Jane Jacobs Interviewed by Jim Kunstler

For Metropolis Magazine, March 2001

September 6, 2000: Toronto Canada


Toronto always gives me the strange sensation of being in a parallel universe, one in which you might be in a great American city -- say, Detroit, St. Louis, or Cleveland -- if only we Americans had not gone through the cultural convulsions of the post-war era and tossed our cities into the dumpster of history. Hollywood uses Toronto constantly as a set for Anycity, USA, but the truth is that Toronto is in much better shape than almost any American city.

In Toronto you see office buildings every bit as hideous and grandiose as in America, and the same overly broad streets, poorly furnished with medians, trees, and other urban decor considered impediments to express motoring. But, despite these shortcomings, Toronto is alive. Its downtown streets are teeming with people. Multitudes of them actually live in the city center in apartment buildings and houses, and the sidewalks are jammed, in some places until late at night. The public realm, where the buildings meet the sidewalk, is activated. This demonstrates that a New World city can remain alive despite the formal idiocies of Modernist urban theory and practice. Toronto is what many American cities wish they could be.

Jane Jacobs, the American urbanist, author of "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," "Cities and the Wealth of Nations," "Systems of Survival," and other books, lives here. She will tell you in her own words below how she happened to land in Toronto.. I found her at home, in the Annex neighborhood on a serene residential street off Bloor, the main drag of the University of Toronto, which in that vicinity resembles the Eighth Street shopping district of Greenwich Village, where Ms. Jacobs lived and wrote so famously years ago. There are the boutiques and the bistros of all nations, along with copy shops, oriental groceries, and shoe-repair joints. Ms. Jacobs home, a block or so up from Bloor, is a Toronto "double," a type of semi-detached brick row house with a generous neo-classical white wooden porch, a Dutch-style gable-end, and ivy growing up the wall. It is still a bohemian street, with some houses in better shape than others, including some student slums, looking all in all casually dignified.

Ms. Jacobs lives here alone now, her architect-husband having passed away in in 1998. One son and his family live right down the block, though, and see her often. She is 83 now, and was a little incapacitated from knee surgery when I stopped by on a bright September afternoon this year. The inside of her house was pretty pure Sixties Bohemian Intellectual. The Jacobs had removed some interior walls, so the first floor kitchen, dining room, and living room all flowed together. There was a great groaning wall of books, of course, and other surfaces were still painted the bright colors of the Go-Go era, when the family moved there. Near the bay window in front she displayed a native-American breastplate and her tablecloth in the dining room was a bold aboriginal print. There were drawings by her daughter, who lives in the backwoods of British Columbia, and lots of family photographs everywhere. Her office is a spare bedroom upstairs in the rear where it is especially quiet.

Ms. Jacobs still looks like that famous photo of her taken in the White Horse tavern in the West Village three dacades ago (a cigarette in one hand and a beer mug in the other). Her hair is the same silvery helmet with bangs, and her big eyeglasses emphasize her role as the ever-penetrating observer, with an impish overlay. She still likes to drink beer, and worked on a bottle of some dark local brew while we talked. She was alert, humorous, and apart from her injured knee seemed to be in fine condition.

Jane Jacobs grew up in Scranton, Pa., the daughter of a doctor and a school-teacher. She worked briefly as a reporter for the Scranton Tribune and then went to New York City, where she plugged away as a freelance writer until she landed a staff job with Architectural Forum in 1952. The job gave her a priviliged perch for observing the fiasco of post-war "urban renewal" and all its evil consequences. A decade later, she seized the imagination of an otherwise extremely complacent era when she declared so starkly in "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" that the experiment of Modernist urbanism was a thumping failure, and urged Americans to look instead to the traditional wisdom of the vernacular city and its fundamental unit, the street, instead of the establishment gurus. This was the first shot in a war that has been ongoing ever since. Decades later, her book become one of the seminal texts of the New Urbanism (along with the books of Lewis Mumford, who was at first a great supporter of hers and then an adversary when she criticized the Garden Cities movement that was so dear to him. . . but she will tell you about that quarrel herself.)

Ms. Jacobs suffered the opprobrium of the architectural and planning establishment for decades. They never recovered from her frontal assualt, including the sinister Robert Moses, who fell from power not long after he tangled with Ms. Jacobs on his proposal to run a freeway through Washington Square. One can say pretty definitively that she won the battle and the war, though the enormous inertia of American culture still acts as a drag on a genuine civic revival here. By the mid 1960s, her interests and writings broadened to take in the wider issues of economics and social relations, and by force of intellect she compelled the cultural elite to take seriously this untrained female generalist -- and wonderful prose stylist -- who had the nerve to work out large ideas on her own. Naturally, her books are now part of the curriculum.

