Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

AdChoices
Author Jane Jacobs responds to a question during an interview in Toronto, May 12, 2004. When promoting Dark Age Ahead, urban expert Jane Jacobs made not discussing her earlier work a condition of the interview. She says people tend to review her first book over and over again. (ADRIAN WYLD)
Author Jane Jacobs responds to a question during an interview in Toronto, May 12, 2004. When promoting Dark Age Ahead, urban expert Jane Jacobs made not discussing her earlier work a condition of the interview. She says people tend to review her first book over and over again. (ADRIAN WYLD)

Was Jane Jacobs a saint? Add to ...

Jane Jacobs got a rough ride in her old home town on the occasion of her death three years ago at the age of 89, beginning with a waspish assessment in The New York Times and culminating with the opening, less than a year later, of an influential exhibition celebrating the achievements of Robert Moses, the legendary city builder whom the writer and urban activist famously took on and brought down before leaving New York for Toronto in 1968.

"At least he got it built!" declared Eliot Spitzer, then on his way to being elected state governor, summing up nostalgia for the can-do age that Mr. Moses dominated, when New York produced great public works at an astonishing rate. And it was the sainted Jane Jacobs, others added, who ruined the dream of a great metro- polis by empowering the "not in my backyard" naysayers.

Ms. Jacobs merely gave "an eloquent voice to Greenwich Village chauvinism," Moses scholar Joel Schwartz wrote in Robert Moses and the Modern City, a book of essays accompanying the exhibition. Her real concern was Democratic Party politics and the result was "a selfish NIMBYism," he charged, ridiculing the myth of "Saint Jane and the Dragon."

With no wisdom more widely received than the commandments Jane Jacobs had laid down almost 50 years earlier in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, revision was inevitable. The most pointed critic of all was an unidentified caller to a New York radio show, Jacobs biographer Anthony Flint says. "He said, 'You know, Jane Jacobs enabled hipsters in Greenwich Village and New Jersey shoppers in SoHo. But there are still workers living in the houses Robert Moses built.' "

It happens that there are still workers living in Toronto's now-fashionable St. Lawrence neighbourhood, a pioneering, mixed-income housing project built in the 1970s with the enthusiastic support of Ms. Jacobs. Remembering only the dragon-slayer, New Yorkers remain unaware of the vital role she played as a promoter of respectful, socially inclusive urban renewal in her adopted country. She disappeared from the U.S. view at the same time as federal funding for affordable housing dried up, and somehow got the blame.

OUT OF SIGHT ...

Like other U.S. accounts, Mr. Flint's new book, Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City, ends abruptly with its heroine's flight from New York in the aftermath of an arrest for disorderly conduct - the price she paid for almost single-handedly preventing another Moses expressway from destroying what is now several billion dollars' worth of historic property in Lower Manhattan.

But there is more than metropolitan arrogance at play in the dragon-slayer debate. Wrestling with Moses shows the struggle was not only the great drama of her life, it was a seminal confrontation of the world-changing 1960s.

A former Boston Globe reporter who now directs public affairs for the Lincoln Land Institute, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass., Mr. Flint made good use of the Jacobs papers, which are held by Boston College. His fresh approach to the material gives Moses his due, but the ending is conclusive - a truly dangerous dragon dead and the bloodied mother forced to do the deed returning modestly to life as a writer, her success a shining light for every grassroots activist who followed in whatever cause.

Is Jane Jacobs a saint? The question may seem absurd, but Mr. Flint considers it carefully. "She didn't suffer fools, that's for sure," he says. "She was a pretty tough cookie. She did not enjoy any kind of celebrity." As well, he writes, she spurned biographers and never stopped resenting big, bad government for forcing her to devote so much time to opposing its depredations.

But he admits there is no "dark side" visible in his account, which is above all a portrait of amazing courage.

WORDS NOT ENOUGH

The climax of Wrestling with Moses occurs at a public meeting in 1968, with officials presenting the Lower Manhattan Expressway as a done deal, and a crowd clamouring for Ms. Jacobs. She answered the call with a devastating critique of the proceedings, and then destroyed the official transcript of the event, an act of civil disobedience that delayed the plan and brought the session to a chaotic end. She left in a squad car, but the project never recovered.

Her audacity was electrifying, Mr. Flint says. Shunning the credentials them considered the coin of the realm, a woman alone in an arena dominated by men, she prevailed with intellectual force. "I really admire the way she had such confidence in her intellect, so much so to stand up like that and not be cowed in any way," he says.

Mr, Flint also shows her as the seminal tactician of the new politics, a pioneer of attention-grabbing stunts. She prefigured Greenpeace by a decade when she staged a "ribbon-tying ceremony" to protest against a Moses plan for a road through Washington Square Park. She cultivated reporters and rewarded photographers by pushing her children into the foreground of every protest. "She was very savvy," Mr. Flint says. "She was the master of the photo-op. I like to say she was the Karl Rove of the 50s and 60s."

Her key insight as a tactician, he reveals, was the danger of compromise. Again and again he shows her warning citizen groups and wavering politicians against bargaining that implicitly welcomed the megaprojects being opposed. If anything inspired the eventual excesses of NIMBYism, it was her sheer implacability. But she was right, and it worked.

Wrestling with Moses shows that Ms. Jacobs' politics were equally consistent, her earliest beliefs set down in an indignant reply she made to a federal committee that had inquired about her suspected Communist sympathies at the height of the Red scare in 1952.

"I was brought up to believe there is no virtue in conforming meekly to the dominant opinion," she wrote back. "I was brought up to believe that simple conformity results in stagnation for a society, and that American progress has been largely owing to the opportunity for experimentation, the leeway given initiative, and to a gusto and a freedom for chewing over odd ideas."

Denying she was a Communist, she wrote, "I believe in control from below and support from above." It was not an original profession, but Jane Jacobs did more than any intellectual of her generation to make it real - with gusto.

John Barber is The Globe and Mail's publishing reporter.

Report Typo/Error

Follow us on Twitter: @globeandmail

 

Next story

loading

Trending

loading

Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular