Celebrating Jane Jacobs' Birthday 'round the net

jane drawing
© James Gulliver Hancock/ see full image here

There is just wonderful stuff being published today about Jane Jacobs, on this centenary of her birth. Don't miss:

Richard Florida: Even Late in Her Career, Jane Jacobs Made Predictions That Are Coming True Today

Critics have never been kind to Jane Jacobs. The critic Lewis Mumford titled his review of her masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies.” He called it "a mingling of sense and sentimentality, of mature judgments and schoolgirl howlers". Economists hated her books on the economy of cities. Her last book, Dark Days Ahead, got scathing reviews from just about everyone when it came out in 2004.. But Richard Florida writes in Citylab that right 'til the end, she was a prophet.

Back in 2004, before the economic crisis, urbanists were celebrating the resurgence of the city. We didn’t think much about the rise of conservative populists like Trump or the late Rob Ford. But there was Jane Jacobs, arguing “caution” against a new dark age lurking right around the corner.

In Dark Age, Jacobs focused on the erosion of the key pillars of stable, democratic societies—the decline of the family, the rise of consumerism and hyper-materialism, the transformation of education into credentialism, the undermining of scientific norms, and the take-over of politics by powerful special interest groups, among others. Persistent racism, worsening crime and violence, the growing gap between the rich and poor, and increasing divides between the winners and losers of globalization provided growing evidence of the decay of society, she argued.

Curbed: Celebrating Jane Jacobs

Start with the illustrated guide by artist James Gulliver Hancock; then James Nevius tells the story of the fight over the Lower Manhattan Expressway that Robert Moses was going to push through the city, complete with astonishing Paul Rudolph drawings of how it would all look when it was done.

Paul Rudoph© Paul Rudoph

There is a lot that one could argue with toward the end when he essentially blames Jacobs for the gentrification of the area, with the repeating of the Glaeserian war cry:

In New York, the creation of landmark districts—which often preserve buildings that would not normally qualify for individual protection—can stifle economic development, at least in the eyes of some residents and developers. Or such districts can lead to rampant gentrification, rending a neighborhood unaffordable for middle-class New Yorkers. This is, of course, exactly what Jacobs fought against.

Nevius even suggests that the highway wasn't such a bad idea, and that what New York needs is "a scaled-down version of LOMEX—perhaps an elevated highway over Canal Street shuttling traffic from the Williamsburg Bridge to the Holland Tunnel." Perhaps not.

Jacobs in Toronot© Frank Lennon. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Shawn Micallef: Jane Up North

Few Americans will have heard of Shawn Micallef, who is one of the most interesting young writers about urbanism in Canada. One bio lists him as "the author of Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto and Full Frontal T.O., a weekly columnist at the Toronto Star, and a senior editor and co-owner of the independent, Jane Jacobs Prize–winning magazine Spacing." He has a look at Jane Jacobs' impact on the City of Toronto, where she moved in 1968, and as someone who lives here, it brought back so many memories. He notes that "Many people who knew her here have similar stories of their first meeting. Often it was an encounter at a community meeting, or a shy request for help on an issue and an invitation from Jane—Toronto is often on a first name basis with her—to come over and talk it through. Even a Jane Jacobs sighting was a thrill." I can certainly agree with that; I was at a couple of public meetings where she was speaking, and you just knew it was an important event.

20 Niagara Street© 20 Niagara Street Toronto

Shawn puts paid to the kind of thinking that Nevius suggested; she was never against change, against development. In fact her ideas sparked the planning revolution in Toronto that opened up industrial areas to redevelopment under Mayor Barbara Hall, that have made the city what it is today. I can attest to it personally; I was the real estate developer who built the first new residential building in the area after the change. My first sight of her was at one of the meetings where she was supporting these zoning changes.

In concrete terms, her advocacy for dense, mixed-use, utterly urban neighborhoods has helped shape the city, but more broadly, her legacy is a spirit of activism and engagement with the city. Hers is a complex history here—she was a supporter of malls and affordable housing, waterfront development and city parks—and the ideas are forever interpreted and extrapolated and argued. Jane Jacobs is as alive as she ever was in Toronto.

Patrick Sisson: Jane in Today's City

Sisson writes about how Jane Jacobs' ideas "have been oversimplified, misunderstood, or misused in the pursuit of projects she likely wouldn’t have supported."

Think new urbanist projects that take Jacobs’s beliefs in mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods and try to shoehorn them into suburban lifestyle centers without context or history. It’s the difference between an organic, bustling neighborhood or main street and a fantasy such as Disney’s Celebration, Florida.

Then Sisson, who should read Micallef, again picks up the theme that Jacobs was against change. "Many public planners and urban thinkers believe Jacobs, were she alive and working today, would be fighting to stem the tide of gentrification and redirect the market forces eroding traditional neighborhoods."

But again, Jacobs did not fight change and redevelopment and she continues to be misunderstood. As Richard Florida wrote in Getting Jane Jacobs Right, things change. I quoted him this morning and I do it again here:

I asked her what should one do about "bad gentrification" - I blurted out something like, "Well, how do we stop it" - she corrected my underlying assumption. She pointed to the difference between the heavy hand of government-sponsored urban renewal programs and the complex workings of urban real estate markets. She went on to describe how cities have an amazing capacity to reorganize and reenergize themselves. The dulling down of one neighborhood, as the diversity of social and economic life was sucked out of it, would lead invariably to the rise of new, energized neighborhoods elsewhere in the city. And then in what remains my single favorite comment of hers - and the best single comment I have ever heard on the issue - she simply said: "Well, Richard, you must understand: when a place gets boring, even the rich people leave."

strongtownsStrongtowns/Screen capture

Strong Towns: The Urban Planner's Oath

I do admire the people at Strong Towns, with their mission to support "a model of development that allows America's cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient." They are spending the week "the hard-hitting realities of Jane Jacobs’ activism: the need for financial solvency in American towns, her insistence on local decision-making instead of top-down proclamations and her “chaotic but smart” approach to improving cities."

Nolan Gray writes a fascinating article comparing Jane Jacobs to economist F.A. Hayek.

For all the love Jane Jacobs has received from urban planners and policymakers since her first book was published, her greatest theoretical innovation seems to be largely disregarded. Cities across the country continue to centrally plan the minutiae of urban life, from obsessively detailed land-use regulations to impossibly ambitious comprehensive plans. Even many of those who have embraced Jacobs’ urban design insights scrapped her theoretical underpinnings, using rigid, top-down plans to create unsettling and unchanging recreations of natural neighborhoods and cities.

I am not so convinced about their urban planner's oath.

Washington SquareNew York City Archives/Public Domain

Jane Jacobs v Robert Moses, battle of New York's urban titans

Anthony Paletta tells the story of the Lower Manhattan Expressway and has a great quote from James Howard Kunstler interviewing Jane in Metropolis magazine:

I saw him only once, at a hearing about the road through Washington Square, which was to be an entrance ramp to the Lower Manhattan Expressway. He was there briefly to speak his piece. But nobody was told that at the time.

None of us had spoken yet because they always had the officials speak first and then they would go away and they wouldn’t listen to the people. Anyway, he stood up there gripping the railing, and he was furious at the effrontery of this, and I guess he could already see that his plan was in danger. Because he was saying: ‘There is nobody against this – NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY but a bunch of … a bunch of MOTHERS!’ And then he stomped out.”

Celebrating Jane Jacobs' Birthday 'round the net
There is some wonderful stuff to read and remember.

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