Author Jane Jacobs, 89, dies in Toronto

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NEW YORK (AP) – Jane Jacobs, an author and community activist of singular influence whose classic “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” transformed ideas about urban planning, died Tuesday, her publisher said. Jacobs, a longtime resident of Toronto, was 89.

Jacobs died in her sleep Tuesday morning at a Toronto hospital, which she entered a few days ago, according to Random House publicist Sally Marvin. The author, who would have turned 90 on May 4, had been in poor health.

A native of Scranton, Pa., Jacobs lived for many years in New York before moving to Toronto in the late 1960s. She and her husband, architect Robert Jacobs Jr., were unhappy their taxes were supporting the Vietnam War and they eventually made Canada their permanent home. Robert Jacobs died in 1996.

Her impact transcended borders. Basing her findings on deep, eclectic reading and firsthand observation, Jacobs challenged assumptions she believed damaged modern cities – that neighborhoods should be isolated from each other, that an empty street was safer than a crowded one, that the car represented progress over the pedestrian.

Her priorities were for integrated, manageable communities, for diversity of people, transportation, architecture and commerce. She also believed that economies need to be self-sustaining and self-renewing, relying on local initiative instead of centralized bureaucracies.

“She inspired a kind of quiet revolution,” her longtime editor, Jacob Epstein, said Tuesday. “Every time you see people rise up and oppose a developer, you think of Jane Jacobs.”

“Death and Life,” published in 1961, evolved from opposing the standards of the time to becoming a standard itself. It was taught in urban studies classes throughout North America and sold more than half a million copies. City planners in New York and Toronto were among those who cited its importance and her book became an essential text for “New Urban” communities such as Hercules, Calif., and Civano, Ariz.

Jacobs was a dedicated, even iconic activist.

In the 1950s, she was interrogated by the U.S. government over her loyalty to the country and in the 1960s she was arrested during protests against the Vietnam War.

She successfully opposed a Toronto highway project not long after moving there and was a distinctive presence at public hearings.

“You sort of fell in love with Jane when you met her,” Epstein said. “She was exuberant, original, strong-minded and a very kind woman.”

Her most famous confrontation came in the early ‘60s, when she helped defeat a plan by New York City park commissioner Robert Moses to build an expressway through Washington Square, their rivalry immortalized in the 2004 play “Boozy.” During a 2000 interview with The Associated Press, Jacobs recalled the city hearing where she first laid eyes on the mighty Moses.

“As is often the case in these hearings, the officials speak first and then they leave before they hear the opposition. So he was one of the first speakers,” she said. “He was furious and he stood up there, inside the railed enclosure, and not where most speakers spoke – outside where the public microphone was. He was privileged.

“He gripped this railing and he said, in dismissing scornfully our plan to have no more than the existing road and better not even that, he said, ‘These protests are just by a bunch of, a bunch of, … a bunch of mothers!”‘

During the Depression, on days when job hunts went nowhere, she would invest a nickel in the subway and explore a neighborhood: the diamond district, the garment district, the meatpacking district. Soon, she made money out of her passion, writing articles for various magazines.

One of her favorite phrases was “in the real world.” She continued a long tradition of American pragmatism, from Benjamin Franklin to John Dewey and William James. She believed ideas should come from experience as opposed to the other way around.

“Death and Life” emerged from her reporting. Not only did it attack canonical beliefs in city planning, it attacked such canonical figures as Moses and historian Lewis Mumford.

Jacobs thought cities suffered from an anti-city bias among planners, the romanticization of a more rural way of life. Because of this, she wrote, vital communities were being torn down simply because they were “crowded,” other neighborhoods were fatally isolated and parks were being constructed without regard to their surrounding environment.

She specifically criticized Mumford, author of “The Culture of Cities,” for his misguided attachment to the anti-city philosophy, and Moses for his dogmatic attachment to the automobile.

Her arguments were clearly heard. Mumford, who had praised Jacobs’ magazine work as “devastatingly just,” dismissed her as a “sloppy novice.” Moses told her publisher, Random House, that “Death and Life” was “intemperate and inaccurate, and also libelous.”

Jacobs is survived by her three children, James, Edward and Mary.

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