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Woman Crush Wednesday: Jane Jacobs

Who says you can’t fight City Hall? During these particularly troubling and divided political times, it is rewarding and inspiring to look to Jane Jacobs for encouragement. Jane redefined urban planning in the 20th century, and is one of the trailblazers highlighted in Village Preservation’s outdoor interactive exhibition, VILLAGE VOICES.

Penny Hardy of PS New York created this image for one of the 21 shadowbox exhibits of VILLAGE VOICES

Jane Jacobs caused people to look at the city in a different way.  She transformed the field of urban planning with her writing about American cities and her grass-roots organizing. As a private citizen and self-taught urban planner, she led resistance to the wholesale replacement of urban communities with high-rise buildings and the loss of community to expressways.

Image courtesy of the Estate of Fred W. McDarrah

Jacobs saw cities as living ecosystems. She took a systemic look at all the elements of a city, looking at them not just individually, but as parts of an interconnected system. She supported bottom-up community planning, relying on the wisdom of the people who lived and worked in the neighborhoods to know what would best suit their communities. She advocated for mixed-use neighborhoods and believed in preserving or transforming old buildings where possible, rather than tearing them down and replacing them.

1963: American writer Jane Jacobs (L) and architect Philip Johnson (R) stand with picketing crowds outside Penn Station to protest the building’s demolition, New York City. Placards read: ‘AGBANY is here’ and ‘Save Penn Station.’ (Photo by Walter Daran/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Jacobs displayed a great skill for community organizing – enlisting supporters both small and large, from local children to prominent neighborhood residents such as Eleanor Roosevelt.

Moses, arguably the most powerful man in New York at the time, having amassed vast bureaucratic powers in the state, planned to tear down existing buildings in Greenwich Village and build high rises. Jacobs fought vociferously and tenaciously against this plan and warned against the pervasive overexpansion of New York University. She also opposed the proposed expressway that would have connected two bridges to Brooklyn with the Holland Tunnel, displacing much housing and many businesses in Washington Square Park and the West Village. This would have destroyed Washington Square Park, and preserving the park became a focus of her activism. She was arrested during one demonstration. These campaigns were turning points in removing Moses from power and changing the direction of city planning. This woman who had little power and who wasn’t considered an expert changed the way we think about city planning.  She was ultimately able to defeat Moses.

If you are feeling the need for civic inspiration, below are six takeaways about Jane Jacobs and her activism to put in your civic toolkit:

Anyone can effect change

Jacobs’ ability to organize communities and defeat two of Moses’ major plans in lower Manhattan is a quintessential David and Goliath tale. She was a citizen who had little power and who wasn’t considered an expert, however, she faced down Robert Mosses not once, but twice in order to maintain the integrity of the communities of Greenwich Village

Be creative and clever

Long before pussy-hats became synonymous with resistance, Jacobs had protestors tape x’s on their glasses to mimic the x’s that were placed on condemned buildings being readied for bulldozing. She appropriated a symbol and placed it on the people.

Opposition is an advocate

Jacobs used antipathy toward Robert Moses to form alliances.

Game the system. . . if you can

When a planning committee was set to pass a measure allowing a Lower Manhattan Expressway to cut through downtown neighborhoods, Jacobs seized on the fact that the stenographer had lost her tape so that there would be no record of the meeting. And without a record, the hearing wouldn’t be legitimate. A delay in starting the meeting in order to find the stenographer’s tape created an opening for an eventual victory.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself

Jacobs once said, “Stop being victims. I think it’s wicked, in a way, to be a victim. It’s even wickeder to be a predator, but it’s wicked to be a victim and allow it.” Jacobs taught us that it is up to every citizen to speak truth to power.

Build on what is working

There is a perception in certain circles that Jacobs was a “No, no, no” type of person. However, her strength was in her observation. She looked around her city and she saw what was working, and she built on that.

Jane Jacobs is one of the 21 trailblazers featured in our outdoor interactive exhibition,  VILLAGE VOICES, which celebrates people, places, and moments from our neighborhoods’ history.

VILLAGE VOICES is an engaging installation of exhibit boxes displayed throughout our neighborhoods featuring photographs, artifacts, and recorded narration that provides entertaining and illuminating insight into our momentous heritage. Village Preservation has created VILLAGE VOICES as a tribute to our community and its rich heritage of artistic, cultural, and social innovation and progress. You can access the mobile experience here. We hope you will take the tour!

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