An interview with Jane Jacobs, Godmother of the American City
In honor of the 100th anniversary of Jane Jacobs's birth, we republish this 2001 interview with the renowned urban thinker.
Jane Jacobs, 2000
Courtesy Chris Wahl
In honor of the 100th anniversary of Jane Jacobs’s birth, we’re taking the month to publish content about and inspired by Jacobs. The following is an interview with Jacobs conducted by Jim Kunstler in 2000 that was originally published in our 20th anniversary issue, from March 2001.
Toronto always gives me the strange sensation of being in a parallel universe, one in which you might be in a great American city—say, Detroit, St. Louis, or Cleveland—if only we Americans had not gone through the cultural convulsions of the post-war era and tossed our cities into the dumpster of history. Hollywood uses Toronto constantly as a set for Anycity, USA, but the truth is that Toronto is in much better shape than almost any American city.
In Toronto you see office buildings every bit as hideous and grandiose as in America, and the same overly broad streets, poorly furnished with medians, trees, and other urban decor considered impediments to express motoring. But, despite these shortcomings, Toronto is alive. Its downtown streets are teeming with people. Multitudes of them actually live in the city center in apartment buildings and houses, and the sidewalks are jammed, in some places until late at night. The public realm, where the buildings meet the sidewalk, is activated. This demonstrates that a New World city can remain alive despite the formal idiocies of Modernist urban theory and practice. Toronto is what many American cities wish they could be.
Jane Jacobs, the American urbanist, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Systems of Survival, and other books, lives here. She will tell you in her own words below how she happened to land in Toronto. I found her at home, in the Annex neighborhood on a serene residential street off Bloor, the main drag of the University of Toronto, which in that vicinity resembles the Eighth Street shopping district of Greenwich Village, where Ms. Jacobs lived and wrote so famously years ago. There are the boutiques and the bistros of all nations, along with copy shops, oriental groceries, and shoe-repair joints. Ms. Jacobs’s home, a block or so up from Bloor, is a Toronto “double,” a type of semi-detached brick row house with a generous neo-classical white wooden porch, a Dutch-style gable-end, and ivy growing up the wall. It is still a bohemian street, with some houses in better shape than others, including some student slums, looking all in all casually dignified.
Ms. Jacobs lives here alone now, her architect-husband having passed away in in 1998. One son and his family live right down the block, though, and see her often. She is 83 now, and was a little incapacitated from knee surgery when I stopped by on a bright September afternoon this year. The inside of her house was pretty pure Sixties Bohemian Intellectual. The Jacobses had removed some interior walls, so the first floor kitchen, dining room, and living room all flowed together. There was a great groaning wall of books, of course, and other surfaces were still painted the bright colors of the Go-Go era, when the family moved there. Near the bay window in front she displayed a Native American–breastplate and her tablecloth in the dining room was a bold aboriginal print. There were drawings by her daughter, who lives in the backwoods of British Columbia, and lots of family photographs everywhere. Her office is a spare bedroom upstairs in the rear where it is especially quiet.
Ms. Jacobs still looks like that famous photo of her taken in the White Horse tavern in the West Village three decades ago (a cigarette in one hand and a beer mug in the other). Her hair is the same silvery helmet with bangs, and her big eyeglasses emphasize her role as the ever-penetrating observer, with an impish overlay. She still likes to drink beer, and worked on a bottle of some dark local brew while we talked. She was alert, humorous, and apart from her injured knee seemed to be in fine condition.
Jane Jacobs grew up in Scranton, PA, the daughter of a doctor and a school-teacher. She worked briefly as a reporter for the Scranton Tribune and then went to New York City, where she plugged away as a freelance writer until she landed a staff job with Architectural Forum in 1952. The job gave her a privileged perch for observing the fiasco of post-war “urban renewal” and all its evil consequences. A decade later, she seized the imagination of an otherwise extremely complacent era when she declared so starkly in The Death and Life of Great American Cities that the experiment of Modernist urbanism was a thumping failure, and urged Americans to look instead to the traditional wisdom of the vernacular city and its fundamental unit, the street, instead of the establishment gurus. This was the first shot in a war that has been ongoing ever since. Her book has since become one of the seminal texts of the New Urbanism (along with the books of Lewis Mumford, who was at first a great supporter of hers and then an adversary when she criticized the Garden Cities movement that was so dear to him. . . but she will tell you about that quarrel herself.)
For a long time, Ms. Jacobs suffered the opprobrium of the architectural and planning establishment. They never recovered from her frontal assault, including the sinister Robert Moses, who fell from power not long after he tangled with Ms. Jacobs on his proposal to run a freeway through Washington Square. One can say pretty definitively that she won the battle and the war, though the enormous inertia of American culture still acts as a drag on a genuine civic revival here. By the mid 1960s, her interests and writings broadened to take in the wider issues of economics and social relations, and by force of intellect she compelled the cultural elite to take seriously this untrained female generalist—and wonderful prose stylist—who had the nerve to work out large ideas on her own. Naturally, her books are now part of the curriculum.
During the course of our conversation we were seated at her dining room table.
James Howard Kunstler: What was it like for you coming to New York for the first time?
Jane Jacobs: The first time I was ever in New York I was twelve years old. Let’s see I was born in 1916 so that would have been 1928 and it was before the crash. And I went with the parents of some friends and I guess we drove there. I guess the car was left in New Jersey. Anyway we got over on a ferry and we landed in downtown Manhattan. And I was flabbergasted at all the people in the streets. It was lunchtime in Wall Street in 1928 and that was…the city was just jumping. It was all full of people.
JHK: What year did you come there to live full-time?
JJ: That was, let’s see, ’34.
JHK: And what was your impression then?
JJ: Well, it was different…because it was the difference between the high tide of the Twenties prosperity and depression.
JHK: Was it palpable? Could you really feel it and see it?
JJ: I could see contrasts, even from that first visit. Especially downtown. There were a lot more unemployed people in ’34 and there weren’t any in ’28.
JHK: Where did you find yourself going when you got to New York in the ’20s. Did you just naturally find your way into Greenwich Village or did you start elsewhere?
JJ: My sister was already there. She was six years older than I was.
JHK: What was she doing?
JJ: She had studied interior design in Philadelphia—the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Arts—I don’t think it exists anymore, but it was a good school. And so she came to New York hoping to get a job as a designer. But she couldn’t in the Depression. She got a job in a department store—Abraham and Strauss in Brooklyn, in the home furnishings department—that was the nearest thing she could get to her line. So I came along and she had been living on East 94th Street. Imagine, she and several other girls they lived in this house. It was a rooming house. It was very cheap rent. This is a very expensive area now.
JHK: Yeah, but the Jacob Rupert Brewery was up there until 1957. I lived on 93rd Street for a while myself. You would go through these brewing cycles when the neighborhood would be full of this smell of beer and hops.
