Today is "Jane Jacobs Day" in Toronto. It is also her birthday -- she would have been 91.
To honour her, I took my dog-eared copy of The Death and Life of Great American Citie s (1961) -- her glorious attack on the well-entrenched, blockbusting school of urban planning -- down off the shelf. Its groundbreaking ideas, manually typed almost a half century ago while Greenwich Village street life hummed below her window, are still fresh, contemporary and vital.
And then I thought about what this city might have looked like if she hadn't come here in 1968.
"Toronto would have had an entirely different future," says Margie Zeidler, one of the organizers of "Jane's Walk," a collection of free neighbourhood walking tours happening across the city tomorrow. "I don't think we understand how blessed we are that this woman chose to come to this city. ... I've heard many people that were immigrants to Toronto say, 'Well, I knew Jane Jacobs moved here so I figured there had to be something special about the city.' "
To be sure, her beloved Annex, where she lived until her death in April of last year, would have never fully healed from the wound the Spadina Expressway would have opened had it gone ahead. It wouldn't be a haven for lovers of street life, dog-walkers or university students, or a place for events such as these walking tours to happen.
Architect Angus Skene has agreed to give me a preview of his walk, "Jane's 'Hood," which will start at 10 a.m. at the entrance to the St. George subway station. After we meet in the Annex, he gets down on one knee, produces a piece of blue chalk from his pocket, and begins to sketch Toronto circa 1793, when the British military was sent to settle the land.
"If you can get people on it, you can kind of safeguard it for the Crown," he explains. "That's why the city's here in the first place."
Expanding the sidewalk diagram, he shows how folks got around to living way up here in the Annex by 1885, when the expanding city had to annex farmland north of Bloor Street. He explains that, originally, strict controls were placed on land use -- no stores, schools or institutions -- so the area would appeal to the upper classes.
Proof is right over his shoulder: the 1890 Gooderham house, now the York Club. As we walk over to admire its handsome Richardsonian Romanesque details, Mr. Skene explains that many of the smaller houses in the area built afterward copied some of its design vocabulary, such as asymmetry, "massive arches," "Rapunzel" balconies and attention-getting turrets.
He also notes that, unlike the ravine-protected enclave of Rosedale, the Annex was subject to a watering-down of those early land-use controls. "There was no way of stopping the city from just ploughing through," he says of the eventual addition of stores, schools and institutions. "So while this was built for some of the wealthiest people in the city, it couldn't hold out. When you've got bridges, you can keep the barbarians on one side," he laughs.
Walking up and down the Annex's people-filled streets with the pulse of Bloor never far away, it's easy to understand why Ms. Jacobs loved this neighbourhood and why, despite her enormous success, she stayed "human" with a "wonderful sense of humour and a wonderful giggle," says Ms. Zeidler, who was 10 years-old when she met her.
"She was a cheerleader for a lot of people in terms of them having the courage to go out and fight for the things they believed in," she adds.
Continuing our walk, as Mr. Skene and I pass Bloor Street United Church and he reveals the secret of its rather low-key entryway (you'll have to go on the tour to find out what that is), I ask him if he ever met Ms. Jacobs. He didn't, he says, but he did read Death and Life when he was 16, which got me to thinking: Her prose is so conversational, reading it is like talking with her; to read her is to know her.
En route to her former home, we admire the Victorian fussiness of 37 Madison Ave., the exuberance of 1960s architect Uno Prii's sculptural apartment tower at 35 Walmer Rd., and discuss how she'd probably approve of the infill development going up beside it.
When we reach her house at 69 Albany Ave., I immediately check out the front porch. It was from here that Ms. Jacobs would sit and watch the world go by, where she would add her own "eyes on the street," to borrow her famous phrase.
Thanks to Chris Winter of the Conservation Council of Ontario, who came up with Jane's Walk, Ms. Zeidler, Mr. Skene and the other walk leaders (check out for a complete list), we can celebrate her memory by getting our eyes -- and feet -- on the street too.
Jacobs at a glance
Jane Jacobs, one of the most influential urban-planning theorists of our time, had no formal training in the field. She was born in Scranton, Penn., in 1916 and moved to New York City during the Great Depression, finding work as a stenographer and freelance writer.
She met her husband, architect Robert Jacobs, while working for the Office of War Information. As associate editor of Architectural Forum in the 1950s, she witnessed first hand that era's fascination with urban "slum" clearing and replacement with "Garden City"-type projects (our own 1949 Regent Park is a good example), and began to formulate what would become The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
In the 1960s, she became an activist, leading the charge to stop Robert Moses's Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would lead to an arrest during a demonstration in 1968. That same year, in opposition to the Vietnam War, she moved to Toronto with her family and, like déjà vu all over again, led the charge to stop the Spadina Expressway.