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A Conversation with Jane Jacobs

From Brick 70

Brick 70

Jane Jacobs is variously known as the guru of cities, an urban legend—“part analyst, part activist, part prophet.” In the more than forty years since the publication of her groundbreaking book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), her influence has been extraordinary—not only on architects, community workers, and planners but also on Nobel Prize–winning economists and ecologists. As one critic recently put it, “Jacobs’s influence confirms that books matter. It isn’t easy to cite another writer who has had a comparable impact in our time.” A couple of years ago, she won the top American award for urban planning, the Vincent Scully Prize. This in itself was unusual, not only because she regularly vilifies planners, but also because with the exception of the Order of Canada and a few other prizes, she typically turns down awards—some thirty honorary degrees, including one from Harvard. Jacobs herself wasn’t interested in finishing university—she went to Columbia for just two years.

Her editor, Jason Epstein, puts her among a handful of innovators—Rachel Carson, Julia Child, Betty Friedan, Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Benjamin Spock—who gave their fellow citizens “the confidence to challenge the life-denying follies of their times.” On Canada Day 2002, she was named one of Ten Canadians Who Made a Difference by Maclean’s magazine. Finally (one of my favourites), the New York Times Magazine included her in its hallmark list of “Irritating Women”—women who through the centuries have “tugged at history’s sleeve and wouldn’t let go”—from the mediaeval abbess and composer Hildegard of Bingen through the eighteenth-century feminist thinker Mary Wollstonecraft, concluding with Jane Jacobs.

Jane Jacobs was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1916. Her father was a family physician and her mother a schoolteacher and nurse. She knew from an early age that she wanted to be a writer. She also realized—from about third grade—that school wasn’t a place of intellectual interest for her. After high school, she worked for the local paper and attended business school to pick up stenographic skills so she could earn a living. At eighteen, she moved to New York City and held a variety of jobs, both clerical and as an editor and writer. It was while she was working for Architectural Forum that she began the series of articles that became The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

The originality of her approach is the way she uses direct observation. As she captioned her illustrations in the table of contents, “The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us. For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see.”

In the late 1960s, Jane Jacobs helped save her neighbourhood, New York’s Greenwich Village, from destruction. In 1968, she moved to Toronto with her husband and their two draft-age sons and a daughter. Almost immediately, she was engaged in stopping the Spadina Expressway from cutting through her new neighbourhood in the Annex.

It’s not often that I meet someone in studio and then have the opportunity—then pursue the opportunity—to see them again over a cup of tea. Some years ago, that happened with Jane Jacobs. We were talking about a book she’d put together about her aunt who was a pioneer teacher in Alaska. We didn’t want the conversation to end, so a few days later, I went to see Jacobs and her husband of forty-two years, a retired architect. (He died later that year, in 1996.) They were direct, warm and fun to talk to.

Jacobs still lives in that large comfortable house in Toronto’s Annex. When I went to see her last summer for this conversation, it took a little longer for her to come to the door, pushing her walker, but she is as intellectually agile and engaged as ever. At one point, I got up to switch off her new refrigerator so the hum wouldn’t interfere with the recording. She insisted on watching how it was done, saying, “I take my learning where I can find it.”

Her most recent books are Systems of Survival (1994) and The Nature of Economies (2000).

EW: You wrote your 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities when you were living in New York. You said, “Most of the material for these musings was at my front door.” In your case, I think the front door was, and still is, more than a metaphor. It neatly captures your own special qualities as a thinker and a writer because it’s open, it’s curious, it’s down-to-earth. You’re famous for helping us look at familiar things in a new way. I think one critic said your books are principally about what one could see if one opened one’s eyes. How did you come by that attitude, do you think, to be so observant or naturally inquisitive?

JJ: A couple of weeks ago, I finished writing an introduction to one of Mark Twain’s books, The Innocents Abroad, which is being reissued by the Modern Library. One thing I was struck by in reading it, was how much Twain emphasized that what he was trying to do was tell readers what they might see if they looked with their own eyes. He inveighed at great length against guidebooks and people who believed the guidebooks instead of what they were seeing. So this is an old problem. I suppose it comes from people wanting to be correct and not trusting themselves, fearing they’ll seem like uneducated country bumpkins in his day, if they told what they saw and how it struck them. I don’t remember ever being forced to wear those sorts of blinders when I was a child. Children do report what they see. If they’re not pooh-poohed and are listened to respectfully, grown-ups usually hear something interesting. That’s a way of encouraging people to look with their own eyes.

EW: Tell me about that childhood. What are your earliest memories of your household, of your neighbourhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania?

