Books

Retracing a Lifetime of Urban Activism Through Jane Jacob’s Last Interview

Jane Jacobs
Jane Jacobs at a 1961 press conference for the Committee to Save the West Village (photo by Phil Stanziola, via Library of Congress/Wikimedia)

“The kind of planning for a city that would really work would be a sort of informed, intelligent improvisation, which is what most of our planning in life is in any case,” said Jane Jacobs in a 1962 interview with Mademoiselle, conducted just after the 1961 publication of her influential The Death and Life of Great American CitiesOver half a century later, in a 2005 interview that would be her last, she held to that belief in the people and cities as living places:

I would like it to be understood, and increasingly understood as time passes, that all our human economic achievements have been done by ordinary people, not by exceptionally educated people, or by elites, or by supernatural forces, for heaven’s sake. Yet without understanding this, people are all too willing to fall for the idea that they can’t do this, they themselves, or anybody they know, because they’re too ordinary.

Cover of 'Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations' (courtesy Melville House)
Cover of ‘Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations’ (courtesy Melville House) (click to enlarge)

Jacobs was far from ordinary, as a self-taught urban activist who famously rallied against Robert Moses’s plan to cut a highway through Greenwich Village. For the centennial of her birth, Melville House recently published Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. The compact book is part of Melville House’s Last Interviews series, which concentrates on the final interviews of people like Martin Luther King, Jr., David Bowie, Nora Ephron, Ernest Hemingway, Philip K. Dick, and Hannah Arendt.

The Jane Jacobs publication includes that 1962 discussion with Eve Auchincloss and Nancy Lynch, a 1978 conversation with Roberta Brandes Gratz on “How Westway Will Destroy New York,” a 2011 talk with James Howard Kunstler for Metropolis, and the interview that would be her last with Robin Philpot for the 2011 publication The Question of Separatism, a rumination on Quebec’s sovereignty.

Canada was where she relocated with her draft-age sons in the midst of the Vietnam War, although the same convictions that powered her ideas against rampant development in New York endured. “The reason I became a Canadian citizen was because it simply seemed so abnormal to me not to be able to vote,” she says in The Last Interview. Since her death in 2006 at the age of 89, there’s been plenty written on her legacy, whether her over idolization, or how her writing remains relevant to today. The Last Interview is valuable for capturing her spirited voice that managed to rise above the din of money and power fueling New York’s postwar growth.

Jane Jacobs
Jane Jacobs-themed street art in Toronto (photo by Ryan/Flickr)

The New Urbanism movement meant new developments and highways were cropping up all over the United States (helped by the powerful bulldozer that had proved its strength with the Navy Seabees in World War II). Her thoughts on the suburbs cut no corners:

Suburbs are perfectly valid places to want to live, but they are inherently parasitic, economically and socially, too, because they live off answers found in cities. But I don’t blame only the planners. By implication I blame everyone who knows in his bones that things are being done wrong and won’t trust himself enough to act like the citizen of a self-governing country.

Jacobs was appalled at the demolition of the irreplaceable, serendipitous design of the old neighborhoods, including her home of Greenwich Village. That’s where she became the David to “master builder” Robert Moses’s Goliath, although as she explains in the interview with Kunstler, they never met. She only glimpsed him once at a hearing about the “road through Washington Square,” the entrance ramp to the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway:

He was there briefly to speak his piece. But nobody was told that at the time. None of us had spoken yet because they always had the officials speak first, and then they would go away, and they wouldn’t listen to the people. Anyway, he stood up there gripping the railing, and he was furious at the effrontery of this, and I guess he could already see his plan was in danger. Because he was saying “There is nobody against this—nobody, nobody, nobody, but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers!” And then he stomped out.

The interviews are peppered with these anecdotes, whether her belief that the Chase Manhattan Bank has “ruined the skyline of lower Manhattan,” or her love for locomotives that she used to watch growing up in Scranton. She compared this beauty of the visible machine with the problems she saw in modern architecture in a candid discussion of Frank Lloyd Wright in 1962, whose work she appreciated as more than a “visual thing with him”:

He really rethought things in functional terms. The lack of attention to function today is not just a disease of architecture or city planning though. People no longer seem to know how things work. Idealized designs of many kinds ignore what objects do, or conceal what they do and how they do it. It’s like locomotives we used to see, with their wheels and the whole business exposed. Then a skirt was put over them, concealing them as much as possible. Much of what is called design today is cover-up.

The Last Interviews series is an interesting concept, thinking of how a pivotal figure talked about their ideas in their latest years. The four exchanges, although each situated in its particular time (Jacobs was always up on the urban issues of the moment) chronicle her enduring commitment to “creative and workable cities,” all in her own unvarnished words.

Jane Jacobs
A Jane Jacobs quote in the Pearl District of Portland, Oregon (photo by Sam Beebe/Flickr)

Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations is out now from Melville House.

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