JJ: Well she moved to Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights, to a house that is not there anymore. It was a six-story walk-up and we lived on the top floor. It was a nice neighborhood though. It was near the St. George Hotel. It was before the highways went in there. So I would go looking for a job every morning. I would look in the newspaper and see what seemed likely and which employment agencies were advertising. I would usually walk over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan because we were there near the Brooklyn Bridge. And then after I was turned down for all these jobs I would spend the rest of the day looking around where I had ended up. Or if I had ended up in a place where I had already looked around I would spend a nickel on the subway and go arbitrarily to some other stop and look around there. So I was roaming the city in the afternoons and applying for jobs in the morning. And one day I found myself in a neighborhood I just liked so much…it was one of those times I had put a nickel in and just invested something. And where did I get out? I just liked the sound of the name: Christopher Street—so I got out at Christopher Street, and I was enchanted with this neighborhood, and walked around it all afternoon and then I rushed back to Brooklyn. And I said, “Betty I found out where we have to live.” And she said, “Where is it?” And I said, “I don’t know, but you get in the subway and you get out at a place called Christopher Street.” So we went to look for a place where you got out of the subway at Christopher Street.
JHK: What did you find?
JJ: We found an apartment on Martin Street. I had a job by then, I guess we didn’t go looking immediately. And one of those mornings I hit the jackpot and got a job.
JHK: And what was it?
JJ: It was in a candy manufacturing company as a secretary.
JHK: So you did a bit of secretarial stuff.
JJ: Oh I did secretarial work for about five years.
JHK: Did you have any inkling that you were going to be a professional intellectual?
JJ: No, but I did have an inkling that I was going to be a writer. That was my intention.
JHK: Did you hang out with any of the Greenwich Village bohemians of the day?
JHK: Did you see them around?
JJ: Yes, I guess I did. But I didn’t have any money to hang out in bars. We were living very close to the bone. In fact there were considerable times when Betty and I were living on Pablum because my father was a doctor and he told us that the most important thing was to keep our health and that we should not skimp on nourishing food. So when we didn’t even have any money for nourishing food we knew that Pablum for babies was full of nourishment and we also knew that bananas were good and milk. And so that’s what we would live on until we got a little more money. It was a powder that you mixed up and it was not good.
JHK: Sounds a little grim.
JJ: Yeah, but we had a good time and we didn’t go for long periods on this and we did keep our health and it was nourishing food.
JHK: Well, yeah, if you think in the sense that astronauts eat stuff out of tubes.
JJ: That’s right. I don’t want to give you the impression that we lived for long periods like this.
JHK: Tell me how you found yourself venturing into the life of a public intellectual.
JJ: Well, I began writing articles right away. And this combined with my afternoons I had spent looking at different areas of the city, and I wrote a series of articles that Vogue bought about different areas of the city. The fur district—you see they had something to do with the kind of things that the readers of Vogue were presumably interested in—although I didn’t know who I was writing these for when I wrote them. But then I saw what I was doing and I tried this.
JHK: It must have been exciting to sell magazine articles.
JJ: It was. I got $40 a piece for them.
JHK: That was a lot of money then.
JJ: A lot of money! Because at the job I had, I got 12 dollars a week. Of course I didn’t sell many of these. I wrote about the fur district, the flower district, the leather district, let me see…the diamond district, which was down on the Bowery then. So I was trying to be a writer all the time. And eventually, not right away, but later on, I got to write Sunday feature stories for the Herald Tribune. But I didn’t get paid as well for those. But then I wrote a few things for Q Magazine—oh, about manhole covers, how you could tell what was running underneath you by reading what was on the manhole covers.
JHK: You hadn’t gone to college, by the way?
JJ: Well, I hadn’t wanted to go to school after I finished high school. I was so glad to get out.
JHK: Were you a troublemaker?
JHK: I sympathize—I didn’t like school either.
JJ: I would break paper bags in the lunch room and make explosions and I would be sent to the principal, and that kind of thing. I was not really a troublesome person. I was not really destructive in any way, but I was mischievous.
JHK: Were you a comedian?
JJ: Sort of, yeah.
JHK: Naturally I was reviewing some of your books the last couple of weeks. They stand up so beautifully. One would have to suppose at the time that you wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities that you were pretty ticked off at American culture. For instance you wrote: “It may be that we have become so feckless as a people that we no longer care how things work but only the kind of quick, easy outer impression that they get.” And you wrote that around 1960 or the late ’50s.
JJ: Yeah, I was working on that book…I began in 1958 and finished it in 1961.
JHK: Well, it seems to me that American life has changed very little in that regard. In fact I actually go around on the lecture circuit telling audiences that we are a wicked people who deserved to be punished…and I am not religious. So what was your state of mind. Were you ticked off at American culture? Was it the culture of civic design? Was it Robert Moses? Was it some combination of those things? Was it the Bauhaus? What was it that was getting under your skin in those days?
JJ: Well, what was getting immediately under my skin was this mad spree of deceptions and vandalism and waste that was called urban renewal. And the way it had been adopted like a fad and people were so mindless about it and so dishonest about what was being done. That’s what ticked me off, because I was working for an architectural magazine and I saw all this first hand and I saw how the most awful things were being excused.
JHK: You must have already been acquainted with things like Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” and some of the schemes from the ’20s and the Bauhaus. By this time Gropius had become installed at Harvard and Mies Van der Rohe…
JJ: I didn’t have any feeling about these one way or another. It was just another way of building. I didn’t have any ideology, in short. When I wrote that about “we may become so feckless as a people” I had no ideology.
JHK: But you were angry.
JJ: But I was angry at what was happening and what I could see first hand was happening. It all came to me first hand. I didn’t have any abstractions about American culture. In the meantime I had gone a couple years to Columbia but I hadn’t been taking classes in American culture. I sat in on one in sociology for a while and I thought it was so dumb. But I had a wonderful time with various science courses and other things that I took there. And I have always been grateful for what I learned in those couple of years. But I’ll tell you something that had been worrying me: I liked to visit museums that showed old time machines and tools and so forth. And I was very struck. There was one of these museums in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which was my father’s hometown. He was from a farm near Fredericksburg. I was very struck with the way these old machines were painted. They were painted in a way to show you how they worked. Evidently the makers of them and the users of them cared about how these things were put together and how what moved what so that other people would be interested in them. I used to like to go to the railroad station in Scranton and watch the locomotives. I got a big bang out of seeing the locomotives and those pistons that moved the wheels. And that interested me how they were moved by those things and then the connection of that with the steam inside and so on. In the meantime, along had come these locomotives that had skirts on them and you couldn’t see how the wheels moved and that disturbed me. And it was supposed to be for some aerodynamics reason, but that didn’t make sense. And I began to notice how everything was being covered up and I thought that was kinda sick.
JHK: So the whole streamlining of the ’30s bugged you?
JJ: That’s right. So I remember very well what was in my mind “that we become so feckless as a people that we no longer care how things work.” It was those skirts on the locomotives that I was thinking about and how this had extended to “we didn’t care how our cities worked anymore.” We didn’t care to show where the entrances were in buildings and things like that. That’s all I meant. It was not some enormous comment on abstract American society. And I thought this is a real decadence of some sort.
JHK: Well, apropos of the slums, we now know after the fact that slum clearance and urban renewal was a disaster. And, you know, I am a big critic of urban renewal. But it’s been a big problem with American cities that they are not places people could really care about that much.
