We saw the documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City the other night. It’s about Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities (among other books), and her legendary fight against Robert Moses, the man who wanted to remake New York City into an enclave of sterile high rises surrounded by highways.
It’s a good movie and an excellent introduction into Jacobs’s ideas about what makes a city good and livable. Seeing it reminded me that I discovered and read The Death and Life of Great American Cities when I was a teenager.
I cannot remember how I found this book or exactly when I read it, but I’m pretty sure I was still in high school. Although I couldn’t tell you any details about the book at this point, I know it resonated with me and left me with strong ideas about what cities should be like and the kind of city I wanted to live in. Jacobs emphasized neighborhoods and a lively culture of people out on the sidewalks doing things.
In fact, the ideas I gleaned from that book describe my current life in Oakland to a tee. While I still own a car, I almost never drive anywhere unless I’m leaving town. I do my errands and get around using a combination of public transit, bicycle, and walking, with walking being my favorite method. I shop locally, hang out in coffee shops and bookstores that are nearby, and have even made friends of a sort with some of the homeless people in my neighborhood.
Ironically, back when I read it, my only experience of any kind of city living was early childhood, when we lived in a new development of GI homes in Houston and I could walk to school. Most of my childhood was spent on 15 acres two miles from a small town (that later became a suburb) – pretty much the antithesis of Jacobs’s Greenwich Village.
When I first moved to Washington, DC, I lived in Adams Morgan, which was one of those vibrant, street-oriented neighborhoods. Alas, the cost of housing drove me into a more residential area, though there were still some interesting places in walking distance.
While my neighborhood in Oakland is very close to my ideal, the presence of highways a few blocks away reminds me that this area was carved up by the same kind of urban renewal that Jacobs fought. And the spiraling cost of housing may drive me into the kind of city neighborhood where you don’t see your neighbors on the street and need a car to run your errands.
What really struck me, though, was the realization that a book I read so many years ago had clearly influenced the way I wanted to live, even though I’d forgotten about it the impression it made on me.
I wonder how many other books have done that, influenced me in subtle ways because when I read them something about them hit a nerve and left me with the idea that a particular thing was true at the deepest level.
Most of the books that I remember making that kind of impression are fiction. For many years, I would mention in a discussion of almost any topic that “Doris Lessing dealt with that in The Four-Gated City.” I re-read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 after September 11 because I needed the cynicism about the “good war” to deal with the complex emotions I felt during that period. My consumption of adventure novels in my youth left me hungry to write stories in which women got to handle the moral dilemma and the fight scene.
I suspect some of the feminist theory I read in the 70s made a permanent home in my consciousness, with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex being one of the strongest for me. Though I know it was the discovery a little later of feminist science fiction that really gave me the core of my feminism. I come back to Joanna Russ over and over again.
(It would make sense to include How to Suppress Women’s Writing here, except that I didn’t actually read it until a few years ago because I had let myself believe it wasn’t “relevant” any more. Boy, was I wrong about that.)
It wasn’t just books, of course, even though reading is my favorite way of taking in serious information. I’m not joking when I say that it was Diana Rigg as Mrs. Peel in The Avengers who gave me the idea that if I took up martial arts I’d be able to take care of myself. And, of course, the various things I’ve done over the years have affected me, from marching band to martial arts to co-ops.
Still, I was surprised and delighted to discover/remember about the ideas of Jane Jacobs and to feel like I had finally found a home that – in the imperfect way of cities – fit with her principles that so resonated with me as a kid.
There’s no telling what will stick with you. That’s why it’s so important to always be on the lookout for interesting ideas.