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Women’s History Month Celebration of Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs; pioneering urban activist and mother

The celebration of Women’s History Month cannot go without being reminded of the venerable Jane Jacobs. Much has been written about her here on Off the Grid, but let’s pause a moment to reflect on her impact as a pioneering woman in the field of both urbanism and activism.

JJ in her beloved neighborhood: Greenwich Village

Jane Jacobs was not formally trained in urban planning, however, her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, combined with her tenacious activism, indelibly changed the way we think about livable cities. A self-taught journalist, Jacobs was a thinker and a doer. Her love for New York City sent her into the streets on a daily basis to walk, explore, and observe. She loved the “cheerful hurly-burly of city life.”

Save Washington Square Park

Perhaps a key to Jacobs’ groundbreaking philosophy of city life was her lack of formal training. Unencumbered by planning orthodoxy being taught in universities, she was free of the contemporary conventional ideas of how a city “should” function. Instead, her observations of the built environment and her inherent analytic acumen afforded her the liberty to assess the functions of neighborhoods and form independent views that flew in the face of convention.

She famously faced the political titan Robert Moses on three occasions; their battles so epic in proportion that an opera, entitled A Marvelous Order, has been created about their legendary relationship.  Jacobs faced Moses three times, and on all three occasions, she prevailed.  The most storied episode in their history was Jacobs’ opposition to Moses’ plan to rout Washington Square Park and make it into a super highway.  Jacobs was obstreperously opposed to the invasion.  She rallied citizens to inundate city officials with over 30,000 postcards denouncing the plan.  Eleanor Roosevelt and John Lindsay both stood with her in opposition, along with multitudes of citizens.  In the final showdown, as Moses stood in Washington Square Park at the last meeting concerning the fate of its continued existence, he addressed the hordes of protesters shouting, “There is nobody against this, NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY, but a bunch of mothers.”  And he stormed away.

Jane Jacobs courtesy of Getty Images

Indeed, the “mothers” won the day with Jane Jacobs as the godmother of them all.   We at GVSHP celebrate Jane Jacobs, continue her fight, and uphold her tenets on a daily basis in our mission to preserve and protect the unique qualities of our neighborhoods.

In a shout from the grave, her opposition to Robert Moses lives on even today.  In a recent reversal, Governor Cuomo has announced a $700 million plan for the first phase to replace the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx with a modest and more amenable boulevard that no longer cuts adjoining neighbors off from the Bronx River.

Mr. Cuomo said the expressway was “one of Mr. Moses’s mistakes.”  Thank you, Jane.  Your wisdom is felt through the ages.

GVSHP has a wealth of resources on its page which you can visit here. You can read more about Jane Jacobs in her own words in our oral history here.


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