TORONTO - Jane Jacobs was a writer, intellectual, analyst, ethicist and moral thinker, activist, self-made economist, and a fearless critic of inflexible authority.
Mrs. Jacobs died this morning in Toronto. She was 89.
An American who chose to be Canadian, Mrs. Jacobs was a leader in the fights to preserve neighbourhoods and kill expressways, first in New York City, and then in Toronto.
Her efforts to stop the proposed expressway between Manhattan Bridge on east Manhattan and the Holland tunnel on the west ended contributed toward saving SoHo, Chinatown, and the west side of Greenwich Village.
In Toronto, her leadership galvanized the movement that stopped the proposed Spadina Expressway. It would have cut a swath through the lively Annex neighbourhood and parts of the downtown.
Her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, became a bible for neighbourhood organizers and what she termed the “foot people”.
It made the case against the utopian planning culture of the times — residential high-rise development, expressways through city hearts, slum clearances, and desolate downtowns.
She believed that residential and commercial activity should be in the same place, that the safest neighbourhoods teem with life, short winding streets are better than long straight ones, low-rise housing is better than impersonal towers, that a neighbourhood is where people talk to one another. She liked the small-scale.
Not everyone agreed. Her arch-critic, Lewis Mumford, called her vision “higgledy-piggledy unplanned casualness.”
Mrs. Jacobs was seen by many of her supporters — mistakenly — as left-wing. Not so.
Her views embraced the marketplace, supported privatization of utilities, frowned on subsidies, and detested the intrusions of government, big or small.
Nor was she right-wing. In fact, she had no time for ideology.
“I think ideologies, no matter what kind, are one of the greatest afflictions because they blind us to seeing what’s going on or what’s being done,’’ she was quoted.
“I’m kind of an atheist,” she said. “As for being a rightist or a leftist, it doesn’t make any sense to me. I think ideologies are blinders.”
Mrs. Jacobs scorned nationalism and argued in her 1980 book, The Question of Separatism, that Quebec would be better off leaving Canada. Moreover, she argued that some cities would be better off as independent economic and political units.
Her view of cities startled long-held perceptions. In her 1969 book, The Economy of Cities, Mrs. Jacobs challenged the dogma of agricultural primacy and created a debate on both the economic growth and stagnation of cities.
“Current theory in many fields — economics, history, anthropology — assumed that cities are built upon a rural economic base,’’ she wrote.
“If my observations and reasonings are correct, the reverse is true: that is rural economies, including agricultural work, are directly built upon city economies and city work.”
“For me,” John Sewell, a former mayor of Toronto recalled, “the most significant influence was in terms of the notion that cities drive economies, not provincial or national governments.”
“She’s the one who propagated the thought, and I think she’s dead right.” Robert Lucas of the University of Chicago — the 1995 winner of the Nobel Prize for economics — liked Mrs. Jacob’s theories.
“I like her style,” he was quoted. “That kind of stepping back from facts and asking, what kind of economics produced this idea, is just a natural thing for an economist to do. I think everybody in economics finds her work very congenial for that reason.’’
Mrs. Jacobs was no expert, bare of established credentials had limited formal education, but was a member of that wonderful school of amateurs — American writers who were observers, critics and original thinkers, including such names as Paul Goodman, William H. Whyte, Rachel Carson, Betty Friedan and Ralph Nader.
Mrs. Jacobs, born May 4, 1916, grew up in Scranton, the center of Pennsylvania coal country.
Scranton may well have sparked Mrs. Jacob’s life-long interest in cities and how they work. It provided “a template of how a city stagnates and declines and may be part of the reason why that subject interested me so much, because I came from a city where that happened.” she was quoted.
“I think I was rather fortunate in having wonderful school teachers in the first and second grade. They taught me almost everything I knew in school.
“From the third grade on, I’m sorry to say, they were nice people, but they were dopes.’”
“I came from a family where women had worked, mostly as schoolteachers, for quite a few generations. I had a great-aunt who went to Alaska and taught Indians. My mother had worked as a schoolteacher, then a nurse; she became the night supervising nurse at an important hospital in Philadelphia,” she was quoted.
“Those were traditional women’s occupations, to be sure. But I did grow up with the idea that women could do things, and in my own family I was treated much the same as my brothers.”
Finishing high school, she trained as a stenographer but got an unpaid job as a reporter at the local newspaper. Mrs. Jacobs moved to New York City in the Depression years and wrote a few articles for Vogue.
Then, at age 22, she went to Columbia University, but that didn’t last and after two years she returned to writing. She never embraced an institutional affiliation.
David Crombie, a former may or of Toronto, described Mrs. Jacobs as a “Harvard refusenik.”
In fact, according to Crombie, she had been offered more than 30 honourary degrees and turned them all down.
“It just wasn’t her style,” Crombie said. “She didn’t see that as what she was about.”
She married Robert Jacobs in 1944. He was an architect and it was his work that got her interest in Architectural Forum, a monthly magazine, where after a short time she went to work, becoming a senior editor.
Theirs was a close relationship and a happy marriage. It was to last for 52 years before he died of lung cancer at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital, a hospital he had designed.
In 1958, after writing about downtowns for Fortune magazine, Mrs. Jacobs received a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation to write about cities. At the same time, she was creating havoc with developers, planners and politicians who wanted to put a highway through New York City.
