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Friday, May 6, 2016

The afternoon I spent with Jane Jacobs

On May 4th, rather than recognizing Star Wars Day, Google posted a "doodle" to celebrate the 100th Birthday of the famed urban theorist Jane Jacobs, who died in 2006.

So it seems an appropriate time to discuss the occasion when I was a teenager that I spent about four hours in conversation with her.

It was during the 1981 by-election in Spadina riding. I was a "Liberal Youth" working on the campaign for Jim Coutts, who was Pierre Trudeau's Principal Secretary and had been parachuted into the riding when the sitting MP, Peter Stollery, was bumped up to the Senate to give Coutts a 'safe' riding in which to run. 

I'd joined the Liberals because I was about to start taking Political Science as one of my majors at U of Toronto, and I figured that having some practical experience in the workings of an election and watching politics up close from the inside would be educationally advantageous and interesting. The Liberals, back in '81, lined up most closely with my political outlook, and the fact that Coutts was so highly placed as an insider with Trudeau made them the clear choice for me.

It was an interesting by-election. Coutts, who died at the beginning of 2014, was a thoughtful, soft-spoken, decent man. As such, he wasn't entirely suited to "in front of the camera" politics. It was a high-profile election,with Coutts' main opponent being a local city councilor and Anglican priest named Dan Heap, who ran for the NDP.  Heap was also a decent man who, though mired in outdated socialist doctrines, was honest, compassionate, and straightforward.

The Jane Jacobs Google doodle
However despite the reasonableness of the two leading candidates, both had campaigns filled with hot-headed political zealots. On one occasion, when Pierre Trudeau made an unannounced visit to a quickly organized street rally for Coutts, a protester from the Progressive Conservatives who got wind of the event was physically attacked by a member of the Liberal riding's executive committee when the Tory heckled Trudeau from the back of the crowd. While that sort of thing now may be common at a Trump rally in 2016, it was virtually unheard of in Canada in 1981.  

When it came to election day, the Liberals, as did the other two main parties, had volunteers as scrutineers at the polling stations.  I was assigned to one in a church in the Annex, a couple of blocks from where I lived, for the afternoon shift until the polls closed.

Election day was the middle of August. It was a typically muggy, Toronto August afternoon. I rode up in to the church on my bicycle wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Inside in the church basement, where the poll was set up, were a pair of people from Elections Canada and I informed them I was there for the Liberals. Nearby, there was a guy wearing a loud tie and a dumpy, powder blue polyester suit who was the scrutineer for the Progressive Conservatives. The NDP scrutineer was a little old lady, slight, wrinkled, very grey, very typical Annex-y, with a loose, earth-toned, woolly, crocheted light sweater. They were sitting far apart from each other at the long scrutineers' table, so I sat between them. I said 'hi' to my table-mates. The PC fellow ignored me and the little old lady introduced herself as Jane Jacobs.  Of course, to me as a teenager, this Jane Jacobs was nothing other than a nice old lady I recognized from her walks through my neighborhood, not having any idea she was a world-renowned urban theorist.

Jane and I exchanged pleasantries about the weather and little anecdotes about the election campaign. The PC fellow refused to be engaged in conversation. When Jane asked him what he thought, he said, "I don't want to talk to you."  Jane and I exchanged a rather surprised but knowing "what an ass" look, joked in sotto that all Progressive Conservatives were like that, and continued our discussion without him. By-elections traditionally draw very low turnouts and this one was no exception. Therefore, there was lots of time where nothing else was going on other than the conversation between me and Jane. She was curious about what someone my age thought about politics and society, and I was happy to pass the time discussing those things with her.

The Annex, back at that time, was, and to a good extent still is, a quiet, green enclave in the north west part of  downtown Toronto. It's filled with large Victorian and Edwardian homes, parkettes, and a few apartment buildings, all within close walking-distance to the main thoroughfares and shops of Bloor and Dupont Streets and the Bloor-Danforth and University-Spadina subway lines. Its proximity to the downtown core, character, ease of shopping, and access to rapid transportation makes it the most convenient neighborhood to live in the city.

That area became central to Jacobs' concept of what an urban environment should be like. Realistically, the economic, geographical, and social dynamics that define the Annex make it extremely difficult to replicate elsewhere. The Annex itself was in danger of having its character overhauled in the late 1960's and early 70's when there was the threat of a proposed expressway that would have torn up the neighborhood. But a movement to stop the Spadina Expressway, of which Ms Jacobs and my parents were a part, successfully persuaded then-Premier Bill Davis to cancel it.

However, despite nods to her from Toronto's municipal politicians, the rest of the city has turned into something much uglier and unfriendly than the place that was Jane Jacobs' home. The extreme-densification by condominium towers, Mayor Art Eggleton and his successors' essential dispensing with height restrictions that were brought about 10 years earlier in Toronto's Golden Age under mayor David Crombie, and the domination of the Ontario Municipal Board by a development industry which owns politicians at the provincial and municipal level, has created a congested, uptight, impersonal Toronto. And it looks to only get worse.

Jacobs seemed very pleased that someone my age was interested in politics, and was conscious of the importance of the balance required to make up a neighborhood. In my childhood, that included skating on a makeshift ice rink in Jean Sibelius Park or walking two blocks alone as a seven-year old to see movies and puppet shows at The Poor Alex Theatre on Brunswick Avenue. The latter was not at all unusual then; now something like that would get parents arrested for child neglect. It was like walks along Bloor Street to the Royal Ontario Museum and sitting on ancient Chinese stone camels in the courtyard there while eating a hamburger bought at the museum's basement cafeteria. Then you could do things like that, now the public isn't allowed to go within 4 feet of those camel statues.

That civility and easy-going aspect of Toronto is now long gone, though there were signs of its waning on that day. The gruff Progressive Conservative scrutineer wasn't the only bit of unpleasantness that election day. While I was sitting in conversation with Jane, Jack Layton came into the church to inquire about the voter turnout.  Layton was my city councilor. I'd never met him or seen him in person before, but I recognized him from the news, cheerfully said hello, and asked how he was.

Layton said, "I'm not here to talk to you," startling me with his unprovoked rudeness to a constituent, and he started querying Jane about the polls. Jane gave me an embarrassed glance as she answered Layton's questions, and when he left she apologized for him. His behavior was particularly sad for her in light of our interaction with our Progressive Conservative colleague. "Not your fault,"  I replied and didn't attribute it as an NDP characteristic at the time, especially in the context of my many enjoyable, debate-like discussions with their federal candidate, Dan Heap.

Jane left the poll before it closed and we fondly said goodbye to each other. I never ran into her in person again, and it was only years later that I even realized who she was beyond being that nice little old lady from the neighborhood. 

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