Jane Jacobs: First, she saved Manhattan

The Winnipeg Free Press
Focus, Saturday, April 29, 2006, p. a17


For those who followed and admired her work, the death Tuesday of urban philosopher Jane Jacobs was moving and profound. Among the many achievements of her long life, it could be said she was, more than anyone else, single-handedly responsible for saving Manhattan from a destructive disaster far worse than Sept. 11, 2001. Were it not for her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and her indefatigable activism, there would today be a freeway connecting the Holland Tunnel with the Manhattan Bridge, sacrificing the beloved neighbourhoods of SoHo, Chinatown, and Greenwich Village.

Soon after moving to Toronto in 1969, she saved that city from a similar fate, leading the protest against the planned Spadina Expressway that would have razed that city’s Chinatown.

The Death And Life of Great American Cities was a moving work whose effects can be seen throughout North America in efforts to rebuild inner cities damaged by modernism. Her identification of four key generators of city diversity — mixed residential and commercial uses, short blocks, aged buildings, density — have helped planners crack the code that defines what makes some neighbourhoods safe and successful and others dull and dangerous.

Her work profoundly influenced the direction of my own life, leading me to pinpoint Commercial Drive in Vancouver as an ideal place to live, and live there I did for six years. It was during a visit home to Winnipeg in June 2000 that I saw my hometown’s urban problems. I was moved to write my first-ever piece for the Free Press opinion page, “Replace modernism with mixed use.”

There’s little evidence that Jacobs’ ideas have had an impact in Winnipeg. There’s some mixed-use proposals for St. Boniface’s Provencher Boulevard and downtown’s Waterfront Drive, but Jacobs, who never wrote about Winnipeg, probably would have best liked Main Street in the pre-modernist era, when the streetcars kept the streets teeming and certain single blocks of storefront businesses offered a diversity of services — cafs, grocers, boutiques, hardware stores, barbers, tailors, etc. — far greater than today’s automobile-centric shopping malls.

“The activity generated by people on errands, or people aiming for food or drink, is itself an attraction to still other people,” wrote Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “[T]hat the sight of people attracts still other people, is something that city planners and city architectural designers seem to find incomprehensible. They operate on the premise that city people seek the sight of emptiness, obvious order and quiet. Nothing could be less true. People’s love of watching activity and other people is constantly evident in cities everywhere.”

Besides her famous rows with Robert Moses, New York’s expressway-mad master builder, Jacobs aimed her most ruthless criticism at the ideas of Ebenezer Howard — the late 19th century utopian planner who envisioned a low-density, town-country hybrid “Garden City” separating residences, industry, and agriculture — and Swiss architect Le Corbusier, whose “Radiant City” schemes of Internationalist-style towers-in-the-park living became the archetype for public housing projects throughout the U.S. and especially in East Germany and the Soviet Union.

Jacobs stayed at work well into her 80s; her last book, Dark Age Ahead (Random House, 2004) lamented the breakdown of communities and families (“families rigged to fail”), society’s emphasis on credentials rather than education, and the mass amnesia associated with dark ages, where even the memory of what was lost is lost. “When Portland, Oregon, bought some [streetcars] recently, it had to order them from the Czech Republic,” she writes, “because the U.S. streetcar manufacturing industry, once the largest and most technologically advanced in the world, no longer exists.” Indeed, an often-mentioned theme in Dark Age Ahead is the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy, in which streetcar systems were torn up in 146 jurisdictions throughout North America. Many young people living in those places today might not be aware that streetcars once served their streets; even if they are aware, they might not know how extensive were those systems. (How many Winnipeggers today know our city streets once enjoyed over 200 kilometres of streetcar lines?)

At the time of her death, Jacobs was at work on two manuscripts, but they are sure to find their way to print. Her body may have passed, but her ideas have more life than ever.

Category: Editorial and Opinions
Uniform subject(s): Real estate industry; Architecture and urban planning