She Walks!

We were in the room when Chris Winter of the Conservation Council of Ontario told everyone his plans for a commemorative walk to honor Jane Jacobs at her birthday. With the others, including our colleagues Gil Penalosa and Paul Young, Dylan Reid and Janice Etter, we stifled a smile. Mathew Cowley, the organizer for the upcoming Walk21 conference. He smiled. Shamaz Amlani, the restaurateur and organizer of Streets Are For People, and Lisa Tolentino, of the Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition.

Smiles all around.

Talk is cheap, we were thinking. Yeah, yeah. Jane’s Walk. She sure deserves a walk. But llet me tell you about my plans to Ban Car Ads.

Good one, Chris. “Jane’s Walk.” Call us next year when you figure out how to get it rolling.

That was, what–eight weeks ago? Nine?

We have the minutes of that meeting, and we’ll say it again: talk is cheap. But take a note of item number two. And then, scroll down to the fourth from the bottom. Smiling, I tells ya:

* Opportunities Noted:

– BIA/Community Associations – become partners (shop local etc), create awareness in local economies

– ‘Ride for the Heart’ – Jane’s Walk idea – walk, play, eat and shop locally

– Work with schools for greater impact – International Walk to School Day in Oct

– Relate issue to children, ‘what does it mean to me?’ parental motivation

– Ways to build a movement – create obvious alliances

– June 2009 deadline for municipalities to conform to municipal planning documents such as PPS; still have yet to examine documents

– ‘perfect storm’ – health+environment+public opinion

– pedestrians tend not to organize

– need to find opportunities to engage public in planning

– communities not designed to be walkable, yet good number of people do not have vehicle – social justice issue

– barriers – media reporting, BIAs love cars

(From the meeting minutes by OSGN‘s Janet May).

Today, as they say in the zombie movies, “She Walks!

And we mean that in the very best sense.

Congratulations are rare coming from a vitriol-dripping blob like ours, but we are truly impressed with the way this one has gotten off the ground. We’d like to think we’ve got Chris Winter on “our side.”

Of course, the fact that there are only two “Walks” in the whole schlemiel east of the Don is going to gall fans of the Danforth Peninsula. We can practically hear them gnashing their teeth on Governor’s Bridge and chez Ootes. But really, who’s to blame for that?

Jesus. We were there in the room with Chris when he came up with the whole idea.

Next year maybe.

Today’s Globe and Mail and Car Advertiser had two articles on the event. Here’s the one our colleague Dave LeBlanc wrote (We reproduce it in full):

A new tour honours the late urbanist and the neighbourhoods she worked to preserve

Dave LeBlanc

Architect and tour leader Angus Skene stands in front of the Annex home of Jane Jacobs. (photo: DAVE LEBLANC)

Today is “Jane Jacobs Day” in Toronto. It is also her birthday — she would have been 91.

To honour her, I took my dog-eared copy of The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) — her glorious attack on the well-entrenched, blockbusting school of urban planning — down off the shelf. Its groundbreaking ideas, manually typed almost a half century ago while Greenwich Village street life hummed below her window, are still fresh, contemporary and vital.

And then I thought about what this city might have looked like if she hadn’t come here in 1968.

“Toronto would have had an entirely different future,” says Margie Zeidler, one of the organizers of “Jane’s Walk,” a collection of free neighbourhood walking tours happening across the city tomorrow. “I don’t think we understand how blessed we are that this woman chose to come to this city. … I’ve heard many people that were immigrants to Toronto say, ‘Well, I knew Jane Jacobs moved here so I figured there had to be something special about the city.’ ”

To be sure, her beloved Annex, where she lived until her death in April of last year, would have never fully healed from the wound the Spadina Expressway would have opened had it gone ahead. It wouldn’t be a haven for lovers of street life, dog-walkers or university students, or a place for events such as these walking tours to happen.

Architect Angus Skene has agreed to give me a preview of his walk, “Jane’s ‘Hood,” which will start at 10 a.m. at the entrance to the St. George subway station. After we meet in the Annex, he gets down on one knee, produces a piece of blue chalk from his pocket, and begins to sketch Toronto circa 1793, when the British military was sent to settle the land.

“If you can get people on it, you can kind of safeguard it for the Crown,” he explains. “That’s why the city’s here in the first place.”

Expanding the sidewalk diagram, he shows how folks got around to living way up here in the Annex by 1885, when the expanding city had to annex farmland north of Bloor Street. He explains that, originally, strict controls were placed on land use — no stores, schools or institutions — so the area would appeal to the upper classes.

Proof is right over his shoulder: the 1890 Gooderham house, now the York Club. As we walk over to admire its handsome Richardsonian Romanesque details, Mr. Skene explains that many of the smaller houses in the area built afterward copied some of its design vocabulary, such as asymmetry, “massive arches,” “Rapunzel” balconies and attention-getting turrets.

He also notes that, unlike the ravine-protected enclave of Rosedale, the Annex was subject to a watering-down of those early land-use controls. “There was no way of stopping the city from just ploughing through,” he says of the eventual addition of stores, schools and institutions. “So while this was built for some of the wealthiest people in the city, it couldn’t hold out. When you’ve got bridges, you can keep the barbarians on one side,” he laughs.

Walking up and down the Annex’s people-filled streets with the pulse of Bloor never far away, it’s easy to understand why Ms. Jacobs loved this neighbourhood and why, despite her enormous success, she stayed “human” with a “wonderful sense of humour and a wonderful giggle,” says Ms. Zeidler, who was 10 years-old when she met her.

“She was a cheerleader for a lot of people in terms of them having the courage to go out and fight for the things they believed in,” she adds.

Continuing our walk, as Mr. Skene and I pass Bloor Street United Church and he reveals the secret of its rather low-key entryway (you’ll have to go on the tour to find out what that is), I ask him if he ever met Ms. Jacobs. He didn’t, he says, but he did read Death and Life when he was 16, which got me to thinking: Her prose is so conversational, reading it is like talking with her; to read her is to know her.

En route to her former home, we admire the Victorian fussiness of 37 Madison Ave., the exuberance of 1960s architect Uno Prii’s sculptural apartment tower at 35 Walmer Rd., and discuss how she’d probably approve of the infill development going up beside it.

When we reach her house at 69 Albany Ave., I immediately check out the front porch. It was from here that Ms. Jacobs would sit and watch the world go by, where she would add her own “eyes on the street,” to borrow her famous phrase.

Thanks to Chris Winter of the Conservation Council of Ontario, who came up with Jane’s Walk, Ms. Zeidler, Mr. Skene and the other walk leaders (check out for a complete list), we can celebrate her memory by getting our eyes — and feet — on the street too.

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