Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Jane Jacobs Soldiers ON.

June 29, 2004
War? Terrorists? No, Here's What's Really Scary


FOUR decades after she fought to save Washington Square Park and wrote "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," a seminal book that has reshaped urban planning to this day, Jane Jacobs sits on her weather-beaten front porch here, contemplating the untended meadow that is her front yard and waving to neighbors as they walk by.

At 88, she has trouble taking even a few steps without her walker to dump junk mail into a recycling bin she keeps handy on the veranda.

"I used to bicycle to work," she recalled with a nostalgic grin and widening eyes that still twinkle through her big eyeglasses. "There are compensations, though. The older you get, the more loose ends that you've observed through life get tied up. And that's interesting."

Ms. Jacobs's tying up of loose ends has produced a quirky, somewhat scattered but typically iconoclastic new book, "Dark Age Ahead" (Random House), her eighth. As its title so bleakly suggests, it sounds a litany of warnings about Western society, which she sees as tilting toward a steep decline, or at least a critical reckoning.

"The purpose of this book is to help our culture avoid sliding into a dead end," she writes at the start of the compact, 241-page work. At the end, she concludes, "Formerly vigorous cultures typically fall prey to the arrogant self-deception for which the Greeks had a word, 'hubris.' "

In reaching her gloomy conclusions, Ms. Jacobs barely skims over such possibilities of calamity as terrorism, nuclear war and environmental degradation. Rather, she calls those mere symptoms of what she views as more fundamental, less obvious ailments: the breakdown of the family, the decline of higher education, lapses of modern science, tax systems that do not distribute money fairly and the inadequate self-regulation of professions. These, for her, are signs that the very pillars that support society are rotting.

She says it is natural for societies to "make mistakes and get off balance," but then they correct themselves. "What seems different about this situation is the stabilizers themselves are in trouble," she said one recent afternoon. "If the stabilizers go, what do we depend on?"

Ms. Jacobs also sees dark clouds looming over some staples of contemporary life. She predicts that the current explosion in housing prices will prove to be a bubble, though she cannot say whether it will pop before or during "the coming demographic bulge in retirements."

She also says the sprawling suburbs of North America are not sustainable. "One of the most destabilizing things about the suburbs and a symptom of their destabilization is the kind of transportation they need," she said, referring to gas-guzzling cars and sport utility vehicles. "Society is shaping something that is dysfunctional."

IN her book, she writes that once the housing bubble bursts, many owners of suburban lots will "no doubt sell their land and buildings to developers who plan to put them to more intensive use by building apartment houses, low-cost condominiums and spaces for small businesses." And, "resourceful owners will convert their rec rooms to low-cost rental suites."

Diatribes against suburbia and the automobile come naturally to Ms. Jacobs, a committed city dweller - stronger on life experience than academic credentials - who led the community movement in the 1950's and 60's against a freeway that would have gone through the West Village and Washington Square. Her 1961 classic, "Great American Cities," challenged the urban redevelopment that was transforming American cities; in it, she contended that vital communities depended on the varied street life and small-scale virtues of densely settled neighborhoods.

After 30 years in New York City, she and her husband, Robert Jacobs, left for Canada in the late 60's in protest of the Vietnam War. In Toronto, she led fights to save neighborhoods and gracious landmarks like Union Station. Ms. Jacobs, now a widow, still visits New York from time to time. Here, she remains a force in urban-planning debates and still resides in the Annex, a multiethnic, multiclass neighborhood in downtown Toronto that fits her prescription for healthy urban life. Her street has plenty of trees for shade and porches for neighborly conversation and is only a block from busy Bloor Street with its wide variety of stores, restaurants and robust street life.

Her sensibilities may seem a throwback to the 60's, but she takes a view in her writings and conversations that dates back long before Bob Dylan. About her unkempt front yard, for instance, she says those are not wild, overgrown weeds but "native plants" that are far more appropriate there than some immaculately cut, dandelion-free yard of grass.

"It's not wholesome to the environment to constantly put pesticides on lawns," she said. "Such lawns came from England. It was part of the plantation age. People with large estates and lots of animals had old money. That was prestige, which was a kind of fashion."

For Jane Jacobs, breaking that kind of fashion is the way to avert the next dark age.

"We human beings are not going to get stuck indefinitely on bad mistakes," she said with hope in her voice. "We're not helpless."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


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