A column by Lisa Rochon of The Globe and Mail explores how best to remember Jane Jacobs. The piece (sub required)…
“Jane Jacobs, we miss you. We miss the sound of your deep voice, the way it crackled and stunned a room with wisdom. We miss seeing you in your blue-jean dress, your determined figure bent over a cane. We miss the power of your gaze, shining out from behind your dark-framed glasses.
Jane Jacobs, you wrote the book on how to live with urban dignity. You provided a philosophy that rejected schemes of expressways and impersonal towers, and made us believe in the rough-hewn order of neighbourhoods. You guided and legitimized the work of those fighting poverty, homelessness and the devastation of heritage. You gave us the words to defend self-organized economies and city states.
When you moved to Toronto in 1968, we were quick to claim you as our urban philosopher — as a Canadian citizen, as our Jane. But months have passed since your death on April 25, and little has been done to remember you.
There was an impromptu memorial at Dooney’s Café in the Annex, a local joint in your neighbourhood that you helped to save from the clutches of Starbucks.
And there was gentle send-off at a downtown church organized by your friend John Sewell. But how slow we have been to seriously honour your work, your
influence, your name.
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared June 28, 2006, Jane Jacobs Day. And there was a memorial at Washington Square, that great place of spontaneous human gatherings, which you helped to save by preventing the lower Manhattan Expressway. There are panels to discuss your work, and author Roberta Gratz has established the Center for the Living City in NYC to promote your ideas about architecture of difference, texture and human scale.
So, Jane, what would you like us to do? Toronto and, indeed, the rest of Canada have been politely, respectfully, almost eerily quiet. Where are the discussion
groups and the think tanks?
Perhaps — given Jacobs’s penetrating insights and knack for observing the dubious intentions of institutions, this is the safest route to follow — and the one that the protocol office at the City of Toronto has embraced. And time has been allowed to drift along. In the summer, Toronto architect Terry Montgomery quietly purchased Jacobs’s house on Albany Avenue in her beloved Annex neighbourhood; renovations have already started. A new kitchen and bathrooms will be inserted and some of the ivy cloaking the front of the house has been cut back to allow for electrical upgrading. The people in the city are moving on. But, something needs to be done to keep our conversation alive with Jacobs.
Best not to contemplate naming a building after Jacobs. Her name could be used to raise the profile of a slightly wonky institution or soften the blow of an ordinary design. “She felt that getting things named after you was a double-edged sword,” her son, Jim Jacobs, says from his home in Toronto. “Better to have your name on a book and if it was no good, then that was your own fault.”
Given Jacobs’s work to stop the Spadina Expressway, some have considered naming the new Lake Shore Boulevard after Jacobs if, in fact, the Gardiner Expressway comes down. “That would be terrible,” Jim Jacobs protests. “Jane thought that the Gardiner should not be replaced with any kind of big boulevard when it came down. She had observed that when you put up a new highway, it takes months to fill up with traffic. If you did the process in reverse, and shut down each lane one by one, the traffic would go elsewhere.”
To be sure, a physical memorial — after a war, a natural disaster or the death of a great cultural hero such as Glenn Gould — helps people remember. The problem is that it limits Jane to one neighbourhood, whereas her ideas spread from her stoop in the Annex to the world. I prefer the idea of a travelling marketplace, or naming an annual Jane Jacobs Day in which children of all ages are taught some of the fundamentals of her thinking.
Rather than a bench or a fountain or a park named in her honour, I would hope that the city might sit down with urban visionaries and Jacobs’s family and friends to hammer out a way to keep her ideas alive. Though a Jane Jacobs annual prize for individuals was started in 1997, a new award could be inaugurated for specific grassroots projects from anywhere across the country or, indeed, the world. Or there could be a memorial fund to help one small slice of the urban fringe find a sense of community. Or maybe funds in the name of Jane Jacobs could be donated by the city to start building bread-baking ovens in many parks, just as Jutta Mason, a Jane Jacobs Prize past recipient, managed remarkably for Dufferin Grove Park.
What matters is an initiative that helps us to carry on learning from Jacobs — to allow us to plunge back into her texts. A centre dedicated to her ideas and community activism could do that. A centre for urban ecology is an idea being seriously floated by her long-time friends and colleagues Margie Zeidler and Mary Rowe. Watch for it: The centre could be a fitting and natural extension of Jacobs’s work.
Jane Jacobs lived for 30 years in New York City, during which time she was imprisoned twice and led the revolt against the modern urban orthodoxy preached by New York’s senior bureaucrats. She saw her nemesis, omnipresent planner Robert Moses, only once.
It was at a hearing to protest against the planned lower Manhattan Expressway, which was to have its entrance ramp right on the site of Washington Square. Moses was appalled that a group of local citizens would dare oppose his vision for running a highway through the inner city: “There is nobody against this — NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY, but a bunch of, a bunch of MOTHERS!” And then he stomped out.
Jacobs left the United States in 1968 to settle in Toronto. She wrote her books from the quiet of her spare room at the back of the second storey. Masses of tomatoes grew on her roof. Ivy covered the front of her house, and goldenrod grew with luxurious abandon in the back and the front yards.
She rallied the troops and went on the barricades for many causes in Toronto. David Crombie remembers the moral support he received from Jane during his tenure as Toronto’s mayor. “She gave us ideas. She gave us a sense of activism to get those ideas moving and, what was most powerful of all, she was an ethicist — a mother superior. For her, city building was an ethical enterprise.”
Rather than give in to a city of anonymous, high-rise towers, Crombie pushed hard during the 1970s for innovative in-fill housing in the downtown. On one occasion, Jacobs turned up at Crombie’s house around midnight, along with geographer Jim Lemon and other friends. They had helped to pull down some of the barricades around a site designated for a pair of high-rise towers at Dundas and Sherbourne, and had stopped by the mayor’s house to let him know they were on his side.
Jane Jacobs died at the age of 89 years old, leaving unfinished one of her latest, modest projects: a short biography of the human race. It’s time now for the City of Toronto to borrow some of her brave thinking and come up with something powerful and meaningful, so that we never forget her.”