JJ: When I was four years old, we moved to the house that I remember best, where I lived till I was eighteen. But my earliest memories, of course, are before four years of age, in a different house, and on the sidewalk in front of that house. In our household we had four children. One of them, at that time, was a baby, but there were three who were older. We had two vehicles that my mother called velocipedes, really tricycles. I learned to get out early to stake my claim on one of the velocipedes. Another memory is of my father, who was a doctor. He had one of the earliest automobiles in the neighbourhood. Automobiles have never seemed glamorous to me because, after all, they were just a workaday thing. He needed it to make his calls, but sometimes he would take my mother and my brother and me with him. I saw quite a bit of Scranton that way. One thing I saw was what we called the “built-down” houses. Scranton was a coal-mining city, and although there were laws about leaving columns of rock in the mines to support the ground up above, the robber baron companies would sometimes “rob the pillars.” They would take out these supports for their coal, and then the ground would cave in above them. If there were houses above, the houses caved down into a hole. That’s why we called them “built-down” houses.

EW: So would people still try to live in them?

JJ: Yes, people were still living in them. The worst danger was that sometimes the gas pipes broke and then people would be asphyxiated, or else there would be an explosion. Who needs terrorists when you’ve got robber barons?

EW: Your original home at 1712 Monroe—the one that you moved to when you were four—is one of the three addresses to which you’ve dedicated one of your more recent books, Systems of Survival, along with the Greenwich Village address on Hudson and this one in Toronto. What made that first house special for you?

JJ: Well, a place where you live from the time you’re four years old until you’re eighteen is your childhood home, really. I loved the house. It’s still there. I visited it not long ago.

EW: What was the atmosphere like in your home? Were there lots of conversations or debates?

JJ: It was a cheerful place. We did a lot of talking. My father worked long, long hours as a doctor, at first making house calls. Later on, he kept long office hours, including evening hours, because that’s often when people could come. In the morning, he would get his newspaper, the Public Ledger, a Philadelphia paper, and stand it up in a wire contrivance that he had. But he didn’t shut himself off with this newspaper—he was always reading nuggets to us from it. He had favourite columnists. I remember the name of one of them—Jay House—and he would say, “Let’s see what Jay is saying today.” Then he’d tell us if there was anything interesting.

EW: Your father grew up on a farm in Virginia. What was he like? How would you describe him?

JJ: Well, he was intellectually very curious, bright and independent. In some ways he was like a detective. He was locally very famous as a diagnostician, and a good diagnostician is a sort of detective. I loved to hear his stories about how he found out this and that. He had all kinds of patients, and he would tell us about them, so my two brothers and my sister and I got quite a picture of Scranton as a great mosaic.

EW: You’ve said that you owe your intellectual independence to your father. How was that?

JJ: Being a good diagnostician, he had to use his own eyes and ears, and his reason. He was also a good listener. My first job, after I got out of high school, was at the local newspaper. Fortunately that was right across the street from his office downtown. It was a morning newspaper, so my hours were from early afternoon until as late as need be. I liked that, working in the evening and at night and sleeping late in the morning. When I finished, I would go across the street to his office. Sometimes there were still a few people in the waiting room. Sometimes he would be reading his medical journals because everybody had left. Then, we would talk, and I would go home with him.

EW: What would you talk about?

JJ: If he was seeing any patients, he would tell me about that. I would tell him about what had happened at the newspaper. Or we would talk about things in general. Sometimes I asked him weighty questions, like what is the purpose of life.

EW: What did he say?

JJ: Actually, we were sitting on our front porch when we got into that conversation and he said, “Look at that tree, that oak tree.” He pointed to the tree in our yard, and he said, “What is its purpose? It’s alive.” I made of the answer that the purpose of life is to live, and so I told him that’s what I thought. He said, “Yes, that tree has a great push to live—any healthy, living thing does.”

EW: Your mother was a schoolteacher and nurse who lived to be 101. From your letters to her, many of which have now been published, you seem to have had a wonderful relationship. Tell me about her.

JJ: When I was an adolescent, I didn’t have such a good relationship with her because she was brought up in a small town in Victorian times, and the result was what you might imagine. She read a lot and had many interesting stories to tell about her small town, but she was, in that Victorian way, quite prissy, and particularly about anything to do with sex. She was also very conservative politically, much more so than my father, who was open minded and curious and more imaginative. So I would get into arguments with her, or I would feel I had to shut up about things that I really would have liked to talk to her about. Later on, I learned that there were all kinds of things we could talk about. There were still some things that were taboo, but I came to appreciate her more and more for the things we could discuss. She was sensible and loyal, a real reservoir of knowledge.

EW: What kinds of values do you think she instilled in you?

JJ: She was a very compassionate person. She had been a nurse in Philadelphia—that’s where she and my father met, while he was a resident in the same hospital. Most of the child patients that she had were from very poor areas of Philadelphia and she would tell me how limited their lives were. She felt sorry about that. One of the things she hated, by the way, was freak shows, which in those days accompanied every fair or circus that came to town. She hated them because she felt that unfortunate people shouldn’t be looked at that way. I’ve never been to a freak show in my life. Another thing I’ve never done is drink pink lemonade, which she told me to avoid because it was made by putting a dirty red necktie into the lemonade and squeezing it until the dye came out. I suppose, in the early 1900s in Philadelphia, before the Pure Food and Drugs legislation came in, in 1906, there were all kinds of dreadful chemical adulterations. To this day, I can’t drink pink lemonade.

