Jane Jacobs & The Neighborhoods of Toronto

“People would ask me after we had decided to stay, “Well, when are you coming back?” “Well, we’re not. We are living here.” “Oh, but you can’t just—you’ve got to come back to real life.” And I would say, “It’s just as real.” This is very hard for Americans to understand and I think that may be the biggest difference between Americans and people elsewhere. Canadians know that there are places just as real as Canada.”

-Jane Jacobs, on moving from New York to Toronto, from a March 2001 interview by Jim Kunstler for Metropolis Magazine

June 5, 2012, Washington, DC: The late Jane Jacobs is best known in the States for her years as a quintessential New Yorker: Her observations about city living on Greenwich Village’s Hudson Street and her vocal opposition to building a highway on the Lower East Side shaped not only the city itself, but influenced the way we think about major metropolises. But the godmother of urban studies would later make another city her home. In the late 1960s, Jacobs, then in her early 50s, relocated with her family from New York to Toronto, where she was actively involved from the get-go both in the city’s politics and in the more subtle rhythms of its lively streets. Shortly after moving in, Jacobs helped put an stop to the completion of Toronto’s Spadina Expressway, a proposed north-south highway that would chop the city in half, just as she had spoken up against Robert Moses in New York. Various Toronto writers at the time of Jacobs’ death in 2006 reminisced about seeing her out and about on Bloor St. in the Annex neighborhood where she lived near Bathhurst subway station and lingering regularly in her neighborhood bookstore, always vigorously participating in her hometown. Jacobs lived in Toronto for nearly half her life and became a Canadian citizen in 1974.

For those of us who believe in Jacobs’ conviction that strong, active and diverse neighborhoods are the lifeblood of successful cities, the proof is every bit as evident in Toronto as it is in New York.

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A Neighborhood Valentine

“Neighborhood is a word that has come to sound like Valentine. As a sentimental concept, “neighborhood” is harmful to city planning. It leads to attempts at warping city life into imitations of town or suburban life. Sentimentality plays with sweet intentions in place of good sense.”

-Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

February 14, 2012: It’s not often I disagree with Jane Jacobs, the godmother of urban planning. But I take issue with the notion that getting sentimental about our city neighborhoods is a bad thing. An emotional connection to these places does not oversimplify them or make them more provincial. We wouldn’t live here if that’s what we were after. The qualities we love (yes, love) most about these city neighborhoods are the very qualities that make them urban.

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A Train Home From Philly

October 10, 2011, Washington, DC:  What a luxury it is to travel by train on a Sunday afternoon down the northeast corridor. On yesterday’s ride, the sun was sinking and the air was warm enough that boats still sprinkled the Susquehanna River. The towns and waterways between Wilmington and Baltimore zoomed by in a golden blur. Just west, traffic was likely building down I-95; overhead was some of the busiest air space in the country. But there on the train tracks we were making good time, carrying students back to school after a holiday weekend at home, shuttling professionals into the routines they keep Monday through Friday.

For two hours back to Washington, my time was my own, with extra leg room. I had the freedom to write, to let someone else drive, to reflect on my first ever visit to the city of Philadelphia.

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Jane Jacobs in the Age of Twitter

July 11, 2011, Washington, DC: More on the origins of this project: Roots of this project are evident in an undergraduate course I took at Columbia University, called The History of the City of New York. Best class I ever took. In that class, professor Ken Jackson, an expert in urban development and the effects of suburbanization, had us plowing through the writings of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, powerhouses who helped shape the ways we think about city growth. We considered ways in which the streets and the sidewalks and the highways throughout the city impacted our lives. In that class, we learned about our surroundings by getting out: Weekends were spent fulfilling course requirements on walking tours. The class culminated in an an overnight bike ride through New York City led by Prof. Jackson himself.

It was during that course that the writings of Jane Jacobs began to stick with me — so much so that I’m still thinking them over. What would Jane Jacobs make of these places we live today, of neighborhood transformations like those on Washington, D.C.’s H St. or the southeast waterfront? Are the evolutions of these places measuring up to her standards for well-functioning city neighborhoods? And what would Jane Jacobs think of all the time we now spend in our virtual world instead of our physical one? What would Jane Jacobs — an observer so big on the concept of “eyes on the street” — make of how we interact (and often don’t interact) in the age of Twitter?

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