"Jacobs a thinker uncaring of laurels"
Wednesday, April 26, 2006, 06:23 AM
Friends and admirers of Jane Jacobs, the great urban visionary who died yesterday, would occasionally remark that it was a scandal she had never been recognized with the Order of Canada.
In fact she did receive it, about 10 years ago. But being Jane, she never talked about it, and rarely wore the pin.
Throughout her life, part of her guiding world view was that you should never trust authority or credentials.
Indeed, she was a true democrat, not in the political sense but by the nature of her soul. She never aspired to be Prof. Jacobs or Dr. Jacobs.
New acquaintances might call her Mrs. Jacobs, but to anyone who knew her, it was out of the question to call her anything but Jane.
One occasion when she did wear her Order of Canada pin was when she was invited to speak at the Canadian embassy in Washington. And it was mentioned by the man introducing her that she had turned down honorary degrees from 24 universities, including Harvard, Yale and University of Toronto.
Sid Adilman, the Star entertainment columnist for three decades who was a neighbour and dear friend of the most celebrated American ever to settle in the Annex, was with her on that occasion.
But when he reported the bit about the 24 honorary degrees, he was sharply corrected.
"It was only 12 honorary degrees," she insisted.
His excuse: he'd believed the introduction in Washington.
Her retort: "Don't."
Jane's reason for rejecting the gift-wrapped degrees: She had studied at Columbia but was not a university graduate, and she distrusted the academic mindset. She regarded universities as degree factories, and believed that giving out honorary degrees was their sneaky way of trying to own part of you.
Besides, she thought receiving honours was a distraction.
She preferred to be left alone so she could think and write. Interruptions, like phone calls, were ignored.
"Our families were friends for 35 years," Adilman recalled yesterday, "and we shared a lot of dinners and parties. Every time we sat down at the table, there would be a heated discussion about things going on in the city, and she would state very strong opinions. She could get pretty cranky if you argued with her, but then five minutes later she would apologize and ask whether she had hurt your feelings."
He saw a side of this lionized thinker that her fans didn't know. Both had been ordered by their doctors to do a lot of walking, and on Saturdays the two of them would take foot tours of different parts of Toronto, while she talked about the neighbourhood and style of the buildings.
She loved magic shows, especially those of David Ben, in a child-like way. She preferred not to know how the trick was done.
One thing this determined woman could not be accused of was living in the past. In the late 1990s, when Ric Burns did his seven-part, 14-hour PBS series on the history of New York, the former activist there turned down his request for an on-camera interview.
"Oh, that was ancient history," she explained when the call came from PBS. "I'm much more interested now in what's happening up here in Toronto where I live now."
Nevertheless, episode seven of the series contains amazing footage of Jacobs leading the 1960s revolt against New York parks commissioner Robert Moses and his plans for neighbourhood-destroying expressways to the suburbs. She never saw the show.
The last time we chatted, she was proud of having quit smoking at 88. But secretly, I heard later, when at the typewriter she'd sneak a cigarette.
She never wanted to retire from writing, or thinking. All else was a distraction. "My first loyalty is to curiosity," she told her son Ned not long ago.
But in the last few months, she was too ill to write.
For years Jane decreed that no one was to have a birthday party for her. But she would soften her position by saying when she turned 90, the ban would be lifted just once.
Friends and family had been looking forward to that occasion. May 4, 2006 was the date circled on their calendars.
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.