EW: Both your parents grew up in the country, but you’ve said that they were both delighted to live in a city, that they found cities a superior place to live.

JJ: Father often told us what a hard life farming was. He didn’t romanticize it at all, and we knew very graphically how difficult it was. The farm he grew up on in Virginia was the kind of farm that is much romanticized today. It was a general-purpose family farm, about two hundred acres, which is enough to make a living from, but not so big that you needed hired help. Among other things, they raised a kind of Scottish cattle called Black Galloways, and we had a skin of one of these that had been tanned and was on the floor under the stairs, where there was a nice nook with a bookcase. We always called it the buffalo skin, we children, but it was a Black Galloway skin.
In the city, they liked the house that we lived in, the same as I did, and they enjoyed the people in the city. They had a lot of interest in how the city ran and what was there. They were public-spirited people. I think they appreciated the libraries and the various other amenities.

EW: Sounds like you were thinking about cities from a very early age. In fourth grade, you questioned your geography lesson. When the teacher said that cities were located near a waterfall, you said you didn’t believe this because mines were what was going on in Scranton. How were you so attuned to this?

JJ: I loved going downtown, from the earliest I remember. I found it very interesting and exciting. In fact, I liked going to the dentist because it gave me a chance to go downtown.
Scranton had a very nice downtown, with an interesting array of stores—it was the city for quite a large catchment area. The high school I went to was downtown. The public reference library, which is a beautiful building, and had a very good librarian—which is even more important—was downtown. My father had his office downtown. There was a courthouse and a courthouse square in the middle of things, with a statue of John Mitchell, an organizer of one of the earliest mine unions. For a city to put up a statue of a union organizer in its main square was quite unusual. The miners’ children from a neighbourhood near ours would, on a certain day in the year, be excused so they could march in the John Mitchell Day parade, a big event in Scranton. I once asked one of these classmates who John Mitchell was, and she said he was the greatest man in the world. When I worked on the newspaper, the guild had just organized a local; it was the third newspaper in the whole United States to be organized. So Scranton was quite progressive in these ways.

EW: You’ve said that you grew up with the idea that you could do anything. Was that unusual for a young woman in those days?

JJ: No, it was not—it was quite common. These things ebb and flow. There had been a successful women’s suffrage movement, which was followed by the notion that women were equal to men and could do anything. In the Girl Scouts troop that my sister and I belonged to, we had all sorts of merit badges, not just child care and being a hostess and those sorts of things, but for astronomy and tree finding and making things. All of this was part of a liberating ideology for women. We were lucky we grew up in an island of hope for women. I think that nowadays people don’t realize how different that was from the way women were treated and thought of during the Depression and after the war. There was a real going backwards; it was reflected in the Girl Scouts and in the magazines for girls, as well as in society in general.

EW: Both your parents were in helping professions. Were you inclined or encouraged toward that kind of social service yourself?

JJ: No, I wasn’t, and they didn’t try to influence me as to what I should do, apart from one thing. My father told all four of us that it was a very good thing to know what you wanted to do and to work toward that goal, but you also ought to have something that was always in demand and was easy to get a job at, to fall back on. He said parents used to give their daughters dowries, but that it was much better to give them an education.

EW: You weren’t that crazy about education, though. I read that you learned a lot in grades 1 and 2, but by grade 3 you were reading books under the desk for yourself. You had a restless mind, I think. What were you hungry for?

JJ: Well, to tell you the truth, I thought that most of my teachers were rather stupid. They believed a lot of nonsense. I was always trying to educate them, so we would get into conflicts sometimes. In those days, classrooms were much more regimented than they are now. For hours we would sit there doing this or that and we wouldn’t be allowed to talk unless we were asked a question. I had quite a few misapprehensions of one sort and another, and one misapprehension I had, when I was silent for all this time—which I never was at home—was a fear that I couldn’t talk any more, that I didn’t have a voice any more. So I developed what you might call a little tic. I would make a little noise in my throat, a little voiced noise, just to be sure I could still talk. My parents asked me one day why I did that. I didn’t tell them because I had a feeling that if I did, it would open up the whole subject of how my teachers and I were at outs a good deal.

EW: You were expelled in grade 3. What did you do?

JJ: Well, one night we’d been talking at home and my father told us in the course of the conversation that it was very foolish for children to make promises that they would do something for their whole life—that a promise was a very serious thing and you should never make one unless you were quite sure you could carry it out. So it so happened that the next day in school a man came and spoke to us about care of the teeth. And at the end of this talk, he asked everybody to promise to brush their teeth every night and morning all their life, and to raise our hand to promise. I said to my classmates not to do this. They were putting up their hands and pulling them down. When we got back into the classroom, the teacher said she was mortified by our behaviour and what did we think we were doing? Some of the children said that Jane had told them not to raise their hands. So she wormed the story out and I told her that, no, that was a bad thing to do. She decided that the way to deal with this was to get me to make this promise, but all she got from me was an argument. So, at her wits’ end, she expelled me.