We were steated at her dining room table for the course of this dialog, which has been edited a follows.

James Howard Kunstler (JHK) and Jane Jacobs (JJ)

JHK: What was it like for you coming to New York for the first time?

JJ: The first time I was ever in New York I was twelve years old. Let’s see I was born in 1916 so that would have been 1928 and it was before the crash. And I went with the parents of some friends and I guess we drove there. I guess the car was left in New Jersey. Anyway we got over on a ferry and we landed in downtown Manhattan. And I was flabbergasted at all the people in the streets. It was lunchtime in Wall Street in 1928 and that was…the city was just jumping. It was all full of people.

JHK: What year did you come there to live full-time?

JJ: That was, let’s see, ’34.

JHK: And what was your impression then? Was it a different…ah?

JJ: Well, yes it was different…because it was the difference between the high tide of the twenties prosperity and depression.

JHK: Was it palpable—could you really feel it and see it?

JJ: I could see contrasts, even from that first visit. Especially downtown. There were a lot more unemployed people in ’34 and there weren’t any in ’28.

JHK: Where did you find yourself going when you got to New York in the twenties. Did you just naturally find your way into Greenwich Village or did you start elsewhere?

JJ: My sister was already there. She was six years older than I was.

JHK: What was she doing?

JJ: She had studied interior design in Philadelphia—the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Arts—I don’t think it exists anymore, but it was a good school. And so she came to New York hoping to get a job as a designer. But she couldn’t in the Depression. She got a job in a department store—Abraham and Strauss in Brooklyn, in the home furnishings department—that was the nearest thing she could get to her line. So I came along and she had been living on East 94th Street. Imagine, she and several other girls they lived in this house. It was a rooming house. It was very cheap rent. This is a very expensive area now.

JHK: Yeah, but the Jacob Rupert Brewery was up there until 1957. I lived on 93rd Street for a while myself. You would go through these brewing cycles when the neighborhood would be full of this smell of beer and hops.

JJ: Well she moved to Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights, to a house that is not there anymore. It was a six-story walk-up and we lived on the top floor. It was a nice neighborhood though. It was near the St. George Hotel. It was before the highways went in there. So I would go looking for a job every morning. I would look in the newspaper and see what seemed likely and which employment agencies were advertising. I would usually walk over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan because we were there near the Brooklyn Bridge. And then after I was turned down for all these jobs I would spend the rest of the day looking around where I had ended up. Or if I had ended up in a place where I had already looked around I would spend a nickel on the subway and go arbitrarily to some other stop and look around there. So I was roaming the city in the afternoons and applying for jobs in the morning. And one day I found myself in a neighborhood I just liked so much…it was one of those times I had put a nickel in and just invested something. And where did I get out? I just liked the sound of the name: Christopher Street — so I got out at Christopher Street, and I was enchanted with this neighborhood, and walked around it all afternoon and then I rushed back to Brooklyn. And I said, "Betty I found out where we have to live." And she said, "Where is it?" And I said, "I don’t know, but you get in the subway and you get out at a place called Christopher Street." So we went to look for a place where you got out of the subway at Christopher Street.

JHK: What did you find?

JJ: We found an apartment on Martin Street. I had a job by then, I guess we didn’t go looking immediately. And one of those mornings I hit the jackpot and got a job.

JHK: And what was it?

JJ: It was in a candy manufacturing company as a secretary.

JHK: So you did a bit of secretarial stuff.

JJ: Oh I did secretarial work for about five years.

JHK: Did you have any inkling that you were going to be a professional intellectual?

JJ: No, but I did have an inkling that I was going to be a writer. That was my intention.

JHK: Did you hang out with any of the Greenwich Village bohemians of the day?

JJ: No.

JHK: Did you see them around?

JJ: Yes, I guess I did. But I didn’t have any money to hang out in bars. We were living very close to the bone. In fact there were considerable times when Betty and I were living on Pablum because my father was a doctor and he told us that the most important thing was to keep our health and that we should not skimp on nourishing food. So when we didn’t even have any money for nourishing food we knew that Pablum for babies was full of nourishment and we also knew that bananas were good and milk. And so that’s what we would live on until we got a little more money. It was a powder that you mixed up and it was not good.

JHK: Sounds a little grim.

JJ: Yeah, but we had a good time and we didn’t go for long periods on this and we did keep our health and it was nourishing food.

JHK: Well, yeah, if you think in the sense that astronauts eat stuff out of tubes.

JJ: That’s right. I don’t want to give you the impression that we lived for long periods like this. Maybe toward the end of the week…

JHK: Tell me how you found yourself venturing into the life of a public intellectual.

