Article Robert Fulford

Radical Dreamer

Jane Jacobs on the streets of Toronto

There are only a few true originals living among us at any given moment, and in 1997 Jane Jacobs is one of them. Observe her walking the streets of the Annex, near the Albany Avenue house where she's lived since 1970. The sage of urbanism, the philosopher of everyday life, the inspiration of the Jane Jacobs: Ideas that Matter conference in October, she looks like a magnificent old eagle surveying her domain. At the age of eighty-one, she moves more slowly than she once did, but there's still determination in her gait and a sharp curiosity in her gaze. But what's going on in her mind?


Jane Jacobs at her home in Toronto -

Well, she may be conducting a silent discussion with a figure from history, an inner dialogue that can tell us something about her life's work. The man she's talking with is probably Benjamin Franklin, the 18th-century American statesman and philosopher. Jane has made a habit of carrying on imaginary conversations since the early 1920s, when she was a little girl in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Sometimes, bored by an errand she was running for her mother, she would talk with Thomas Jefferson, explaining to him whatever they encountered on their walk. "This continued," she recalled recently, "until I exhausted my meagre knowledge of what would interest Jefferson. He always wanted to get into abstractions--not the real Jefferson, of course, but Jefferson as I imagined him. I felt that I should explain everything in lofty terms. It became boring, because I was bored with myself. But then Jefferson was replaced in my affections by Franklin."

He was the perfect choice. Benjamin Franklin, in fact, is an intellectual ancestor of Jane Jacobs: he was the founder of American pragmatism, a philosopher who based much of his thinking on personal, practical observations. "Like Jefferson, he was interested in lofty things, but also in more nitty-gritty, down-to-earth details," she told me during a recent conversation, "such as why the alley we were walking through wasn't paved, and who would pave it if it were paved. He was interested in everything, so he was a very satisfying companion."

Franklin has been with her ever since. She once told an American reporter, "He asks very good questions. He's rather shocked with the way women are dressed, but he gets used to it. I explain how the traffic lights work." In her writing Jane works through difficult ideas in simple terms, for which many of us are deeply grateful. But it wasn't until many years after I first read her work that I learned how she developed this talent--by practising on Ben Franklin.

A few decades ago she acquired another inner companion, who came to her through Alfred Duggan, an English historical novelist. Duggan's books introduced her to Cerdic, a Saxon chieftain who founded the kingdom of Wessex in the sixth century. Over the years, Jane has studied contemporary life by explaining it to Cerdic. Sometimes she speaks with him while doing housework. By knowing him, she knows how one century can look at another. "There were only two things in the entire house that were familiar to him -- the fire (although he didn't understand the chimney), and the sword," the latter being a souvenir of the American civil war. "Everything else had to be explained to him."

On the bookcase above Jane as she talked there was a small plaster bust of Jefferson, given to her last year when she received the Jefferson Medal for architecture at the University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded. That was a moment of particular happiness for Jane, not only because Virginia's decision to give the prize to a non-architect acknowledged the lasting value of her most famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), but also because her doctor father, and her brothers, graduated from that great university, and she knew its famous campus when she was a teenager. She herself didn't attend university, however. She graduated from high school without paying much attention to the lessons ("Instead of listening in class, I always had something much more interesting I was reading under the desk") and then went on to an apprenticeship in journalism. That soon took her to New York and what was, in its early years, a spotty, Depression-era career in freelance writing.

As we spoke, one afternoon in August, there was a presence much stronger than Jefferson's in the room with us--her late husband, Bob, otherwise Robert Hyde Jacobs, a distinguished architect, a specialist in hospital design, who died a year ago. They met at a party the twenty-seven-year old Jane Butzner and her two roommates gave at their apartment in Greenwich Village in 1944. Bob was an aircraft designer and Jane had a government job in the Office of War Information. At the party, as Jane has said, "It was as if Cupid had shot that arrow." They met in April, they married in May. Their life partnership lasted 52 years and produced three children. In her writing, which grew more serious and focused after she joined the staff of Architectural Forum, he was coach and cheerleader; she believes there would have been no books without his encouragement. And it was Bob who decided that the family should move from New York to Toronto in 1968; that was after both their sons said they would go to jail rather than serve in the Vietnam war.

