"Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody."
Those were the words of Jane Jacobs, the visionary urban planning activist who once wrote a treatise declaring "Downtown is for People."
Jacobs went to bat against former Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, chairing a committee to stop Moses' plan to build an expressway through Washington Square Park and the West Village. [embedgallery id="144512"]
Jacobs' legacy continues to resonate with New Yorkers today: in the comments section of a new YouTube video by anti-Spectra-Pipeline group Occupy the Pipeline, one commenter notes that the intended West Village gas pipeline will run alongside a toddler playground in Hudson River Park and laments, "What would Jane Jacobs do?"
This Saturday would have been Jacobs' 97th birthday, and New Yorkers are invited to take to her beloved city streets for the Municipal Arts Society's annual Jane's Walks.
MAS is offering 100 free walks and bike rides that will allow community residents to explore their neighborhoods and examine and discuss what does and doesn't "work" from every angle: from housing issues to immigrant rights to LGBT experience and more.
After half a lifetime of civic activism in New York City, Jacobs moved her draft-age sons to Toronto in 1968. She continued to be active in civic life there, and the first Jane's Walk happened in Toronto in 2007, a year after her death in 2006. A group of Jacobs' friends were looking for a way to memorialize her, and while ideas of a namesake park or street were floated, it was ultimately decided that the most fitting tribute to Jacobs would be "something that involved a lot of people and was active, and particularly that gave people a chance to get out and experience their neighborhood," explained one of those friends, Mary Rowe.
Rowe, Managing Director at the Municipal Arts Society, noted that while Jacobs split her life between two major cities with a lot in common — New York and Toronto are both major waterfront cities with large immigrant communities, vibrant neighborhoods, and significant financial centers — and loved them both, all of her books are set in New York.
"Even when she was living in Toronto, she still set her books in New York," Rowe said, noting that the books contained "lots and lots of lively conversation between characters."
"She said she had to set those in New York because Canadians were too polite," Rowe quipped.
Rowe marveled at the range of walks planned for this year, and explained an important aspect of the walks is that there is no real "leader": they're "hosted" by community residents. Rowe has hosted walks in three different cities, Toronto, New York, and New Orleans, and said that "invariably there are people in the group that point something out that nobody's heard of."
On one walk in Toronto, she recalled, they had stopped to discuss a seemingly out of place tree in the neighborhood, only to be approached by a woman nearby who explained that was "her tree": she had been caring for it for 25 years.