Death and irony, that’s the theme of today’s blog post. And Jane Jacobs is the headliner.
Last weekend my partner, Heather, and her 81-year-old mother joined me on a “Jane’s Walk” in Toronto, one of several held each spring to honour Jacobs and in recognition of her remarkable input into the city’s spirit.
Doreen had her walker and we had our concerns: she wouldn’t manage the walk, couldn’t keep up with the others, would miss the megaphone recitation, a local activist speaking about gentrification of the neighbourhood, “keeping up with the Joneses” gone wild here in our Leslieville…
Where did that expression come from? Have you ever wondered? Here’s an aside, about the Joneses, and about Jane Jacobs’ former city home in Manhattan. While strolling along through my neighbourhood the other day, stopping now and again to smell the peonies, lilacs, roses-of-Sharons new to the vine, I turned up the sound on my iPhone so I could better hear a recording on Edith Wharton, early 20th century novelist, friend to Henry James, lover of speedy automobile jaunts through Europe.
As a novelist, Wharton was known as a little sister to James’s genius–until feminism increased her popularity.
(I shall return to Jacobs and our Jane’s walk, have no fear!)
Before marrying and divorcing Teddy Wharton, Edith Wharton was Edith Jones. Her parents were New York snobs, hobnobbing with Rothchilds and the like; Edith didn’t want that life so she ditched Teddy and fled to France, following a literary path carved by her friend Henry.
“Keeping up with the Joneses” originated with her Manhattan family. Failing to keep up with the Joneses is perceived as demonstrating socio-economic or cultural inferiority.
And now back to Jane’s Walk in Leslieville last weekend.
These walks began shortly after Jacobs died, in Toronto, in 2006. She was an urban activist whose writings championed a community-based approach to city planning. According to the website for these walks, Jacobs wrote about the importance of dense and vibrant cityscapes, famously uncovering the ‘sidewalk ballet’, that intricate dance between neighbours and passers-by that make a street enjoyable and friendly.
“No one can find what will work for our cities by looking at … suburban garden cities, manipulating scale models, or inventing dream cities. You’ve got to get out and walk.”
Walk with a daughter, with a daughter-in-law, or with a walker. Lift your eyes above the gardens to see the ghost-stencil of a long-ago industrialist above the door of a small factory now housing latte-ladden loft residents.
Glide along a narrow strip of row houses tucked into street corners; smile at women on stoops balancing infants on hips, and think: “I no longer even know where I am!”
Make the familiar unfamiliar and think of Jane.
The irony? Just this: Jane Jacobs died without knowing her fullest impact: Toronto residents, each spring, just plain walking side-by-side with their neighbours. Catching up to the megaphones and filling-up their heads with local stories past and present.