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Jane Jacobs Live
26/05/2004

Last night I was at Jane Jacobs' reading for her new book Dark Age Ahead. (See my review here, an excerpt here, and links to more reviews here.)

The event was at The Berkeley Church on Queen Street East, and we were packed in like sardines. Organizer Book City said that they have never had an event sell out so fast.

CBCer Andy Barrie was the moderator, and he did much of the talking -- introducing Jane, reading the passage (pages 81-87, about the Chicago heat wave), and asking questions of her to structure the flow.

I have seen Jane Jacobs speak before, and what I have noticed is that she moves rather slowly. (Not surprising for an 88-year-old.) At first, it might sound like she's simply wandering, but if you pay attention she's making a lot of sense. And if you give her enough time, she ultimately closes all her parentheses, and brings it all together as one big idea. Unfortunately, during the free-flow discussion, Andy Barrie would interrupt too soon. He gave lots of time -- maybe 5-10 minutes -- but to get the full richness, he would have had to let her talk longer for each point.

Anyway, here are some points...

Her Tipping Point

Andy Barrie pointed out that in her previous book, she talked about living in a "great age". Something must have happened since then, since she clearly went from a sunny view, to a dark one. What?

Well, what it comes down to is that the big event that changed her outlook, and brought along all this concern and worry, was the megacity amalgamation and the whole "reinventing government" process that was brought down on Toronto by the Harris team. She witnessed too many disasters and too much destruction -- not only of our institutions, but of our ability to self-govern and to operate effectively.

Paul Martin: Dunderhead, or Idiot?

Jane denied calling Paul Martin a "dunderhead", as was reported by Michael Valpy.

She said -- and I paraphrase from rough notes -- "That word isn't in my vocabulary. I don't know what it means; it sounds like thunderhead. I wouldn't call anyone a dunderhead... but I might call somebody an "idiot".

Mayor Art Eggleton: Mediocre, but Decent

Jacobs recounted a story about a fight over building a new form -- a good form, in her view -- of affordable housing in her neighbourhood. Her neighbours fought against it, while she supported it. (And she called her neighbours snobs, since they freely admitted they would accept the same structure with luxury units inside instead.)

Art Eggleton, to her, was a mediocre mayor, but she defended him from the laughter of the audience. She told a story of how he gave an eloquent speech standing on top of a bulldozer, and convinced the residents to let the project go ahead. She said that Eggleton was a good guy, who was educated by his constituents. I.e., the community had a momentum behind it that showed Eggleton how to behave.

She didn't say so, but this is precisely the sort of thing that can be lost in the Dark Age that she is warning us about. If our politicians stop listening to us, and if we have no local democracy and no local influence, we might stop trying, and forget all about how to bring our communities together and do things right. Once we forget how, we might even forget that things once worked that way. In other words, mass amnesia -- not only forgetting how we made our society successful, but even forgetting what it is that we have lost -- is how we head into a decline that can be hard to reverse.

Some Remarks on Politics

  • Getting into politics yourself is an admirable way to try to make a difference... so long as you don't mind giving up what you really want to do, and you don't mind making your life absurd.
  • She doesn't agree that the people get the governments they deserve. "People aren't that bad!"
  • We have a duty to notice who we are voting for and hold them to the standard we'd like to be held to if elected.
  • We also need to tell them what we think of them. If they are stinkers, we need to argue with them. We need to be able to argue fearlessly with the authorities (to provide essential feedback).
  • We also need to pay attention to feedback. Jacobs gives the example of the acclaim that Metro Toronto received. She says that actually it was a worse-than-futile government, consisting of petty, mean wrangling.

New Urbanism

Jacobs slammed New Urbanism, saying that it only produces more urban sprawl, but with porches.

This is as a result of the 3 rules of planners, that she says have come down as unsubstantiated dogma, contrary to the evidence of experience:

  1. High ground coverages are bad
  2. High densities are bad
  3. The mingling of commercial or other work uses with residences is bad

With these three rules in place, nothing good will come. See page 153 of her book for more.

See More Jane

And if you want to see more of Jane Jacobs, she'll be part of Ideas that Matter on June 21 at U of T.


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