JJ: That’s not all together true. There were lots of areas in American cities that people cared about very much. And you can tell that by the fights they had when they were being put out of them. One of the things that angered me so much in urban renewal was the West End of Boston. You know there was a phantom community to this day. They have a newspaper that comes out periodically, these displaced people and their children. I talked to two architects in ’58 who helped justify the destruction of the West End. And one of them told me that he had had to go on his hands and knees with a photographer through utility crawl spaces so that they could get pictures of sufficient dark and noisome spaces to justify that this was a slum—how horrendous it was. Now that was real dishonesty. And they were documenting stuff for it. The other was one who was just greatly respected, a well-known architect who could give his opinion that this area should go. And he told me that on the whole those buildings were so well constructed that they were undoubtedly better than anything that would ever be erected in their place. Now, he also said that some of the buildings were just so beautifully detailed that it was heartbreaking that they must be wrecked. And yet both of these architects knew better, but supported the destruction of that area.
JHK: But isn’t that the whole tale of the mid-20th century? That scores and scores of architects and planning officials went along with something that was really pernicious?
JJ: That’s right and they did it dishonestly. And how could they justify that. Because I would argue with them about these things. They could justify it because urban renewal was a greater good, so they would bare false witness for this greater good. Why was this a greater good? Everybody knew it because slums are bad. But this isn’t a slum. Oh well. You know, the whole thing. They didn’t care how things worked anymore. That was part of it. That was part of what was making me so angry. Also they didn’t seem to care what part truth and untruths had in these things. That’s part of how things work. And do you care about it.
JHK: Of course, there were a lot of people involved and not all of them were mendacious. A lot of them seemed to be just idealistic but it is hard to understand how that degree of misplaced idealism could sweep through a whole generation.
JJ: Yeah, I don’t understand that myself. I don’t understand how these changes [came about]. McCarthyism was an example. The fear that that it struck into people. The fear for whom they might associate with. How could all these people turn into such sheep so suddenly? And when this miasma of McCarthyism lifted it was almost as magical. We were trying to get signatures on a petition that a [freeway] wouldn’t go through Washington Square. This was in the ’50s and we set up a table with petitions near the park and asked everybody who came by and was enjoying the park if they would sign. And so many people wouldn’t sign. We’d say, “Well, you don’t want a road through here, do you?” No, they didn’t want a road through there, but “You don’t know who else might be signing. It might be dangerous to sign.” Sometimes a husband would tell a wife. So that’s when this strange fear pervaded everything. But I remember when it lifted, we were fighting a battle to save a neighborhood at that time. This was one of the neighborhoods that I lived in that was designated a slum and had all that same kind of faults brought against it.
JHK: Was this the West Village?
JJ: Yeah, it was no slum. Loads of the places weren’t slums that were destroyed.
JHK: Who wanted to knock down West Village?
JJ: It was the Rockefellers wanted to knock it down. But that’s never been established—watch out, you might be gotten for libel. But that was really where it was generated in the Downtown Lower Manhattan Association, which was David Rockefeller’s organization. And they wanted it.
There were all these essentially private visions of how beautiful the city would be, and it was to be all these high rises here. And there would be a little enclave and all the most expensive and pretty houses in the village would be left. But all the parts along the edges—the ones that people of lower income occupied—especially of mixed uses. That was our sin in the West Village. We had all these mixed uses. And now all these former manufacturing places are turned into the most expensive lofts with condominiums that sell for over a million dollars. These people, even as real estate experts, they didn’t know from nothing. They were so ignorant. Not only about what they were destroying, but about what people would like. Well, I am digressing. I still get angry about it.
JHK: What’s your level of indignation these days.
JJ: Well, I still get angry. We’ve got a [Canadian] prime minister who seems to be intent on destroying our health system and education system. But I have gotten a thicker skin. I can get angry about these things without feeling like vomiting, if you know what I mean.
JHK: Did you ever meet Robert Moses?
JJ: No. I saw him only once, at a hearing about the road through Washington Square, which was to be an entrance ramp to the Lower Manhattan expressway. He was there briefly to speak his piece. But nobody was told that at the time. None of us had spoken yet because they always had the officials speak first and then they would go away and they wouldn’t listen to the people. Anyway, he stood up there gripping the railing, and he was furious at the effrontery of this and I guess he could already see that his plan was in danger. Because he was saying “There is nobody against this—NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY, but a bunch of, a bunch of MOTHERS!” And then he stomped out.
JHK: Did he do more damage to New York than Albert Speer did to Berlin?
JJ: Well, I haven’t been to Berlin. I don’t think that we have to compare them. He did an awful lot of damage to New York, yes he did. And I think that New York is just healing itself now. But to go back a minute about these strange hysterias that sweep the people wholesale, I also remember just when McCarthyism lifted as I saw it in a concrete way, first-hand. It was when we were fighting to save our neighborhood in the 1960s. You see this way of making people scared to sign petitions and everything. The head of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council was a stalking horse for the new developers. Oh, we got so suspicious of anything with the word “citizens” in it.
Robert Moses, 1963
Courtesy Corbis Images
JHK: I understand, because lately the Wal-Mart Corporation has been starting Local Citizens for Wal-Mart agitation groups where ever they want to come in.
JJ: OK, same idea.
JHK: Of course, they are so dumb, Jane, that when they send out literature under the names of these things they put the return address of Bentonville, Arkansas—and that happened in Lake Placid.
JJ: Well, the Citizen’s Housing and Planning Council had all the settlement house people. A lot of them had also become idealists who didn’t know what they were doing. The head of it held a press conference and he came out with a blast about these terrible selfish awful people who were trying to stop this wonderful clean-up urban renewal scheme in Greenwich Village. And he called us not only selfish but he called us Pinkos. And you know that would have scared a lot of people. But it was just not an ideological battle at all. It was a battle for a neighborhood. It had all kinds of people. And one of the people—someone said he had been a communist in the 30s, actually a communist, with a party card! And he was a very good guy. He was an artist and he thought up lots of our best visual schemes and so we had a meeting [to ask] “What are we going to do about this?” And the consensus was, “it doesn’t matter.” This has nothing to do with warfare. This is saving our neighborhood and it doesn’t matter and we don’t care. So as soon as somebody said that, I forget who, but somebody in the committee said it—that struck everybody. And yes, of course, that is the only sensible thing to do. Then a couple of days later there comes this thing in the Times about and “we’re pinkos.” And everybody laughed. And we all memorized the list of terrible characteristics that we had. Now just those are my first-hand concrete bits of knowledge that this hysteria had passed. Why did it pass? Why could people suddenly laugh at that?
JHK: I don’t know, but I sure hope that the same thing happens with the miasma of political correctness that descended on my generation. Which has been kind of an intellectual embarrassment, I think, to my generation.
JJ: Oh, yes, and I think that you were very brave and forthright and sensible in what you wrote about the black underclass.
JHK: Well that’s kind of you. A lot of people took that the wrong way. It’s a pretty bad period of intellectual dishonesty and like all storms it will pass. I am going to move along to another formal question though. You were born in Scranton, Pennsylvania and you spent really the prime of your life living in Manhattan in Greenwich Village, specifically.
JJ: Well, I wouldn’t say that.
JJ: [Chuckles] I am still in the prime of your life.
JHK: OK, I am sorry. That’s a terrible thing to say. You spent a certain portion of your life in New York City. Why did you move to Canada?
JJ: Well, we came in protest of the Vietnam War. We had two draft age sons. They wouldn’t have been exempt. One of them was a physicist. He had graduated from college and had been accepted in a graduate studies in physics. And, oh my, this was a time when the U.S. was very scared about Sputnik. He would have been exempt. The other one might not have been. They would have preferred to go to jail than to go to war. And my husband said, “You know, we didn’t raise these boys to go to jail.” And in any case we didn’t like the war. We sympathized with their antagonism to it. And so we decided to come to another country. We are just not cut out to be citizens of an empire. And we liked it here and our children liked it here.