EW: From early childhood, you’ve carried on conversations with people like Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson. Not your ordinary imaginary companions. What need do you think this dialogue came from?

JJ: I think a lot of children do that.

EW: Benjamin Franklin?

JJ: Yes, or whoever they choose to talk to.

EW: What do you think this sort of dialogue satisfied in you?

JJ: I mentioned I liked to try to educate my schoolteachers. Well, I was trying to educate, believe it or not, Benjamin Franklin or Jefferson, in the sense that they didn’t know about a lot of the things that we would pass by on the street because they were born too soon. And they were curious about these things, so in a way, I was testing out how much I knew.

EW: You went to business school after high school, following your father’s dictum to equip yourself with a skill to fall back on, and you worked as a stenographer. But you’ve said that all along you wanted to be a writer. What kind of writing appealed to you?

JJ: I didn’t know, but I began, like many children, writing verses and having fun with rhyming words and that sort of thing. I suppose it was because I liked to read so much.

EW: You made your first trip to New York when you were twelve, in 1928, and you’ve described some of your impressions of that visit—lunchtime and Wall Street and so on. What was the most exciting thing about that experience?

JJ: The number of people and how fast everything was happening. This was before the stock market crash and the Depression, so I was getting a glimpse of New York during its great boom time. I’m always glad I saw it at that point.

EW: Did you know then that you wanted to live and work in New York?

JJ: Yes, it appealed to me then. My sister, who was six years older than me, had gone to New York as soon as she graduated from college. So that pretty well settled it—I could go and join her.

EW: When you were eighteen, you did join your sister in New York. You’ve described hunting for work and exploring the city in the process—the different neighbourhoods that actually became material for you when you came to write articles for Vogue or the Herald Tribune. You couldn’t have known at the time that these explorations were part of a larger project for you, an investigation into the life of the city and the life of cities. What were you after, back then?

JJ: It just interested me. I was drifting. I didn’t have any great plan, and I don’t, to this day. Insofar as I had any plan, it was just to pursue what interested me. Now, my husband’s father had an idea about this. The advice he gave my husband when he was a boy was to get interested in something and study and work at it. He said that if you do that, you’re likely to do well at it, and if you do well at it, you’re likely to find somebody who’ll pay you to do it. That was his career advice, and that’s pretty much what I have always done. I think it’s actually quite realistic advice. I think people who can work at something that really interests them, and that they’re enthusiastic about, are much happier than people who take a job because it runs in their family or it’s a big money-maker or it seems safe.

EW: It was while you were working for Architectural Forum that you began what has become your most famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. You’ve described a moment of awakening when you visited a new housing development in Philadelphia designed by a celebrated planner. Can you talk about that moment, that revelation?

JJ: Yes. The chief planner of Philadelphia was showing me around. First we walked down a street that was just crammed with people, mostly black people, walking on the sidewalks and sitting on the stoops and leaning out of the windows. I think he was taking me on this street to show me what he regarded as a bad part of the city, to contrast it with what he was going to show me next. I liked this street—people were using it and enjoying it and enjoying each other. Then we went over to the parallel street that had just undergone urban renewal. It was filled with very sterile housing projects. The planner was very proud of it, and he urged me to stand at a certain spot to see what a great vista it had. I thought the whole thing was extremely boring—there was nobody on the street. All the time we were there, which was too long for me, I saw only one little boy. He was kicking a tire in the gutter. The planner told me that they were progressing to the next street over, where we had come from, which he obviously regarded as disgraceful. I said that all the people were over there, that there were no people here, and what did he think of that? What he obviously would have liked was groups of people standing and admiring the vistas that he had created. You could see that nothing else mattered to him. So I realized that not only did he and the people he directed not know how to make an interesting or a humane street, but they didn’t even notice such things and didn’t care. People sometimes ask me if I wrote this book to educate planners. My reply is always no, because I thought they were hopeless.

EW: Your first book started as a series of articles and then turned into something much bigger. What happened?

JJ: I was lobbying the editors of the magazine I worked for to allow me to do a series of four articles on topics like “The Uses of Sidewalks.” I realized that if they were to be a series, they had to have a certain coherence. Since it was a monthly magazine and we were always scrambling to get it out on time, it would mean that I would need to be forgiven for not contributing for several issues until I got all four articles written.

EW: Then, how did it go from being articles about sidewalks?

