Jane Jacobs was not an academic

I heard Jane Jacobs speak in Toronto around the early 1980s when I lived for a brief period on Toronto Island.

In those years the Toronto Island community on Ward Island and Algonquin Island was facing eviction at the hands of the Metropolitan Toronto government whose political leadership had a strong desire to turn the community into parkland. Jacobs strongly supported the eventually successful efforts – in which the Ontario NDP government played a key role – of the Island residents to save their community.

I recall a meeting at a critical point in the unfolding story where Jane Jacobs spoke in favour of the Islanders’ efforts to save their homes.

Strategic thinking

She spoke at the meeting about what she saw as the validity of the Islanders’ cause. She offered encouragement and advice. What came across was a sense of warmth, intelligence, and wisdom. Her face was expressive. Her eyes had a sparkle, a sense of joy. She was articulate and demonstrated a grasp of strategic thinking.

Hearing her speak was very inspiring, as is the memory of that day. I was aware that some people on the mainland would have been very happy to see the Islanders kicked off their land. She in contrast was on our side.

In those days, we didn’t have one big Toronto city as we do now. In the pre-amalgamation days, Toronto covered the downtown area and a ways beyond and was surrounded by separate area municipalities including North York, East York, Scarborough, and Etobicoke.

The Metro Toronto government represented the City of Toronto and the area municipalities that surrounded it.

Public opinion

Toronto Island residents were aware that the only people who could save their community were the Islanders themselves. They were also aware that in order to save their homes, they would need to get public opinion in Metro Toronto on their side.

As an Island resident, I learned from another resident the procedure for writing and sending out news releases – they were often called press releases in those days – to Toronto newspapers and radio and TV stations. In those years, I was working in Metro Toronto as a teacher, and began writing news releases to attract media attention to events at schools where I taught.

The first news release I wrote led to media coverage of a school trip at a school where I was teaching at the time. For the next twenty-five years, in my volunteer work, I wrote news releases and arranged for a wide range of interviews across Canada. During those years I learned many things about how media stories are researched and put together, often under tight deadlines.

Before I became a teacher, I had worked earlier as a (newspaper and magazine) freelance writer for five years, meaning that I had a sense of how to put together a news release by developing a “hook” that would attract the attention of editors and reporters.

In the years reading up to the Jane’s Walk that Mike James and I led in Long Branch on May 6, 2012, I read some of Jane Jacob’s last books, as they were published, including Systems of survival (1992) and Dark Age ahead (2004).

Observe, observe, observe

There are many ways to approach the legacy of Jane Jacobs. Her main message, as I see it, is that it’s helpful for us to be observant. It’s in our interests to look at things through our own eyes, instead of depending on varied other people to do it for us. As a writer comments in Block by block: Jane Jacobs and the future of New York (2007), what she had to say was: Observe, observe, observe.

Her key 1961 text had no photographs, as I recall. Instead of looking at photographs in a book, she said (and I paraphrase): “Look around you.”

She communicated a way of seeing, a way of looking at things. Another comment in Block by block (2007) is that Jacobs believed that respectful observation, conversation, and engagement are fundamental to understanding.

Observation, that is to say, is what each person must do, in the here and now. Whatever Jacobs herself observed, at the time she observed it, is good to know about.

But what she communicated is that what you and I observe, and converse about, and what engages our attention and motivates our action, in the present moment, is what matters.

The circumstances by which she arrived at her way of seeing are outlined in Reconsidering Jane Jacobs (2011).

Jacobs appeals to academics, and she learned many things from them, including – very early in her career – from Henri Pirenne, but she herself was not an academic. She occupied a vital border region between the academic worldview and the view that’s available to any person who cares to walk down a street and think closely about what she sees. That remains a key part of her legacy. She reminds us that what we see in front of us, if we care to look, matters.


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