down Harvard indicates an animus toward America, or some such nonsense, in Alexion’s eyes.

The attitude of “if it doesn’t happen here (“here” being generally the United States but de facto New York City) it isn’t worth worrying about” leaks out of the last chapter of the biography on every page. To Alexion, that we Canadians celebrated Jacobs, took her counsel regularly, honoured her and even when we didn’t follow her advice we respected her and her insights, is somehow proof of Canadians’ being second-handers and backward in nature. By now, in the author’s eyes, Jacobs is a has-been, “proven” by academia to be “not serious” — she had never accepted a professorial role ‘graciously’ offered her by the country’s academic élite — and “proved”, by deciding to move, that she would have nothing more to say. (The tone of “good riddance” is but thinly disguised!)

Well, what utter dreck! Jacobs may have been a citizen of Canada after 1974, but she remained true to the American Republic, and not the burgeoning American Imperium [the global police state abroad and the national security state at home] that she decided to leave. She retained her faith in the power of a free individual to the end. Those of us who have grown up in the shadow of America’s rise during the past fifty years may not like the place — nor the arrogance a growing number of Americans demonstrate toward others in the world — but the American diaspora in Canada of the late 1960s and early 1970s was a real boon to this country — and I, for one, believe, unlike Alexion, that Jacob’s influence, via her later works, is still to be fully felt, [here, in the United States, and further afield].

She is, in other words, worthy of a far better biographical job than this pretentious hack managed to scribble out and inflict upon a reading public.



Add yours →

  1. I’m working on a new biography of Jane Jacobs now. Look for it, from Knopf, in about four years.

    Robert Kanigel


  2. Bravo!! Jane’s brilliance puts the lie to the assumption that academia is the be-all-end-all. She, like most citizens, was an “instinctivist” and understood better than the overtrained people who depend on that training versus the wisdom of observation and logic. For a different view of Jane, try my BATTLE FOR GOTHAM: NEW YORK IN THE SHADOW OF ROBERT MOSES AND JANE JACOBS.

    And, by the way, she was a journalist, as am I, and as was Lewis Mumford, William Holly Whyte, and many others who have changed their fields through their writing.

    Roberta Brandes Gratz

  3. Robert: I shall!
    Roberta: Thank you; I shall look forward to reading your book.

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