JJ: I didn’t end up writing them as articles. By chance I had given a talk at Harvard that attracted some attention, and one of the editors of Fortune, William H. White, asked me, because of that, to write an article about downtowns for Fortune. It was to be longer than any article I had ever written. I didn’t think I could do it—they wanted 2,500 words. All of our articles in Architectural Forum were much shorter. Then somebody else who had become interested in the Fortune article—this is the kind of thing that can happen in big cities—a man from the Rockefeller Foundation, invited me to a meeting with others from the Foundation. They were interested in cities and wanted to know if there was any way they could help me. Imagine, this is like having a fairy godmother descending on you.
Well, I began to think about it, and when I went back and saw the Rockefeller Foundation man, I said that I’d been thinking it over and what I wanted to do was write a book. All along, they had been hoping I would come to that conclusion. So I got a grant from them that would support me for a year.

EW: But then it took two years.

JJ: Then it took two years. At the end of the first year, I called up this Rockefeller man and said I wasn’t done yet. He said, “Tell me something: Is the book turning out to be the way you planned it in the first place?” I said no, not at all, because I want to write about a lot of things that I didn’t know I wanted to write about when I began. I thought to myself, that’s the truth, but they’re not going to like it—it sounds so scatterbrained. On the contrary. He said that was good, that’s what they had hoped would happen.

EW: What directions did it take that you didn’t expect?

JJ: I’d been to some new urbanist conferences and I didn’t think they understood anything about the nature of cities. They plan the centre of a city as if it were a shopping centre, even though they talk about it being for people to come to on foot. I think that they leave out the notion of time. This was one of the things I discovered: time is terribly important in cities. Whether an area improves over time or whether it deteriorates, there are lots of lessons that are perfectly obvious that, to this day, I don’t think planners—even the most trendy ones—are learning.
Then I wrote my next book, The Economy of Cities. In a way, that’s the most important book I’ve written, I think, because I did discover some things that are really central to city economies and that I still think are not enough appreciated. One problem I noted was that economists and others love to say that what I’m describing is old fashioned. One of the major criticisms I get from economists and from city planners is that I think small businesses are important. What I was thinking about, of course, was time, and where do large businesses come from originally? How do things start? The general idea at the time I wrote The Economy of Cities was that small businesses were an old-fashioned thing that were no longer of any importance. It’s only a few years ago that it became the accepted new wisdom—which is true—that most of the jobs added in an economy are added in small businesses, not from growth in already large businesses.

EW: At the time when you first published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, you had to defend the title, and, in fact, the British publishers felt that it wouldn’t be understood. But why was that construction—Death first and then Life—so important for you? Were you confident that life was possible?

JJ: Yes. If it was “Life and Death,” it would look as if that’s where cities were heading. I didn’t think that. That’s why I put Life second.

EW: Near the end of that book, you say in thirty years’ time things are going to be worse. Do you think that’s happened? Are things worse now than when you wrote the book?

JJ: In some ways they’re worse and in some ways better. The things that are worse I don’t think are so much focused or anchored in cities as they are in our North American culture as a whole.

EW: What kinds of things?

JJ: Just think about general current events. Think how many of our important institutions are failing us. Look what’s happening to accounting, which we’ve counted on for centuries to tell us honestly the situation in businesses large and small. In countries where there has not been a tradition of financial accountability, and they don’t track how various organizations and institutions are doing, where they’re failing and where they’re not, there are often very bad consequences. It’s a great accomplishment in this civilization that we have a way of keeping count of things, and knowing where we are—keeping businesses honest, in that sense. Well, look what’s happening. The scandals unfold daily in the papers and that’s a very serious thing for cities, since they are the centre of so much of our economy.
Consider the family, the nuclear family. On the whole, I think we have to admit it’s a great failure. When there’s anywhere from a third to a half of marriages ending in divorce, that should give people pause. When both parents, working as hard as they can, cannot make enough money to pay a month’s rent, that’s pretty sad. Something is wrong there.

EW: So how have things improved?

JJ: Well, I think that things are getting better for cities in that there’s not the great ruthless wiping away of their most interesting areas that took place in the past. Terrible things were happening when I wrote Death and Life, so that’s an improvement. However, I think the urban sprawl outside of cities has gotten much worse. I think there’s been a great loss of community of all kinds, mostly in the suburbs.

EW: The Death and Life of Great American Cities is considered one of the most important books to be written on American urban life. “One of those rare books,” as someone wrote, “that not only changed the way people think but actually changed the world that we live in.” You’re not an urban planner. You’re not an economist. And, in fact, although you took some classes at Columbia, you were never really interested in a degree. What advantage do you think your lack of formal training has given you?

JJ: Well, I can give you an actual instance. When I got the grant to start writing this book, some people involved in the joint urban studies program at Harvard and at MIT invited me up there because they wanted to talk to me. They had it all figured out—how I should use that grant, how I should use my time. They had decided what they wanted done and they were treating me as if I was a graduate student. What they actually wanted me to do was make up a questionnaire and give it to people in some middle-income sterile project somewhere, to find out what they didn’t like. Then I was to make tables of it. They had it all worked out, what I should do. So I listened to them and remained polite, but I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I felt so liberated when I left. I thought, Wouldn’t it be awful if my career depended on these dopes, and I was obliged to do what they wanted? That’s what would have happened if I had been trapped in a university.

