An urban legend

SANDRA MARTIN October 20 1997

An urban legend

SANDRA MARTIN October 20 1997

An urban legend



The late afternoon sun filters through the autumn leaves and rests for a gentle moment on Jane Jacobs’s face as she savors a mouthful of Tyler pudding, a concoction of eggs, granulated sugar, milk and a little flour baked in a pie crust. At 81, with her chalk-white bob and her long, loose body shrouded in baggy trousers and oversize sweater, Jacobs could pass for a kindly cabbage patch grandmother, if it were not for the magpie-alert eyes behind her horn-rimmed glasses.

Like the fictional sleuth Miss Marple, Jane Jacobs watches, picks up bits and pieces of information, and then makes sense of the world. Except she does it for real, in books such as the cult classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The lessons from that one book—that cities are ecosystems that can be smothered by rigid, authoritarian planning, that busy, lively sidewalks help cities thrive as safe, healthy places, that good urban design mixes work, housing, and recreation—have influenced a generation of planners and architects since it was first published in 1961.

Jacobs smiles and nods her head in satisfaction at the sweetness of Tyler pudding. “It’s got a family history to it,” she says, explaining that the recipe was given to her mother as a young bride in 1909 by her new mother-in-law, along with the advice: “Do make it for him often.” Eventually, Tyler pudding became a family tradition, and now Jacobs herself is taste-testing it. The pudding will be mass-produced and served on Oct. 18 at the closing banquet of “Ideas That Matter,” a month-long celebration of her work as an urban activist, grassroots economist and moral philosopher. “I’m flabbergasted,” she says of the Toronto event. “The way I look at it is that I’m kind of an excuse for a lot of people to get together who ought to know each other and ought to know what each other is doing.”

Billed as an “International gathering to create and share knowledge,” Jane Jacobs: Ideas that Matter began Sept. 20. It culminates this week in an organic mix of lectures, films, publication of a book about her life, dinners, walks, debates, exhibitions, conversations, garden tours, community events, even canoeing down the city’s historic Hum-

ber River—-virtually anything that relates to livable cities, human ecology, self-organizing systems, economic life and the social fabric. There is only one rule and it came from Jane Jacobs herself: no windbags.

The notion of a gigantic Sixties-style happening was hatched in a conversation early in 1996 between millionaire business philanthropist Alan Broadbent and former Toronto mayor John Sewell. Jacobs agreed as long as the celebration was self-funding, non-profit and focused on her work, not her. Public issues consultant Mary Rowe was hired to co-ordinate. Now, Rowe is worried that Ideas may be turning Jane into a celebrity and “she will hate that.” Says Rowe: “She told me she decided years ago that you could be a celebrity or you could work and she decided to work.”

Jacobs works where she lives in a three-storey brick house in Toronto’s Annex area, a tree-lined residential pocket on the edge of the University of Toronto and half a block from the hurly-burly of Bloor Street. The house was built at the turn of the century, but its interior design dates from the early 1970s when Jacobs, her late husband Bob Jacobs (a hospital architect), and their three kids, Ned, Jimmy and Bürgin, made it their home.

The dominant ground floor space is an open concept dining-room and kitchen. Ghosts inhabit this room, making their presence felt in the lengthening shadows. Around the table, people have plotted to stop the Spadina Expressway, eaten family dinners, and argued about how to live and work on this planet. Here, too,

Jane Jacobs has sat reading stacks of newspapers, scissors in one hand as she clips the arcane examples and telling anecdotes that she knits together into crazy quilt patterns that define economic and social behavior.

Interviewing her can be daunting. Questions hang limply in the air, like yesterday’s balloons,

I d while she thinks through her responses. It is like watching a mainframe computer crank up and then sort through a million or so file cards, crossreferencing here, double-checking a fact there, before delivering an answer that is concise, elegant and usually irrefutable. Does she think Ideas that Matter is turning her into an icon rather than a person? “That’s absurd,” she retorts after a reflective pause. “I’m not an icon and I know it. And I’m a person and I know that too,” she adds and helps herself to another mouthful of Tyler pudding.

