It’s easy enough to find her. Just stroll westward past the bookstores and cafés of Bloor Street and head north on leafy Albany Avenue. Step up to the narrow red-brick house with the big front porch, and knock on the door. There will be a shuffling, and finally you will be greeted by a little old lady with an apple-doll face and a warm smile.
Be careful, though: She isn’t what she seems. Around here she is regarded as something of a guardian angel, and a fierce one at that. People remember the days when she applied her obstinate, quietly bullish logic to the task of holding back the bulldozers that threatened to gouge much of downtown Toronto into 16-lane expressways.
She’s the lady who saved the neighbourhood. And throughout the wider world she is known as the lady who resurrected The Neighbourhood: the whole notion of the city as a good and self-sustaining entity. Her epochal 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities made millions of North Americans realize that “urban renewal” and government-planned development were hurting cities, and that bustling streets, tight-packed neighbourhoods and downtown clutter were actually good things.
Even then, she isn’t what she seems. On Wednesday, hundreds of planners, politicians, academics, architects and activists will gather in Toronto for a weeklong international conference devoted to her body of thought, titled Jane Jacobs: Ideas That Matter. Some will be shocked to discover that her vision extends far beyond urban planning and neighbourhood advocacy. Others may want to ignore the full implications of her theories, as they do not fit easily within conventional ideology — at times, they can alarm and offend even her most ardent supporters.
In a handful of carefully argued books published over the past 36 years, Jacobs has constructed one of the most significant bodies of social and economic thought of the postmodern era. From the outset, her work has confronted the stern rigidities of Enlightenment reasoning, from the imposed order of planned housing right up to the artificial unities of the nation-state and the conventions of public morality.
“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if future historians look back and say she was really one of the first positive, useful postmodernists,” said Sally Goerner, a computer scientist and psychologist who runs the Centre for the Study of Complex Systems at Duke University in North Carolina. “Her work is a real break from the reductionistic, materialistic clockwork universe. It’s a real transformation in how we look at the world.”
At 81 years of age, Jacobs shows no sign of stopping. She moves more slowly, taking careful steps through her slightly overgrown yard and her spacious, well-used kitchen. She still speaks in carefully considered phrases with a touch of the Yankee drawl she developed growing up in the coal-mining town of Scranton, Pa. She listens carefully, nodding and smiling, pauses for thought and then draws on an enormous store of knowledge and experience — years as a New York magazine writer in the thirties and forties, as an architecture critic in the fifties and as an independent scholar in recent decades.
These days she spends long hours before her typewriter, building a new plateau to the project she began at the street level in the 1950s. Her next book is an enterprise she has suggested in virtually all of her previous works: an examination of “human systems” as functioning parts of ecological systems. In other words, she is describing cities and commerce and trade as part of nature, after three centuries of thinkers have placed them in opposition to nature. Though lofty, this is an organic extension of her previous works.
“My thinking about this keeps getting more embracing,” she said in a matter-of-fact way between bites of homemade peach pie in her book-lined front room. “First I was writing about neighbourhoods, and I wrote about their economies too, because how they work has a lot to do with their life. And then I asked, ‘How does this work in cities, since they are part of cities.’ And then in Cities and the Wealth of Nations  it was how they worked within their nations. And now this is how it works in the world.”
These are very busy times for Jacobs, and deliberately so. She is working hard to fill the hole in her life left by the death last year of Robert Jacobs, her best friend, colleague and husband of 52 years (and a monumental figure in his own right, an architect who was generally acknowledged as North America’s foremost designer of hospitals). If she is grieving, she does not show it.
Her house is a constant bustle of friends, neighbours, journalists (CBC producer Max Allen is rooting around in her basement, gathering files for a biography to be published during the conference) — and an amazingly varied group of supporters.
Take a closer look at those supporters. It is easy to pigeonhole them all on the political left. After all, this is the woman who headed to Toronto from Greenwich Village in 1967 so her sons wouldn’t have to go to jail for evading the draft. This is the sly organizer of protests who once urged a Toronto mob to tear down the hoardings around a demolition site (the workers can’t proceed without a hoarding, she reasoned — and she was right). This is the woman who took on the developers and banks and the investors on behalf of little impoverished neighbourhoods, after all. It’s a left-wing thing, isn’t it?
Look again. From the beginning, the Jacobs philosophy has been about a smaller and less controlling role for government, about the triumphant powers of unfettered commerce and open trade among cities. Her theories champion the privatization of utilities, the elimination of agricultural subsidies and marketing boards and deposit insurance, the reduction of transfer payments to poor regions (which are “transactions of decline”). Her heroes do not operate in the sphere of political action, but rather, as she wrote in 1961, they are “incredible numbers of different people and different private organizations, with vastly differing ideas and purposes, planning and contributing outside the formal framework of public action.”
Though she believes that governments should police commerce and development and redistribute income to the worst-off, she has nothing but scorn for Marx and his legacy of central planning — and reserves her greatest disdain for nationalism in all its forms, especially Canadian nationalism. She has long argued that some cities should become independent economic and political bodies, and her 1980 book The Question of Separatism argued that Quebec would have a stronger and more vital economy and public life if it left Canada, as long as it minted its own currency.