EW: In the foreword to the new edition of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, you say that obviously this book exerted “an influence on me and lured me into my subsequent life’s work.” How so?

JJ: Doing this first book made me wonder about why some cities seem to succeed, in the sense that they don’t wither away—that old idea that the purpose of life is to live—and they manage to succeed in continuing to live. I was aware of this because Scranton, like many settlements that depend on a mine or a particular commodity, did fail eventually. Everything changes, and no specialty lasts forever. I began wondering about that. What was different about the cities that didn’t die, but kept on finding new things to do? Some of these cities are very old and some of them are not, so I also thought there must be various processes that can be seen through time. Again, time was very important. That’s how I got to writing my next book, The Economy of Cities. Then, the next logical thing was looking at how cities affect the outside world, how they affect each other, and how they affect their hinterlands. That became Cities and the Wealth of Nations, and that’s when I made the discovery that city regions were different from any other kinds of regions. Then I got interested in the sort of moral assumptions that regulate all this, and I wrote Systems of Survival, which led to my latest book, The Nature of Economies. And that’s about cities and economies as part of nature. We are part of nature, after all.

EW: It’s interesting that you would take that approach in The Nature of Economies since you seem to have favoured cities over nature in your other writings. Is it because it’s a different look at nature?

JJ: Yes. I make the point that nature always wins. There are things you can do that work and things you can do that are unnatural and won’t work.

EW: One theme in your work is the interconnectedness of things, and one of the ways you get at that is through language itself. You point out that language follows a natural, unpredictable pattern, and in that way it’s almost a model of evolution. It makes itself up as it goes along, I think is how you put it. Has the analogy with language been useful for you?

JJ: I don’t know whether “useful” is the right word. It just helps me clarify the fact that things start somewhere and then they grow and evolve. Language is all made up of process. That’s what interests me—processes.

EW: One aspect of process is a kind of diversity, whether it’s in neighbourhoods or cities or the larger organizations that you’ve explored. As you say, specialization at the expense of diversity is unwholesome for both economies and ecosystems. Why is there such a drive for specialization? What is the resistance to diversity?

JJ: It’s one of those wrong-headed things that’s become part of conventional learning. Adam Smith thought that specialization was wonderful and he mixed up a lot of things. He thought of it as division of labour among nations, and since he thought division of labour was good, then division of labour among nations must be good, too. Adam Smith was very good at using his own eyes and noticing what was happening, but when he got abstract like that, it became another way of playing at words, and that’s not very useful. Division of labour is very good in a pin factory, so it must be good in the world in general. No, then it becomes ideological, and we have to be very wary about that. Specialization was put on a pedestal as a great piece of wisdom, but, in fact, every specialty you can think of betrays the place that specialized it sooner or later.

EW: For instance?

JJ: Another place does it cheaper, better, or the thing grows obsolete.

EW: When you talk about the relationship between economies and nature, you say it’s not a matter of imitating nature but of using the same universal principles that the rest of nature does. How do you get at that?

JJ: Well, development is a natural process. The earth itself has developed over time. At one time it was barren and had no life.

EW: What about entropy? That’s something that happens in nature, too.

JJ: Yes, and probably what you mean is that everything’s going to run down because of it. Well, maybe and maybe not. Most of the recent thought about the cosmos is that it doesn’t run down. Certainly, things that have become disorganized don’t reorganize themselves. If you throw a pack of cards on the floor, it doesn’t put itself in order. I shouldn’t even mention this because I don’t know enough astronomy, but what I understand is that there are different zones in the universe and one of them is a zone where things are drawn in and made very dense—black holes. Eventually they explode or scatter into widespread matter, and then the cycle begins again, with matter getting into clumps as suns and planets. It’s long been recognized that matter can’t be made and it can’t be destroyed. People know that, but they don’t take it seriously enough. If it’s true at all, then entropy does not destroy.

EW: In the sixties, you were living on Hudson Street in New York, raising your family with your architect husband, around the time you were writing The Death and Life of Great American Cities. You became deeply involved at that time with your neighbourhood, your street, the city, the country, and you were forced—I think of it as forced—to become an activist. Was that kind of political engagement at all natural to you?

JJ: No, it really wasn’t. I wanted to be learning things and writing. I resented that I had to stop and devote myself to fighting what was basically an absurdity that had been foisted on me and my neighbours.

EW: There was an urban renewal project in your neighbourhood.

JJ: Yes. And the city officials who did it didn’t know what they were doing. For that matter, neither did the federal officials. About the same time, they were trying to drive an eight-lane highway through where SoHo is now in New York. That’s about the most successful part of the city. They didn’t know what they were doing at all. They thought they were very smart about real estate; they weren’t. Always be prepared to think that experts are stupid. They often are.

