Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 4/26/2006 [Archive]

Remembering the Great Jane Jacobs



Remembering the Great Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs, who died Tuesday in Toronto at age 89, has been revered for decades as North America's great expert on urban life, a patron saint of the city.

In 1961 she established herself as one of the 20th century's most influential thinkers with her masterpiece, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities."

Part literature, part journalism, part socioeconomics, it was a devastating critique of urban planning that was based largely on her own careful, from-the-sidewalks-up observations of how cities actually work and how economic, architectural and human diversity and high population densities makes them thrive.

Jacobs was no devotee of libertarianism or any other well-defined ideology. But she was a good friend of freedom, markets and entrepreneurs. She was also a foe of public and private monopolies, zoning ordinances, regionalism, metropolitanism and any other ''-ism'' that undermines limited government and local control.

Her other books included "The Economy of Cities" and "Cities and the Wealth of Nations," which continued her attack on the orthodoxies of 1960s' urban planning and explained her theory of how cities use import substitution to expand their economies. Her book, "The Nature of Economies," shows how economic development and the human ecology of cities follow some of the same principles that govern nature.

Jacobs lived in Toronto's dense, bustling Annex neighborhood since 1968, when she and her late husband moved from New York City so their teen-aged sons couldn't be drafted into the Vietnam War. I called her at her home in the summer of 2001.

Q: What is a city and what should it look like and be like?

A: Well, it should be like itself. Every city actually has differences, from its history, from its site, and so on. These are important. One of the dismal things is when you go to a city and you see it's like 12 others cities you've seen. That's not interesting, and it's not really truthful.

Q: Is a city like Toronto inherently any better than a city like Pittsburgh or New York or any other?

A: I hate to be picky, but I don't know what you mean by "inherently." From its very beginning, was it going to be better or was it going to be worse than another one? No, that's not true. Cities make themselves up as they go along. They aren't predestined to be terrific or awful.

Q: Cities aren't planned, they, what - spring up, evolve, grow?

A: Yes. It's what people do in them. That's what makes them. What people make of their opportunities.

Q: So cities are as unique as individuals?

A: Oh, sure.

Q: And like a smart individual, a city should play to its strengths?

A: Yes, and its potential.

Q: Unlike American cities, which were almost all damaged by urban renewal projects in the 1960s, Canadian cities have not been destroyed by the experts and the planners, have they?

A: Well, they've had some bad things happen to them. They had some terrible housing projects built in Toronto, although we learned later how to do it right. That's true about Canadian cities, but Canada's not all peaches and cream. It's really surprising how few creative cities, important cities, Canada has for its size and for its population and for its great human potential and attributes.

Q: But is it not true that Canada didn't have the urban renewal problems America did?

A: Well, it had a little of it. It also had what Marshall McCluhan called "an early warning system." This is when these things were done in America - urban renewal came to America earlier - Canada would have the advantage of seeing what the mistakes were and could be cautious.

So in the case of Canada, we had an urban renewal agency for a while, and it did just as badly as in the U.S. But it didn't last long, because as soon as the Canadian government saw what a mess it was making, and how many fights it was causing, and how much opposition was arising, it just demolished the whole department.

Q: Good for them.

A: Yeah. I thought that was remarkable. That was the difference. All these troubles were becoming recognized in the U.S., but the government there didn't seem to be able to say, "This is a mistake. This is ill-conceived. Out with it." They don't want to face the fact that it's better to stand around doing nothing than to make these mistakes after they're recognized.

Q: I know some business people in Pittsburgh called you and begged you to fly down to help fight a big City Hall project here - the Market Place at Fifth & Forbes - that would have wiped out two Downtown city streets. The huge project has since been scrapped, so it's sort of a happy ending. But I'm wondering if, in a general sense, you think the people who control cities have learned the lessons of the '60s?

A: In that case (the Market Place project), they certainly hadn't. Now that it's gotten defeated, that's good. I don't know if they've learned a lesson from that, but that attitude - that you can sacrifice small things, young things, and a diversity of things - for some great big success, is sad. That's the kind of attitude that killed Pittsburgh as an innovator.