She still stands by that book (“Today, parts of it seem amazingly dated,” she said, and then paused. “And parts of it don’t”), and can’t understand why people get so upset about a country splitting up into its natural economic regions: “People feel so strongly about this. I’m always taken aback. And I don’t turn up my nose at people feeling emotional about things. Emotion is valid. But I’m just surprised at how emotional people get about Quebec.”
By no means are her disciples all left-wing. Lawrence Solomon, editor of the right-wing libertarian magazine The Next City and head of Toronto’s Energy Probe, the environmental foundation that has long called for Ontario Hydro’s privatization, has a venerable and close relationship with Jacobs. She is a founding board member of Energy Probe and still supports its aims; she has credited him in her books. “In many ways the foundation is a reflection of Jane Jacobs’s ideas,” Solomon said.
At the same time, by no means are her left-wing supporters entirely comfortable with all her ideas. Even John Sewell, the former Toronto mayor who has virtually devoted his life to popularizing and realizing Jacobs’s urban-planning ideas, draws the line somewhere. “She doesn’t deal with the really big corporations and some of the troubles they cause,” he said. “But I’m willing to forgive her that for all the other wonderful things she’s done.”
Jacobs is well aware that many of her admirers have trouble accepting the full implications of her theories. “Nearly all, maybe all my books, offend some people — even people who would like to like them because they like part of them. That doesn’t worry me; I’m not trying to win a popularity contest or keep from jolting people.”
From the outset, her work has utterly disregarded the conventions of ideology and the niceties of academic writing. Perhaps this is because she lacks a formal education — although she took courses for years at Columbia University during her off hours, she has never received a degree. Or perhaps it is because she was an outsider from the beginning, a woman writing about architecture at a time when it was strictly a boys’ game.
“I have a lack of ideology, and that’s not because I’m anti-intellectual or have an animus against any particular ideology; it’s just that they don’t make sense to me,” she said. “I think they get in the way of thinking. I don’t see what use they are.”
By her account, it came all at once, in a shock of realization that ought to be remembered as one of the great epiphanies of our time. It was 1958, and she was writing for Architectural Forum. It was the age of the utopian housing project, that ultimate edifice of modernity. The most advanced form of this planning was taking place in Philadelphia, where planner Edmund Bacon was regarded as a saviour, and the magazine sent Jacobs down to check it out.
“The drawings looked wonderful with all these little people in them,” she remembered. “And I went down to see it. It was just like the picture — except all those little people weren’t in it. The only person in it, in the whole thing, for blocks, was a little boy — one lone little boy who was sort of disconsolately kicking at a tire.
“And Bacon was with me and I kept saying, ‘Where’s the people?’ And he kept saying, ‘Look at this vista. Stand here and look.’ And I said, ‘Don’t you think it’s funny that the people aren’t here? Where are they?’ … So then we went over to the old neighbourhood — just one block away. And the streets were just teeming with people. And they were sitting around on steps and they were shopping and they were talking with one another and they were all ages. And one reason there was so many of them, I soon figured out, was that all those people from over there in the new place had gone a block away… . He’d taken me [to the old neghbourhood] to show me how bad things were and what was the next thing that was going to be wiped out.”
Contained in that moment were virtually all the major observations that would shape her first book. “As my father-in-law said, sometimes you get your education awful fast. And I was getting it awful fast in between those two blocks.”
From there grew a sense that she could examine all of the modern world anew, that careful observation of its workings could yield a new set of concepts. In The Question of Separatism, she noted that much of social and political thought — and ideology — are still shot through with the ideals of the Enlightenment. “University and uniformity, as ideals, have subtly influenced how people thought about education, politics, economics, government, everything,” she wrote.
Natural scientists know otherwise. She wrote that they have found it “impossible to continue thinking of nature as a force promoting uniformity. On the contrary, what they found in nature was a force forever hostile to uniformity, a force that insisted upon diversity.” A force, in other words, much like Jacobs herself. “As you may have noticed by now,” she concluded, “that sort of view has worked a strong influence on me; it did so long before I was conscious of its source in the thinking of naturalists.”
As she prepared to return to work in this old house in the middle of a quiet neighbourhood, she marvelled at the extent to which her life has created a single, consistent and entirely novel view of the world. “I didn’t plan it that way,” she said, and suddenly it was apparent that her mind works the way she would have cities work: “One thing seemed to follow logically from another, and I just got interested in one thing after another.”
A Jane Jacobs bookshelf
The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961): Cities rely on access to sidewalks and parks, high-density housing with a mix of incomes, uses and ages of buildings, and hands-off planning.
The Economy of Cities (1969): Urban economies are based on replacement of imports with indigenous products. Cycles of trade and entrepreneurship are vital to urban life.
The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle for Sovereignty (1980): Like Norway’s separation from Sweden, Quebec’s from Canada can be good for both parties if they maintain separate currencies.
Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life (1984): National economies are in fact the economies of urban regions, and national economies work best when cities are given maximum autonomy. Backward cities should trade with one another and consider secession.
Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics (1992): Human societies rely on two distinct systems of morality: “commercial” and “guardian.” Both are vital, but troubles arise when the two are combined.
A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska: The Story of Hannah Breece (1995): Jacobs reconstructs the journals of her great aunt, part of the U.S. “civilization” of Alaska at the turn of the century, and annotates them with short essays on the civil and political life of a fledgling society.