JHK: Did you at first not intend not to stay forever?
JJ: We didn’t.
JHK: It must have been very disruptive.
JJ: Well, it would have been disruptive if we had thought of ourselves as exiles. People who think of themselves as exiles, I find, can never really put their lives together, really. We thought of ourselves as immigrants. And it was an adventure and we were all together.
JHK: But you were leaving quite a lot behind.
JJ: Yes, we were but—you know this was another thing that we found out when we got here. Americans don’t really think that other places are as real as America. We were leaving things behind. Well, we were coming to other things that were just as real and just as interesting and just as exciting. And people would ask me after we had decided to stay, “Well, when are you coming back?” “Well, we’re not. We are living here.” “Oh, but you can’t just—you’ve got to come back to real life.” And I would say, “It’s just as real.” This is very hard for Americans to understand, and I think that may be the biggest difference between Americans and people elsewhere. Canadians know that there are places just as real as Canada. It’s a self-centeredness that’s a very strange thing.
JHK: Is there something dangerously or weirdly smug and complacent about Americans?
JJ: Yes, they have got it so dinged into them that they are the most fortunate people on Earth, and that the rest of the world—the sooner it copies what America is like, the better. I still have a lot of family in America. I still have a lot of friends there. There is a lot that I admire there very much. When I find America getting too much criticized outside America, I want to tell them how many things are good about it. So I am not any hate-America person. I really came here for positive reasons. We stayed for positive reasons, because we liked it. Why did I become a Canadian citizen? Not because I was rejecting being a U.S. citizen. At the time when I became a Canadian citizen, you couldn’t be a dual citizen. Now you can. So I had to be one or the other. But the reason I became a Canadian citizen was because it simply seemed so abnormal to me not to be able to vote.
JHK: Did any of your American friends object to this move?
JJ: They just thought it was like I was going into a dream land or a wonderland or something. I don’t know. Nobody in my family did. Nobody among my close friends. They might have thought it was a little odd because it didn’t occur to them.
JHK: Who did you consider your professional or intellectual colleagues in the ’60s and ’70s. Any figures that we would think of? I am just throwing names at the wall—like Dwight MacDonald, or Irving Podhoretz. Who did you hang out with?
JJ: Yeah, I liked my editor and still do. My editor and publisher Jason Epstein [of the New York Review of Books]. I knew Dwight MacDonald, but very slightly. I liked him.
JHK: So you didn’t have a particular coterie?
JJ: No. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, I have a whole list of people who I acknowledge receiving help from—but it’s not intellectual help.
JHK: Were there any of your contemporaries who were writers on urbanism who you admired?
JJ: Yes, I admired some of the people who I worked with at Architectural Forum, for instance. And Holly Whyte, William H. Whyte. He was a friend of mine. And we used to talk together. He was an important person to me and he was somebody whose ideas, yes, we were on the same wavelength. And it was through Holly that I met Jason, and he became my publisher. He [Epstein] had started Anchor Books which were the first trade paperbacks. So Holly introduced me to him. And I told him what I wanted to he agreed to publish it and give me a contract.
JHK: How many years did it take you to compose The Death and Life of Great American Cities?
JJ: Well, not very long. I started it in the fall of ’58 and I finished it in January of ’61. So it was two years and a few months. But I had been thinking about it for along time. And although I didn’t know what I was gathering information for, I was gathering information for it.
JHK: Many of the dogmas of Modernist city design which we both deplore in our books were believed by people who were not stupid. To what extent do you suppose that even intelligent people are captives of their time or place? How do we account for the tenacity of terrible ideas such as Le Corbusier’s Radiant City especially among the mandarins of the elite graduate schools that train our cultural leaders.
JJ: Well, I think that intelligent people to a great extent are captives of their time or place.
Courtesy Random House
JHK: Is it as simple as that?
JJ: There are mavericks always among them. Now we are going to have to get into the education system.
JHK: Well, you know the people at the elite universities today at Harvard and Columbia and Yale are extremely hostile to the kind of ideas that you were retailing 40 years ago and which some of my colleagues are still trying to persuade the American people would be good ideas. And they are extremely hostile to the New Urbanist movement.
JJ: Yes, I know they are.
JHK: In a way that seems almost pathological. Well, how do you explain that? Are they just defending indefensible doctrines? What is it that they are trying to protect?
JJ: They are trying to protect their worldview. Everybody’s got a worldview, whether they know they have it or they don’t. They might even get it when they are little tiny kids. Suppose they get it when they are in college, which is often the case, or in high school, whatever. Everything they learn after that or every thing they see after that, they fit it into that worldview. And they are making coherence of what’s good, what’s bad, what will work, what won’t work, what’s noble, what’s ignoble, and so on…all through this filter.
JHK: Well, we would have to be guilty of that too.
JJ: Yes, we all have this. But there are two ways you encounter things in the world that are different. One is everything that comes in reinforces what you already believe and everything that you know. The other thing is that you stay flexible enough or curious enough and maybe unsure of yourself enough, or may be you are more sure of yourself—I don’t know which it is—that the new things that come in keep reforming your world view. The same when you are writing a book. By the end of the book, it is quite different than the way you thought it would be when you started the book—both in form and what it contains and what you think. Well, you tipped in a lot and you digested a lot—it wasn’t pre-digested in your view. And it changed what you thought and how you see things. And a lot of these people—what I am getting at—they learn something and they are so sure of it and it’s a terrible threat to them—an emotional threat. I don’t think it’s so much of an intellectual threat even. But an emotional threat that their whole worldview will have to go through that upsetting thing of being confused.
JHK: Let me give you an example of something I encountered in Canada about three or four months ago. I was on a panel for the Royal Architectural Institute Of Canada. And it was my turn to say something and having walked around Ottawa that morning and observed that so many of the new buildings presented blank walls to the street, I made the observation that it would probably be a good idea if Canadian architects recognized that buildings should have a bottom, a middle, and a top. And that the bottom should maybe behave differently than the middle. And these people freaked out. And started saying, “Goddamn you, we are not classicists, don’t try to pawn off classicism on us. We are beyond that.” And I thought this is really extreme.
JJ: It’s emotional.
JHK: I said, “I’m not asking you to be classicists. You can do it Aztec modern or you can do it in retro George Jetson. You can do it any way you want. But to recognize that a building has a top, a middle and a bottom is not a style issue.” But they didn’t want to hear it at all. And they were full of indignation.
JJ: It threatened them.
JHK: But here’s the thing. Why do they want to keep on producing buildings that are killing their cities, buildings that people hate? What possible motive could they have for wanting to continue doing that?
JJ: They don’t think that they are killing cities. They don’t think that people hate them. Everything they have taken in says this is enhancing the city. Doesn’t that tell you something? It tells you that their own image of themselves was being threatened by what you were saying. And it was NOT their ideas of buildings, it was NOT their ideas of the cities. It has to do with themselves and their image of themselves.
