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A Decade Since Jane Jacobs’ Death

Cover of Death and Life of Great American Cities
Cover of Death and Life of Great American Cities

Ten years ago today, one of my heroes died. Jane Jacobs, author of The Death & Life of Great American Cities, was 89. Her 1961 classic was a sharp critique of Urban Renewal — the erase & replace thinking that was commonplace at the time.  New York’s Robert Moses & St. Louis’ Harland Bartholomew were among the top advocates of Urban Renewal.

At 45, she and many others directly challenged Moses’ plan to cut an interstate highway through lower Manhattan:

Jacobs chaired the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway (a.k.a. Joint Emergency Committee to Close Washington Square to Traffic, and other names), which recruited such members as Margaret Mead, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lewis Mumford, Charles Abrams, and William H. Whyte. Papers such as The New York Times were sympathetic to Moses, while the newly created Village Voice covered community rallies and advocated against the expressway. The Committee succeeded in blocking the project. On June 25, 1958, the city closed Washington Square Park to traffic, and the Joint Committee held a ribbon tying (not cutting) ceremony. Jacobs continued to fight the expressway when plans resurfaced in 1962, 1965, and 1968, and she became a local hero for her opposition to the project. She was arrested by a plainclothes police officer on April 10, 1968, at a public hearing, during which the crowd had charged the stage and destroyed the stenographer’s notes. She was accused of inciting a riot, criminal mischief, and obstructing public administration – after months of trials conducted in New York City (to which Jacobs commuted from Toronto), her charge was reduced to disorderly conduct. (Wikipedia)

Following her arrest, and in protest of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, she, her husband (an architect)  and two draft-able sons, moved to Canada. They settled in Toronto.

A few months after her death, I was in standing in front of the home where she lived in Toronto. Crying.

The following are some videos about her, some of her speaking.

Jacobs still inspires me today, I just wish I’d known of her in high school — I would’ve studied urban planning instead of architecture, in the mid-late 1980s. May 4th will mark the 100th anniversary of her birth.

— Steve Patterson


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