protector and defender of the neighborhood -- 3/30/20

Today's selection from Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs by Robert Kanigel. Jane Jacobs, well-known author and urban activist, was a force to be reckoned with:

"Jane Jacobs's words did not reach her admirers solely through her writ­ings. Many of her acolytes knew her not through Death and Life, or her lesser-known books, but through her work as an urban activist. To them, especially during the 1960s and early 1970s, that was her day job. One time, city authorities wanted to run a road right through the park where Jane's kids played. Another time, they wanted to write off her whole Greenwich Village neighborhood as a slum, bringing it under Urban Renewal's dark, unlovely sway. Then they were going to all but lop off the whole bottom of Manhattan Island with a big expressway and, it looked like, destroy her whole way of life.

"What else could she do but try to stop it? So she stood up and spoke at public meetings. She wrote forceful, sometimes angry letters. She had friends spy on city authorities. She helped organize protests; once, she managed to get herself arrested, and had four felony indictments thrown at her.

"Neighbors would come by for strategy sessions around her kitchen table, deciding on what facts and figures to gather, or how to maneuver some city official to come around. Jane wasn't the one to go around col­lecting signatures. Most often, she was the master strategist, often the public face of protest, getting up at public meetings to harangue the plan­ners, or the developers, or city officials, or whoever else was the enemy this time. Most of the time, she won, as she did in fighting the New York planning czar Robert Moses to a standstill, defeating his Lower Manhat­tan Expressway; 'Jane took an axe to Moses and killed him,' her long time editor, Jason Epstein, would say.

Mrs. Jane Jacobs, chair of the Comm. to save the West Village, 
holds up documentary evidence at press a conference at Lions Head
Restaurant at Hudson & Charles streets

"And when her neighbors weren't a little put off by the sheer impudence of her urban battle strategies, the fierce single-mindedness with which she waged her wars, they loved her. That was how they remembered her -- as protector and defender of the neighborhood. When she became famous and the magazines and news­papers needed something to call her they depicted her as 'the Barbara Fritchie of the Slums,' or as a 'Madame Defarge leading an aroused pop­ulace to the barricades.'

"So prominent were some of these battles -- they loom in collective memory in part thanks to books and articles that almost reflexively pair her with Robert Moses, her David to his Goliath -- that they make it sound like this is what she was, that here, in this work on behalf of her community, was the real Jane Jacobs: organizer, activist, radical, a woman of the people who'd risen up out of the gritty city streets to fight city hall. She was all that, and though she never quite said so, she must have derived satisfaction from it. More often, though, she went on the record to say some something like this: '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 neighbors.' To listen to Jane, it all made for an interruption from her real work.

"Indeed, each time she was through battling one civic opponent or another, it was not as if she sought out the next dragon to slay; rather, like Cincinnatus, the statesman who relinquished the scepter of leader­ship after defeating each challenge to Rome, Jane returned to the work she'd been forced to give up during the crisis of the moment. Now, once again, she'd mark off hours away from her family, instruct her husband and children to let no one in to see her. And there, amid her books and notes and typewriter, she'd resume the close reading, the hard thinking, the endless laboring over words and ideas, that made her one of the pre­mier intellectual figures of the twentieth century."



Robert Kanigel


Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs


Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House


Copyright 2016 by Robert Kanigel


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