JHK: Well, for example, here is another example. Le Corbusier comes up with a cockamamie scheme for destroying the Right Bank of Paris, the Marais district. And the idea immigrates to America where it takes America by storm. Meanwhile, in France, every year Corbusier goes back to the officials in Paris and says, “I have this wonderful idea to destroy the Right Bank,” and they laugh at him. For years—decade after decade—they laugh at him. They never do what he proposes. They do build a lot of crappy stuff outside of the center of Paris. But they never knock down the center of Paris. In America we took that idea and we just loved it. Why didn’t we laugh at it?
JJ: Lots of people did.
JHK: Not enough to prevent it from happening.
JJ: That’s true. Well, it was prevented in Greenwich Village. And in the end that whole thing petered out.
JHK: Ed Logue, who passed away earlier this year, was kind of an exemplary figure of his time. He was a product of Yale, of the elite universities, the Ivy League, and he went on to inadvertently destroy both New Haven and much of central Boston by directing Modernist urban renewal campaigns in the 1960s. Did you watch these schemes unfold and what did you think of them?
JJ: I thought they were awful. And I thought he was a very destructive man and I came to that opinion during the first time I met him, which was in New Haven. He was telling me all the wonderful things he was doing and was going to do.
JHK: Do you remember the circumstances when you met him?
JJ: I was working for Architectural Forum and I was on an assignment—no, I guess it was after, it was when I had started working on my book. But I went to see him to find out what was happening in New Haven and so on. And he did tell me some useful things. In particular he told me one very interesting thing. He said the best thing that could happen to San Francisco would be another earthquake and fire. Like the one that happened in 1904. And I was appalled at this. I had been to San Francisco and I thought it was wonderful place. He was serious about it, he thought that all that should be wiped out and built new. Boy, in my books, he went down as a maniac.
JHK: Well, New Haven never recovered. He gutted a large part of downtown, put a mall there that has never been successful—and I think may be either completely or partly demolished now. He put a convention center that has also been a bomb and drove the freeways through. And in Boston he was responsible for the city hall plaza. Well, Harry Cobb and I.M. Pei I guess designed that. It seems to me that Boston City Hall Plaza has been a failure from the very beginning.
JJ: Oh, of course it was. But he [Ed Logue] didn’t get to destroy the North End—which he intended to do. He even had sent in the application to the urban renewal people.
JHK: I lived in Boston in 1972 and I remember the North End as being a tremendously vibrant place. It was also very blue collar. No yuppies had moved in at all. It was an Italian neighborhood, very insular, but tremendously active—full of all the pork stores, the cheese stores, and the cookie stores. But what do you remember about Logue’s campaign in Boston?
JJ: Well, I can tell you why Ed Logue was valued. The editors of my magazine, of Architectural Forum, believed in all this urban renewal stuff. And I saw who their heroes were—and Ed Logue was one of their heroes.
JHK: Did this aggravate you?
JJ: Sure it aggravated me, but I used to argue with them about these things. And I didn’t bring them around to my way of thinking. They wanted to live in an exciting new world. That’s what they wanted. Some of the things you wrote about in your book about people who had their greatest adventure in war time—I think that vision of an exciting new world that they will create and inhabit it gave them some purpose in life.
JHK: Did you see the General Motors Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair?
JHK: What was your feeling at the time if you remember it?
JJ: Oh, I thought it was so cute it was like watching an electric train display somewhere, you know? It was just very cute.
JHK: Did you have an inkling that this was going to turn out to be Dallas in 1985?
JJ: No, of course not.
JHK: Did you think it was a fantasy? That it wouldn’t happen?
JJ: Yes, I thought it was like those cute electric trains. It was a toy.
JHK: You lived through most of the 20th century and it must make for a dizzying view of contemporary history. For instance, you’ve seen pretty much the whole rise of the automobile from its days of stupendous promise before WWII to its utter savaging of the American landscape and townscape. Can you tell us how your own view of the automobile and its consequences evolved and if your view changed over the decades of your life.
JJ: Well, my family had an automobile before I was born even. My father was a doctor and he needed an automobile to get around. A generation earlier, it would have been a horse and buggy. This automobile was a tool of my father’s, just as much as the bag he carried. We never thought of it as an all-purpose conveyance. For instance, if we wanted to go to downtown, which was two miles from where we lived in Scranton, we went down to the corner and got the streetcar. We were never chauffeured to things. When my father’s office hours started coincided with one of my brothers and me being in high school very close to where he worked, we used to ride down with him. And once in a while our family would take a trip. I remember when I was four years old going to Virginia in the car to visit his relatives. Oh, and I saw how the White House lawn was cropped in those days—there were sheep on the lawn in those days.
JHK: Was there a point when you began to sense that the automobile might be sort of a pernicious thing?
JJ: I didn’t see the automobile as a pernicious thing. I saw what was happening to the roads as a pernicious thing—the widening of roads and the cutting down of trees and then later on, of course, knocking down buildings, existing buildings. It was the roads I saw as being the destroyers. Perhaps, that is a foolish distinction to make. The automobiles weren’t running into the houses and knocking them down, the automobiles weren’t cutting down the trees and so forth. Again, I’m not an abstract thinker, as you can see. The immediate concrete thing was what the roads were doing.
JHK: Well, here is a concrete thing. We have a railroad system that even the Bulgarians would be ashamed of.
JJ: Yes, and we do in Canada, too. It used to be a wonderful system. Would you like a beer or anything? I’m thirsty. . . .
[Jacobs gets herself a beer and returns to the table.]
JHK: So you said that it is so much nicer to live in a city where things are getting better, not worse. I agree with you because I live in a city, Saratoga, that has gotten a lot better just in the last 24 months. We have gotten more main street buildings built in the last 36 months than in the entire 20th century. Ones that are worth a damn, that are not one-story cinder-block bunkers. And it’s a remarkable thing. So what’s going on in Toronto?
JJ: Our downtown keeps getting better all the time. Even the sidewalks are being widened here and there. Instead of gas stations, you can hardly find a gas station anymore. Buildings have been put in, and often very nice buildings. And there’s lots of people living downtown now. That was a distinct policy of the city. We had a remarkable mayor, whose name was Barbara Hall. She went to work to get the zoning and get the whole vision of this changed and believe me, it was very hard for her to educate her planning department to be able to accept this or do this. The various visions she had were excellent.
JHK: How did she whip all these guys into shape?
JJ: She just talked endlessly to anybody that might be involved and she educated them and got them around to this view. It took a lot of work and a lot of talking and a lot of belief in what she was doing.
JHK: Toronto has the remarkable quality for a city of North America—it’s alive. Have you lately visited any heartland U.S. cities, such as Detroit, St. Louis, Columbus, and Indianapolis, and seen their desolation? I find them absolutely heartbreaking. The small towns are destroyed, too, by the way. Detroit went from being something like the fourth wealthiest city in the world to a complete wasteland in less than 50 years. What are your thoughts on what happened to American cities?
JJ: It’s a tragedy and a totally unnecessary tragedy.
JHK: The destruction continues.
JJ: Yes, because really nothing has changed. Talk has changed but regulations haven’t changed, lending systems for these things haven’t changed. The notion—and I tell you this one even worries me that it extends into New Urbanism—the notion of the shopping center [as] a valid kind of downtown. That’s taken over. Its very hard for architects of this generation even to think in terms of a downtown or a center that is owned by all different people, with different ideas.
JHK: We are starting to return to that particularly in the work of Victor Dover and Joe Kohl.