JJ: Well, I began writing articles right away. And this combined with my afternoons I had spent looking at different areas of the city, and I wrote a series of articles that Vogue bought about different areas of the city. The fur district—you see they had something to do with the kind of things that the readers of Vogue were presumably interested in—although I didn’t know who I was writing these for when I wrote them. But then I saw what I was doing and I tried this.

JHK: It must have been exciting to sell magazine articles.

JJ: It was. I got $40 a piece for them.

JHK: That was a lot of money then.

JJ: A lot of money! -- because at the job I had, I got twelve dollars a week. Of course I didn’t sell many of these. I wrote about the fur district, the flower district, the leather district, let me see, the diamond district, which was down on the Bowery then. So I was trying to be a writer all the time. And eventually, not right away, but later on, I got to write Sunday feature stories for the Herald Tribune. But I didn’t get paid as well for those. But then I wrote a few things for Q Magazine, oh about manhole covers, how you could tell what was running underneath you by reading what was on the manhole covers.

JHK: You hadn't gone to college, by the way?

JJ: Well, I hadn’t wanted to go to school after I finished high school. I was so glad to get out.

JHK: Were you a troublemaker?

JJ: Yes.

JHK: I sympathize—I didn’t like school either.

JJ: I would break paper bags in the lunch room and make explosions and I would be sent to the principal, and that kind of thing. I was not really a troublesome person. I was not really destructive in any way, but I was mischievous.

JHK: Were you a comedian?

JJ: Sort of, yeah.

JHK: Naturally I was reviewing some of your books the last couple of weeks. They stand up so beautifully. One would have to suppose at the time that you wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities that you were pretty ticked off at American culture. For instance you wrote, "It may be that we have become so feckless as a people that we no longer care how things work but only the kind of quick, easy outer impression that they get." And you wrote that around 1960 or the late 50s.

JJ: Yeah, I was working on that book…I began in 1958 and finished it in 1960.

JHK: Well, it seems to me that American life has changed very little in that regard. In fact I actually go around on the lecture circuit telling audiences that we are a wicked people who deserved to be punished…and I am not religious. So what was your state of mind. Were you ticked off at American culture? Was it the culture of civic design? Was it Robert Moses? Was it some combination of those things? Was it the Bauhaus? What was it that was getting under your skin in those days?

JJ: Well what was getting immediately under my skin was this mad spree of deceptions and vandalism and waste that was called urban renewal. And the way it had been adopted like a fad and people were so mindless about it and so dishonest about what was being done. That’s what ticked me off, because I was working for an architectural magazine and I saw all this first hand and I saw how the most awful things were being excused.

JHK: You must have already been acquainted with things like Corbusier’s "Radiant City" and some of the schemes from the 20s and the Bauhaus. By this time Gropius had become installed at Harvard and Mies Van der Rohe…

JJ: I didn’t have any feeling about these one way or another. It was just another way of building. I didn’t have any ideology, in short. When I wrote that about "we may become so feckless as a people" I had no ideology.

JHK: But you were angry.

JJ: But I was angry at what was happening and what I could see first hand was happening. It all came to me first hand. I didn’t have any abstractions about American culture. In the meantime I had gone a couple years to Columbia but I hadn’t been taking classes in American Culture. I sat in on one in Sociology for a while and I thought it was so dumb. But I had a wonderful time with various science courses and other things that I took there. And I have always been grateful for what I learned in those couple of years. But I’ll tell you something that had been worrying me: I liked to visit museums that showed old time machines and tools and so forth. And I was very struck. There was one of these museums in Fredricksburg, Virginia, which was my father’s hometown. He was from a farm near Fredricksburg. I was very struck with the way these old machines were painted. They were painted in a way to show you how they worked. Evidently the makers of them and the users of them cared about how these things were put together and how what moved what so that other people would be interested in them. I used to like to go to the railroad station in Scranton and watch the locomotives. I got a big bang out of seeing the locomotives and those pistons that moved the wheels. And that interested me how they were moved by those things and then the connection of that with the steam inside and so on. In the meantime, along had come these locomotives that had skirts on them and you couldn’t see how the wheels moved and that disturbed me. And it was supposed to be for some aerodynamics reason, but that didn’t make sense. And I began to notice how everything was being covered up and I thought that was kinda sick.

JHK: So the whole streamlining of the 30s bugged you?

JJ: That’s right. So I remember very well what was in my mind "that we become so feckless as a people that we no longer care how things work." It was those skirts on the locomotives that I was thinking about and how this had extended to "we didn’t care how our cities worked anymore." We didn’t care to show where the entrances were in buildings and things like that. That’s all I meant. It was not some enormous comment on abstract American society. And I thought this is a real decadence of some sort.


Continue to Part Two