1 didn’t inherit a great wish to be an activist i was pushed into it by things that were just so outrageous.’
IT’S LATE MAY. The sun is out, restaurant patios are filling up nicely. Toronto is having Jane Jacobs kind of day. On bustling Bloor Street, university kids on rollerblades and Asian women in saris glide by each other in gentle pantomime. On the leafy side street, neighbours chat from their porches. It’s as if the city is breathing from every pore.
Inside her nearby, semi-detached home, life is calmer but no less natural. Jacobs is 86 now, a lioness in winter. She moves about slowly in the cool darkened house where the furniture is simple, functional and slightly bohemian, not unlike the woman herself. Bookshelves, naturally, dominate almost every room. Some are even held up, student Tike, by concrete blocks. This is the anthropologist of everyday life in her lair. Time has slowed her gait but not her curiosity, that famous impish smile or the confident way she still smacks aside the dead hand of expert opinion. Visitors are welcome. But she is happily spending her day banging away on an old green Remington, writing a new foreword for the Mark Twain classic Innocents Abroad. She is amused at the notion that the title might just capture her own quite fascinating life.
It’s been 34 years since the U.S.-born Jacobs and her late husband Robert, an architect, herded their cubs, a 13-year-old daughter and two draft-age boys, north to Toronto to escape the military madness of the Vietnam War. “Driving up here, we made up our minds as a family that we were immigrants, not exiles,” she says. “And in many ways I felt more at home here. I liked Toronto immediately.” And it returned the favour.
Liking Toronto, of course, is hardly a Canadian trait, but the doctor’s daughter from Scranton, Pa., is happily contrarian in any event, adventurous too. She took herself off to Greenwich Village in the midst of the Depression, determined to be a writer. She ended up instead sparking an entire movement. A journalist at first and resolutely self-taught, Jacobs authored five books on the fits and foibles of urban planning—beginning with The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961—that have become almost sacred texts. Her writings—pure Twain-like observations— inspired planners from Japan to central Europe and cast her as the den mother of urban activists everywhere, a role that has been both an honour and a burden.
“I didn’t inherit a great wish to be an activist,” she says now. “I was pushed into it by things that were just so outrageous. And I always resented that because it took time away from what I really wanted to do, which was writing.” Still, from her first battle in the early 1960s, to stop a traffic route through Washington Square in lower Manhattan, to the fight against the proposed downtown Spadina expressway in Toronto a decade later, to a community debate over one-way streets in her neighbourhood a few years ago, Jacobs has imbibed some important lessons. One is that expressways are a contradiction in terms. The more fundamental lesson, of course, is her oft-stated, once-radical view that cities are “organic, spontaneous and untidy,” not unlike the behaviour of their best citizens on a sunny spring day. Even those in a quiet upstairs room gently tossing bricks at bigness and conformity.
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