JJ: I don’t know them.
JHK: They are young guys who were trained at the University of Miami by [Andrés] Duany and [Elizabeth] Plater-Zyberk and they started their own firm about ten years ago. They have done two projects where they have taken dead malls and imposed a street and block plan over them and created codes so that the individual lots could be developed as buildings not just as a megaproject. So I think that’s definitely the direction the New Urbanists are going in. I think that we are leaving the age of the megaproject.
JJ: Here’s what I think is happening. I look at what happened at the end of Victorianism. Modernism really started with people getting infatuated with the idea of “It’s the 20th century, is this suitable for the 20th century?” This happened before the First World War and it wasn’t just the soldiers. You can see it happening if you read the Bloomsbury biographies. That was one of the first places it was happening. But it was a reaction to a great extent against Victorianism. There was so much that was repressive and stuffy. Victorian buildings were associated with it, and they were regarded as very ugly. Even when they weren’t ugly, people made them ugly. They were painted hideously.
JHK: Well, I can see how things like Richardsonian buildings—you know those heavy red sandstone buildings—could scare people. But we look at them today and all we think about is, “God, you could never find masons that skilled who could do that kind of work.” It seems unbelievable, it seems superhuman.
JJ: Yes, but it was oppressive. Especially the Victorian house and lots of them—they weren’t oppressive in themselves. They were often very airy and gingerbready and fancy. But they were associated with all this stuffiness.
JHK: Well the family was sort of institutional. You couldn’t go out and buy Velveeta. If you wanted cake you had to bake a cake. Or have a cook do it. This period fascinates me, by the way, this period just before and after the First World War. I keep coming back to is the idea that it represents a kind of nervous breakdown for Western civilization. You have this tremendous hope going into the 20th century of a golden age to come and then it was shattered.
JJ: Did it ever shatter! There was the League of Nations and, oh, it was going to be such a brave new world.
JHK: You were particularly harsh on Ebenezer Howard and Patrick Geddes and the Garden City movement of the early 20th century. It was in some ways another one of those really bad ideas that a lot of intelligent people fell for—including Mumford, who got sucked in really big.
JJ: Oh yes.
JHK: It seems to me that both a cause and a symptom of our present predicament is this near total confusion in American culture about what is the city and what is the country. What’s rural and what’s urban. It’s all one big mishmash to us, and we are not able to design for it.
JJ: What was a really major bad idea about the Garden City was you take a clean slate and you make a new world. That’s basically artificial. There is no new world that you make without the old world. And Mumford fell for that and the whole “this is the 20th century” thing. The notion that you could discard the old world and now make a new one. This is what was so bad about Modernism.
JHK: Did you know Mumford by the way?
JHK: Were you friendly or were you adversaries?
JJ: As far as I was concerned, we were friendly. It was very funny. He was furious at The Death and Life of Great American Cities, absolutely furious. He thought—I never gave him any reason to think this—he thought that I was a protégé of his, a disciple. I think that because he thought that all younger people who were friendly must be his disciples.
JHK: And that you turned on him?
JJ: I think that’s what he thought. He was kind. I first met him when I gave a talk at Harvard in 1956. I was substituting for my boss who had to be away in Mexico. And I had awful stage fright. I had resolved that I would never make a speech because it was so painful to me. And I was informed at the office that I had to make this talk—this ten-minute talk at Harvard. And I told them that I wouldn’t do it. And well the managing editor said you have to. So I said, “All right I’ll do it—only provided I can do what I want.” So I made a talk and I made an attack on [urban renewal]. Mumford was in the audience. It was a real ordeal for me. I have no memory of giving it. I just went into some hypnosis and said this thing I had memorized. And sat down and it was a big hit because nobody had heard anybody saying these things before, apparently—and this is why Holly Whyte got me to write that article for The Exploding Metropolis, because of this speech. Anyway, Mumford was in the audience and he very enthusiastically welcomed me, and shook hands. I had hypnotized myself but I had apparently hypnotized them too. But I believed what I was saying.
JHK: But then a few years later Mumford attacked you?
JJ: Then I met him some more times and everything was amiable. I had my doubts about him because we rode into the city together in a car. And I watched how he acted as soon as he began to get into the city. And he had been talking and all pleasant, but as soon as he began to get into the city he got grim, withdrawn, and distressed. And it was just so clear that he just hated the city and hated being in it. And I was thinking, you know, this is the most interesting part.
JHK: Of course he had that sad childhood in New York—you know, no father and clawing his way into a profession that he was not really credentialed for and trying to be taken seriously.
JJ: He had a tough time.
JHK: And also I have a feeling that the Manhattan perhaps even of your youth and his middle age was in some ways a tremendously overwhelming kind of place that had never been seen—before New York was this giant oppressive machine. I grew up in it myself. There is something about New York that despotically mechanistic—its not all like Greenwich Village. And, of course, that was the part that Lewis Mumford grew up on the Upper West Side. Whatever his quarrels were with you, I do regard him as just being a marvelous writer, so crisp and lucid.
JJ: He was a very good writer, and you know he had lots of good ideas.
JHK: But he also was captive to that turn-of-the-century idea that density and congestion are the enemy of cities.
JJ: Thin down the cities and disperse them over the countryside. Sure. And your question about how intelligent people are creatures of their time and place—it is absolutely true, and he was very much formed by his time and place—and so were we all.
JHK: He wrote about the Victorian era as the “brown decade.” That might have been Edith Wharton or Henry James’s term, but it was obviously a dark image.
JJ: You can get an idea of how oppressive it seemed. There was a generation or two that felt this very strongly. The whole center of their world view was a reaction against Victorianism and everything associated with it. They were absolutely ruthless with it.
JHK. Urbanism, per se, is in still in complete discredit in the United States. The only solution that we tend to bring to our failures of urbanism are what I refer to as nature Band-Aids—the landscaping fantasias, the bark mulch, the juniper beds—intended to hide the blank walls of the post-modern buildings—the berms, the buffers, and all the rest of the tricks from the landscaping industry. Now in a way it seems to me that this comes from the Garden City idea—that somewhere in the early 20th century we decided that the city just wasn’t any good and that we basically had to replace it with the country.
JJ: No, there were loads of people who didn’t reject the cities. My parents were delighted to live in the city. My mother came from a small town and my father came from a farm. They thought the cities were far superior places to live, and they told us why. And there were all kinds of people who believed that.
Jane Jacobs and James Howard Kunstler, 2000
Courtesy Chris Wahl
JHK: It’s self-evident that American cities for the most part are abandoned, vacant, not cared for, and in a state of decrepitude in many cases.
JJ: That’s right. That’s what a city means to most Americans.
JHK: I am going to St. Louis tomorrow. St. Louis is the proverbial doughnut hole.
JJ: Absolutely. Which happened on purpose. Their whole downtown practically was wiped away and [they] put that arch up. They decided that their whole business section was a slum.
JHK: I’d like to turn to economics, which is another principle area of your interest, and I think perhaps one that is under-emphasized in your career. I’m also interested in systems theories, but particularly the ones that address the great blunders of civilization. It seems to me that the American living arrangement—the “the fiasco of suburbia” as Leon Krier calls it—is approaching a kind of tipping point beyond which it might be difficult to carry on. I have a theory that we don’t have to run out of gasoline in order to throw places of Houston, Phoenix, San Jose, Miami, Atlanta into terrible trouble. All that’s necessary is a mild-to-moderate chronic instability in the world oil markets. It seems to me that we are sleepwalking into an economic and political train wreck.
