A few years ago, I started to learn more about urban planning and neighborhood level activism-well, I had already a bit of experience in that area, but much more in the Alinsky style of campaigns, aligned with confrontational and crisis politics . Successful in its own manner, but exhausting as an organizer. After leaving organizing behind for a few years, I returned to retail management and while researching retail anthropology, happened on the book "City" by William H. Whyte and was transformed.
Really. I read it over and over. Read it while sitting in my beautiful apartment over the 5 and 10 store on Walnut Street in the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh. I loved it. Quoted it to the quiet annoyance of my friends. And then, through that book and Whyte, found "The Death and Life of Great American Cities".
I (like many other young women I am sure) studied the picture on the Modern Library edition of TDALOGAS and thought it was cool that an "older lady" (as I thought then) would have a picture of herself on a bar stool. I liked the voice of this writer-sort of crabby and impatient while she observed just about everything and then described it in matter-of-fact, human terms.
After finishing it, I understood more about the feelings of unease that I had when I went home to Cleveland and saw wider streets with higher buildings and less people. And why I walked on Madison in my suburb of Lakewood and not on Franklin. And then why I felt completely at home in my mother's city of New Orleans and why I mystified others and myself by asking to be transferred to a vocational high school that I could walk to from my French Quarter home, even if it meant kicking aside cups and and sidestepping dancers and vomit on Bourbon Street (it was the most direct route). Now I got it.
I added more books to the pile to read, finding most of Jane's works, Whyte's and many more. I walked everywhere studying the cities I lived in and seeing where so many had gone wrong. I stayed in the old sections of those cities and met generations who had worn down the sidewalks and went to that elementary school and helped out at this library..
In 2000, I moved home again (New Orleans) for good, determined to spend the rest of my life in community work, knowing that the laid back yet sophisticated citizenry would be the best partners to have.
I started with a campaign to stop the privatization of the water system. I volunteered with some very adept organizers brought in to run the campaign. I did that while I worked as a buyer in my neighborhood grocery store and volunteered at the farmers market.
Often the Water Girls (they put up with this nickname, but barely) would run in to ask me a question as I did inventory on books at the store or when we would walk to the Hare Krishna house to get dinner while we strategized. They certainly were using Alinsky's methods, but my prism was how to keep this issue interwoven with the numerous other problems at stake here and also how to use the assets that our area had. NO question in my mind how the lack of priorities (or lack of attention to SCALE) had allowed us to come to this pass, but also how people's knowledge of their reality in this colonial city had stayed some hands too. Honestly, I felt that this was our Lower Manhattan Expressway. (And then thought that again about a dozen times since.)
We won. And in record time, confusing the young organizers. In essence, we won because even though locals weren't organized regularly, the public space and shared culture to meet and see each other, know each other had worked in our favor. It allowed those organizers to find real people and have real conversations. I hope wherever they are and whatever they are doing, they all remember that lesson.
And, well even better, I soon got a paying job at the farmers market. I remember when I had my first conversation with the guy who started the market; he asked me if I knew "who Jane Jacobs was." Turns out he had used Jane Jacob's words to craft his manifesto back in the mid 1990s and her ideas remained central to his theory. "The Economy of Cities" is required reading around here- well, actually there is no required reading, but it would be cool if you knew what we were referring to.
So, I found the link between campaigns (market days) and smart, human-sized entrepreneurial town squares. I share Jane's ideas with new markets that I work with, and find that they resonate with rural, small town or big city folks. I like that she was no authority or expert; instead she was a humanist and a systemic thinker who believed in people and messy democratic entrepreneurial activity. My new favorite current writer, Rebecca Solnit reminds me of her; in the belief in people and the firmness of language and fluidity of subject. How nice to think a genre may be developing.
I hope you can find Jane too, or have already found her. If you want to find others who feel the same way in your area, look for them on Jane's Walk on May 1, 2010.
Click to see the walks in your town, or just like Jane would expect, just start one yourself.