As the house on Albany Avenue shows, Bob's design sense was as practical and original as Jane's writing. For instance, built-in drawers holding silverware open onto both the kitchen and the dining room: after washing, the silver goes into the drawers on the kitchen side, and it comes out of the drawers on the dining room side when it's needed--an obvious idea, but new to me. Their house is also the only one I know with a telephone booth. When five people were living there, and everybody wanted privacy, and Bob didn't like hearing half a conversation, he built a glass-walled, mainly soundproof booth that surrounds the phone.

Jane's responses to urban settlement--expressed in Death and Life, in The Economy of Cities, in Cities and the Wealth of Nations, and in thousands of conversations--are both radical and highly personal. To be radical means to go to the root, and her style is to examine the roots of life at ground level. She likes street life, people sitting on porches, short blocks, diversity, informality, old-fashioned neighbourhoods, high density, and different types of buildings, old and new, business and residence, in roughly the same place.

She hates pessimism and defeatism. She's said, "Let's remember that it's always the best of times and the worst of times." She's doesn't like grandeur, she doesn't like complicated plans drawn up by bureaucrats, and she has an aversion to big institutions. She's been a fierce critic of Ontario Hydro for many years. Her friends tend to be on the left in politics, but she's no socialist. She's attracted to entrepreneurs, people who create wealth for themselves and others, who see a need and imagine how it might be filled. One thinker she blames for pervasive bigness is J. K. Galbraith, the Canadian-born Harvard economist who has been widely influential in several countries, including Canada. If you ask her about how we perceive the economy today, and about young people who imagine they will never have good jobs, she goes back to Galbraith. "Galbraith believed that big organizations (big businesses, big unions, big governments) were the economy and would provide the jobs. But it is now clear that it is not big institutions that create the jobs. I think part of this feeling that there are no jobs is a hangover of the notion that workers are passive beneficiaries of big organizations. Actually, that's a false picture of the economy--and it always was. What is realized now is that lots of people have to provide their own jobs. No one else will provide jobs for them. But that has always been true in any growing, successful economy. And that's what's happening now. I'm amazed at how many people create jobs for themselves."

Her thinking has influenced city planners in many countries and cities, but her influence has been felt most deeply into her adopted city of Toronto. The events of this autumn are an act of gratitude for the leadership she has given planners, architects, politicians and community activists in Toronto for nearly three decades. One part of the tribute will be a small exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Urban Visions: Jane Jacobs Reflects on Images of the City, in which she'll comment on various art works representing city life (such as Dennis Burton's famous print on the uses of the Spadina expressway).

The main conference, Jane Jacobs: Ideas that Matter will run from October 15 to 19 and bring together thinkers and activists from all over the world, to explore everything from new forms of city planning to the ethical issues involved in everyday work. Appropriately, it will take place all over the city, in Jacobsian locations--as the organizers say, in "the streets, valleys, community halls, parks and cafes of Toronto." Each morning begins at the Music Hall on the Danforth, but afternoon workshops will take place just about everywhere. On Saturday night there'll be a dinner focused on something new in menus--biographical cuisine, foods representing the life of Jane Jacobs in its many phases, beginning with the consumption of West Village Dry Martinis, which Jane and friends made hastily in their New York activist days (pour gin into glass, add olive and two drops of dry vermouth, insert ice cubes, stir with forefinger).

It will be, in other words, an exploration of her personality as well as her thought, the two being intimately linked. It will treat her as a heroine of modern urban life and a leader in contemporary thought--but also as a human being who would be attractive and engaging even if she never wrote a word. It will also be a celebration of Toronto's many splendours, on which Jane can be eloquent. She believes Toronto gives itself far too little credit and tries too hard to emphasize its failures. "We have got a marvellous city--yet people hardly ever feel they can talk about it without emphasizing the problems." No doubt problems will appear on the agenda of Ideas that Matter, but the conference will be mainly focused on solutions. Like the life of Jane Jacobs.