JJ: Well, I don’t know whether we will because of the oil markets or what. But I know things won’t go on as they are now. People who try to predict the future by extrapolating in a line of more of what exists—they are always wrong. I am not saying how it is going to go. But it is not going to go the same. This is a continuation of what I was actually saying about the revolt against Victorianism. Here comes a generation or two that just can’t stand what the previous generations did. And for whatever reasons it is they want to expunge it. And they are absolutely ruthless with the remnants of it. But I don’t think of it as an economic or political train wreck. I think of it as one of these great generational upheavals that’s coming. And I think that part of the growing popularity of the New Urbanism is not simply because it is so rational, and not simply because people care so much about community or even understand it, or the relation of sprawl to the ruination of the natural world. But they just don’t like what is around. And they will be ruthless with it.
JHK: I wonder if it will take an economic shock to prompt the majority of American to really reconsider their living arrangements.
JJ: I don’t think it’s that rational, that this is unsustainable. I don’t think that’s the reason. Suddenly, they can’t stand what the generations before did. There was no reason for Victorianism to be so reacted against in these terms.
JHK: Well, you were a little harsh on the City Beautiful movement in Death and Life, although personally I look back on it and I see the sheer artifacts that they produced as being just awesome. You know some of the best apartment buildings in New York City. The best single family houses in America were produced during the American Renaissance. Just the sheer excellence of what they left behind is kind of stunning.
JJ: Yes, but it also had that weight of authority that people were reacting against. So I think that things are going to change just because people get too damn bored with what they have.
JHK: You say that you are not theoretical or abstract. As a practical matter there is such a thing called the Hubbert Curve, the petroleum depletion curve, that says that we will reach a peak of world oil production and then we will go down the slippery slope of having less and less oil, having oil that is harder to extract, or oil that is less economical to extract. And, of course, this is happening in different regions and different parts of the world. The two places in the world that basically saved our asses in the last 20 years were the north slope of Alaska and the North Sea oil fields. They are scheduled to reach peak production in the next year or so. After which their production will decline. And after that, most of the oil in the world will be produced by people who hate us. How does that work for us economically?
JJ: Well, you see all my life I have been hearing that the oil was going to run out. It never happens. They keep discovering new oil fields. The world is apparently floating in oil fields.
JHK: Well, it’s possible that my proposition is a fallacy. But what if it’s not?
JJ: I basically don’t think that the way we do things is that dependent on one resource, such as oil. There can be different kinds of engines for cars. I think that solar heating, wind heating can substitute for a lot of uses for oil. I’d like to see those things happen because they are more sustainable in any case. But I do not think that running out of oil is not going to bother us that much. I think we have got to be rescued by something or we really are going down a slippery slope.
JHK: If it’s not petroleum, then what is it that is putting us in peril?
JJ: I don’t think probably any one thing. Nothing is so clear in history that is it happens for any one thing. It seems that a lot of things come together to make great changes. And I think that one of the things is a reaction against Modernism in this case and everything associated with it.
JHK: But we are stuck with all this stuff?
JJ: Yes, now that’s the next thing. I do not think that we are to be saved by new developments done to New Urbanist principles. That’s all of the good and I am very glad that New Urbanists are educating America. I think that when this takes hold and when enough of the old regulations can be gotten out of the way—which is what is holding things up, that there is going to be some great period of infilling. And a lot of that will be make-shift and messy and it won’t measure up to New Urbanist ideas of design—but it will measure up to a lot of their other philosophy. And in fact if there isn’t a lot of this popular and make-shift infilling, the suburbs will never get corrected. It’s only going to happen that way. And I think that it will happen that way.
JHK: I have the greatest admiration for the New Urbanists. The hardest work for them to do is the urban infill.
JJ: But [what] nobody is even thinking about now is the suburban infill.
JHK: Personally, I think that a large percentage of the residential suburbs are going to be the slums of the future. Some of them will be rescued. Some of them won’t be. In your book Cities and the Wealth of Nations you focused on, quote, “the master economic process called import replacement.” The idea that a city and its region would only prosper if, over time, it started to furnish for itself many of the goods or services that it formerly imported. For instance, the rise of the U.S. as a great commercial nation in the late 19th century was a direct result of our cities starting to make the tools and machines and finished goods that we formerly got from Europe. With the latest model of the so-called global economy, we are given to believe that import replacement is no longer significant. To the extraordinary degree that an overwhelming majority of the products sold in the U.S. are made elsewhere. Is this a dangerous situation?
JJ: [Chuckles] Well I think that it’s a more dangerous situation—the standardization of what is being produced or reproduced everywhere, where you can see it in the malls, in every city, the same chains, the same products are to be found. This goes even deeper with the trouble with import replacing because it means that new things are not being produced locally, that [there] can be improvements or anyway different. There is a sameness—this is one of the things that is boring people, this sameness. This sameness has economic implications. You don’t get new products and services out of sameness. Now, the Americans haven’t gotten dumbed down all of the sudden so that only a few people who can decide on new products for change are the only ones with brains. But it means that somehow there isn’t opportunity for these thousands flowers to bloom anymore.
JHK: Well the million flowers are now blooming mostly in China. I don’t know about you—every product I pick up is made in China. I’m not against the Chinese. But it makes you wonder how long we go on having an advanced civilization without making anything anymore. Can we?
JJ: I don’t think so.
JHK: It seems to me that what we are doing is we are buying a lot of stuff from other people by basically running up tremendous unprecedented amounts of debt. That can only go on so long.
JJ: But you know we aren’t complete dolts in all of this. For example, we don’t manufacture our own computers. They are made mostly in Taiwan but they aren’t designed in Taiwan.
JHK: We hand them a set of blueprints and they make the stuff for them.
JJ: There are still an awful lot of intelligent, clever constructive Americans, and they are still doing clever constructive things. Is it more necessary to be able to design computers or is more necessary to be able to manufacture computers. I think that it is necessary to do both. I think it is fatal to specialize. And all kinds of things show us that and that the more diverse we are in what we can do, the better. But I don’t think that you can dispose of the constructive and inventive things that America is doing—and say, “Oh we aren’t doing anything anymore and we are living off of what the poor Chinese do.” It is more complicated than that. There is the example of Detroit which you noticed yourself was once a very prosperous and diverse city. And look what happened when it just specialized on automobiles. Look at Manchester when it specialized in those dark satanic mills, when it specialized in textiles. It was supposed to be the city of the future.
JHK: We have an awful lot of places in America that don’t specialize in anything anymore and don’t produce anything in particular anymore.
JJ: Well, that’s better than specializing.
JHK: I am thinking about the region where I live, which is a kind of a mini rust-belt of upstate New York—one town after another where the economy has completely vanished. There is no more Utica, New York, really. There is no more Amsterdam, New York, or Glen’s Falls or Hudson Falls. They are gone. And I am wondering, is the rest of America going to be like that?
JJ: Never underestimate the power of a city to regenerate.
JHK: Well that’s fair enough.
JJ: And things everywhere are not as bad as you are picturing.
JHK: Oh, I am Mr. Gloom-and-Doom.
JJ: For instance Portland—lots of constructive things are happening in Portland.