Jason Epstein, her long-time editor at Random House and co-founder of the New York Review of Books, recalled that the proposed expressway had nothing to do with moving traffic. “It would be devastating to the city,” he said.
“The reason to build it was that it was eligible for federal highway funds because it connected New Jersey to New York.
“It meant jobs for the construction industry, lots of money for politicians and architects who benefit from those things, and probably for real estate developers who would pick up on the fringes.
“It took 12 years for Jane to finally stop this thing,” Epstein recalled. “She was arrested at one point and charged with a couple of felonies and was in serious trouble. At one point she was thrown in jail.”
In 1968, Mrs. Jacobs and her family moved to Toronto. They didn’t want their two draft-age sons, Jim and Ned, to serve in the Vietnam war.
“It never occurred to me that I would ever be anything else but American,” she was quoted. But that changed when she took part in a march on the Pentagon in 1967 and found herself facing a row of soldiers in gas masks.
“They looked like some big horrible insect, the whole bunch of them together, not human beings at all. … After a certain amount of time passed, I decided, well, that’s it. … I fell out of love with my country. It sounds ridiculous, but I didn’t feel a part of America anymore.”
Toronto was ripe for Mrs. Jacobs. She wasn’t here long before plans were revealed to build the Spadina Expressway, which promised to cut a strip through the city, making it easier for suburbanites to commute in and out of the downtown. She wrote a newspaper article highly critical of city planners for their vision to ‘Los Angelize’ what she described as “the most hopeful and healthy city in North America, still unmangled, still with options.”
In an unrequited sentiment, odd as it might seem, planners adored Jacobs. She described them this way, however. “First of all, our official planning departments seem to be brain-dead in the sense that we cannot depend on them in any way, shape or form for providing intellectual leadership in addressing urgent problems involving the physical future of the city.”
Mrs. Jacobs galvanized local citizens against the planners and politicians in what became known as the Stop Spadina movement.
“She really enjoyed the activist part,” Crombie recalled, “the strategy, the being on the streets, being at the meetings. She enjoyed meeting people, she enjoyed the vigour of activism.”
That was one facet of Mrs. Jacob’s character. Another, as Crombie put it, was Jane the ethicist.
“She had a terrific sense of the moral order,’’ he said. “She had the moral authority of an Old Testament prophet and the easy authority of a mother superior.”
For the most part, Mrs. Jacob’s books were an intellectual progression, each taking her thoughts on cities and economies a step further.
“She moved beyond planning to look at the city as economic generator,” commented Christopher Hume, urban affairs writer for The Star.
“Eschewing jargon and received wisdom, she possessed an extraordinary clarity of mind that enabled her to reveal truths so obvious they were in visible to the rest of the world.”
Epstein, the New York book editor who discovered Mrs. Jacobs as a writer of books, described her as a “shrewd” woman.
“She had that wonderful double view, trusting no one side, and suspicious of the other, which she had every reason to be. It made her mind very complex, extremely clear, strong and vigourous.”
As well as The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The Economy of Cities, and The Question of Separatism, Mrs. Jacobs wrote other books, including: Cities and the Wealth of Nations; The Girl on the Hat, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue; A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska; The Hannah Breece Story; The Nature of Economies; and Dark Age Ahead.
Mrs. Jacobs was taken aback that her book The Question of Separatism was not well received by some Canadians. She wrote that Quebec would be better off and more vital economy outside of Canada.
“I don’t turn up my nose at people feeling emotional about things,” she was quoted.
“Emotion is valid. But I’m surprised at how emotional people get about Quebec.”
Her story of A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska is a book about her great aunt in turn-of-the century Alaska. The Girl on the Hat, written for her grand child, Caitlin, is the story of a resourceful girl named Tina who is two inches tall.
The central premise of her book, The Nature of Economies, is that economics is a web of connected forces subject to the same laws as all other living things in nature.
At the time in March, 2000, she told The Star’s Judy Stoffman: “This will be a radical idea to those who think of human beings as being outside nature. Human beings are neither adversaries of or the inevitable masters of nature. They live by the same processes as all nature.”
Following the death of her husband, Mrs. Jacobs continued to live in her three-storey brick house on Albany Ave., a tree-lined street in the Annex neighbourhood she helped preserve.
She wrote in an upstairs office on a typewriter, refusing to use a computer. A son, Jim, an inventor, lived close by and another son, Ned, worked for the Vancouver Parks Board and is a musician, and a daughter Burgin, is an artist and lives in New Denver. B.C.
The shelves of her study were not filled with books about economics or cities, but with writings on chaos theory and the sciences, subjects which stimulated her own thinking.
Shortly after writing The Nature of Economies, she was quoted as saying: “I think I’m living in a marvellous age when great change is occurring. We now see that there is no straight-line cause and effect; things are connected by webs.
“This understanding comes from advances in the life-sciences, and it opens up the possibility of understanding all kinds of things we haven’t understood before. I think it’s very exciting.”
As for her own life, she said the following: “Really, I’ve had a very easy life.
“By easy I don’t mean just lying around, but I haven’t been put upon, really. And it’s been luck mostly. Being brought up in a time when women weren’t put down, that’s luck. Being in a family where I wasn’t put down, that’s luck. Finding the right man to marry, that’s the best luck! Having nice children, healthy children, that’s luck.
“All these lucky things.”