The person who is Jane Jacobs was born in Scranton, Pa., on May 4,1916, a year before the United States entered the First World War. After high school she trained as a stenographer and began working as a reporter on the local newspaper. While the Depression was grinding on, she moved to New York City, sold a few articles on working districts of the city to Vogue, and decided at age 22 to go to Columbia University. She lasted two years and went back to working as a writer and editor.

In 1944, before the Second World War ended, she married Bob Jacobs. Theirs was a marriage of fabled devotion that lasted more than 50 years and ended with his death from cancer in 1996. “Sure I miss him,” she says simply. It was Bob’s work as an architect that led her to read the monthly magazine Architectural Forum, and then to work there, first as an associate and then as a senior editor. An article on downtowns for Fortune magazine caught the attention of The Rockefeller Foundation, which offered her a grant in 1958 to write about cities. Two grants and three years later, she produced the manuscript for The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

“It was like somebody had taken blinds off my eyes,” says Toronto architect Eberhard H. Zeidler of the Zeidler Roberts Partnership. “I began to think about the way people react to city environments. It made a tremendous amount of sense.” Colin Vaughan, former architect and alderman, and now a political reporter for City-TV in

Toronto, says: “I was, and still am, an unabashed modernist as far as buildings are concerned, but she changed my mind about the concept of the city—from thinking of it as a machine to seeing it as a livable space and a complex ecosystem.”

Urban mythology depicts Jane Jacobs as a contemporary Joan of Arc who singlehandedly defeated armies of city planners and developers in New York and then moved north to vanquish the forces of evil as they were about to plunge an expressway into the heart of middle-class Toronto. On the contrary, she moved to Canada in 1968 with her husband and three children because the Vietnam War was escalating and their two sons were close to draft age. Zeidler, whose firm had just started working on what would become the Health Sciences Centre at McMaster University in Hamilton, remembers hearing that there was a good hospital architect in New York who was looking for a job in Canada. It turned out to be Bob Jacobs and Zeidler hired him. “He was a very great guy,” says Zeidler, “and we all loved him.”

The Jacobs family rented accommodation on Spadina Road, not realizing their new home was smack in the path of the proposed Spadina Expressway. That road, if built, would have poured traffic from the suburbs into the urban core by gouging a multi-lane trench through ravines and leafy residential neighborhoods. By writing a newspaper article castigating city planners for attempting to “Los Angelize” Toronto, “the most hopeful and healthy city in North America, still unmangled, still with options,” Jacobs galvanized a group of local citizens into forming Stop Spadina, a protest in which Jacobs played a major role as a political strategist. “It didn’t surprise me that people in Toronto didn’t want to see their city murdered by this kind of thing,” she says. “It’s the way people felt in a lot of places.” Now, with the expressway just an ugly memory, Jacobs says she gets involved in neighborhood fights because she cares about her family and her community—“there is nothing wrong with self-interest,” she explains.

But she writes books for a different reason. Writing is her form of thinking. “My first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was about very smallscale things—neighborhoods and streets—the immediate things and what you learn from them,” she says in slow, deliberate sentences. She never intended one book to spawn the next, like ripples emanating from a pebble dropped into a still pond, but that is what has happened. ‘You might call it an organic growth of books,” she says.

“I get a subject that I’m curious about,” she goes on. Then she collects information. At some point it seems to make a pattern, but how or why she can’t say. She is very suspicious of the pattern because it is easy to pick out things that fit and ignore the things that do not. “Islands seem to be wonderful places for building great cities,” she offers by way of an example. “Look at Manhattan, look at Hong Kong. Then you think of all the islands that don’t have great cities and then you think of all the great cities that aren’t on islands and then you say, Wait a minute.’ ”

Death and Life led logically into thinking about a city as an economic unit—The Economy of

A monthlong event celebrates the singular work of Jane Jacobs

Cities (1969). And that made her wonder “how cities affect other places and what happens to the regions around cities and to other regions that don’t have cities. So that became Cities and the Wealth of Nations [1984].” These books attacked the supply and demand development theories of the academic establishment and argued that cities have always been the creative centres of all real economic growth.

