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February 25th, 2017

Insight

She was a loner

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Sept. 30, 2016

 She was a loner

Jane Jacobs was an outsider when she began to point out what was all too clear to her. But now hers is the conventional wisdom. Or as a sage named Yogi Berra was once said to have pointed out, it's remarkable what one can observe just by watching.

Now scarcely a day passes without someone citing Ms. Jacobs' monumental work, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." But she wrote a lot more than one book in her time. Some geniuses do their best work piece by piece. Others just look around and report what they see, and that is far more than enough. She made a whole passel of distinguished adversaries in her time, the way this state's highway department can still be counted on to oppose any ideas but its own. To quote the urban historian Alan Ehrenhalt, "It's only a slight exaggeration to say that contemporary urban thought is a series of footnotes to Jane Jacobs."

Where did she come from? Scranton, Pa., and where was she headed? On to just about everybody's reading list -- conservative and liberal and in-between. For hers was "a classic case of an independent mind in conflict with received wisdom," according to Robert Kanigel, author of "Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs." The young Jane Butzner, he notes, was an indifferent student, paying attention to what would become her life's work in only fits and starts. She would eventually be acclaimed by everybody from the late great William F. Buckley Jr. as a great conservative to the leading lights on the left. They saw her as a prophetess who raised her voice against urban planners who wanted to plan everything in sight, including most of us. We would adjust or else.

Jane Jacobs would eventually enter Columbia University, that vast graveyard of hopes and dreams, but her so-so high-school record saved her from that sad fate. She was a self-taught intellectual, but couldn't have had a better teacher.

Dilatory but difficult, she was independent in the best way possible -- wandering about on her own. She was an amateur -- that is, one who loved what she was doing without any pretense of making a step-by-step academic career of it.

Then came the war in Vietnam, and the family absconded to Canada in order to keep her boys out of the draft. Jane Jacobs was stopped by the cops in Toronto. Her husband was pulled over for obstructing the view from his rear-view mirror by piling furniture in the back seat of their car. She was arrested for the heinous crime of jaywalking. Their 13-year-old daughter was stopped for walking down the street alone too early in the morning.

Knowing the ever polite Canadians, all concerned doubtless behaved respectfully. Lord only knows what would have happened down here south of the international border. Tabloid headlines? Riots? Demonstrations? Street brawls? Even worse? Welcome to Canada, land of the Maple Leaf forever.


It's all a wonderful cautionary tale, one to be long treasured by devoted fans of both countries, each so different in their own respective and respectful ways. With much to teach citizens/subjects of both domains. Nothing, it seems, is so impressive as good manners, and nothing so impressive as bad ones.

What about you? Seen anything interesting of late -- either to you or anyone else? If not, why not? Could it be because you, unlike Jane Jacobs, haven't bothered to look? It's all in the eye of the beholder, as it was in hers. If she challenged the conventional wisdom of her time, who will step forward to challenge today's?

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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