Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Becoming Jane Jacobs
A new light on Jacobs' great book

As a long-time Jane Jacobs armchair-scholar, I've found Becoming Jane Jacobs by Peter Laurence (Clemson University School of Architecture Director of Graduate Studies) to be invaluable. He brings some answers to the question "How did Jane Jacobs become Jane Jacobs?"

Details of the almost 10 years she spent as an architecture critic for Architectural ForumEmerging fresh post-war ideas in the areas of urban planning and design, architecture, and influential new visions of what the city should look like and how it should function. An emerging interest in forging an increased influence on those disciplines of the aesthetic.

There's a passage that traces ideas that were evolving at the Rockefeller Foundation from the early 1950s in architecture and urban planning that precede the funding that allowed Jacobs to take a leave from Architectural Forum and devote most of a year to research and writing of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Fascinating reading and shines a new light on Jacobs' great book.

Laurence is ideally positioned to walk the reader through the changes in underlying philosophies at work in the architecture of the 1950s and the role that architecture could and should play in city building. Prior to these years architectural criticism had all but disappeared due to often successful libel lawsuits. Forum editor-in-chief Douglas Haskell was on a mission to spearhead its resurgence, backed by its parent company, Time Inc. It was an exciting fertile time and Jacobs thrived in it, influenced by the creative, intellectual environment created by Haskell and influencing it in turn. The detail of Haskell's story makes a terrific read in its own right.

I  was under the impression (it's part of a persistent  Jacobs mythology) that the only post secondary studying she had done was a few extension courses at  Columbia University. The facts, and as they're recounted by Laurence, are more interesting and more relevant. Jacobs famously did poorly in the regimented primary and high schools she attended. Robert Kanigel in his Jacobs biography Eyes on the Street retells a family story of the chronically late for high school classes Jane, asking her mother to write her a note. Jane read the note on the way to school. "Jane is late because she spent too long sitting on the side of the bed with one shoe in her hand." Jane's son Jim said he'd seen his mother do this often. "She was working something out." Her mother is also quoted that her great accomplishment of 1933 was "getting Jane through high school."

So, the environment at Columbia, the flexibility that allowed her the chance to pick subjects in her areas of interest, was ideal. She enrolled and completed two full years of studies. Full time day classes in subjects like geography, geology, chemistry, philosophy, law, "nearly all of them subjects to which she returned in her later work." This background also shines a new light on and appreciation of Death and Life and the ideas she was "working out" in her other books. And this famous bureaucratic twist of fate: she took (completed and scored highly in) so many classes she was no longer allowed to take extension courses, but required to enrol in the formal institution. She enrolled, was rejected because of her high school grades and was understandably embittered for a very long time.

Jacobs at first thought the book would take 8 or 9 months to research, write, and edit. It took 28 months and required applying for 2 Rockefeller Foundation funding extensions. In Chapter 7, A New System of Thought, Laurence recounts the correspondence between Jacobs and Rockefeller Foundation Associate Director Chadbourne Gilpatrick who had long championed her work. It makes for reading as compelling as the book itself. She realized that she was “…not rehashing old material on cities and city planning…[but] working with new concepts about the city and its behavior. Many of these concepts are quite radically opposed to those accepted in orthodox and conventional planning theory.” She was increasingly aware that she was “proving the validity of these new concepts and giving evidence, from experience in the city itself, which shows that the alternative to ignoring them is not the rebuilding of some improved type of city but rather… the disintegration of the city."

She once said, and I paraphrase, that perception was the most important and valuable of our intellectual abilities. The book wasn't ready because she was still doing what she had always done, she was working things out. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Ideas That Matter
Big City Mayors meet with Jane Jacobs
2001 Winnipeg C5 Conference

Editor's notes, Mary W, Rowe. Over two days in May of this year, Jane Jacobs met with the mayors of five of Canada’s largest and most economically significant cities to discuss issues of mutual concern and importance. This historic meeting, known as the C5, was an outgrowth of a series of discussions, convened by urban advocate, businessman and ITM Executive Publisher Alan Broadbent over a twenty month period, in which Jacobs had participated. The C5 meeting was initiated by Jacobs as a means of bringing together the leadership from five Canadian cities whose economies she considers to be most at risk because of their outdated, paternal relationships with ‘senior’ levels of government. PDF of the Sept, 2001 edition of Ideas that Matter here.