Q: It's an attitude that comes from the top, from people who either have the power or the money, or both, to have their way with parts of the city.

A: Well, they have their way with the powers of eminent domain, government powers that were intended for things like schools and roads and public things, but are used instead for the benefit of private organizations and individuals.

Q: That's what this would have been, exactly.

A: And that's one of the worst things about urban renewal - that it introduced that idea that you could use those government powers to benefit private organizations - making various private organizations and corporations and individuals into predators and prey. It's government powers being given to the predatory. It's really awful.

The courts never have given the kind of overview to this that they should. The time it went to the Supreme Court, back in the 1950s, the winning decision - I think it was a split decision - was that to make a place beautiful, or more orderly, or helpful, government could do what it pleased with eminent domain.

That just left the door open. As one New York state official said at the time, "If Macy's wants to condemn Gimbels, it can do it if Moses gives the word."

Q: Robert Moses, the New York City public works power-broker?

A: Yes. He's an extreme example, but in effect that's what this did. But even before that, it was being done unofficially when muscle and influence and power in general - what had grown big and successful - was used to eat up, or wipe away, or starve what was not.

Well, you might as well just have no birth rate and then wonder why there aren't people. If you don't have an entrepreneurial birthrate, you don't have new industries and new chances for other successes.

Q: People complain that suburbanites are too dependent on cars. Yet the newest suburbs - the car suburbs, not the old trolley suburbs - are so heavily zoned and so carefully laid out. The uses are segregated so much - you live there, you work there, you shop here, you play there, you go to school over here. If you didn't have a car, you couldn't possibly live in the suburbs - because of the way they're laid out.

A: That's right. Your children couldn't get to school. And they couldn't get to their dancing lessons or whatever else they do. You're absolutely dependent on a car. It's very expensive for people, especially if they need a couple of cars; you want to defend the car in those cases. It's a lifeline.

This sprawl you've been describing, it can't go on indefinitely. How's it going to be changed without penalizing people? I think it'll happen gradually and incrementally by densifying these suburban areas. But not densifying them with the same uses that they have. That won't work. What has to be added is what is not there.

Q: There are bedroom suburbs in Pittsburgh where they have nothing but houses and residential uses - and, of course, no granny flats, no corner stores, no duplexes. I don't know if people want to change that. They are happy to be living there - they are some of the wealthiest people in Pittsburgh.

A: Yes, but now consider what happens with the change of generations.

Remember how people despised Victorian buildings earlier in this century? They were just ruthless with them. Many wonderful, wonderful buildings were destroyed. ... Tastes are changing. And there'll come a time, believe me, when the standard suburbs that you're talking about - even the wealthiest ones - will change.

Q: When change comes, if it is an incremental, slowly evolving, sort of natural change, it's easy for society to accommodate that, isn't it?

A: Yes it is. But you mentioned about all the zoning that enforces this. If that zoning is kept, that can't happen. In fact, places where change does happen are where people face it and really start to overhaul and rethink these things. People are awfully scared of changes in zoning, because they think the neighborhood will go to the dogs, and it will ruin their property values.

Q: I don't know if you think of yourself in these terms, but when they start writing a list of the 100 most important intellectual/idea people of this century in America, your name will be on that list. You know that, don't you?

A: Well, it's a little early to say (laughs). Usually those things don't mean much until a couple of centuries have passed.

Q: What do you think you'll be remembered for most? For being the one who stood up to the federal bulldozers and the urban renewal people and said you're destroying the lifeblood of these cities?

A: No. If I were to be remembered as a really important thinker of the century, the most important thing I've contributed is, what makes economic expansion happen? This is something that has puzzled people, always.

Expansion and development are two different things. Development is new differentiation of what already existed. Just about everything - a new shoe sole, using keyboards for computers, to changes in legal codes - all of those are differentiations. And all of those are development.

Expansion is an actual growth in size or volume of economic activity. Expansion and development are very closely related. They need each other. But they aren't the same thing and they aren't caused by the same thing. I think that's the most important thing I've worked out. And if I am thought of as a great thinker, that will be what it is.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at bsteigerwald@tribweb.com. © Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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