In the twentieth century there are very few evocative citizens that were not planners that spoke out about cities, places, people and design. Of those that did, very few of them were writers and even fewer were women.
I had the opportunity to hear Jane Jacobs speak as part of a lecture series at Robson Square in the 1980’s. I had read her books, and pondered how she had arrived at her views about cities and places.
Ms. Jacobs was easy to listen to, engaged her audience, and like her books, championed thinking about places at smaller scale, celebrating neighbourhoods, local streets, and attention to the finer grain of urban design. I wrote about “meeting” Jane this first time here, when she talked about the unimaginative grey Vancouver point towers, and how vegetation like ivy was needed to soften and hide them.
Later, her son Ned Jacobs who lives in Vancouver told me that much that was written about Jane’s life was wrong. Thankfully there is a new book with meticulous research that will dispel this.
This new book on Jane Jacobs is written by Glenna Lang who teaches at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. Ms Lang has written and illustrated several books, two of them about Jane Jacobs. In this latest book, “Jane Jacobs’s First City: Learning from Scranton” Ms. Lang gets to the nub of the early Jane Jacobs, putting into context who she was, where she was raised, and the influences of the town she grew up in. Ms. Lang uses meticulous research, interviews and the documentation of Jane Jacobs’ visits back to Scranton to provide a context to the town, its culture, and its influence on Ms. Jacobs.
In doing that, Ms. Lang provides a peek into the politics, organization, and industrial drivers of a 19th century mining town that morphed into an industrial city, and puts into context the time and place that Jane Jacobs was born in, what her influences were, and how she shaped her practical and small scale philosophy of cities and places based upon her early life in Scranton Pennsylvania.
Jane Jacobs was born in 1916 in Scranton. Her father was a local physician in this town that thrived as a coal producing town during the first World War, and later became a manufacturing town. The book traces the history of Scranton, and that of Jane and her siblings through primary school and secondary school. Ms. Jacobs was expressive and an individual in school, speaking out for that which was right rather than that which was politically correct, and was an early girl scout. She had witnessed her father survive a harrowing car crash which influenced her own ideas that vehicles were not necessary in cities, and that other modes of transportation could trump vehicles. Indeed Scranton had the first electric streetcar line in North America in 1886 and was known as the “electric city”. With the growth of manufacturing and industrial uses in Scranton Jane Jacobs experienced what happened when zoning codes did not exist, and noxious uses were plunked close to places people lived in.
Through her father’s work with miners and factory workers she was exposed to ideas of equity and unions which are also featured in her writings. As Jane Jacobs developed as a journalist she moved to New York City in 1934.
During World War Two as a writer for the Iron Age magazine, she wrote compelling articles on how post-war cities needed to retool to civilian industries, and required federal assistance to make that leap. Her hometown of Scranton was used as an example in articles that were at the time not credited to her, but brought potential post-war business opportunities to the town.
Ms. Lang’s book is an interesting read putting into context the tremendous shift that Scranton made in the 20th century, from primary industry town that became deindustrialized, retooled and transformed to accommodate new opportunities and economic realities. There is also a fascinating chapter about Scranton’s downtown core which had many early buildings, some of which were demolished for a downtown mall.
The surviving buildings still form an early 20th century architectural core, and the placement of a university downtown has assisted in the refreshing of the downtown landscape to bring students, cultural life and active streetscapes back.
Ms. Lang’s book is a hat trick of discoveries. There is the piecing together of Jane Jacob’s early family life and her independent thinking, the rise and fall and rebirth of an industrial city, and the 20th century economic, cultural and historical context of changing business and industries. The book can be read from any of these three perspectives.
“Jane Jacob’s First City: Learning from Scranton” is an important read documenting and describing a century’s worth of morphing and change of place in one city that so influenced one of the 20th century’s most important urban thinkers. You can check out how to get a copy here.
Below is a beautiful short clip created by Patrick Bonaldi which has Jane reading from her book “Death and Life of Great American Cities. It describes some of her thoughts and philosophies about streets, connections, and the all important neighbourhood.