They found a supporter in Robert Lucas, the Chicago economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1995. As far back as 1988, he declared he was “following the lead of Jane Jacobs” in what became his groundbreaking work on the economic value of human skills and knowledge—what economists call human capital—especially in the way groups of people interact within cities.

Jacobs most recent book, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics (1992), began as the last chapter in Cities and the Wealth of Nations. Essentially, she is saying that human beings satisfy their needs in two radically different ways. Like all the other animals, human beings scavenge, grab what they need, and defend what is theirs; unlike all the other animals, though, they also trade and produce for trade. As a society, humans are made up of guardians (or defenders) and traders, and both groups operate according to entirely separate, but equally valid systems of morals and values. In Systems, she points out the diabolical problems that organizations, institutions and governments run into when they confuse guardian and trading values in what she calls “monstrous hybrids.” Public subsidies to farming and fishing are examples of “government getting into things which are basically commercial and making monopolies of them,” she says.

An unusual admirer of Jacobs’s work is Dee W. Hock, of Pescadero, Calif., founder of VISA International. A former banker and a visionary writer seem an unlikely mix, but Hock and Jacobs intersect in their refusal to kowtow to orthodox thinking and in their innate understanding that cities and corporations are complex systems that cannot

thrive under authoritarian command and control management policies. “I wish I’d met her years ago,” says the man known as Mr. Visa. “We have a tremendous amount to talk about.”

Jacobs started with the importance of sidewalks and mixed-use neighborhoods to the health of the city, and Hock with barriers blocking the spread of a universal credit card—the banks that issue Visa cards are fierce competitors, yet if they were going to persuade consumers around the world to use the card and merchants to accept it, they needed to co-operate on marketing and payment exchange systems. Both Jacobs and Hock imagined complex systems in which self-interest and co-operation combine in ways that are coherent and cohesive and yet diverse.

Hock calls them “chaordic”—a word he coined to describe an entity that is simultaneously chaotic and orderly. The most concrete example of a commercially successful chaordic organization is VISA itself, a $1.4-trillion enterprise, growing annually at more than 20 per cent, in which 20,000 financial institutions in more than 200 countries co-operate to serve a billion consumers. Where VISA falls short as a universal metaphor is that it involves only one network

and it operates in a manner that is not necessarily socially beneficial. Hock is missing Ideas because of scheduling problems. “I’d love to be there,” he says. “This audience would understand what I’m talking about

and I think I could have given great validity to Jane’s work. The problem—and I’ve been through this—is that you are so alone.”

Maybe loneliness is an occupational hazard for some thinkers, but nobody is more rooted in the community than Jane Jacobs. “When I first heard of her,” says Zeidler, who has been a friend for 30 years, “I had the idea she was a firebrand, and then when I met her we exchanged cooking recipes. Sure the work is a lonely business—you are alone with your concept and you have to work it out—but she is a very warm person and it is from that perspective that she sees the world.”

Meanwhile Jacobs lives alone in her empty nest. Her eldest son, Jim, is a partner in a high-tech firm in Toronto making ceramic cutting tools and batteries. Ned is a singer/composer of children’s operas in Vancouver, and Bürgin is an artist in New Denver, B.C. All are married with families and lives of their own. As with children, so with books. “You write a book and you send it out in the world and it’s got to look after itself,” she says. Does it bother her that of her six books, most people only know the first one, Death and Life? No. “The main reward my books give me is the luxury of being able to figure out something that puzzled me. I’m not a missionary or evangelist. I’m just a writer and I like to understand things. If my books are useful for other people in understanding things, that’s fine. But it is not ideas alone that can stop injustice, oppression and idiocies like urban renewal or slum clearance. It is people who have to do that.” □