EW: You were also part of a larger movement at the time. You marched on the Pentagon. And you were arrested with Susan Sontag and Allen Ginsberg during anti-draft demonstrations in New York. You’ve been charged with riot, inciting to riot, criminal mischief, and obstructing government administration. How did it affect you to be out on the front lines like that?

JJ: Well, as long as it couldn’t be avoided, which it couldn’t be if you were a responsible person, you had to fight. As long as you’re doing it, you might as well decide to have a good time. Of course, what makes it a really good time is if you win.
The charges you mentioned were for my involvement in opposing the Lower Manhattan Expressway that would have wiped out what was to become SoHo. It was worth doing. How did it affect me? I’ll tell you a little story. At one point, I had to go to the courthouse because a judge was going to make a decision about whether to proceed with those four accusations, each of which carried a year in prison as a penalty. We’re talking about a total of four years in prison. A judge had to rule on whether it seemed serious enough that I should go to trial or whether it was nonsense—and it was nonsense, I’ll tell you. But I went to court. And the prosecutor made such a case of what a monster I was, and my own lawyer didn’t seem very well prepared at all. The judge was really down on me. I could tell that I was, as the saying goes, getting the book thrown at me. Up until then, I hadn’t really taken very seriously that something so dreadful would actually happen to me—and it didn’t in the end, but I didn’t know that that day. I went home after the hearing—I didn’t have to have bail—feeling pretty depressed about it. Scared, too. When I got home, the children were all in school and my husband was at work. I went inside and I sat down gloomily at the dining table, feeling pretty hopeless. I could practically hear those jail doors slamming behind me. The first person who came home was my son Ned. He threw his school books down on the table and asked how it went in court. I said, Oh, all right, I guess. He sat down and said, You know, for a woman of fifty-three, you lead a very exciting life. And all of a sudden I felt about a thousand percent better.

EW: In 1968, you left the United States for Toronto in protest against the Vietnam War and also to avoid the draft for your sons. This was serendipitous, certainly for Toronto, and I think for you as well. You described your new home shortly after as “the most hopeful and healthy city in North America, still unmangled and still with options.” What did you value most then in Toronto?

JJ: In comparison to what was happening in U.S. cities at the time, Toronto wasn’t being treated as if it were an occupied country with a conquering power knocking its people around. People weren’t being treated as if they were guinea pigs. Another thing I admired was that when something was a failure in Canada, they didn’t keep repeating it.

EW: Like what?

JJ: There were some very bad public housing projects, because Canadians had fallen for the same baloney as the Americans—great big projects where people were sorted out. They’re still plaguing Toronto, a lot of these projects, but they had at least stopped building them. They also were closing down their federal Department of Housing, which was doing very bad things.

EW: You mean by creating these kinds of public housing projects?

JJ: And also putting highways through the city. We had to fight the Spadina Expressway.

EW: Wasn’t that ironic? You’d just finished fighting a highway in New York and then you come up here and it’s a perfectly analogous situation.

JJ: But it wasn’t as hard to fight up here. For one thing, there wasn’t as much federal money thrown at it. A lot of people think that our cities can be rescued if you can only get enough federal money, but money alone isn’t the answer. The right things have to be done with the money.

EW: And what are the right things?

JJ: It depends on each city totally. Cities need different things at different times. I despair sometimes how, when the right things are done, they’re soon forgotten. For example, when David Crombie was mayor in the seventies, affordable housing, public housing, was built in an entirely new and different way as in-fill, knit into neighbourhoods. Right down at the end of our block here, we have infill housing, where the subway wiped out a strip of older housing. It was a great success and it was also an economical way to create housing. Big developers with deep pockets aren’t interested in small sites, and yet there are a lot of them and they add up. They also knit up the neighbourhood where they’re built. So we knew how to do it. But while we were really becoming expert at this new way of looking at housing, the suburbs were going in the opposite direction. People weren’t learning from the city of Toronto. About that time, the money dried up. So now I worry that when money becomes available for infill housing again, people will have forgotten what a decent and economical approach it was. People from all over the world used to come and tour Toronto to see this infill public housing.

EW: When you came to Canada with your family, you decided you were immigrants, not exiles. Why was that important to you?

JJ: We wanted to be a part of where we were. If you’ve come from somewhere else, that’s being an immigrant. Being an exile is having it fixed in your mind that you’ve just come to a place as a stop-gap measure. One thing we realized when we were outside the U.S. was that Americans don’t really think that any place outside of America is as real as America. We didn’t, either, when we lived there, but we saw this as soon as we were outside of the United States and committed to a different place. It’s a strange kind of egotism—which extends to one’s country—that no place else could be as important, and if not as important, it’s not quite as real.

EW: You became a Canadian citizen in 1974, which in those days meant giving up your American citizenship. Given that your family was old-stock American, was that hard for you?

JJ: No. I wanted to be here and felt very lucky that there was a country next door that I could come to. I didn’t have the kind of attachment to America that gave me identity. I had some identity of my own. It didn’t depend on my being an American. I was just as real when I was in Canada.

