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HISTORY: The Gleaner looks back at 25 years (Nov. 2019)

December 9th, 2019 · No Comments

Lunch with Jane Jacobs in 1997

In May 2020, The Annex Gleaner celebrates 25 years of publishing. In celebration, we are republishing highlights of our past; this feature, Lunch with Jane Jacobs, was originally printed in August of 1997. Jacobs, the celebrated urban thinker, was a long-time Annex resident. Deanne Fisher, who interviewed Jacobs, is the founding editor of the Gleaner.

By Deanne Fisher

“Lunch is ready!” comes the call from down the hall in a warehouse on Eastern Avenue. Jane Jacobs, her friends, and I line up at the buffet table with the staff and volunteers of Field to Table, a multi-faceted non-profit organization that puts fresh produce on the tables of thousands of low-income Torontonians.

Lunch has been specially prepared for today’s honoured guest. Jane Jacobs – author, philosopher, activist – has come to test the menu for the banquet to be held later this month as part of the five-day celebration of ideas that bears her name. Each menu item has been selected by Jacobs and “has served some purpose in some period of my life,” she says. The meal was prepared by some local community kitchens – groups of people who have come together to either learn about food or start their own small businesses.

In fact, this low-key lunch with the folks at Field to Table represents one of the few ways that Jacobs is directly involved in organizing Jane Jacobs: Ideas that Matter, which takes place Oct. 15-19. The idea to celebrate her work was not her own, but came from Alan Broadbent, chair of Avana Capital Corporation.

“I regarded myself as a good excuse for a lot of people who should meet each other to get together,” says Jacobs. She agreed, she adds, on the condition that she not be expected to organize it. “I really prefer being a hermit and getting my work done.”

At the age of 81, Jacobs might be expected to retire from her long writing career. Instead, she is as busy as ever in her Albany Avenue home, emerging from time to time as issues or events like this one draw her out.

Jane Jacobs is like an urbanite’s Farley Mowat – someone who observes behaviour with incredible patience and diligence and records it in a way that makes entertaining reading. With research based on real people and communities, her ideas, however unconventional, become irrefutable to anyone willing to escape the confines of what they have been told about the way cities work.

Her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, provided a foundation for a loosely connected movement of architects, planners, politicians, and others concerned with retaining and creating livable cities that has endured for the 36 years since the book was first published. To quote from Jane Jacobs in defence of your own argument is tantamount to quoting scripture. 

That inevitably leads to distortions of her ideas to fit the issue of the day. Jacobs knows it happens but it isn’t a big concern. “I can’t run around correcting them or repeating myself. Anybody can read what I wrote.”

Remarkably, in the decades that have passed since Death and Life, Jacobs’s ideas about city planning have not changed in any significant way. “That’s because I was writing about principles, not about fads or styles,” she says.

It is perhaps both an asset and a liability for the city of Toronto – and for her neighbours in the Annex – that Jane Jacobs chose to settle here after leaving New York City in 1968. Within our midst is perhaps one of the most profound thinkers on issues of city planning, transportation, city economies, and the moral foundations of our society. Yet living up to the expectations of being home to Jane Jacobs is a challenge. Toronto continues to make mistakes; there are still disbelievers in our political and bureaucratic structures.

A gentle, generous, and utterly disarming individual, Jacobs has not withered into a complacent old lady. She still reserves harsh words for those who have failed to understand the basic principles of urban behaviour. Chief among her foes: civil engineers.

“At the turn of the century, one of the most exciting things a young man could do was become a civil engineer,” she says. “Then engineering went through a time when it was very dull and, to a degree, dull people chose to go into it.”

They still don’t teach Jane Jacobs 101 in engineering school and she has few converts within the profession. “They know it all already,” she says with sarcasm. “They got those great concepts in the 1938 World’s Fair and that was the last word in transportation. That’s why new ideas don’t come out of departments of transportation.”

This is the bitter side of Jane Jacobs – a cutting tone that can, if you’re on the wrong of a debate, send you squarely back to grade school.

I made the mistake of suggesting she and her family might have been pioneers when they made the decision to live in the Annex in the late 1960s, a time when the Annex was not the gentrified home of the almost-rich and quasi-famous that it is today. Jacobs objects to the question. “The last thing I would want to do is live in a place where everybody was like me,” she says, disputing the idea that it takes any degree of pioneering spirit to settle in an area largely populated by rooming house tenants and lower income residents.

This response reveals what is most overlooked about Jane Jacobs in public discourse: she is the quintessential egalitarian. She believes wholeheartedly in the ability of ordinary individuals to shape their own communities; the people who live in a place know best how to run it.

As we tour the warehouse, kitchen, and backyard growing projects at Field to Table, Jacobs approaches everything and everyone with the curiosity of a child. She learns from the people she meets – the young inventor who’s finding new ways to grow in the city’s confined spaces, the last farmer in Scarborough who’s dropped in with his latest harvest, volunteers packing boxes of fruit and vegetables specifically for Toronto’s Caribbean community. 

Her profound respect for “ordinary” people is reflected in her own self-imposed exclusion from the world of formal higher education. She admires, above all, people who enjoy learning. And as she says, “Highly educated people are not always people who keep learning.”

A few hours at Field to Table have disappeared. It’s time to head back home to the Annex. Jacobs is pleased with their versions of some of her favourite dishes and even more enthralled with the whole Field to Table operation. “It gives you hope for the human race.”

Tags: Annex · History