JHK: I’d say Portland is in pretty good shape compared to lots of other American cities—but it ain’t France.
JJ: No, it ain’t. But there are lots of things about America that are better, in their own way, than France.
JHK: OK, well I am depressing myself with America. Are there other parts of the world in Europe or elsewhere that you particularly love or admire for particular reasons?
JJ: I am very fond of the Netherlands. My husband and I spent four weeks just traveling around there because I went to the Netherlands to make some talks and got paid.
JJ: And we used the pay to travel.
JHK: So what rang your bell about it?
JJ: The human scale of the whole thing and the density is far above what we are used to in North America, or anywhere. The high density and human scale are not incompatible at all.
JHK: Let me ask you about a few places. How do you feel about Paris?
JJ: I haven’t been there long. I have only made short visits, but what I saw was, of course, enchanting. And I kept thinking that I had been there before…it was because I had seen it in paintings—all these triangular corners.
JHK: The urbanism is so rigorous. But as I have joked to lecture audiences myself before—nobody ever comes home from Paris and complains about the uniformity of the boulevards.
JJ: No, they are interesting and they are beautiful.
JHK: OK, London, what is your take on London?
JJ: I am ambivalent about London because I am so ambivalent about England in general.
JHK: Really? What’s your beef with it?
JJ: I cannot stand that class system. I haven’t been there in quite a few years, though I have been invited there often—I just don’t want to go back. It’s a kind of museum piece of feudalism as I can see, socially. The English rub me the wrong way—but I love Ireland.
JHK: I was there a few years ago. Ireland is sort of a strange case because here you have this country that was miserably poor for hundreds and hundreds of years, and all the sudden they have a middle class for the first time in their history. Well, one of the consequences, of course, is that there are unbelievable numbers of German tour buses clogging up their roads.
JJ: Yeah, no doubt. But it’s a lovely place and they are a lovely people. And maybe part of my animus against the English is the way they have always treated the Irish and they way they still think about the Irish.
JHK: Hmm. OK, any other parts of the world—have you been to South America or Mexico? I was in Mexico City a couple of years ago. Unbelievable.
JJ: What did you think of it?
JHK: The biggest ashtray in the world. And ecological horror—just on the ground. And I’ll admit it was a social horror as well. I went out to visit the slums of Chalco in which more than a million people live in packing crates with mud floors. And it happens to be a part of the Valley of Mexico, which has very poor hydrology, and all the sewage from Mexico City proper percolates up in that part of the slum and the people walk around in it in the rainy season in the mud and then it dries out and turns into airborne disease. It’s a pretty horrifying place. Any other places that you favor in the world?
JJ: Yeah, I like what I saw of Italy, which wasn’t very much. Of course I was enchanted with Venice. I like Denmark. I shouldn’t say Denmark because the only part I have been in is Copenhagen.
JHK: The Europeans seem to have a higher regard for city life then we do, and to do better with it. How do you account for that?
JJ: Well, you have to go back to something I don’t understand and can’t explain which is these hysterias that went over America. I guess different kinds of hysterias went over Europe but not that kind.
JHK: They get Adolf Hitler and we get Ed Logue.
JJ: So we are lucky.
JHK: But you go to an Italian city and one of my—whenever I think about Italian cities I think that being in a place that is almost completely made of masonry and here and there just a little spot of color—a geranium or a petunia or a flower and they do that so beautifully.
JJ: It counts for a lot—those little spots of greenery and color.
JHK: Yeah they don’t have to put a $30,000 berm full of landscaping and juniper shrubs and palm trees.
JJ: There is Lisbon—and it’s a very poor city in many ways, or it was when I was there, I guess it still is. So many charming things, so many interesting things.
JHK: Have you been to Las Vegas?
JJ: No, I haven’t. My husband went there to a convention. He gave me quite a report.
JHK: I wanted to cut my throat after being there for about five days. In fact, I paid extra to change my airplane ticket and leave a day early. Its pretty frightful.
JJ: I like Japan.
JHK: Tell me about Japan.
JJ: Well, I was there in ’72 so what I will tell you is very outdated. But what you were just saying about that one flower, that one tree—well, the Japanese are virtuosos. They make just the little accent that makes all the difference. So much there is so beautiful—just a shop window display is a work of art. Just the way they make all kinds of things out of bamboo that are so ingenious. Just the way this little bamboo drain or latch is so beautiful. The masonry around the streams to hold the bank are beautiful—and not all one kind and not just cement.
JHK: Well, that is something that amazes me with the United States versus Europe. When we are faced with the task of fixing up a river bank—and many American cities are on rivers—we have to put a theme park there, we have to put ball parks, aquariums, all this stuff. In Europe they make granite embankments with a ramp or stairs down to the water, and it’s beautiful.
But tell me, when did your husband pass away?
JJ: In ’96—four years ago.
JHK: How has it been for you?
JJ: Well, of course I miss him. I am glad I am a working person. I mean, I am still interested in my work, I didn’t loose interest in life or anything. Also, my children and other members of the family I am very close to.
JHK: Your son lives up the block?
JJ: Down the block. It has to be down toward the lake. Everything goes down toward the lake.
JHK: How often does he come calling?
JJ: Just about every day. In fact, he and his daughter will probably come over and have dinner with me. His wife is visiting in New York this week, visiting her brother and his wife. And his wife teaches in a very interesting day care center, but it doesn’t begin until next Monday.
JHK: You have pretty clearly left urbanism somewhat behind and moved onto economics really in the last 15, 20 years. What are you working on now?
JJ: I am not working on a book right now. Because I postpone—I get absolutely ruthless in my own way about not doing anything else when I am trying to concentrate on writing a book. I have to stick to it and concentrate. So all kinds of things that I should have been doing have been postponed. And I have been trying to catch up on them. I try to keep active as a citizen here [in Toronto] and do what I can.
JHK: Is there a particular idea that you are interested or turning over your head the way you were elaborating import replacement 20 years ago, or the way you developed Systems of Survival. Is there a particular idea that you find you are galvanized by these days?
JJ: I am interested in the subject, for instance, of why is time such an enemy in American neighborhoods and what specific things at present does time threaten, and how can it be made an ally?
JHK: Are you suggesting that American neighborhoods by and large don’t regenerate themselves?
JJ: I think that they have a very poor track record with regard to time.
JHK: How did Greenwich Village fare over the 50, 60 years that you have known it.
JJ: Oh, it has done very well. If other city neighborhoods had done as well there would be not trouble in cities. There are too few neighborhoods right now, so that the supply doesn’t nearly meet the demand. So they are just gentrifying in the most ridiculous way. They are crowding out everybody except people with exorbitant amounts of money. Which is a symptom that demand for such a neighborhood has far outstripped the supply.
JHK: I have always been puzzled why Harlem was not redeveloped. I went to high school in Harlem on 135th Street.
JJ: Well, it is starting to. What I read and hear is that it is starting to gentrify, but I am glad to see that it is black professionals and black families and artists that are leading in the gentrification. It would be too bad for the neighborhood to be taken away from them.
JHK: When I was a kid, Brooklyn was like another planet. It was like Czechoslovakia—it was so far away, and so alien. And now Brooklyn is the place where my whole generation has moved to in New York City.
JJ: Well, parts of Brooklyn now are, you might say, the outliers of my old neighborhood.