EW: You soon had an effect on the city of Toronto, but how do you feel you, in turn, have been shaped by life in Toronto and in Canada?

JJ: It’s a much more civil place, and not as cruel a place as America, and I like this. Sometimes, it’s a little too much. For instance, sometimes in Canada and Toronto, you feel, when you’re talking to somebody, as if you’re talking to a pillow, that they will not actually say what they think. But on the whole, the civility and politeness is a really nice thing. While I have in this interview accused various people of being stupid, I don’t do it to people’s faces as much as I would have in New York.

EW: When you say “less cruel,” what do you mean?

JJ: Well, I have to amend that, with our current provincial government, and with the one in Alberta, and the one doing all kinds of cruel things in British Columbia, I won’t say that Canada is so much less cruel. There are a lot of really mean-spirited people in Canada. These provincial governments I’ve just mentioned are really mean spirited. It’s a funny thing. In New York, if you were in a battle and got the good words from somebody in government—nice compliments and things for your side—you began to shudder because one side always got the good words and the other side got the good deed. That was the politically sensible thing, you see, to try to placate both sides. Now, for all its civility, that’s something that Canadian politicians just never seemed to have learned, at least provincial ones. They are terrible towards the school system and at the same time they say the meanest things they can think of about it. They’re not even giving the side that they’re hurting the good words. So that’s rather cruel, for the sake of cruelty. There are very resentful people running what I think of now as the Northern Alliance of provincial warlords. Very resentful people. They’re getting their jollies out of kicking people—children or communities or the school system. And they seem to be under the belief that people my age are sitting around by choice in doctors’ offices using public money. Malingerers. So maybe under all this civility there was a lot of resentment that is only coming out now. It’s unfortunate.

EW: To go back to the city itself, as a kind of literary metaphor, the city was traditionally a golden place, and the notion of the city as a focus of corruption and evil is, as you point out, a relatively recent one. Is there a model of a golden city in your mind?

JJ: No, there isn’t. Every city I know of has problems and has made mistakes. But as long as it’s alive, and as long as its young people are attached to it and will still work at it, there’s always hope and there’s always the possibility of becoming better.
The world is full of people with plans to do things that they’re very interested in, and very creative about. This includes people who are writing plays or painting pictures, people who are designing buildings or inventing things. What excites me is the aggregate of all those live, active people and the things they’re trying to do.

EW: Your first book was in part fuelled by anger. What angers you most today?

JJ: One thing that angers me is the way most foreign aid is delivered, especially to the poorest countries. I think it’s pretty well known now that most of the African countries that have gotten aid are worse off now than they were twenty years ago. That’s not a politically popular or correct thing to say because it sounds as if I don’t think they should receive any more aid. What I’m saying is, it has to be done differently. It’s become conventional for countries that have contributed to that aid that’s turned out to be minus and hurtful—actually hurtful, in many cases—to blame the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. Well, they’re culpable, all right, for doing things wrong, but Canada’s culpable, too. A lot of Canada’s foreign aid is what is called “tied” foreign aid. The countries that receive it don’t have a choice, really, of what they’re getting. Perhaps it’s certain kinds of engineering expertise for building dams, or certain other products. That’s what Canada’s contributing, and it’s really for the benefit of the Canadian economy. It’s a way of getting taxpayers to subsidize our own industries or services or products under the much more palatable-sounding foreign aid. The first priority is not at all the well-being of the country getting tied aid.

EW: What do you think of the resurgence in activism that’s being played out at these international globalization conferences?

JJ: I’m glad to see it. I’m glad to see that people are caring about the world and not just thinking, Oh, that’s far away and it doesn’t affect me.

EW: What’s the view like now, from your home on Albany Street? What do you observe around you?

JJ: I’m often amazed at how peaceful it is. And how lucky I am. And what a rare thing it is to live such a charmed kind of life. I don’t want to be a parasite on the Earth. So much has been given to me—a nice house, space, lovely neighbours. I don’t take it for granted.

EW: What discoveries do you still make, just outside your door?

JJ: I’ve discovered that I’m very envious of the people who skateboard and have in-line skates. I was a very enthusiastic rollerskater as a small child, but we didn’t have skates that were nearly that wonderful. I just wish I could be on those skateboards or wearing in-line skates now. I was an enthusiastic cyclist and so I’m envious of the people who can still bicycle, but I don’t feel I missed that. So I watch what people use to move around and there’s plenty to see that’s new. Who would think that the wheel could still have so many inventions left?

From Original Minds: Conversations with CBC’s Eleanor Wahctel. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright © 2003 by Eleanor Wachtel. All rights reserved.

Eleanor Wachtel is the host and co-founder of CBC Radio’s Writers & Company, now in its twenty-seventh season. She has also published five books of interviews, most recently The Best of Writers & Company (Biblioasis).

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