Walking the City with Jane: An Illustrated Celebration of Jane Jacobs and Her Legacy of Livable Cities
How a woman of great courage and great humanity changed the way we build cities, taught communities to stand up for themselves, and inspired generations to look up.
By Maria Popova
“Every walk is a sort of crusade,” Henry David Thoreau proclaimed in his manifesto for the spiritual rewards of sauntering. But it was a crusade easy to carry out in the woods of Walden, in an era before cars and highways and metropolises. A century later, it took manyfold more courage to defend walking and its broader democratic, humanistic, and spiritual implications against the forces of urbanization, capitalism, and merciless development. The task fell on another humanist of a high order — Jane Jacobs (May 4, 1916–April 25, 2006).
Jacobs saw urban communities as vibrant ecosystems and fought fiercely against power-hungry developers like Robert Moses, who tried to turn them into commodities for economic growth. Governed by her conviction that “people ought to pay more attention to their instincts” — a countercultural idea in a mechanical age, amid the mid-century boom of blind consumerism and industrialism — she revolutionized our ideas about what makes a livable, human-centric city. Her legacy inspired the wonderful Jane’s Walk — an annual festival of free, citizen-led peripatetic conversations in cities around the world, in which people get to hear and share the stories of their neighborhoods and communities.
Joining the loveliest picture-book biographies of cultural heroes is Walking in the City with Jane: A Story of Jane Jacobs (public library) by the prolific Canadian children’s book author Susan Hughes and French-Canadian illustrator Valérie Boivin.
The story begins with young Jane organizing her first citizen protest — when the teacher introduces the class to a toothbrush and demands that the kids promise to use it daily for the rest of their lives, Jane sees the demand as tyrannical and refuses to make the promise, rallying her classmates to do the same. Irate, the teacher sends her home.
Uncompelled by school, Jane finds herself learning best in the real world, exploring the curiosities all around her.
After high school, she moves to New York City and falls in love with its blooming, buzzing chaos of humanity.
She takes the subway to random stops, explores the neighborhoods around them, and marvels at the details of the city, finding patterns and connections between things like the letters on manhole covers and the complex grid of electricity, gas, and water undergirding the city.
Out of this arises the awareness that a city, like a niche in nature, is an ecosystem. The synergy of its various human and nonhuman components — neighborhoods, parks, stores, streets, sidewalks — is what makes it thrive.
It was a radical notion at a time when urban planners were labeling certain neighborhoods “slums” and mercilessly tearing down homes to replace them with grey, soulless high-rise office buildings.
After Jane marries the architect Bob Jacobs, she continues working as a journalist and championing humane cities in articles criticizing the dehumanizing forces of commerce-minded urban planning, all the while raising her three children.
One day, she receives the shocking news that Robert Moses has labeled her very own neighborhood a “slum” and is pushing a plan to bulldoze parts of it to expedite downtown traffic. A four-lane highway would slice through the local park.
After Jacobs leads a protest at the meeting where Moses is presenting his plan, he reports to city officials that nobody objects to the development — “NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY but a bunch of… a bunch of MOTHERS!” (One is reminded of Roosevelt’s timeless admonition that of all ruthless politicians, citizens should most mistrust “the man who appeals to them to support him on the ground that he is hostile to other citizens of the republic, that he will secure for those who elect him… profit at the expense of other citizens of the republic.”)
But Jacobs refuses to back down and persuades the city government to temporarily close the park to traffic. She comes up with the inspired idea of a “ribbon-tying ceremony” — a counterpoint to the ribbon-cutting ceremonies that mark openings, this celebration of the closure to traffic is led by her three-year-old daughter, Burgin, and a friend. The girls tie the ribbon on the iconic arch of Washington Square Park as neighbors rejoice in the triumph of Jacobs’s vision of a city made not for cars but for humans and bicycles and dogs and songbirds.
Moved by this unprecedented upswell of citizen resistance, the city eventually rejects Moses’s plan to sunder the park with a highway. Jacobs continues to protest Moses’s various plans prioritizing the city as a product over the city as a haven for people. She organizes protests that successfully prevent a colossal expressway aimed at the spine of Manhattan. Eventually, she is arrested, only to be celebrated as a local hero.
In an embodiment of Thoreau’s assertion that “under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” her arrest itself becomes a turning point as outraged “nobodies” use their civic might to deter city officials from moving forward with Moses’s plan.
The story ends with Jacobs’s move from New York to Toronto, where she continues fighting against the dehumanizing forces of development, modeling the civic courage by which communities stand up for themselves, and inspiring generations to walk wakefully through their cities — “to listen, linger, and think about what they saw.”
Complement the altogether delightful Walking in the City with Jane with cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on how to walk the city with new eyes, then revisit other wonderful picture-book biographies of great artists, writers, scientists, and revolutionaries: Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, Frida Kahlo, E.E. Cummings, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, John Lewis, Paul Erdős, Nellie Bly, and Muddy Waters.
Illustrations courtesy of Kids Can Press
Published June 13, 2018