Jane Jacobs’ obituary
Very nice job with the tribute to Jane Jacobs.
Michael E. Lloyd
This is one of the best articles that I have ever read. Good work, Don.
R D Larson
Thank you, Mike and R D. Good words go a long way. But consider the source: I am only a messenger...
Saw the obituary summary of Jane Jacobs. Very good. She is indeed a great person. I couldn’t more agree with what she has to say about cities. She has a feminine-maternal way of understanding the reality of city life. If Gandhi and Charlie Chaplin had known her I’m sure they would be completely in agreement with what she has to say.
In fact I personally always thought that cities need to have a clean face — which means free of the slums and the beggars and the lumpen poor. but Jane Jacobs makes you think. The dream cities we imagine are more imaginary than real. It’s the poor who give character to the cities. I intend to read more of her one of these days.
Gandhi’s philosophy is relatively well known in the West. Paradoxically, perhaps, Charlie Chaplin’s is much less so, probably because political debate was stifled during the Cold War and he had to take refuge in Europe.
Jane Jacobs’ ideas are political, of course, but not in any conventional sense. Politicians talk in terms of power while she describes how cities and economies function organically and how politics either helps or hinders their natural function.
In my view, if poverty is defined as some people having less money than others, the word becomes meaningless: some people will always have less money than others. So what? However, destitution — such as homelessness — is not merely a problem, it’s a crisis: ignoring it causes a cascade of further ills, such as disease and violence. Societies, too, become morally destitute — and headed for a dark age — when private opulence is purchased at the price of public squalor.
My neighborhood is an older one and is zoned for “mixed use,” namely a combination of homes and small businesses. The newer parts of town are the opposite: tract developments for residential use only. I consider them “suburban slums”: the housing is so bleakly uniform that it resembles barracks; the only access is by automobile, and a simple errand to the grocery store costs more in gasoline than whatever one buys. As the price of transportation inexorably increases, it’s obvious what will happen to relative property values.
But Jane Jacobs takes a philosophical view that frequently catches the reader unawares. And her gentle personal style conceals what is often scalpel-sharp irony. I’ll provide two examples:
She predicts that the suburban tracts will eventually have to open themselves up to all that goes into making a community, such as the small businesses and city parks they now lack. When that happens, she says, what I think looks ugly now may come to be seen as quaint, the way 19th-century Victorian-style homes were once scorned but are now admired by tourists as one of San Francisco’s most charming architectural landmarks.
A CBC radio program, “Ideas,” I think it was, hosted a symposium where Dark Age Ahead was debated by eminent economists and sociologists. At the end, when Jane Jacobs was offered the chance to comment, I thought she might point out how her critics had not only failed to rebut the points she’d made, they hadn’t even understood them.
But not so. True to form, Jane Jacobs saw farther. One could imagine the twinkle in her eye as she replied that when she was young, she’d had no patience for professions of faith in the supernatural, but with age she had come to realize that some people derived comfort from them.
Such a kind response and yet how devastatingly accurate: she’d been saying “Here are the facts and what they mean.” Her critics had done little more than appeal to Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.
Oh, and the tourists? Today’s suburbia is already a century out of date. And does the architecture have a style to match the color and intricacy of the Victorian? We’ll let the tourists of the future decide.
You’re in for a thought-provoking treat in exploring the works of a most unusual and perceptive mind,