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Jane Jacobs jars our memories

Last spring Jane Jacobs, the renowned philosopher of what makes cities and societies work, was in Vancouver. She took the occasion to publicly attack the whole concept of the RAV line:

“There’s been very sad experience of the last generation of ill-planned routes, transit routes,” she said. “This is partly the onset, the genuine onset, of a genuine Dark Age. The traffic engineers have forgotten how to plan successful routes. They used to know how. Their ancestors used to know how.”


Jacobs eyes a ‘Dark Age’

Jacobs sees that kind of forgetfulness as the very definition of a Dark Age, and it’s not only traffic engineers who suffer from it. But early in her latest book, Dark Age Ahead, she triggered a memory from my boyhood in Los Angeles, a memory almost no Angeleno under 65 can share.

My brother and I had traveled from our grandparents’ East Hollywood home near Vermont Avenue. We went down Hollywood Boulevard, through Cahuenga Pass, to the train station near Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. I was 8 and my brother 7. Unescorted, we had traveled across Los Angeles and into the San Fernando Valley by streetcar.

I don’t recall if our parents met us at the station on that 1949 afternoon, but we could have walked safely from the station to our home a half-mile away on Burbank Boulevard. We might even have gone down to play before dinner in the dry streambed we called The Wash. When our mother wanted us home, she had only to call from the front yard; two blocks away, we would hear her.

The streetcars have been gone for fifty years. Highway 170, a roaring freeway, now fills The Wash. Los Angeles is a half-century older and immeasurably poorer than it was in 1949. And most Angelenos have forgotten that it was once very different.

The United States of Amnesia

A dark age, Jacobs says, results when people forget how they used to do things. Many Canadians already live in a dark age: the First Nations, struggling to regain scraps of their ancient cultures, and second-generation immigrants who can’t even speak their grandparents’ language. Most of a culture, Jacobs says, is unrecorded and unrecordable: people talking in public and private spaces, interacting with family, friends and strangers, forming communities.

“During a Dark Age,” Jacobs argues, “the mass amnesia of survivors becomes permanent and profound. The previous way of life slides into an abyss of forgetfulness.”

That abyss contains the cultures of countless conquered peoples. But rather than ask what advantages their conquerors enjoyed, Jacobs asks: “What dooms losers?” Her answer: “Losers are confronted with such radical jolts in circumstances that their institutions cannot adapt adequately, become irrelevant, and are dropped.”

Jolts can be internal as well as external. Rome suffered internal economic and political jolts as well as external pressures from barbarians. Overfishing the cod was an internal jolt to Newfoundland’s culture. “How to fish for cod is not forgotten yet,” she says, “but it will be if the fish stocks don’t recover soon, which they show no sign of doing.”

Five Crumbling Pillars

Jacobs singles out five “pillars” of North American culture that are suffering jolts that make them increasingly irrelevant:

•community and family
•higher education
•effective practice of science and technology
•taxes and governmental powers
•self-policing by the learned professions

These may not seem intuitively correct, but Jacobs makes a good case for their crucial importance—and their interwoven nature.

The initial jolt, Jacobs says, was the Great Depression. While not as terrible as, say, present-day Iraq, the Depression traumatized a whole generation and changed its attitude toward those pillars. Mass unemployment led to a new “national purpose”: the assurance, at any cost, of enough jobs. That purpose led to the U.S. highways program in the 1950s and to a host of social programs in both countries.

One such social program was vastly expanded post-secondary education. Its purpose wasn’t to enlarge the pool of scholars, but to give graduates credentials for the job market. (It also provided millions of jobs for teachers like me.) Now university grads return to college to pick up “employable” skills and yet another credential.

Meanwhile, families and communities came under siege. General Motors, using subsidiary corporations, began to buy up streetcar companies from cash-strapped city governments during the Depression. They tore up the streetcar tracks and brought in GM-made buses that gave much worse service. Urban housing decayed during the Depression and World War II, while cars provided workers with access to cheaper housing in the suburbs.

“Dumbed-down” taxes kept cities from maintaining and improving their infrastructure. Once the decayed inner city became a reality, it was just another incentive to move to the suburbs. Abuse of scientific methodology led to harmful city planning, such as creation of expressways that only made traffic worse.

Meanwhile, professions that claim to be self-policing have been nothing of the sort. Accountants declare Enron fiscally fit. The Catholic Church suppresses public knowledge of sexual abuse of children by its priests. Public trust in such institutions rapidly erodes into apathy, cynicism, and a sense of personal helplessness. Spin doctors detach this demoralized public from reality and from memory of how it used to be—preparing us for another amnesic dark age.

Regaining Community

A longtime authority on city planning, Jane Jacobs sees community emerging from high-density cities, not from the sprawl of suburbs where no one knows their neighbours’ names. Cities offer amenities where friends and strangers alike can interact: public transit, parks and open spaces, pedestrian-dominated shopping areas. The people living in the city should decide, by taxing themselves, how to maintain that community. If they must rely on federal and provincial politicians, urban communities are doomed.

Jacobs is no Utopian, and she does not equate memory with nostalgia. Nor do I. In 1949 I could safely traverse Los Angeles on a streetcar, but the U.S. was deep into the Cold War. Harry Truman’s spin doctors had already made us forget that Stalin had ever been Uncle Joe, our brave wartime ally. Neighbours visited our suburban home only on Sunday evenings—to watch Milton Berle on our TV, the first on the block.

The potential for community was already fading at the mid-century. Whether we can regain that potential in this new century is far from certain. But Jane Jacobs’s wisdom at least shows us the scope of the issues we face, and some promising directions. If we choose to ignore her, our democratic institutions will soon be ripped up, paved over, and forgotten just as the streetcar tracks were.

Regular Tyee contributor Crawford Kilian teaches at Capilano College. He occasionally comments on politics on his blog The View From Seymour.

Editorial Notes: Urban design, transportation networks and community will be key parts of a low-energy future. Perhaps Jane Jacobs will encourage us to remember how to do them right. -BA

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