September 9, 2016

Jane Jacobs has a few thoughts on “the new, wasteful, often destructive, but nevertheless exciting shape of the cities” in this 1969 Canadian TV segment


It seems to me that Toronto has kind of a split personality, a civic schizophrenia. On the one level there’s the spirit of individuals and small groups who do things, what you might call the vernacular spirit. This is all very informal, ingenious, quite romantic, and full of a great deal of fun. It seems to me that the official spirit of Toronto is stamp-out-fun, pompous, impressed with medirocrity if it’s very, very big and expensive.

In Montreal, I have a feeling that both the official spirit of the city, what’s understood as the top civic kind of thing, is changing, and also the spirit of the individual citizen of Montreal. They didn’t show the spirit of fun and adventure and adaptation of the city in little ways in the past. But now the official city seems to be taking much more cue than in the past from what the ordinary citizens want. And in turn the ordinary citizens, I gather, are losing some of their suspicion of the government, the establishment.

That is author, urban preservation activist, Last Interview series participant, and genial human inspiration Jane Jacobs speaking of the two biggest cities in Canada, her then-newly-adoptive homeland, to the CBC’s Ken Lefolii in 1969. Jacobs is a breath of air throughout the segment (particularly in contrast to Lefolii, who for some reason seems to be trapped inside a prolonged Rod Serling impression), and in the space of just eleven minutes she compares highways to spaghetti, praises Montreal’s creation of a “fairly continuous fabric of city,” and asserts, wonderfully, that “people usually do know whether they’re discriminated against or not, people know these things.”

Regardless of whether you’ve spent much time in the two particular cities Jacobs hones in on, she articulates with stunning clarity (and an infectious kind of amiability) some of the most salient questions about how cities work, a subject of constant interest to the savvy and creative minds of this world. Watch the full segment:

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) was the legendary author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a work that has never gone out of print and that transformed the disciplines of urban planning and city architecture. Her other major works include The Economy of Cities, Systems of Survival, The Nature of Economies, and Dark Age Ahead. Long a New Yorker, she moved to Canada in her early fifties, and spent the rest of her long life there. She once compared gentrifiers to “birds of passage,” was the first person other than Vincent Scully to win the Vincent Scully Prize (awarded by the National Building Museum), and was a member of both the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada. No word yet on whether Suzanne Vega ever finished that play about her.